Finding Home in this Pandemic Wilderness?

Not all homecomings work out the way we hoped. I remember once, a long time ago, when I was just 20 years old, my homecoming turned out to be a bit of a bust. I’d been travelling for months, using the UK as my home base, when I began experiencing pain in my foot. Because I had been doing some strenuous hiking in the Scottish Highlands, the doctors assumed that I had something known as a hiker’s fracture. So they put my foot in a cast and told me to take it easy for six weeks. Well the cast didn’t last for more than a week, when my foot became so swollen that I had to rush back to the doctor to beg him to take it off. One look at my foot and the doctor, quickly cut the cast off and just as quickly sent me for x-rays. I can still see the doctor’s face looking so very serious as he told me that my foot was not fractured and then he paused, during which time, I assumed that he would tell me that my foot was broken. Never in a million years did my young self imagine what would come next. The x-rays revealed a tumour, and after several more tests it was determined that the tumour was surrounded by a massive hemangioma. I would need surgery in order to remove both the tumour and the hemangioma. Only after the surgery would they be able to determine if the tumour was cancerous or benign. Did I mention that I was only twenty and far from home? All I wanted to do was rush back to my family. Home was the only thing on my mind, when the doctor’s voice interrupted my thoughts by saying, “I don’t think you understand my dear. You need surgery now, right away.”

I thanked the doctor for his concern and left his office to begin the long process of going home. It was the middle of December and most of the fights which I could afford, were fully booked by Christmas travellers.  It wasn’t easy, but less than a week after learning that my own foot was threatening to change my life, I boarded a plane to rush back home to my family. On the long plane ride back to Vancouver, I dreamed of what it would be like to be back.

But there was just one thing that my dreams of home couldn’t conjure up and that was the reality that during my absence, my parents had moved to a new house. The home which I left behind was no more. My parents had moved to a town about ten miles from where they had been living, the house, the home that I knew was no more. It had only been a matter of months, but in that short time, so much had changed, not only could I not return to my familiar home, I could no longer be the carefree young woman that I was when I left home.

When you fly from London to Vancouver, you don’t fly directly from east to west. You take more of a northwest by southwest route over the North Pole. To this day, I can still remember looking out that tiny little window and wondering what lay below our flightpath. Miles and miles, and miles of frozen sea, and snow-covered lands. Looking back through my mind’s eye, I can see now that I was in a wilderness of fear. For just as soon as that plane landed, the reality of my existence would change in ways which truly frightened me.

That airplane was a kind of portal from one world into another, a liminal space or as the ancient Celts called it a Thin Place; a place in which the barriers between the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being fall away and we are opened to the reality of DIVINITY which lives and moves in, with, through and beyond us.

Back then, I still imagined God as some sort of supreme being who managed the world from some lofty place somewhere. I had no doubt whatsoever that this interfering deity had placed the tumor in my foot for some divine purpose and that my task was to figure out what it was that this god was trying to teach me. These days, my imaginings of the DIVINE MYSTERY no longer include images of a manipulative, interfering, supreme being, who stoops so low as to place tumours anywhere in Creation. So, looking back my questions surrounding my frightening homecoming are not about what some grand puppeteer in the sky was trying to teach me, but rather, what it is that I can learn from my long ago experiences which can shed light upon what is happening all around us. For there have been moments during the past six months when I have longed to go home to the world we knew before the pandemic sent us all scurrying into the wilderness of fear into which the whole world has found itself confined to.

