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.

In My Eye

A tongue of fire
rises from this candle
taller than two
others; brothers
flanking her. Their
tongues, their talk
lumine her. These three
enter me times two, then
become one in my mind’s eye.

I see my reflection in them:
flaming away I deplete each day
until I will be but one with You,
alight in Your eye – finally and fully
a human seen, as surely as
You have been a human being
aright in my eye.

Sand Through My Hand

You’ve escaped me again,
like sand through my hand;
sweat from my pores;
sleep from my night.

I try to paint You,
but no portrayal will do. You
cannot be captured and every
image merely mirrors my wanting.

And yet yearning, too, is an attestation of your visitation…

I daydream of Your return, and
then you pinch me asleep. I dream
deeper into what is true: Your
slipping away is also Your drilling
deeper into me.

No Sheets to the Wind

The university where I work decided to make this long weekend extra-long, giving us Tuesday and Friday off as well. Gwenanne also had Friday off, so we headed down to Lake Ontario to do some boat chores. Some of you know that our dear Santa Maria is on the hard this year, as are all boats in our marina due to some Covid related construction delays.

For Christmas this last year, we had decided to buy each other a new set of sail for our boat. We heard news this week that they were ready. Kevin at Bay Sails did a great job, and he was sympathetic at our plight of getting new sails without having opportunity to use them. But we remain philosophical about it. This is a summer for working on the boat.

It was really most amazing to see his workshop. The floor really was the table and here and there, there were work stations cut into the hardwood surface in which he would stand while doing industrial sewing. Hammock-like “shelves” hang from the ceiling filled with fabric, and sails were strewn everywhere. A big window to the north looked out on the bay and I felt like I was in a different world. The sails were crisp and so firm that they felt like they could stand up on their own.

After picking up the sails we went to a marine supply store to get a new thru-hull fitting for the boat. Our boat’s kitchen sink thru-hull sprang a leak last year that we fixed with McGyver finesse. But now is the time to fix it properly, and so we pulled out the old thru-hull and prepared to put in the new one, which will need a new piece of teak, sitting at home and waiting to be fitted for service. After supper at a local diner, where a pilsner and a burger were the reward for an afternoon of sweat, my wife and I returned to remove the halyard that lifts the fore-sail, this too in need of replacement. And then we headed home.

It is nice to be by the water even when we cannot be on the water. Water somehow gives me the sense of a bigger something, that I can be a part of. Karl Rahner famously compared God to a horizon, always before us and never in our grasp, but still grasping us. Big bodies of water nicely illumine the drama of a horizon, especially when the sun sets and the fact of the world’s spinning on its axis becomes dramatically apparent. I was able to see a bit of this spinning on Lake Ontario on Friday. Of course, the world is always spinning, but every now and then the light changes and we see what is right before our eyes and under our feet.

This present Corona crisis is such a revelatory moment, in a way. A variety of Covid predicaments are opening our eyes and we’re seeing whom we are for good and for ill. Our values become more starkly evident as our anger reveals our fear and as we find joy in things long forgotten but discovered again. These times tell us a bit about the state of our souls as we differently face life, pulsing through us and around us despite our waylaid plans.

The sails may be in the bags, but the wind still moves us as she will.

Eggs, Over and Out

On my way downstairs,
I grabbed an empty
egg carton –
ripe for recycle –
recalling that
my daughter started
spring plants in one filled
with twelve fistfuls of soil:
a dozen ova of expectation;
a dozen disciples of revivification;
a dozen loci of resurrection.

My egg carton remains empty.
But still, I find the vacated spaces generative.

Ocean of Easter

No poetry I write can quite
do You justice, since these
fractured, fumbling words are
but drippings of my soul from
heart to hand to page.

You speak and I fly;
You turn away and I fall.
I am between sky and sea as
You suckle me with Your
seeing me now,
not now, now.

But always You arrest me,
attesting to Your quest to
raise me, amazing me
as I envisage Your angels
sliding across my heart; and
Your graces probing me.
I am at sea In You:
Ocean of Easter.

All Across Turtle Island

A year ago I was in Shillong, India, teaching some marvelous students, seeing some remarkable sight, and learning so very much. This year I’m not in Shillong, but warmed by memories of my time there. My not being there, however, doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing the aforementioned activities. It seems that life is rich and sure to bless as we open our eyes. Of course, I know that people go through unbearably difficult days, days that deserve lament. This, too, is a part of life but hopefully not the whole of it.

Some days are gift. Yesterday was such a day. I made my way to the Conestoga Pow Wow held at the Conestoga College complex. I go most years, although I missed last year because I was away. When I entered I was told I could go left or right, which was a bit disorienting because in the past there was only one direction to go. But this year, the Pow Wow had grown so large that they had a separate arena for vendors aside from the arena dedicated to the drums and dancing. I quickly scouted out the vendors before going into the drumming and dancing arena.

As I entered the sound of the big drums just electrified me. The drumbeat has sometimes been described as the heartbeat of mother earth. It certainly felt as though I was close to the heart of the earth: strong, warm, enlivening, inspiring, justice-demanding: the list of words to describe this sound cannot be exhausted. Drums are considered to be animate for many folk who are Indigenous to North America, sometimes called Turtle Island. I can understand why. The sound was life. The dancers were, I think, carried by the energy, by the soul of the drums.

I had occasion to catch up with some friends at the Pow Wow, wise people who I deeply admire. I am always warmed by their willingness to spend some time with me, sharing their insights and helping me to understand just a little bit more of the way of Turtle Island. And I had opportunity to visit with some young folk who I know from my life at the university, strong Indigenous voices who paint the world right, who converse with the earth and lead us into right relations with our mother, who study and teach, dance and sing, fight and write for the good of all creation. My afternoon just filled me with so much hope. Canada is a long way from where we need to be in our nation to nations conversations. But the conversation partners are ready to talk, passionate about a future lived out in a good way.

I came away from my afternoon at the Pow Wow so very thankful to the Creator for making this possible for me. I do not take these interactions for granted. Life itself bids us come and learn how to be, how to listen, how to smile. I saw so many smiles yesterday. I can only hope that one day we will see more smiles on the faces of people all across Turtle Island, faces glowing in their knowing that everything is related, and all life matters because it comes from the Source of life. We are but a speck in the universe, and knowing that sets us free to be humble and hopeful.

Stork-eyed

A stork eyed me
by the ferry for Coronado
Island, wondering whether
the new birth in its beak
was intended for me.

I cried out:
I’ll take that please!
She cocked her head, not
altogether convinced by my
enthusiasm, my eagerness
to leave everything behind
and be made new.

The stork retorted:
Did you count the cost?
In truth, I had to say that
I had only counted the
sailboats near the pier, and
the shekels in my pocket, to
see if I had fee for ferry.

The stork said “satis est.” My
pining was sated; my worries
abated and I fell
into tomorrow.

A Sigh of Belief

You are ever
under siege, Your
mighty right hand
now wearied, and
Your left grasping
after a little rest –
but Sabbath seems
to escape You.

How will You renew
creation, Lord, when
You sit across from me
slumped in the chair
like a soldier about to
surrender?

And yet, Your eyes,
Your eyes still galvanize
in grace, and later when
I read Your latest missive
I am reminded that You
mind Yourself, and so us,
and I breathe a
sigh of
belief.