Afghanistan: Bear Witness We Must!

When I was in my early twenties, I was so much more adventurous than the pastor who stands before you. Still foolish enough to believe in my own ability to meet any situation I stumbled into; I travelled the world seeking all the excitement which life might bring my way. More than once, I ventured into worlds beyond my meagre capacity for wisdom. With a reckless spirit, a rail-pass in my pocket, a backpack slung over my shoulders and several hundred dollars’ worth of travelers’ cheques, yeah, travelers’ cheques. That’s how long ago it was. I had several hundred dollars of travelers’ cheques tucked into my wallet, when I boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, bound for Athens, Greece. Despite my youthful vigor, I was tired. Several months of backpacking in Northern Europe had left me weary. In just five days my rail-pass would expire, so I decided to head to Greece, where previous visits had taught me, the living was easy. I longed for the warm sun, the blue skies and the equally blue waters and the promise of a cheap place to rest.

As the train made its way through the Alps, I remembered a similar trip which I had made the year before and I tried to calculate whether my remaining funds would allow me to return to the village of Hannia on the Island of Crete. I knew that in Crete I could find work. I planned to mix a lot of relaxation and fun with just a little work and try to live out the winter on the Mediterranean. As the train rattled through Austria towards, what was then, Yugoslavia, it began to get dark. I was disappointed that my journey through Yugoslavia would be completed in darkness. I remembered my previous journey by car through Yugoslavia and how, at the time, I had marveled at the diversity of this strange little country. I remembered men and women driving oxen as they ploughed their fields in much the same way as their ancestors had done. I also remembered my surprise at entering the ultra-modern section of the city of Belgrade, the showcase of the dictator Tito’s communist regime. I fell asleep pondering the sharp differences between the lives of the poor in the villages who appeared to live without any modern conveniences at all, and the lives of those who inhabited the city of Belgrade, with its towering buildings and streets filled with automobiles. Several centuries seemed to co-exist in this Yugoslavia.

I was awakened by the sound of people shuffling to find their papers as the train conductor instructed us to get our passports and visas ready for customs inspection. When the Yugoslavian custom officials, with their rifles over their shoulders boarded our train, they were preceded by men guided by vicious looking German shepherds. Even though I knew that I had all the correct papers and that my backpack contained nothing more offensive than some dirty laundry, the sight of the dogs, the guns and the uniformed officials struck fear into my heart. I nervously handed over my precious passport to an official who looked younger than my twenty-two years. He carefully read over the visa which I had obtained in Zurich the day before; a visa which I could not read because it was written in an unfamiliar language using unfamiliar alphabet. The young man handed my passport over to an older official and before I could comprehend what was happening, I was being escorted off the train. I was shaking so badly that the young men on either side of me had to hold me up. I’m not sure if my feet even touched the ground.

After a long, lonely wait in a drab, windowless room, a woman entered. In broken English she told me that my visa was not in order. “NOT in order! NOT in order!” She kept repeating it.  I gathered from what she was trying to unsuccessfully to explain to me, that my passport contained the visa from my previous visit to Yugoslavia but was missing an official exit stamp. She demanded to know why there was no exit stamp in my passport. “NO EXIT STAMP! NOT in order! Needless to say, I could not explain. I told her that I had only spent a little over a week in Yugoslavia the year before and then gone on to Greece. I told her that I didn’t know that an exit stamp was necessary and that I couldn’t understand why the Yugoslavian consulate would have issued my current visa if my paperwork was not in order. She kept insisting that I needed an exit stamp. “NOT in order! NOT in order! EXIT STAMP!” Continue reading

Credo: the first creed is not about belief! It is about LOVE – Galatians 3:28

Six years ago, I returned to Belfast after a long absence. In addition to the joys of visiting family, I attended a festival celebrating radical theology. The festival ended with a pub crawl on Saturday night. When Sunday morning arrived, I decided to worship at the church next door. There were more progressive options which would have been more in keeping with radical theology. St. Anne’s Cathedral drew me to her pews partly because my grandparents had been married there and my mother was baptized there. But more importantly, it has been a long time since I had been on a pub crawl, so I was a little worse for wear and St. Anne’s was just next door.

St. Anne’s is also known as the Belfast Cathedral and is part of the Church of Ireland, which is part of the Anglican Communion. So, I knew that the liturgy would be very familiar. Being just two minutes away from the sanctuary, I was able to time my arrival just before the service began. I mean, just before the service began. I wandered up the aisle, intending to sit in the back row. However, the back row was miles away from the last row of occupied rows. So, I had to travel three quarters of the way down the aisle in order to sit in the back row of the gathered congregation. In a church which boasts a seating capacity of 4,000 people, I walked past row after row after empty row in order to join a congregation of about thirty people. As I sat in a sparsely populated row, I quickly checked my watch to make sure I in my hung-over state, I hadn’t mistaken the time, and this was not the main Sunday worship service. Perhaps it was already evening, and this was the evensong crowd? But no, it was clearly 11am and an elaborate procession of liturgical leaders were beginning their walk up the long empty aisle. I scrambled to my feet, and perused the service bulletin, ready to lend my inadequate voice to the singing of God’s praise.