It has been six months since we gathered together in the sanctuary and I have been leading worship from my home while the internet transmits this new reality into your homes. I can’t tell you how very much, I’d love to spend this Homecoming Sunday in the shared home of our sanctuary. But even if by some miracle, we could go back, I suspect that such a homecoming would be very much like my long-ago homecoming. I remember walking into my parents’ living room in their new home, and while there was so much that was familiar, everything felt so very different. Not only was I in a different house; I was different, changed by all that had and was happening. Continue reading

Getting to the Root of Our Dominion Over Creation: Genesis 1:27-28

From Coast to Coast to Coast, we Canadians live upon a land which far exceeds the blessings many of our ancestors could only long for. In addition to the milk and honey of our ancestors’ dreams, this land is rich in blessings more numerous than all the words in all the languages spoken by this land’s diverse inhabitants. I suspect that those of you who call other lands “home” are also blessed with a similar love for your land. We only have to close our eyes to see the images of the beauty of the land we love simply because it is home. Walking upon the land, the ground beneath our feet holds promises passed down from generation to generation. Memories of landscapes long changed by human hands, haunt our visions of ever-expanding settlements. In addition to being overwhelmed by the vast beauty and majesty of the land, our eyes weep and our bodies shudder at gaping wounds, and ugly scares which threaten to pierce our over-inflated egos and challenge the wisdom of our imbedded delusions of grandeur. Standing upon the Earth, with its vast, majestic lands, how did we ever become so enamored of our species domineering posture of self-importance? There is an arrogance to our Western posture which threatens the land.

Years ago, when my family immigrated to this land which I call home, it was known as the DOMINION of CANADA. That word “dominion” sticks in my throat, like a bile which threatens to make me wretch. While it has been a long time since this land was viewed as the DOMINION of CANADA, this land we love continues, like many lands, to suffer the pain of the dominion we inheritors of the Genesis myth continue to claim as our place in the order of Creation.

Listen to these words taken from one of the Creation myths found in the book of Genesis. I’m using the New Revised Standard Vision because it is a familiar translation of Genesis chapter 1, verses 27 & 28: the NRSV translates the Hebrew text like this:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”             Here endth the reading…or does it?

In one of the most treasured Creation myths of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures, humans are placed as the crowns in the jewels of Creation. For two millennia, the dominant Christian culture has interpreted this myth to endow the right of “dominion over” every living thing that moves upon the Earth; indeed, over the Earth itself. Creation is ours to rule over. We have dominion over Creation.

“Dominion” the word comes from the Latin word dominium which means “lordship” or “right of ownership” from the word dominus which means “lord”.  Humans, male and female, for that is how “He” the “LORD GOD” created them in this particular Creation Myth, Humans are “lords of every living thing” we have dominion over Creation and we are to subdue the Earth, and multiply. Is it any wonder then that we are so very quick to consume the bounty of the Earth? It is as if we see ourselves as lords and ladies exercising our god-given right to tax the Earth and all her Creatures. One look at a “man-made” (sic) machine, excavating a mountaintop, confirms our “dominion” our “lordship” as we ravenously devour the land, so that we can gobble up the Earth’s resources.

Creation myths function as a kind of compass which orients a culture’s place in the world. But what if our Creation myths, or rather, Western Christianity’s translations and interpretations of our Creation myths went askew somehow? Perhaps instead of a compass our Creation myths are functioning as weights around our necks, millstones if you will, which continue to unbalance us? I believe that our notions of “dominion” continue to function as such a millstone and that we must cast off this weight if we are to have any hope of restoring our balance. Let me begin to lighten the load by looking back to our Creation myth to see if we can discover the roots of our delusions of “dominion”.

For centuries, the Hebrew word “radah” has been translated as “dominion” but when we go back to the roots of our myth we actually, quite literally discover a “root”. The Hebrew word, “radah” means “a point high up on the root of a plant.” When gardeners who pull up weeds encounter the radah the discover where the strength of the plant is. The radah of the root is the centre of the plant’s strength. The radah helps the plant say firmly in the ground when the winds come. What happens to the meaning of our Creation myth when we begin to understand the strength of a new translation? Continue reading

