Friday, December 20, 2013


Caesar has never wanted us to know anything but the grinding juggernaut of inevitability, of just the way things are. Caesar has never wanted us to know that there is an alternative to Caesar, another way, another kind of power and a different kind of future.  Caesar has only ever offered the extension of current arrangements to create a known, predictable, imposed future. “Resistance is futile.”

Mostly we accommodate ourselves to this, deliberately or by default. We argue realpolitik and “It could be worse.” Some choose to make a deal, to become agents of Caesar, entrenching his power ever more deeply in the fabric of communities and the lives of households and persons, shoring up its claim to permanence and inevitability. Some retreat – to private and ahistorical spiritualities, to addictions, to one or more of the “isms” that embody our penchant for idolatry. Some are destroyed by the greed and violence of Caesar, Pharoah, Nebuchadnezzar. Some rise up violently to overthrow (and then, often, to become) the tyrants.

And some allow themselves to hope, to join their longing – for justice, for freedom, for peace – to the promise, made by the God of Israel and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, that there is another “kingdom”, another kind of sovereign power, and another human way. These people look for outcroppings of that deeper power and truth, for something – anything! – to break through the flattened landscape of “same shit, different day” – all winks and knowing – that corrodes our humanity.

The day I was ordained a deacon, Christopher Lind gave me my first Walter Brueggemann book, The Prophetic Imagination, and I’ve been as loyal a reader of Brueggeman as I was long ago of the Hardy Boys, so the language of “claim” and “counter-claim” has been familiar for over thirty years. Add William Cavanagh’s “imagination is the drama in which bodies are invested”, and the biblical witness comes into focus as the Spirit’s offer of an alternative imagination, a counter-drama inviting the investment of our bodies, our lives. If stewardship means anything real, it speaks to this investment in God’s promise of another way, in the sovereign claim of the just and loving God, in the kingdom Jesus couldn’t stop talking about.

So it wasn’t all that surprising to discover that there is more than one “Prince of Peace” in the Christmas story.  There’s the one we’re familiar with – the one promised by God in the vision of the prophet, whose words we will hear again on Christmas Eve – Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  But there, in Luke, is another contender for the title, Caesar Augustus, who has received the title “Prince of Peace” from the Roman Senate. As we sing “Away in a Manger”, baby and emperor collide, and the sky thunders with the praise of angels. The emperor hopes that we won’t notice, that we will keep this little story “private” and “spiritual”, that we won’t awaken to what’s really going on.

But it’s all there, in the story – it’s time to choose our prince.  Will our peace be won and guarded by sword, spear, chariot and crucifixion – the peace of Caesar? Or will it be won and guarded by the redeeming power of costly love?

The collision, and the choice it uncovers in our midst, will reverberate through the whole story of Jesus. Again and again Jesus sharpens the focus of contested power, again and again he softens the hard surface of inevitability, reaches into the deep well of history, of possibility, of hope, and draws up an outcropping of the kingdom of God – food, healing, reconciliation, beauty, truth – that redefines the landscape of history and maps a different journey across it.

The deep well is still there, and the surface of inevitability has softened under other hands as well. Sometimes they are the hands of the famous – Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Sojourner Truth. But there are many others, known locally or hardly at all, who have drawn up from the deep well of history outcroppings of that other way that Jesus and his church call “the kingdom of God.” We have all been there when it happened, though we don’t always notice.

So part of our work is to pay attention to the hands of others, to watch for those times when love and patience, courage and imagination animate the hands of someone near us, and they reach past the shell of inevitability into the well of possibility, drawing out some beauty, truth, reconciliation, healing, food – a sign of God’s promised future, a map for the faithful journey.

And part of our work is to believe that our hands are hands like those, that we could choose that prince, and draw up signs of God’s promised future into the sometimes dismal landscape across which God accompanies us.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Right, Just and Generous Desire - I wanna wanna

Quite a few years ago, following a Sunday evening service at a local seniors' residence, one of the participants took me on, quite fiercely, about the Magnificat, a staple of Anglican evening worship. He didn't say "bullshit", but he was just being polite. He wanted to know why we say things that aren't true and that we don't believe. "I don't see the mighty suffering or the poor lifted up," he said. I just see the same old world, powerful people thriving and poor people suffering."

