Site of Silence

With a solid footing of snow, I decided yesterday was an fitting occasion to head over to Bechtel Park for a Nordic ski. I am more inclined to go to a local golf course, largely because it is so very close. But time was a bit more spacious on January 1, and so I jumped in the car and headed about 8 km north on the express way so that I could ski the set trails at Bechtel.

It was actually a bit icier than I was anticipating, and so after a few swings around a couple of trails I crossed a little bridge over a small creek and inched my way on a path neither groomed nor friendly to cross country skis. I eventually always do this when at Bechtel. I usually take along a small thermos of hot chocolate and get far enough away along the creek’s side to know that I won’t likely be meeting dog walkers or other skiers. Yesterday, I took a few photos with my phone before finding a fallen tree to function as my chaise. It wasn’t long before I noted a pair of cardinals across the stream in one tree, and a pair of nuthatches in another. I was transfixed by them. I’m not a birder and really know next to nothing about our feathered friends, but every now and then I find myself drawn to them. After a time, I made my way along the path back to the parking lot, realizing that I had not taken any photos of the birds, but happy enough all the same.

Later in the day, I listened to a podcast on “On Being.” Krista Tippett was interviewing Gordon Hempton about his work to reclaim silence in our world. Noise pollution is his concern, and he makes the rather audacious claim that silence is about to become extinct. Silence, please note, is not for Hempton an absence of sound but a dearth of artificial sounds. He spoke at length, and eloquently, about learning to listen, and the curious fact that humans are not hard-wired to hear humans as much as certain other animals. Our auditory interest in humans is a later overlay. He spoke in particular of our ability to catch the song of birds, since their call often indicated a locale of some importance for the primordial homo sapiens. It seems there is a deep seated reason for my attraction to bird song.

Hempton spoke eloquently of our need for listening. He claimed that ours is a world pre-occupied with sight. Learning to shift our focus from eyes to ears, and then to hear what comes naturally is no small task. Luther, the famed Reformer whose 500th anniversary of the posting of 95 theses (which is said to have kicked off the Reformation) is being commemorated in 2017, spoke of the church as a Mundhaus, or place of hearing. He made mention some 500 years before Hempton of the curious fact that ears do not have lids like eyes. Hempton made the case that this makes sense from the side of evolution because hearing is how we best discern who or what is in the environs. Luther made the case that this makes theological sense because hearing is passive in a way that is not quite true for seeing and so an especially apt receptor of words of grace.

Yesterday I was delighted to both see and hear the cardinals and nuthatches, and I was also very happy to look up at the clear blue sky and see snow laden trees branches form a frame for that heavenly blue as if they were playing the part of stained glass. Hempton calls the great outdoors his cathedral, a point I can appreciate even while I am quite content to let cathedrals be cathedrals and nature be nature. Both have things to teach us. Both provide both moments of rapture and occasions of deep awe – in their own way. But I am happy to hear – and see – in both evidences of hope and healing. Both can be for me sites of silence.

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Charmed Again

I send this missive from Copenhagen, where I am on route from a conference in southern Denmark. I arrived here yesterday and leave tomorrow, and so the day afforded me the opportunity to do a little looking about. This is not the first time I have been to Copenhagen, a city I find to be utterly charming. This morning I made my way to Marmorkirken, a dome marble church across from the Royal Palace. The music was beautiful, and the service meaningful even though my Danish is less than elemental. Today is All Saints Day, and taking communion at a half round altar rail (whose other half extends into eternity, where it is attended by those we remember today) is always a powerful experience. I then went to the Danish Jewish Museum, where I learned a bit more about the incredible (and successful) efforts of the Danish people to protect Jews during the Second World War. Late in the afternoon I took a train ride to the Swedish city of Malmö, not so very far from Denmark and had a lovely walk and meal before returning.

The conference that brought me to Denmark was entitled “Luther from the Subaltern –the Alternative Luther.” Scholars from around the world spoke to themes either neglected in Luther studies or to new challenges that emerge in studying Luther today. My modest contribution addressed the manner in which the earth and its well-being were especially important to Luther and provide us with a meeting place for him and our contemporaries as we consider ecological concerns. I thought of that as I returned from the railway station and passed an electric charging station for cars. Increasingly people are mindful of the need to tread the earth carefully, which is somewhat easier in a place like Copenhagen. Major parts of downtown are car free, and so you see a plethora of bicycles and many people on foot. The public transit is to die for and unsurprisingly people are generally more fit. Of course, to some degree, Copenhagen and like cities are beneficiaries of wise planning in the past and careful contemporary regulations. Rules about the height of new buildings in the city core, and a concerted effort to keep historic buildings beautiful and functional make for a very fetching city.

When I returned from my train trip, I was going to read in the hotel, but the siren call of the city had me out again. It is rather like an affectionate cat wrapping itself around your leg; begging you to pet it (cat haters please insert an appropriate dynamic equivalent here). The city is inviting, well-run and simply fun to be in. It strikes me that the success of the Danes in design might not be unrelated to their living in well-designed cities. Our environment shapes us, and we shape it as well, which brings me back to Luther. In the mid-20th century there was a school of Luther research in Scandinavia that spoke of Luther’s interest in creation and created matter, asserting that it held as much importance for him as redemption. If we read Luther as if all he offers us are insights into the soul then that is all we will get. But if we anticipate that he has interest in caring for the earth too, we might well find some fodder for future reflections. Luther can’t do our theological work for us, but he can give us tools to attend to our relationships with God, one another and the world as well – a world that includes not only natural beauty, but charming urban space too.