Peaceful Tomorrows: preaching on Matthew 18:21-35

islamophobia_pdf_imgOn Friday the world will mark the nineteenth anniversary of 911. Much has happened since that day that changed our world. Sadly, much has stayed the same. This Sunday the Gospel reading for those congregations following the Revised Standard Lectionary comes from Matthew 18:21-35 and is all about forgiveness. Looking back on the sermons that I have preached on this particular text, I discovered that on the first anniversary of 911 the same reading came around to challenge preachers and their listeners. Reading that old sermon, I was struck by how very little we have learned over the years. My theology has changed considerably over the years and so the way in which I speak about the work of the Divine in the world has also change. But, replace some the names like Sadam Husain, Taliban, and El Queada with ISIS or ISEL, or Hamas, or Assad, or Kim Jong Un, and the world’s willingness to use violence seems almost inevitable. What has not changed for those of us who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is the challenge to change our ways and seek peace. So, I post this old sermon here, in the hope that some of the echoes of our past might enlighten our present with a desire to work for peace. 

I seriously considered quitting my job this week. It’s been a tough week and I’ve gotta tell you, that by the time Friday rolled around, I felt like handing in my notice. I was sick and tired of my boss’s holy than thou attitude and I didn’t want to work for Jesus any more. You see all week long I’ve had this gospel lesson rolling around in my head. This is a lousy week to try and write a sermon on mercy and forgiveness. Images of towers crumbling, family members weeping and American politicians calling for an escalation of the war against terrorism, aren’t exactly conducive to thoughts about mercy and forgiveness. On any other week, I could write a sermon proclaiming the goodness of God’s grace and reminding you how much we owe God. On any other week, I could come up with a story about the colossal debt we owe our God and how dramatically God has wiped the slate clean. On any other week, I could write a sermon urging you to look with compassion and mercy on those who are in your debt. On any other week, I could proclaim the good news of God’s mercy and point to the many ways that we have sinned and count up the many times God has forgiven us and urge you to be just as forgiving to those who have sinned against you. On any other week, I could do my job. But this week Jesus’ words about forgiving not once, not twice, not three times, not even seven times but forgiving those who have sinned against us seventy-seven times is more than I can bare. Continue reading

“The Turd Nearly Always Comes Before the Birth” – Forest Sunday

On this Forest Sunday, I would like to tell you about the forest which has become part of who I am. This particular forest is special not only to me, but it also stands tall in the annals of Canadian forests; indeed, it stands out among all the forests of the world. It is located just north of West Vancouver and I’ve been walking in this forest since I was a teenager. This deep, dark, rich, rainforest is one of the few remaining old-growth forests in Canada. Many of the trees are over 600 years old. This particular forest has managed to survive uncut thanks to the building of a lighthouse in 1875 on Point Atkinson. The authorities wanted to ensure a dark backdrop for the lighthouse so they banned logging in the area and the city of West-Vancouver has set the forest aside with the creation of Lighthouse Park.

On my first trip to Lighthouse Park, I was just thirteen, taken there by my father for a family outing. I remember a dark, wet, gentle hike down to the water’s edge, followed by a half-hour’s uphill climb back to the parking lot, where my mother waited with our picnic lunch, of salmon sandwiches and hot tea. Later, when I was old enough to drive myself, there were so many dark, wet, gentle hikes in this forest cathedral where I often retreated to for solace from the trials and tribulations of finding my way in the world. Over the years, I have often returned to this living cathedral where the Douglas Firs and Red Cedars are hundreds, and hundreds, of years old. Looking up to see just how far they stretch toward the sky, makes you dizzy. I vividly remember the first time I took my wife Carol into the depths of this sacred place. The sheer pleasure of seeing someone you love overwhelmed by the splendour of some of the biggest and oldest trees on the planet, was matched only by the deep silences which are possible in such a place.

The Coast Salish, First Nation people, of the Squamish tribe named this sacred place: Sk’iwitsut which means “turning point”. It is without a doubt a Thin Place which has the power to turn your world inside out; a place where the boundary between what is known and what lies beyond the known is so thin that you can feel the presence of the ONE who IS both the SOURCE of all that IS and who is BEYOND all that is. In this Thin Place, I have laid down burdens, wept, laughed, shouted, cried, rejoiced, slept, breathed deeply of the Earth and lost my breath trudging up the dark, damp, fecund trails. In this Thin Place, this Forest Cathedral, I have worshiped the SOURCE of ALL that IS.