And on the surface of things, he had a point. There really isn’t a lot of evidence that the dreadful inertia of history has ever truly been interrupted. Power, wealth, and status continue to dominate the life of the world.  Even the fragments of progress that we celebrate – universal health care, women’s rights, Old Age Security – are woven into a fabric that also contains the generations of trauma suffered among indigenous peoples’ , a “war on terror” that justifies torture, judicial murder, and “collateral damage”, and thousands of deaths of infants and children every single day from hunger. We wear this fabric of history next to our chafed skin, and know deep down what W.H. Auden writes in For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio:

            If we were never alone or always too busy,
            Perhaps we would even believe what we know is not true:
            But no one is taken in, at least not all of the time;
            In our bath, or the subway, or the middle of the night,
            We know very well we are not unlucky but evil….

That is to say, the dreadful inertia is not something that has happened to us – it is something we have fashioned, or at least something we tolerate and at times embrace. We call it “just the way things are”, and whether we are jailers or prisoners, its inevitability absolves us of any responsibility to seek another arrangement.

So the darkness into which this season of Advent anticipates that a light will shine is not just the darkness around us – the darkening towards solstice in the northern hemisphere (where all these times were decided), the dark inevitability of an unjust and harmful social order. It is also the darkness within and among us, as surely as the storm on the heath and the storm in Lear are the same storm. The darkness is a fact about us, part of the truth about us. We stand in need of transformation at the level of our wills. We need to learn to desire what is worth desiring, what is worthy of our desiring, and to desire it with all our hearts.

When “a truly just, peaceful and healthy world” (the vision of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund) seems impossible, our desire finds other outlets – stuff, status, and power, bread and circuses, trinkets, what today’s Globe and Mail calls (apparently without irony) “Shiny, Pretty Things”. We temper our desire, “cut the suit to fit the cloth”. We make suits for some and leave others naked because we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that there is no other way.

The season of Advent offers the profoundly uncomfortable prospect of another way, of a kingdom – a sovereign order – in which there is both cloth and desire enough that none go naked, food and right desire so that none go hungry, land and just desire so that all find a good place in “our visit to God’s creation”.

I do not believe I am alone in my ambivalence about this prospect. I feel somewhere deep in my soul how right Jesus is when he speaks balefully of the spiritual prospects of the rich, among whom I must surely count myself. My desire is confused by the status, the “shiny pretty things”, that business-as-usual confers on me.  That is why Advent blows such a wind through my soul with it promise that things not only can be different, not only will be different, but are already somehow different. There is a spiritual movement already underway with God as its founder and instigator. God has imagined a new world, a new creation, and that sovereign imagination is already more real than the shiny pretty things, than the stuff , status, and power that so many desire so deeply and so sadly.

Very early in our marriage, Deborah and I discovered a dimension of desire that has sustained us. We learned how difficult it was, sometimes, to want to love, to want to do or say the thing that embodied love for one another. We said, and still do say, “I’m not sure I wanna, but I wanna wanna.” My prayer, for me, and for many others with whom I sense I share that spiritual predicament, is that God can work with that, that the desire to desire rightly, justly, and generously is ground enough for God to establish again a transforming presence within and among us.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Landscape

There is a trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park that we have hiked together two or three times. The Orphan Lake Trail is not our favourite. But is has its rewards. The lake in the middle of it is quiet and green, and the stone beach of the great inland sea is as close to primordial as I have known.  But it is a lot of work, and has none of the panoramas of other, equally-demanding trails.

There is a part of the Orphan Lake Trail that had, a decade or so ago, a forest fire. There are no large trees in that part of the forest. If you are in the lumber business, this is not what you would call a profit centre.  There is something there, though, in July, something lovely and rare - wild blueberries.  You won't find them in the forest, but you can find them where the forest used to be.

If you are in the lumber business, the blueberries might not make much of an impression on you. But if you are just noticing what's there, they are a delight, a kind of grace in the course of a sometimes grueling (beautiful) walk.

I have been working in the church in one way or another for thirty-five years. And for thirty-five years we've been thinking of ourselves more and more as a failing lumber business. The part of the ecosystem entrusted to our attention seems to have fewer and fewer trees. As we try to make sense of that reality, it's pretty easy to dream up a scenario in which the deforestation is all our fault. And to be sure, we can find evidence of lost opportunities and poor forest stewardship.  We can find, also, places where there is still enough lumber to be in business. 