There’s More Here Than Meets The Ear

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Meet Chip. I realize it is not the most inventive name for a chipmunk, but my wife called him that one spring day when he popped his little nose around a rock to sniff us out. The name has stuck and he has stuck around. A few years back we lost our cat, and in the ensuing summers our backyard has become a bit more diverse. Chip is out and about. We regularly see robins, cardinals, rabbits, squirrels – the list goes on and on. We all loved Noel dearly, but it is nice to see some bio-diversity.

I especially like Chip. One day I was reading a book on a Muskoka chair and when I looked up, on the chair beside me was Chip eating a raspberry. He calmly ate half and then scooted off, leaving the other half for me or some other hungry creature. My wife has had the same experience. We will often see him pause in his jog across our patio, cheeks full to the brim with seeds or such, panting while he catches his breath. And then again after a brief repose, he sprints to the end of his race, a barely noticeable hole in our lawn, which serves as a portal to his storehouses.

I thought of Chip the other day while reading some theology. Luther wrote a treatise in 1525 entitled “How Christians Should Regard Moses.” It was written in response to an emerging idea that Christians in the German lands should be freed of the pre-Christian laws, which formed the basis for current laws, and embrace instead the mosaic laws. Luther disagreed, claiming that the mosaic laws were written for mosaic times, and while we might employ some of them (he mentioned, in particular, the Jubilee Laws), he rejected their wholesale engagement. He wrote that some of what we hear God say in the bible is said by God to others, not to us and so we ought not to hear them as addressed to us. Of course, this invites a broad conversation concerning which bits are intended for us, a matter taken up in earnest throughout the document. At any rate, he used a most interesting example to illustrate his point concerning directed speech. He mentioned that God speaks to angels, trees, fish, birds, animals etc but we do not hear it because what God says to them was not meant for us. And then I thought of Chip.

I like the idea of Chip – and Noel for that matter – holding converse with God (I can’t imagine it being a monologue). Nature, like “civilization,” is both messy and beautiful, and I would anticipate praise and lament from Chip and his fellows. Of course, I do get to hear one side of the conversation from time to time. The local cardinals let me in on their side of the song, for instance, even though I do not know what they say. But I hear them “saying,” that’s for sure! Of course, there are other – biological – ways to interpret their song, and I will happily hear of other interpretations. I will probably agree with them, but rescind from thinking scientific and theological explanations as mutually exclusive. But in the meantime, I will listen hard for what God has to say to me in this verse and not that, and in the play of Chip and friends, gracing my lawn with their presence.

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Thoughts from Eisenach

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I am a stone’s throw away from the Wartburg Castle, famed for hosting two giants in the Christian faith: Elizabeth of Thuringia and Martin Luther. The former is renowned for her love of the poor, and the later for his witness to the message of Justification by Grace. (I should note that Goethe, too, wrote a love letter or two from this same castle.) I am in Eisenach to participate in a conversation hosted by the Lutheran World Federation on the topic of the Psalms in the life of the church. In and of itself, this is an interesting topic, but it is made doubly so in this instance because this is a gathering of people from around the globe. Together we discuss what it means to read the Bible in our contexts. The context of Eisenach, where we are staying, is especially potent because it was in the Wartburg that Luther translated the New Testament into German and in one stroke made the Bible available to a broader audience and in so doing consolidated many German dialects into what would become standard Hochdeutsche. To be here with people from around the globe is an incredible gift.

Part of the gift of being here is hearing different languages spoken. Chapel every day includes praying the Lord’s Prayer; each in their own language. Although English is the language of papers etc., it is in prayer that we fully hear the diversity that we are. There is something profound in this experience: gone is the rhythmic cadence of all praying together, and we hear instead a kind of murmuring, or perhaps one could call it a bubbling, a kind of effervescence that reflects the beauty that happens when diversity dances with unity: many voices praying the same words in different languages. We are gathered together as one, but a “one” that celebrates multiplicity in Luther’s heartland.

It is important to note that Luther didn’t translate the Bible into the language of his heart with the intention that all should learn German in order to read his translation. He felt that the Bible should be available to people in their mother’s tongue. In so doing he invites us to consider that every tongue, every culture, every people have an inherent dignity. Unfortunately too many of us live in cultures that worship uniformity over unity – cultures obsessed with the cult of efficiency. It isn’t efficient to speak across cultures and so uniformity pummels the richness that is unity in diversity. At one level, it isn’t too surprising that we trade unity for uniformity. It is, after all, hard work to enter into the thought world of people who live a different reality than mine, but to refuse that challenge is to forfeit a moment of grace: a moment I am reveling in this week. And so I invite you, too, to take time this week to reach across a divide – whether it be financial, racial, or political – to encounter difference. As you do so, accept the otherness of the other even while you hold hands in whatever small way might be possible. You will be glad you did.