At the Edge of Devil’s Lake

This lake is called “Devil’s” but
at this moment it is a gateway to heaven.
Its sentinels are a stalwart frog,
a water snake who has perfected s’s,
guppies nibbling at my toes, and
a butterfly in buttery yellow so
stunning that it melts my heart.

I spent a good bit of time tonight
taking in this lake by light of fireflies.

My hope is that it has settled in
my soul so that when the time
comes to step through the
pearly gates, I’ll find them within.

In the Religious Other

It has been a remarkably painful few weeks in Canada with the recent slaughter of four human beings in London Ontatio for being Muslim, and the discovery of 215 graves of innocent children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation, whose deaths were the result of racist and genocidal policies by the Canadian government, enacted by religious communities entrusted with the process of “civilizing” Indigenous peoples. What is especially tragic is the realization that the racism that killed the Afzaal family (leaving their nine year old son an orphan) last week is but a tiny tip of an Islamophobia that daily batters Muslims; and the 215 bodies in Kamloops are joined in their cry for justice from Mother Earth with thousands more since the government and church operated 146 Residential Schools across Canada.

Two items clearly link these two events: racism and religious intolerance. These two, of course, exist as an expression of fear of the other, who thinks, believes and lives differently. That religion, which ought to be a source of empowerment for the flourishing of all, becomes the site and source of intolerance ought to give people of faith pause and cause to question what is going on.

I recall, in my first parish, going from door to door in my neighbourhood, inviting people to worship. If people did not answer, I would leave a brochure in the door. I remember knocking on the door of a house and there was no answer. I left and moved to the next house, and saw an Indigenous man open the door, see the brochure and throw it on the ground in disgust. I was aghast at his seeming lack of respect for the church. Of course, I did not know much about residential schools at that time (itself a telling tale), and so was not in a position to understand this response. Now I consider it rational. What is surprising, to me, is that Indigenous people still hold to Christianity.

Last week I was a part of a virtual gathering with Indigenous Christians. The discovery of the 215 children loomed large in every conversation. In one breakout group the question “Why Christianity?” was asked and an Indigenous person there spoke of their experience of Jesus. I have heard this from others as well. Jesus remains attractive. The church, not so much. Of course, theologians (like myself) can wax quite convincingly that you cannot separate the too, and that too is true. But still for those who hold to any formal religious organization in this day, the events of the last two weeks remind us that we need to hold to the truths of our faith with a deep and abiding humility, commit to justice unflinchingly and practice a love that is generous, excessive, and curious. Curiosity and humility, I think, are at the core of authentic spirituality and the two together appreciate the diversity that is written into the very architecture of creation.

I suppose most people can readily give lip service in affirming the gift of diversity, but our cultures generally reward conformity that expedites expediency. Institutions, in particular, credit sameness. It was written into the governance of residential schools, and it is evident in the eyes of a young white Canadian male who sees five differently dressed individuals as demonic. It is hard to be hopeful in these days, but my Muslim and Indigenous friends give me hope, literally. I see them taking steps forward and hope fills my heart. There is something very parabolic about that, which humbles me and makes me curious. In the religious other I experience grace upon grace that best racism, hatred, and fear.

In Her Heart

Yesterday we went down to LaSalle Bay to ready Santa Maria for the water. She has been on the hard for a long time. Our marina needed a new sea wall and construction had been slowed by Covid last summer. The long and short of it was that boats did not make it into the water. We missed being on the boat but spent some of the summer fixing this and that, including replacing a through that was leaking and a few other tasks. We both found a modicum of delight in getting down to the water even if not on it.

A similar feeling accrued yesterday. The exterior of the boat did not need a lot of work since we had cleaned and waxed it last fall. But the inside had two winters worth of spider waste and such. My dear wife worked on that while I scrubbed the outside. It was either outside with a howling wind and cold water or inside bending about corners in search of spiders and their offerings.