But sometimes forests burn. Sometimes ecosystems transform. Sometimes there is that uncomfortable meantime during which it is at best uncertain what business we are in in this landscape. It's called the mean-time for a reason.  It can be a time for us to focus on the mean-ness, the scarcity, of the trees that used to be here in the forest that is no more. It can make us mean, too, as we turn our attention to the absurd but somehow compelling question of who has dibs on the last few trees.

I wonder if the Holy One has something else in mind. I wonder if the absence of trees is meant to be more important than the abundance of blueberries. I wonder what we might find in this landscape if we were to seek out what new thing has wondrously appeared, not instead of lamenting (because lament we must) but perhaps in addition to lamenting, how much we miss the lumber business.

It is not easy to like the absence of lumber. But it is possible to love the berries.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Founding Family - For July 10

After a brief interlude, we turn from the traumatized Isaac, unable to contribute anything to the story except for the next generation, we meet Jacob, ready to tangle, on the make, a trader with a keen eye for the main chance.  We will follow his story now for several weeks – a hinge on which the whole narrative shuts on Esau and opens on Jacob, on Joseph and his descendants, on bondage and then freedom, on Moses, Aaron and Miriam, then Joshua and the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets.

Jacob comes out of the womb ready to rumble.  At birth, he fights to be first, holding Esau by the heel and, presumably trying to pull in front of him.  What fails at birth he eventually wins by exploitation and deception.  Every classroom, every workplace, every soccer team, every extended family has one of these characters, ready to knock anybody off the ladder in order to get ahead.

It will take Jacob years to learn what “ahead” looks like.  On July 31, he will come up against an adversary more than worthy of his skill, his strength, and his determination.  Like many of us, he will win some and lose some along the way, take his lumps, and move on to the next contest.

Later on, he will favour the child of his heart’s desire, with disastrous results for Joseph.  And yet…

There is a character on the loose in this story, a Character as determined as Joseph.  As our ancestors tell us these ancient stories, that Character begins to take shape, to emerge from the shadows, to illuminate our human history.  Future scripture will refer to “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”, in what is meant to be, I think, a kind of crescendo, a rising, growing, ever more powerful sense of who God is and of what God intends.  Today, we begin to follow a central note in that crescendo, a note who, at the outset, shows little evidence of what we might think of as “godly”.

The story cries out to be read continuously, from the call of Abram in Genesis 12 to the death of Joseph at the end of the book.  This story of the founding family of faith will surprise you, appall you, delight you.  Love story, political intrigue, and the endless oscillation of human hearts turned to dignity and then lowered into moral squalor.  And always the beat laid down, sometimes lost in the tangle of sounds, sometimes rising to call them back into song, of God’s presence and purpose and practices.

But today, we simply meet Jacob, whose unlikely self will become Israel as he wrestles a crippling blessing from a Stranger.  Jacob, on the make, Jacob pressing a momentary advantage over his carelessly hungry twin, Jacob in the end limping home to the heart of the matter, and along the way introducing us to the ways of God.

Watch this space.  And keep one eye on Jacob.  He doesn’t look all that promising, but in this story it’s God who does the promising, and changes everything, and everyone.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Piggyback God

Abraham’s temporary willingness to participate in the blood sacrifice of his son casts a long shadow – confusion and mayhem for the next three generations. In light of the divine promise, that the descendents of Abraham would be a blessing to all nations, the enterprise is off to a rocky start.

For the next several weeks, we will hear the stories of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Esau, of Laban, Leah, and Rachel, of Joseph and his brothers. These are not impressive people. They’re either weak or on the make, dreamily enjoying favoured status or busily plotting to sell a brother into slavery. It surely isn’t anything about the character and morality of these descendents of Sarah and Abraham that has us still telling their stories.  

Indeed, these stories are not really about what these three generations accomplish. Much of that is, in fact, sordid. No, what these stories proclaim is what God is able to make of these three generations. There is a story greater than their stories woven through their lives, bringing together the jagged edges of rivalries and violence, and – finally – of reconciliation, into a coherent account of God in mission, of God riding piggyback on the intrigue and hostility to tell a quite different story.