Alas, our assembled voices made hardly a din in the cavernous empty cathedral. The service droned on, and on. Lots and lots of words; mostly familiar. A few hymns, mostly familiar. An inoffensive sermon, by a gentle priest. Looking forward to the Eucharist, I longed for the hymn of the day to end. Flipping the page of the service bulletin, I came across an old nemesis. The liturgical option to use the Creeds, either the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, is not something we at Holy Cross have done for many years. Sadly, the majority of Anglican and Lutheran congregations do. There it was, right there on the page, a rubric instructing the assemble to turn to the Apostles’ Creed. I dutifully obliged, turning to the appropriate page as the congregation completed the hymn. There on the page, I began to inwardly read and digest the words of the Apostles’ Creed.

It had been a long time since the familiar words took up space in my mind. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead…” Wait a minute. The words are so familiar, they are in my bones, they are part of who I am. But suddenly it was not the words which drew my focus. I’d long since given up on the patriarchal language, or Mary’s virginity, or the judgmental threats to the living which I knew were coming. Not even the inherent sacrificial atonement theology could hold my attention in that nearly empty cathedral. My eye, my mind, my whole being was firmly fixed on a punction mark. I’ve always known it was there, but on that morning, I actually felt that tiny, monumental, comma’s impact. The entire life of Jesus is reduced to a comma which sits between his birth to a mythical virgin, and his death at the hands of the forces of empire. Jesus’ life, his teachings, his loves, his passions, his story, and most of all Jesus’ humanity is reduced to a comma.

I quickly turned to the Nicene Creed to confirm what I already knew. “We believe in one God, the father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in on Lord, Jesus Christ the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” No mere comma this time, but a period. No sooner is the DIVINE Jesus born of a mythical virgin to become human, than with a definitive period does Jesus’ life pale in comparison to his death. I stood frozen, paralyzed by the reality of a comma’s momentous power, and a period’s precise ability to move the attention of generations of believers from the magnitude of Jesus life to visions of an other-worldly kingdom from which judgement of the living and the dead would be doled out between this world and the next.

Sweet Jesus, where are you? Where is your life in these iron clad, deliberately laid out, statements of faith, to which we are expected to say:  “I believe, We believe?” Our creeds reduce Jesus’ life to a comma, or a period. The tiny little punctuation marks designed to shift our focus elsewhere. These tiny punctuation marks, they move us along without another thought to Jesus’ life, his teachings, his way of being in the world, his humanity. I closed the hymnal, and I took my leave. Outside the sun in all its glory beckoned me on to the streets of Belfast were actual humans greeted me with nods and smiles. I found my way back to my hotel, where the concierge greeted me, with a friendly smile and questions: “Is church over already? How was it?” To which I happily answered, “Yes. I believe it is. For me anyway.” The happy concierge replied, “Sure, that says more than you meant, I’m sure.”  …I believe it does.

Credo, from the Latin verb credere which is the first word in both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Credo a Latin verb which our English hymnals translate as: I believe in the Apostles’ Creed and We believe in the Nicene Creed. Is it any wonder that Christianity, is all too obsessed with believing?  Continue reading

DABHAR the ISNESS of DIVINITY the CREATIVE ENERGY of WORD and DEED

Sometimes, we must let go of words in order to move beyond words, so that we might understand the MYSTERY which is sometimes called “God” and sometimes called “the WORD”. Letting go of words is not easy for someone like me. Years ago, I decided that in order to understand God, I needed to learn how to meditate. It didn’t go very well. I remember talking to a good friend of mine about the trouble I was having learning to meditate. Bryan had travelled all over the Far East and was an avid practitioner of transcendental meditation. He sympathized with my dilemma and suggested that perhaps my spiritual quest would need to be one which entailed letting go of words so that I could move beyond words. I remember being dumbfounded by the idea of ever being able to let go of words. But Bryan insisted that unless I moved beyond words, I’d remain frustrated by my attempts to learn any form of meditation.