We also put on the outboard motor, fit on the tiller, connected the electrical etc., making sure everything was ready for launch day, May 13. It was a satisfying day of work, with a 3.5 hours passing by like the snap of fingers. When we got home, however, we received an email announcing that lift-in was delayed until the current stay at home order is lifted. I have to admit that I am not overly surprised, since the city of Burlington has not yet opened any marinas.

We don’t generally sail in May. We try to get our mast up, and sails on but the month of May really is quite cool for sailing, although some do with parkas and mitts and such. It really is surprising how cold the water is and the wind very generously shares it with you when you are out and about on a boat.

My hope is that we will be in the water by the end of May, or perhaps early June. We bought a new main sail and genoa last summer and are itching to feel how Santa Maria performs with sails that are more efficient. But wait we will and wait we must. This has been a year and more of waiting and watching. In some ways, it has been a kind of training in prayer, which doesn’t begin on the knees so much as in the eyes and ears and heart attuned to the world around us – attentive to the moment.

Santa Maria’s moment is not yet, but it will come, of that I am certain. In the meantime she will do what she does so well, wait and ponder in her heart, as will we.

The Greatest of These

Friends, a poem I wrote for chapel at Luther this last week…

Faith, and hope, and love abide but which of
these charisms do you prize, deep
in this time of COVID, this time of
hoping for a cure for social paralysis, this time of
putting our faith in the science, even while
others despair of besting this tiniest of beasts?

All the while that spiky protein spins – it
mutates, and revolves, and rolls with the punches.
Don’t you just hate it? Or, perhaps you prefer to
hate something, or someone seen – like maybe
an incompetent politician, or your next door neighbour, or say
a racialized person, or perhaps someone
hating racialized people…

It seems hatred seeks something or someone
concrete to sink its teeth into,
aching to slake its thirst. And we know
so well the power of hate;
its grip in our belly,
its throttle at our throats
its sweet-bitter taste on our tongues as we
take down this one,
rake that one over the coals.

But love, love brooks no business with
hate – never sated by seeing
my sworn enemy put in her place,
but grace-fully love questions the place of
putting in place in our economy;
our oiko-nomos; our oikos; our house.
Love is a house-holder, setting the table instead
of settling the score – always finding a spot in the
ever-widening circle that is finally eternity, where
hatred is seen for what it is: abject fear – fear
cast out by love, by
… embracing those I fear, by
… embracing those afraid of me, by
… embracing the fears inside of me.

The disciples were locked in by fear but
Love walked through the door. Beloved
Thomas feared the truth but love exposed
its wound and wound its way around Thomas –
around me, until I found and now still find
me and you and those I hate in the
very same circle, in the same herd, shepherded
there by Love.

Faith, and hope, and love abide, these three beside
one another but the greatest of these is love and
the greatest of these is…
it really is.

Akin to Earth

Yesterday was the spring equinox. It was a glorious and gorgeous day and although a good bit of it was spent inside marking, at one point my wife came in to pull me out to see snow drops raising their holy hooded heads from the ground. I wandered over to the corner of the yard to see how my little bur oak tree is doing, and bending down I could see some buds starting to form on it. Walking back to the house, I notice our backyard maple tree crying sweet tears of joy at the turning of the earth towards the sun. Everything seemed to be waking up.

The day before, I was looking out of my office at this same yard as I was preparing for noon-day pause at “chapel.” It was online and this was the Friday in which we do “Settlers’ Work,” pondering how those who are not Indigenous can educate ourselves around the reality of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada, and the Calls for Justice from the national report on MMIWG. We always begin this time with a land acknowledgement, remembering that the land on which Laurier and Luther are located were deeded to the Haudenosaunee with the Haldimand Tract of 1784. This was also traditional territory of the Anishinabeg and Neutral Peoples. As I do this, I often think about a lesson I am learning from the land. On Friday I mentioned that we often talk as if mother earth is waking up in the spring, and suddenly it struck me like a ton of bricks that this same mother earth is falling asleep on the opposite side of the globe! She is waking up and falling asleep at the same time.

