Acutely Awake

Such a peculiar beauty – winter, a
crystal white world wedding
the dream of sleep and
soft light affording
luxurious insight.
Winter’s wisdom is
generous. It sees
beyond fault – sharp
edges softened by snow;
hard surfaces now
dancing under the
play of sun’s illumining rays –
now from this angle
now from that.
This season of sleep is a
time of grace; of being
acutely awake to
other worlds.

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Seeing Double

I am only just now back from the American Academy of Religions, that annual event that allows me to be lost in a sea of folk who think about things religious, spiritual, and theological. It is always a rich experience, although oftentimes a bit harried with side-meetings, planning groups and such. This year, as I am wont to do most years, I came in on Friday. Things started in earnest on Saturday even though meetings and lectures are increasingly bleeding into the Friday too.

I came in by plane from Toronto, and my colleague and I shuttled our way to downtown Boston to Copley Place, a sprawling complex of hotels, shops, a convention centre and a huge mall. I checked into my hotel and from the 28th floor took my bearings. After checking a map, I walked out of the hotel/convention centre complex and took a right in order that I might go see the Boston Commons. After a time, it struck me that I was quite likely walking in the wrong direction. And so I pulled out my phone, took a look at the map and realized that yes, indeed, I had been walking for a time westward rather than eastward. But my map also indicated that this was a happy accident since I was now a stone’s throw away from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Upon finding out that the Museum was to be open until 10:00 pm, I bought my ticket and entered the shrine.

I always find art galleries to be sacred after a fashion. They don’t quite take the place of churches, temples, synagogues, and such in my mind and soul but still, they facilitate a kind of quiet where looking at the art seems to facilitate a shuttle into a different place, interior perhaps. I was quite taken by a display they had of Mark Rothko. For those who don’t know him, his work is abstract in genre, with rich colours that bleed across fuzzy edges, blurring where lines begin and end at the edges of what is often a rectangular shape on a rich coloured back-drop. I learned at the exhibit that he painted with the expectation that the viewer is to look at the painting from 18 inches away, which really rather radically reframes the experience of his art. His goal, thereby, was for the viewer to be drawn into the piece, which I found to happen with great effect.

When I left the Rothko exhibit, I came upon “Seeking Stillness.” This show invites viewers into introspection. Here I found a marvellous traditional Chinese mountain scene, shown below.

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I took this photograph of me taking a photograph of it, in the hopes to capture the manner in which stillness allows viewers to see themselves in art, society, the city, nature, and more. As I wandered around the museum, I took a few such photographs in the interests of seeing myself in the art, attaining, I think, what Rothko was hoping for. We often see things, but don’t see ourselves in the things we see. We aim for a kind of detachment that might well encourage a posture of judgement of art, play, family, etc. that is naïve about its objectivity. There is nothing wrong with “judging” art and such, I think, as long as we recall that our judgment might well say as much about us as the art. Art, good art anyway, always draws us into the art at the same time as it artfully enters us. Such art enables us to set aside the too easy conceit that it is ours to play God – now with art and next, too easily, with people.

Righteous Eire

Here in Eire, poetry
floats in the Guinness
and
is baked in the scones.

Ever emerald green and firm fences
edging the roads
make of me a verse
and yet I’m
not quite there:
sorting through the
grammar of bog and mountain,
coast and cill
working on the
vocabulary of
penny flute and dancing with a broom.

But this island is patient,
schooled in hedges.

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.

A Little More Future in the Pipes

The big tractors are getting closer. Our portion of the street is about to be ripped up, as has already occurred further down the way. We learned of this necessary exercise last year, and have been dreading it ever since. As crews rip out old water and sewer pipes and replace them, mud supplants roads and water lines are displaced by temporary fittings into exterior water hose receptacles. There are new things to trip over on our street!

My father-in-law was chatting with one of the workers the other day, who informed him that the sewer pipes being removed are made from asbestos. I was somewhat taken aback, knowing that asbestos calls for hazmat suits: the school where I work is undergoing renovation these days and working through some asbestos abatement. Asbestos, it seems, is something of a sleeping dragon; once disturbed great problems follow and so this removal of asbestos and replacement of pipes is a good thing, an exceedingly good thing, in fact! So, despite the street getting ripped apart like a piece of cloth being shredded, in due course the street will again be whole with new “veins” worming their way below the skins of asphalt.

In the midst of all of this, another bit of good news is that the uproar has neighbour talking with neighbour. My wife has often lamented the manner in which winter sometimes locks people in their homes. With spring people begin to enjoy one another’s company, and with the activity on the street we now have opportunity to query what the city or the construction firm has been up to. Not only is the street being remade, but so is the shape of the community.

These days, as I wander around the civic mess of my street, the constant noise of equipment is a reminder that things are changing, as they should. Work is advancing, and just today a husky man with a thick Scottish brogue stopped by to give us parking passes that will allow us overnight parking on a handful of streets near us, which we will need when the tractors are at the end of our lane.

We look forward to a new street, and the realization that our asbestos days are receding. In the meantime, we will drive carefully, chew the fat with our neighbours and try to enjoy the knowledge that there is a little less asbestos in the ground and a little more future in the pipes.

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.

Tales from my Office

This week afforded me the opportunity to move into the office that I will call home for the next 14 months, or so, while our seminary building undergoes extensive renovation. I wrote of this a couple of weeks ago, and noted that we are moving into residences converted into offices. I have the happy accident of being assigned a former living room, which means that I am now in the largest office I have ever enjoyed, or ever will enjoy.

In my last space, I was able to make use of a large ledge under a generous window in order to create a stand up desk, and so wondered what I would do in my new space. I found it quite helpful to spend the mornings standing at my desk, and the afternoons seated, a happy combination which my then configuration afforded me.

While moving in, I had need to remove some excess chairs from office to one of the residence quads serving as storage for our pilgrimage. As I walked about the flotsam and jetsam of this and that about to spend 14 months in hiding, I came up the display case that used to house a rather old German missal. It can also serve as a lectern, with a glass front on an incline that you can look through to see whatever is on display. Fortuitously, the height of this magnificent piece of solid oak was exactly the height at which I type, and so I decided to migrate it to my office after chatting with my Principal Dean, who gave me the thumbs up. I built a small stand on the wall behind it, to hold my 2nd monitor, which, with a second keyboard, provides me opportunity to stand and type.

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But as l thought about using this glorious wooden work of art merely to hold my keyboard, I wondered if it might serve a dual purpose. I then came upon the idea of using the case to display, one by one, the various art books I have in my office. In addition to putting them, one by one, on my desk, they will now cycle their way into the display case. This will give me the occasion, from time to time, to glance down from my screen to see sights, sacred and not, looking up at my fingers dancing across keys.

Something seems right about this: pictures picturing me squirreling away with words, all the while knowing that our happy pilgrimage together will one day end when the display case returns to its former glory, and me to a new office. For now, it joins me in the peculiar glory that is at the crux of teaching, researching, administering and doing the odds and ends that lend a curious concreteness to my day, every day.

20170428_153437 Soli Deo Gloria!