I have been mesmerized by that which is beyond all that is, and I have been emptied of concerns, trials, and tribulations and in turn, filled with joy, hope, peace and LOVE. In this Thin Place, this Forest Cathedral, over and over again, I have been born anew. In this Forest Cathedral, and in so many Forest Cathedrals, I have come to understand what Julian of Norwich meant when she said that, “we are not just made by God, we are made of God.” for in these sacred Thin Places, in these Forest Cathedrals, in the sheer beauty and the magnitude of life which abounds from deep within the forest floors, up through the steadfast trunks to the skyward canopies, the ONE who is the SOURCE of ALL, is also the ONE who is the SOURCE of MY BEING.

But these Thin Places are not for the faint of heart. Over the years, I have made various pilgrimages to Lighthouse Park, only to find a sign erected warning those who dare to enter that a bear has been sighted in the area. Sometimes the authorities have posted a sign which announces that because of the threat of a dangerous bear in the area, the park is closed to all hikers. When I was younger, and much more foolish, I ignored those signs and ventured into the deep, dark forest despite the warnings. The sense of danger was palpable and added to the intensity of the experience of this dangerous wilderness. But the wisdom gained over the decades has of late caused me to heed the warning signs. So, from time to time Carol and I have travelled to Lighthouse Park filled with anticipation only to be thwarted by a warning sign.

It seems appropriate somehow that a Thin Place should be so subject to warning signs. The definition of DIVINE MYSTERY, developed out of the work of Rudolf Otto names the MYSTERY we call God as the NUMINOUS. Otto defines the NUMINOUS in Latin with the words, “Mysterium, Tremendum,” and over the decades others have added the Latin et Facinam;” for the ONE who is the SOURCE of ALL BEING is mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating. Mysterious yes. Tremendous, actually makes you tremble, yes. But even though you tremble with fear and awe in the presence of such great MYSTERY, you just can’t help but be fascinated by the ONE who is the source and ground of your BEING as you are opened to the LOVE which IS, DIVINITY. When you reach down to the rich earth on the forest floor, the mysterious process of rebirth can be touched as millions of years of decay, provide the nutrients necessary to give centuries of life to the ancient rain forest, which in turn gives life not only to the creatures which live within the forest, but breathes life into the very air we breathe during the magnificent processes which literally cleans the air.

During these endless months, when we have been unable to worship in our church building, I have often allowed my mind to wander the deep, rich, fecund pathways of Sk’iwitsut, the Turning Point, known as Lighthouse Park, precisely because of the power of this Thin Place to give birth to life out of decay. Before the pandemic, the christian church was on life support. I don’t want to give you the statistics here because most of us have seen for ourselves the evidence of the church gasping for breath as the life drains from our sanctuaries.

Continue reading

Labour Day: some thoughts about Work: a job? a profession? or LOVE made visible!