I am increasingly informed by the idea that this earth is our relative, our mother – as per Indigenous perspectives. And this invites us to imagine that in some ways we are like the earth, if she is our mother. Interestingly other worldviews share this perspective of our being imaged after the earth. The ancient Greeks considered the human to be a micro-cosmos. And the Hebraic name for the original, mythic male was Adam, derived from the word for dust, or dirt, and the name for female was Eve, derived from the word for life. Humans are living dirt. We are dust and to dust we shall return. We are akin to that from whence we came and to whither we go.

The earth wakes and sleeps at the same time. How about us? How might we experience this simultaneous arrival and departure; taking up and setting down; being born and dying? I suppose this is evident in every transition in life: from being a babe to being a child to being a teenager to being a young adult to being a not so young adult to being an elderly adult. Each stage is leaving behind and a coming to. There is both death and life in birth, life and death. This is the paradox of our existence. Paradox means contrary to opinion, or in opposition to how things appear: death is a being born just as surely as being born is a dying, since life itself is a journey of death and death is a journey of life. Of course we are taught to fear death by many forces. But our mother teaches us that dying is not the end of life but its transitioning into a new form, a point well illustrated in the lessons of Lent, a time of marking the dying in life as life in dying.

Musings on March

My relationship with March is
complicated. I want it to be
what it cannot: a younger May
stripped of any hint of January.
Instead, March is fiercely March.
It is a month with a mind of
its own and it brooks no challenge
to self-expression. Now its
ice winds cut across my skin even
while shadows shorten and trees
begin to drip sweet. March snow clings
to shadows tenaciously – white knuckling
the wheel of life.

The other day I ate my salad outside on an Adirondack chair,
bundled up like a swaddled babe, the sun was stroking my
face even while the wind scratched it. The snow chuckled,
nervously.

Some Snowy Solace

Like many in late autumn, I dreaded the coming winter. The coming dark months loomed more ominous under the shadow of COVID 19.  Oddly, however, I have found that the last month or so to be more endurable than I was expecting, and in fact, pleasant in some ways. I am mindful, however, that I move through this pandemic with a significant amount of ease afforded by my station in life, etc.

The winter has brought a balm and it has come in the form of cold and snow.  I grew up with strong winters that are rarely seen in southwestern Ontario.  When our family first moved here for me to attend graduate school, we were looking forward to milder winters but soon found them to be dreary when there was no snow on the ground, and no sun to be seen.  But this winter has been different.  The last month and half, or so, has seen consistent weather below freezing with plenty of snow and sunshine.  The weeks have been brighter and time spent outside has been vivifying, for me.      

Yesterday I made my way to the local municipal golf course and strapped on my skis.  There was a recent dusting of snow and so the trees, fences, and bushes looked as if they have been touched by a paint brush, which magically managed to sneak enough rainbow into the white to give my soul some hope.  The golf course affords me the opportunity to ski alongside an open creek for time, with ducks nicely ensconced on still open water, their bills safely hidden in the warmth of their wings.  The sun was strong, and a kind of perfect balance of warmth and cold obtained.  It was really quite magical.

The last few times that I have headed over to the golf course, I have been surprised at the number of cars in the parking lot.  Nordic skiing has become exceedingly popular this year, being a safe outdoor activity in a time that precludes Alpine skiing trips, journeys to the Caribbean, et cetera.  As I left the parking lot yesterday after an invigorating ski, I wondered whether this would continue in the future.  I suppose it depends, in part on the weather in coming years.  There has been many years when the skiing has been pretty thin, with snow falls being undone after a day or two by rain.  This year the snow and cold has been generous, and has given me a little solace in this pandemic year. Of course, I will look forward to spring’s arrival and have enjoyed the longer daylight as we slowly approach the spring solstice.

