There was a young woman who lived in an apartment, in a very rough neighbourhood. It was the east end of a very large city. Many of the people who lived in this neighbourhood got by on welfare, others earned their living any way they could. The young woman moved into the apartment because it was close to the office where she worked, the rent was cheap and quite frankly she was young and foolish. She ignored all the warnings of her family and friends and moved into the apartment convinced that she could handle anything that came her way.
Her neighbourhood contained the most unsavoury of characters. The office where she worked was just down the street from her apartment and every morning as she walked to work she would meet some of her neighbours returning home from an evening of plying their trade on the streets and in the alleys. Each morning, she would be met at the entrance to her office by an old man named Ed.
Ed had been living on the streets for years. He was very hairy, very dirty, and he tended to rant and rave a lot. Ed was a wild man. He slept on the doorstep of the young woman’s office because it was somewhat protected from the winter weather. Even though Ed made the young woman nervous, she got used to seeing him in her way.
Ed always gave the young woman a warm welcome when she arrived. He knew that when she got inside, she would brew fresh coffee. He used to tease her that, she was a sucker for a sad face as he waited patiently for her to bring him a cup of coffee. They never talked much, though. Ed would just rant and rave about the injustices of the world. The young woman never found out how Ed ended up on the streets. She didn’t know how he spent his days. Continue reading →
I’ve known more than a few heralds in my times; modern heralds whose voices have cried out in the wilderness. Heralds whose voices have made ready a way through the desert. Heralds whose voices have cleared a path and made the rough road smooth. These voices crying out in the wilderness haven’t always belonged to characters that look a lot like I imagine John the Baptist to have looked. They may not have all been wild, wooly, but they were all driven, passionate people, who talk about their passions as if our very lives hang in the balance over every word. If the truth be told, I’m partial to these wild and passionate types. These prophets who lend their voices to seemingly lost causes and dedicate themselves to seeking and proclaiming the truth no matter what it costs them personally. Passionate prophets tilting at windmills trying to open up whoever will listen to them, to the wisdom that lies beyond the ways of the world are a rare breed. I’m sure that if you think back, most of you can remember a John the Baptist in your own lives who has opened you up to pathway beyond the limits of conventional wisdom. I’m sure that each one of you could weave a tale of a prophet who has been able to make the rough places smooth, by filling a valley, or leveling a mountain that has stood between you and the wisdom you needed in order to embrace the future.
The first herald I can remember didn’t drape himself in camel’s hair or consume locusts and wild honey, but he did wear leather pants and I’m pretty sure that he consumed more than his share of magic mushrooms. My grade nine English teacher let’s call him Mr. Ripple, just in case he’s still teaching, and because I’m sure he’d rather I didn’t use his real name; Mr. Ripple wasn’t like any teacher I’d ever met before. In addition to the black leather pants and tie-dye t-shirts which he wore despite the fact that all the other male teachers wore boring old suits, Mr. Ripple had a long unkempt mustache which made him look a little like a cartoon bandit. I remember the very first class I had with Mr. Ripple shocked me into believing that he might just be some sort of joke the principal was trying to play on us and that Mr. Ripple wasn’t actually a teacher at all but an imposter who just needed to hide out for a while. My suspicions were only heightened when Mr. Ripple insisted that we call him by his first name. This John went on and on about pushing beyond the barriers imposed upon us by the system. John insisted that we needed to… get to really know who we are because in his view self knowledge was crucial to living a life that was worth anything at all. John also insisted, that in order to find out who we really are, we need to take chances. To give us the courage to take chances, John guaranteed that each and every one of us would receive a B in his class just for showing up and asking questions. I never really liked Bs. A’s were more my style. So, I put up my hand in order to ask what it would take to get an A in his class. John said, we didn’t need to raise our hands in his class, just shout out. Then he assured us all that students who demonstrated that they had learned something about themselves would get an A+ from him. I said, “I thought we were supposed to learn something about English Literature in his class.” John insisted that studying literature was all about learning about your very own self.