I confessed that I had absolutely no idea where to begin. Bryan said that my basic problem was wrapped up in the weakness of my right mind. Before I could take offence, Bryan went on to explain that I was primarily a left-brain kind of gal. Bryan insisted that I needed to learn to develop the right hemisphere of my brain. Even though I was familiar with the theories about right brain verses left brain, I had absolutely no idea about how to go about changing what I thought was the unchangeable reality that my left brain, which is the area responsible for verbal and cognitive skills, is the hemisphere that I tend to rely on rather than the right brain, wherein lies the artistic, playful side of my nature. I like words. I like the way words sound. I like the way the way words look. I like the meanings of words and I love the history of words. I love putting words together. I’m called to a profession which is all about words. So, asking me to move beyond words is like asking me to give up my lifeblood. But Bryan was determined to move me beyond words. So, he made me promise to meet him at his workplace the very next day.

Bryan is a pilot, a helicopter pilot. Bryan also knows that I’m afraid of heights and although I’ve conquered my fear of flying, I’m rather partial to fix-wing aircraft. Helicopters make me more than nervous; helicopters terrify me. Most of my fear of helicopters is Bryan’s fault. While Bryan was studying to be a pilot, he would share with me some of his newfound knowledge about helicopters. One thing stood out for me: helicopters are unreliable. The best mechanic can safety-check a helicopter and certify that it is perfectly safe to take off and still the helicopter can malfunction and cause the pilot to have to land immediately. So, I was not too crazy about meeting Bryan at work. But who am I to argue with a guy who was determined to develop my right brain?

That’s how I found myself hovering over the mountains of North Vancouver in a small helicopter which for some reason, I could not understand, had no doors. I was strapped in, and Bryan assured me that there was no way that I could fall out. But there was something about all that fresh air swirling about which made the clouds seem a little too close for comfort. So, I held on for dear life as Bryan headed North towards Garibaldi Mountain. As Garibaldi slipped out of view followed by Blackcomb, and Whistler mountains, the sheer beauty of all that lay before me, filled me with such awe that my mind struggled to comprehend the splendour my eyes beheld. This of course was my left-brain on overdrive struggling to find words to describe the experience of my senses. 

It wasn’t until I heard Bryan’s noisy voice through the crackly headset that I realized that rather than moving beyond words, my mind was flooded with words. I asked Bryan where we were going, and he pointed to a place on the northern horizon and told me that we were going to put down on the side of a mountain in a place which he knew, I would absolutely love. As we’d long since passed the boundaries of my ability to recognize the mountains by their shape, I turned to the map of the Bastion Range, but I could not read our location. Bryan motioned to a point in the distance and indicated that it would be there that he would land the helicopter. As we hovered over the spot, I wondered how he’d manage to land, when through the headset Bryan explained it was too dangerous to actually land.  Bryan would hover inches from the ground and if I was willing to go where few humans had ever gone before, I would step out of the chopper and huddle down on the ground as Bryan swooped back up into the air out of sight, so that I could be alone in a place where Bryan was sure I’d find no words but one.

I was relieved that Bryan had not explained all this while we were still on terra firma because I would never have agreed to this particular journey. But out there, up there, the appeal of the Alpine meadow perched on a mountainside was more than I could resist. Nevertheless, as the ground approached, I became convinced that I was about to die. But I was much younger then and far more reckless, so in seconds, I was hugging the Earth and feeling the whoosh of the chopper as Bryan climbed out of the way without me. I knew that he’d be back in about 5 minutes, but as the sound of the helicopter disappeared, it was replaced by the roar of a silence, a silence I had never heard before. I stood up in time to see Bryan disappear behind the summit and discovered that I was quite literally on top of the world.  

I’ve rarely tried to put into words what happened next. I resisted doing so for years.  I think out of some sort of belief that in trying to put it into words, I would rob it of its, its what, its what, that’s just it, I don’t know what……Well I do know, I just don’t know how to say it with words.

Standing there looking out at what seemed like all of Creation right there before me. Looking down at the vast valley below and up to the summit above, I could almost reach out and touch the top of the mountain. Blanketed by a sky, which I was convinced I could walk out upon, because so much of it appeared to be below me and not above, my senses were overwhelmed. I was alone and yet I knew I was not alone. I’d like to say that I was conscious of a presence but that’s not really how it was. Words cannot do it justice. I was surrounded by it. Not “it” really but “is”.

“Is” is about as close as I can come to describing it. I was in the presence of, or surrounded by, or overwhelmed by, or upheld by, or embraced by, or touched by, caressed by, or loved by ISNESS. Somehow, I knew that this ISNESS was the ONE I had been longing for, the ONE I was trying to learn to meditate for, the ONE I desired to know, the ONE who all those years ago, I called, “GOD”. But even then, I knew that, GOD is too small a word to describe the ISNESS. But there in the presence of all that IS, I had no need to describe IS.  It was enough to simply be. All words, and thoughts slipped away, and it was enough to just be. To be in the presence of the SOURCE of all that IS. Continue reading