Labour Day weekend marks a milestone in my life. You see 26 years ago, after a driving about 4,000 kilometres, all the way from Vancouver, I arrived in Waterloo, Ontario, just in time for the long Labour Day weekend. I didn’t know anyone in Waterloo. I didn’t have a place to live. But on the Tuesday after Labour Day, I was scheduled to report to Waterloo Lutheran Seminary to begin orientation for what would be a four year masters of Divinity program. In the course of that long ago Labour Day weekend, I found a place to live, unpacked all the belongings that I’d been able to stuff in to my old 84 Oldsmobile, and discovered that in Ontario, milk comes out of in plastic bags. You have no idea how mystified I was wondering just how those plastic bags functioned as an appropriate container for milk. I actually remember standing in the grocery store wondering what people here in Ontario did once they’d opened the plastic bag. Visions of milk spilling everywhere caused me to well up with such a feeling of homesickness. Since then, Labour Day Weekends have been strange combination of nostalgia for what once was and excitement for what is yet to be.
I came to Ontario in the midst of a transition. I’d just completed a 4 year undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and I was about to begin Seminary. Both my undergraduate and my masters degree would qualify me to be a pastor. After a years in the travel industry working as both a tour wholesaler and an accountant, I wanted something more out of my work; I wanted something more than just a job I wanted a profession. Religion, Christianity, the Church, the inner workings of reality, books, studying, teaching, deep conversations, these things were and are expressions of my passion. Travel Brochures, numbers, spread-sheets, office politics, sales-figures, the day to day commute into the city, these things represented a means of making money to pay the bills. Don’t get me wrong, my work in the travel industry was usually interesting, sometimes challenging and often quite satisfying. But it had nothing what so ever to do with passion.I viewed my work as a job. What I wanted was a profession. I was caught up in a way of seeing that divided work into categories of meaningful and meaningless. I was incapable of seeing the sacred in my work. Despite the fact that I worked with interesting, beautiful, people and was privileged enough to enjoy the world in ways that some people can only dream of, I couldn’t see meaning in my work.
I was for all intents and purposes an arrogant snob.I was raised in a culture and in a time when education, and fancy letters after one’s name, meant that your work was more important and therefore more meaningful than the work of folks who didn’t have a professional calling. Not surprisingly, I am a product of my experience. I was raised by British working-class parents who struggled to ensure that I had access to the kind of educational opportunities that would result in more than just a job. Their dreams and visions were of having their children become “someone”. A job was something anyone could get. A career was something special. A career meant that you were someone who was involved in something more; a career meant that you were a professional. Even the word job is designed to put the worker in their place. Job comes from the word “jobbe” which describes piece work. A person who does a job is like a cog in a wheel of a much larger machine, who preforms a task that is often disconnected from the end product. A profession is defined as a vocation, a calling that requires specialized educational training. I was tired of functioning in a job and I felt called to a profession in which I could put my own particular passions to work. It took me a long time to understand that a profession could also be just a job and that a job could indeed be the expression of one’s passion.
While I was busy judging the quality of particular occupations, I failed to see the inherent dignity of work itself. The legacy of the class system that divided us into tribes based on the money our work could generate leaves many of us with the miss-guided notion that work is simply a means to an end. All too often we direct our attention to the end and judge the work by how much the worker is able to accumulate. How big is your pile of money? That becomes the point of our work. We express the value of our work in the size of our homes, our cars, the vacations we take, the clothes we wear, the toys we play with. The object of our work becomes the pile. How high can we build our towers? What mark can we leave upon the earth?

Seabright Farmhouse

Years ago, when I was working as a volunteer at a retreat centre, I remember the most satisfying work that I did as a volunteer, was not serving as a board member, not even when I was elected Treasurer and controlled the purse strings of the organization. No! The most satisfying work that I ever did at the retreat centre, which was such a big part of my life for so many years, a place I loved, and worked hard to make a success, the place where my passions all came together, the place where I worked night and day at after putting in long hours at my job, the most satisfying work I did at the retreat centre was scrubbing the floors.
You see the main building of the retreat centre was an old farmhouse. The kitchen had an old and ugly linoleum floor. That floor had seen so much traffic that the the pattern was worn off in places. I remember getting up before sunrise, or wandering in late in the evening, to get down on my hands and knees and scrub that floor because it was a job best done when no one was around. First, I’d scrub it with a scrub brush and Comet; you know that old fashioned abrasive powder. Then I’d have to rinse it with hot water and a cloth. Then after it dried, I’d wax it. It wasn’t a very big kitchen, but it took a couple of hours to do it right. Yet, even when it was finished, that old linoleum wasn’t really up to much. But it was clean. You could have eaten off that floor.

Continue reading