Again, I know that my experience is only mine.  Others hate winter, no matter the conditions.  Recently friends way south of the border have been blasted by weather nearer the temperature of ours – but without the insulation, and winter tires, and clothing needed to navigate truly winter weather.  I cannot imagine them sharing my joy.  But I find some balm in the rotation of the seasons.  It reminds me that life moves along, and this COVID 19 time too will eventually be behind us.  Time can be a healer and a source of hope both.  As the season pass the baton I am able to reminded that the scriptures I call holy speak of both mundane and revelatory time.  Sometimes, in the midst of the tedium of the pandemic, this very mundane reality of winter can become revelatory and hope slips across my field of vision – now as a duck floating on a mirror of the azure blue sky; now as a rainbow dressed in winter’s snow on trees ever green.

This Too Can Be Home

There is a sprig of hemlock,
Tsuga canadensis not Conium maculatem,
nestled in the round of our Advent
wreath; warmly wrapped by
lights of hope, peace, joy and love,
this gentle bough at home
in my home.

I pinch a bit of it for my nose and
I find myself transported to a
fragrant conifer forest. My
soul is sated and settled in the
womb afforded by four sister trees:
hope, peace, joy and love.

I look above and see tongues of fire
resting on these sacred silva beings:
I take delight in knowing that this too can be home.
I pinch myself and am transported back
to my living room, where the Holy
holds inner and outer as one.

Stars and Stardust

They do not die. We do.
We slip further away
whenever we say adieu,
buried ever deeper:
humans becoming humus.

And so we rot.

Each weeping tear cracks our exterior.
Every grimace of grief shakes our core.
As our shoulders shudder, we do no
other than grind our very being
into dust.

And then a mystery:
green blade rising undoes
our dying. We sprout both
roots and shoots, striding
across heaven and earth.

Stars and stardust, with them.

Columns of Clouds and Pillars of Fire

After seven months of being closed, my home church, St. Matthews Lutheran Kitchener, opened to the public for a Sunday service this Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.  It was, indeed, a fitting weekend to enter this house of worship again.  I had, in fact, been in church last Sunday, for a second trial run.  But there was a distinctively different feel this weekend, knowing that there has been a turn in direction.  Of course, another full-blown lock-down is not beyond the pale.  But still….

It was, of course, both an exhilarating and a stumbling experience.  The music was top-notch, with a quartet, the organ, and the hand-bell choir filling the stunning sanctuary with rich and memorable music.  The Gospel was proclaimed.  Prayers were offered.  Peace was shared at a distance. But when well-loved thanksgiving hymns were sung, we sat in silence.  When the refrain for the prayers was bidden, we stood in silence.  We sat or stood in silence for everything, aside from singing “Now Thank We All our God” in the parking lot with our masks on after the service. 

It felt good to be back in church, and strange: it was both familiar and utterly unusual.  The experience reminds me of a little observation I share with my students from time to time.  Religions generally, and Christianity in particular, exist to conserve what is valuable, and to liberate new possibilities.  Sometimes one purpose, and sometime the other, is the focus of a religious community.  Quite often some in a church will think the focus is to be on preserving what matters, and others will think the focus should be on finding out what matters.

Conservation and liberation: often these sit at cross-purposes.  But when the purpose of the cross is brought to bear on this relationship, new possibilities arrive. I think we might be at such a point in the collective lives of our churches and in the collective life of Christianity.  This novel Corona virus has been a cross: much death has resulted from this, and much life has arisen from some of its ashes.  Many people have walked out of the church never to return, with new patterns of spending their time now made habitual.  But others return to our faith communities – or discover our faith communities – with a new and deeper appreciation for faith.

We are at a turning point in our faith life.  What will we conserve, and what will we liberate?  Or perhaps, more accurately, what will the Spirit conserve, and what will she liberate in this life that we live together?  Now is a time for careful observation, for deep listening and for intentional suspension of our familiar expectations.  Now is the time to dream, together, and to receive these dreams – not as blueprints – but as columns of clouds and pillars of fire.