W O H Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind, had been listed in the published syllabus for the course and many of us had newly purchased copies of it sitting on our desks. John suggested that we could read it if we wanted to kowtow to the system or we could read something more challenging of our own choosing. This annoyed me, because I’d purchased “Who Has Seen the Wind” and read it during the summer break, anticipating that this would help me towards my goal of an A in English. John suggested that rather than reading books that the school-board gave their stamp of approval to, we might like to read some books that over the years had been banned by more than one or two school boards. He then opened up his cupboard and revealed all sorts of books free for the taking as long as we promised to pass them on to someone else when we finished reading them. That year I read, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and learned to love Hemingway, “Catch-22” and contemplated the horrors of war, Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Ginsberg’s “Howl.” My own love of books had met its match in John.Continue reading →
As the world turns expectantly for news from the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris, we hope that leaders everywhere can find the courage to commit us all to change our ways. Prophets have been warning us for decades of the dangers of climate change. The figure of John the Baptist looms large during the first half of Advent. This angry misfit shouts and us, convicting us of hastening the end. This sermon from three years ago, asks questions which ring true today: Do we have the courage to join John the Baptist? Do we have the stamina to become a prophet of doom? Our planet may be depending on us! You can listen to the sermon here or read the text below.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I actually met John the Baptist when I was fifteen years old. She didn’t look much like you’d imagine John the Baptist would look, but she had that same crazy intensity, that same focus on the fact that we’d better change our ways, we’d better repent, and start doing things differently or we’d be in real serious trouble. Lola was my friend Valerie’s mother and she simply couldn’t stop going on and on about the environment and how we were destroy the earth. At the time, I remember thinking she was a bit of a nut-case and on more than one occasion I wished she’d just shut up about it. I was just a kid, and the earth was just something I took for granted. The earth was just there to provide for our needs. I couldn’t believe how much Lola went on and on about all the stuff we humans were doing to destroy the earth. I just wished she’d leave us along to get on with things; I couldn’t abide her incessant nonsense about how we were going to destroy the planet. All her feeble little attempts to be kind to the earth, made me seriously question her sanity.
I tolerated Lola not just because she was my friend’s mother, but I didn’t really understand her until one day when the three of us were travelling together. We were coming home from church. I had only been going to church for a few months. I was trying hard to understand this whole God thing. So, I went to church a lot. My friend Valerie had persuaded me to start going to church with her and family had become like my second family as the supported me during my first attempts to explore the mysterious world into which I had begun to feel pulled. As we drove home from church, I was feeling a little glum. Try as I might, I couldn’t really understand this church thing; all that singing and praying didn’t really help me to feel closer to God. Mostly I just liked how people at church treated each other. I liked how they went out of their way to help me feel at home. Whether or not God was there, well I really wasn’t sure.
Anyway, we were driving along the road. It was a partly over-cast day on the west coast of British Columbia, just a few clouds. You could see the mountains off in the distance. We were chatting back and forth when all of a sudden; Lola pulled the car over to the far side of the road, switched off the engine and got out. Valerie followed her mother out of the car, so I figured I had better do the same. Val and her mother scampered down from the road and onto the beach. When they reached the water’s edge, they stopped and just looked off into the distance. Apart from a tanker-ship making its way across the horizon, I couldn’t see much of anything. Lola had the most amazing expression on her face. She positively glowed with happiness. Valerie wore a similar expression. I must have looked somewhat puzzled because Val smiled at me and said isn’t it the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. This only confused me more. What were they looking at that had made them stop the car, scamper down the bank and stand there at the water’s edge on a cold autumn evening. Maybe my parents were right, these religious types are a little bit weird. Happy, glowing, smiling people make me nervous. There they stood grinning from ear to ear. What were they on? And then, I saw it. For the first time in my life, I saw it. It had been there before. But I had never really seen it before. The sky was amazing. The colours were overwhelming. It almost didn’t look real. It looked like someone must have painted it that way. It was magnificent, a work of art. The most beautiful thing I have ever seen.Continue reading →