Kind of like in the church, you know, where agendas collide and we tussle for ascendency, sometimes across the whole landscape of a church (think same-sex relationships and property litigation), and sometimes in the very local reality of a parish community, where gossip can pose as fact, and innuendo as evidence.

The late Joe Wright, who loomed larger-than-life at St. Cuthbert’s Church in Leaside, once encountered a parishioner on the street (so the story goes). “Bill,” he said, “haven’t seen you in church lately.” “Place is full of hypocrites,” said Bill by way of excuse.  Joe’s legendary response?  “Don’t worry about that. There’s always room for one more!”

That’s our truth. There’s always room for one more, and how we come together won’t always match our best hopes and ideals for ourselves, one another, and the church. We’re sinners. Gifted and capable sinners, to be sure, with insight and conviction, often generous with time and resources, astonishingly kind and wonderfully compassionate at times. But sinners for all that, afraid because of what happened or might happen, guarded against past hurts in ways that distort our present relationships, trying hard to achieve the “good enough, smart enough, young enough, pretty/handsome enough, important enough” standards that haunt us, and sometimes measuring others down when we sense that we don’t measure up.

The good news is that God is riding piggyback on our stories as well, weaving through them an eternal thread of love’s victory. The piggyback God, who nourishes mission in and for the world out of the ragbag of our imperfect offering has known our predicament in the Incarnation, has lived it and endured its longest and most violent shadows in the life and death of Jesus. So it is that, with our confused and frightened ancestors, from Isaac the Terrified to Joseph the Dreamer in Chains, we discover God at work among and through us, not because of what we have accomplished, but because of God’s determination to make the most beautiful future possible out of the only material at hand.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Unbinding Abraham

The story our ancestors offer us from Hebrew scripture is called the Akeda, the binding and unbinding of Isaac. At the same time, though, it is also the story of the binding and unbinding of Abraham his father.

As he trudges up the slope of Mount Moriah with his son, “your only son, the son whom you love”, he believes with all his heart that what is necessary – what must happen – is that he tie his son up, cut his throat, and burn his body. Repugnant as this clearly must be to him, he cannot avoid it. It is inevitable. God demands it, and saying “No” to what God demands is not possible.

There are in this story two names for God. The first, “God” is a translation of the Hebrew “Elohim”. The second, “the LORD”, is how “Yahweh” is rendered in English translations. The God who binds Abraham to this sacrifice is Elohim; the God who unbinds him from it is Yahweh.

Stick with me here for a minute.  Elohim (God) is also used to speak of the gods of other peoples –  for example Ashtoret the Elohim of the Sidonians, Kemosh the Elohim of Moab, and Milkom the Elohim of the children of Amon in 1 Kings 11. Which makes me wonder – Could the shift from Elohim to Yahweh be the editor’s deliberate choice, creating a text that clearly distinguishes Yahweh from the Gods (Elohim) of other peoples? Especially if this text was brought together during the Babylonian captivity, among a people whose stories of their Elohim are so similar to those of Israel, might the editor be making the distinction between the Elohim who binds and Yahweh who unbinds, between a God of bondage and a Lord of freedom?

We live, I believe, in a world with an overdeveloped sense of inevitability at every social level – from our own inward life to what Herbert O’Driscoll calls “the maelstrom of the nations”. (Intriguingly, in the same hymn he refers to “the Lord of our tomorrows and the God of earth’s todays”.) We yield too easily to the belief that nothing can be done – about our own bad habits of heart and mind and body, about poverty and hunger in our communities, about the plight of the Canada’s First Peoples, about catastrophic climate change.  We rationalize our own continuing complicity as citizens and consumers in arrangements that fail the poor and exploit the weak. We trudge up Moriah, knowing on some level that what we are about is not good, yet convinced that it is unavoidable, that we have no choice, that the Elohim of the market or of our own comfort demand it.

In “You’ve Never Seen Everything”, Bruce Cockburn sings this chorus:

Bad pressure coming down,
Tears - what we really traffic in;
Ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around.

Somewhere on that mountain the bad pressure yields to "the light falling all around". Elohim gives way to Yahweh, and Abraham discovers a freedom he had never imagined possible, a Lord who unbinds him from what he was unable to refuse, who sets him free to embrace what he could scarcely imagine. I wonder if we can believe that Yahweh is eager to unbind us as well.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

With Isaac and Wilfred Owen in mind

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen