Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Going for Gold

St. Paul says a lot of strange things. This week was no exception:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:20-23)

Paul seems to be describing a kind of undercover evangelical strategy here: putting on the appearance of Jewishness to evangelize Jews, and the appearance of being pagan to evangelize pagans, etc. A cynical reading would suggest that Paul is doing nothing more than listing the tricks of an Amway salesman. But I have slowly been getting to know Paul, and what I now hear him saying is this: All the religious and cultural packaging and baggage people carry around is just that - packaging and baggage. It's a container that can be filled with clutter and bullshit, or it can be filled with gold. Paul is after the gold. He is done fretting over non-essentials. He has caught hold of something essential that he wants to share with everyone he meets.

Which is...?

The kids in the front row of the Sunday School class are pumping their hands up in the air. They know, they know! It's JESUS!

Paul is excited about Jesus, no doubt. But two thousand years after writing his letter to the Corinthians, the name of Jesus is as encrusted with religious and cultural baggage as anything else on offer, then or now. What would Paul get excited about now? Where would he see and celebrate the "good news"?

I keep thinking back to something that got me excited this week. I keep telling people about this conversation I listened in on between Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Imam Abdullah Antepli, hosted by Krista Tippett in an episode of On Being. The episode, entitled "Holy Envy" celebrated the surprising friendships being built between Jews and Muslims in North America over the last several years.

The rabbi and the imam were funny, they were candid, they were self-critical, they were affectionate towards their own tribe and the tribe of the other. The term "holy envy" came from the experience they described that comes with the mystery of genuine encounter with a person of a different faith - the gifts that are carried by that tradition make such an impression that one finds oneself thinking, "I wish we had more of that." 

And the imam confessed the toxic anti-Semitism he is trying to get out of his system, and the rabbi confessed the Islamophobia that poisons her community. They named the powerful mystery that in meeting with the other, one can meet with God, especially when the other has been one's scapegoat.

What else does the Incarnation entail?

I have to be careful here. Overlaying a Christian category onto the spiritual genius of a rabbi and an imam can easily morph into a colonizing micro-aggression. A respectful engagement must leave intact the Jewishness of the Jew and the Islam of the Muslim. 

But of course, my respectful engagement has to proceed from the particular tradition in which I stand, which is Christian. And as a Christian, I have Paul's voice in my head, trying to explain something odd about how a Christian engages with religious plurality: With a Jew, become as a Jew. With a Muslim, become as a Muslim. In his terms, Circumcision/uncircumcision is nothing. The new creation is everything! 

When I listened to Rabbi Bassin and Imam Antepli, my heart was in my throat. In their friendship, the real thing was happening! What is that real thing? All the words that I have to point at it with are Christian words. Their words are Jewish and Muslim words. But in them, I heard the good news and said, "Amen!"

Reading Paul this Sunday, I think he was saying, "Amen!" too.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Blasphemy (All I have to praise him with)

"Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven..." (Matthew 12:32a)

When I say Jesus is LORD, which I do say, as a Christian, what I am saying is this: The humble, self-effacing God is the one true God.

Anyone who turns the triumph of the cross into a triumphalism has already forgotten its content: the humiliation of the Son of God.

So how can I possibly hope to communicate this mystery to a world full of rivalry, a world bent on dividing everyone into winners and losers? When I say that Jesus has won, how can this not be irreparably distorted, falling into an arena where the victory of one blood-soaked gladiator always means the condemnation of another?

The answer seems to be swaddled in the humiliating descent of the incarnation. The word, to be received, must become flesh. “Jesus is Lord” as a disembodied truth claim is terrible. It is an idolatry - not because I am mistaken in whom I am ascribing divinity to, but because I am mistaken in what I am ascribing to the truly Divine. The whole point of the incarnation is to reveal God as Immanuel, God-with-us, not as some royal totem apart-from-us. God as woundable, God as a beggar for our love, not as the one to whom we beg for love, God taking on the form of a slave, not the form of a king.

Really, the only ones who can witness truthfully to this God are the poor. Only those who are themselves defaced and humiliated can say, boldly and with full confidence, that the humble, self-effacing God is the one true God. To the extent that I have been privileged by the world with status and respect, a chauvinism inevitably creeps in to my declaration of these same words. The meaning goes off. I cannot be confident of my witness. It is a revelation that the world can only hear aright when it is looking down at Jesus, not when it is looking up at him. This is why he had to descend from heaven. This is why he had to empty himself of divinity to communicate the message of God’s love. God is not only in the sunlight shining down from heaven. God is also in the grass trampled underfoot. In the greening, and in the trampling of the earth is a holy mystery. God is not only source of all that is, but the receiver. Not only refuge, but refugee.

Words break apart on the word made flesh. Those with the words do not know, and those who know do not have the words. For the Christian, it is impossible to speak of this revelation, it is impossible not to.

So yes, Jesus is Lord, and I am his fool, and this is my gibberish. By raising him up with these wooden, roughhewn terms, I have crucified him yet again. Only by his mercy am I allowed this blasphemy. I trust that he knows that this blasphemy is all I have to praise him with, and that he suffers me to do so.

By his cross is he made known.

And thus do I know the joy of the Christian: the joy of being wrong, and thus do I dare hope to share it.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

What would happen in Lake Wobegon?

Let me first say: I love Garrison Keillor. Or rather, I love his work. I don’t know him, so cannot love him.

The News from Lake Wobegon made my family laugh till we cried when we were mission workers in Europe. We saw our own people in his gentle lampooning of the foibles of the Minnesotan Sanctified Brethren. He opened a portal for us homesick Manitobans to escape for a while into a world where we didn’t feel like foreigners. He was our prairie home companion. His stories were our stories.

Again: we loved him, but we didn’t know him. It is an odd wonder, so ubiquitous now as to disappear from conscious awareness, this splicing of a human person knowable in the flesh, and that person’s voice, spirit - the Romans would say genius - out into the world via what we call information technology, first through the airwaves as radio, then as television, today as digital traffic on the internet, bringing first the word, then the image of another across the threshold of our homes: disembodied guests, bottled genies we summon with buttons and dials.

And so I read today in my newsfeed a story, copied and pasted hundreds of times over, of a Garrison Keillor scandal. Hodge-podged onto a handful of verifiable facts are a truckload of opinions and feelings. We are all arguing and venting and speculating about what has happened and what should happen with this quirky old geezer caught in a dodgy situation.

I wonder what would happen in Lake Wobegon. The deep nostalgia that Keillor tapped into with the powers of a cypher was our hunger for neighbourhood. For a world where people knew each other. Where there were understandings. And where there was a good narrator. An affectionate, all-knowing voice that saw into the hearts of everyday women and men and loved them. And helped them find their way to a satisfying resolution of their silly troubles. Lord, we miss that.

I don’t know how far Garrison’s hand slid on the back of his female co-worker. I don’t know if, as he says, he just meant to comfort her in a moment of sadness, that he apologized when she recoiled, and they were able to work together as friends until her lawyer called. I know that I want to believe this storyteller. I know I want his more innocent world to be real. He’s always had that effect on me.

What I am pretty sure of is that this is none of my business. It’s not nobody’s business, but it’s not my business. The question for me is, when we discuss a problem like this, what is the shape of the we that is talking? What is its scale? It seems self-evident that a nation-wide scandal is as useless as it is disproportionate to the dilemma between Keillor and his accuser.

That said, I come from a people who have closets littered with skeletons we kept there for centuries by telling ourselves and the world that we could sort this out amongst ourselves. Our victims, most often women and children, by and large did not get a hearing, and our perpetrators, by and large men of authority, were not held to account until our cozy, down-home communities were breached by outsiders, whether with their legal systems, or simply by their ideas, smuggled into our homes via books, via the radio, the TV, the internet.

I would like to imagine a gathering back stage at the Prairie Home Companion, a gathering with food and good coffee and a good outside facilitator. A gathering where things get said that need to get said that haven’t been said for a long time. A gathering where Garrison doesn’t own the microphone, doesn’t direct the show, where his fertile imagination doesn’t seduce everyone with how he wants the story to end. There would be tears. And honesty. And I hope, in the end, but not too soon, there would be laughter. And it would be their tears and their honesty and their laughter. It would be their conversation, not ours.

The genius of creating a fictional neighbourhood like Lake Wobegon was that it allowed an intimacy and an honesty that kept it at a safe distance from the real people in Keillor’s life and the real people in our lives. We laughed because he told all about us without violating our privacy. This made us better able to see our mistakes. I wish Mr. Keillor and his former co-workers a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Conspiratio comes full circle

I wrote this song three years ago, this time of year, for my friend Coralie Schmidt who had received a terminal diagnosis of cancer. Coralie's funeral was in the week of Palm Sunday the following spring, when the church sings the Hosanna echoed by the autumnal Hosanna in this song "casting their garments, Hosanna of the trees.

I loved the song, but it always felt like it wanted a third verse. Early this morning that verse came and woke me from my sleep. I haven't been visited by my musical muse for a long time. I think I wrote one more song after Conspiratio came to me, and that was it. The arrival of this verse feels like something in me is turning over. Fall is here, the last week of vegetable deliveries is here, the final proof of the book is revised and ready to send in to the publisher, a new worship cycle is about to begin at Saint Julian's Table, I'm launching a podcast with my musician friend Alana Levandoski, the leaves are turning and I'm cutting firewood. Good things are ending and making way for new good things. Hallelujah.

O could I fall as beautifully, as graciously as these
Casting their garments on the ground, Hosanna of the trees
This timbered choir sings Hallelujah, Glory to the King
Casting down their golden crowns and crimson robes they sing:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Exhaled airs of greener leaves, sweet substance of my breath
In requiem these golden friends tell of bodies new in death
O symmetry of life and limb, inspiration prior to voice!
Conspired breath in holy kiss, invitation to rejoice:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

O let me sing of Trinity, of rest and holy peace
The Holy Spirit in the wings to receive and to release
And when she takes the centre stage and scales fall from our eyes
Our inward breath will turn around in relief and in surprise, singing,

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Remembering Darrell Little Black Bear Phillips, 1964-2017

My friend Darrell Little Black Bear Phillips died this summer. He left behind his beloved Charlene and ten strong and beautiful sons and daughters. He was a massive personality. He was an organizer and a facilitator, passionate for justice, eager to see people live well together in this land. He could bring a moose home from the bush as capably as he could bring home a grant and a program plan from the halls of power. He picked a mean guitar and crooned big-hearted songs, classic country & folk covers, worship songs, as well as songs of his own creation. The last two he shared with me expressed the two great griefs of his devoutly Catholic, fully Anishnaabe heart - a song for residential school survivors and a song for the aborted unborn. Darrell had a spirituality that seamlessly married the drum and the sweat lodge to the rosary and the daily prayers of the missalette. I was attracted to the integration he embodied. Hanging around with Darrell, I could imagine what a healthy, vibrant coming together of our two cultures could look like.

I first got to know Darrell in the "Chretien Come Clean Car Wash" - a shamelessly corny bit of activist street theatre that I scripted for an Aboriginal National Day of Action, held on the one year anniversary of the release of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RRCAP). Darrell hammed the thing up with characteristic enthusiasm and conviction, caking his family's mini-van with mud and chasing a local actor in a Jean Chretien mask, demanding that Prime Minister Chretien follow through on promises to implement the RRCAP recommendations.

Darrell took out all the event planners to Red Lobster after the protest, and it was then that Jenn and I saw that Darrell and Char were interested in us not just as political allies in the fight for Indigenous rights, but as friends. Jenn and I had children whose ages landed them right in the middle of the growing Phillips "brood." We loved getting together to cook and to visit. The kids would pile downstairs into the basement, with one or the other always lingering or returning to sit on a lap, taddle on a sibling or beg a foretaste of supper, which always took us well past 6pm to prepare together. Jenn and I would bring fresh vegetables from the garden, Darrell would bring out wild meat from up north, he would tell big stories that Char would whittle down to size with one lift of her eyebrow. We would cook and then we would feast, crowding around their kitchen table with Darrell always at the noisy centre of a storm that swirled with small children, big hugs, minor squabbles, threats of "The Manigotogan Mitt!", jokes, spiritual counsel, greasy chins and diaper wipes.

Most of the time we visited at Darrell and Char's place. Their sizeable family had a kind of gravitational force field that attracted others into itself. But they came our way too. They came out to the farm once in the early days, when it was hardly a farm yet at all: just a garden and a trailer and an outdoor bucket toilet. They came to swim with us in the Brokenhead River and see what we were up to.

I felt like the land was happy to feel the footprints of an Indigenous family again. I think I probably told Darrell the story I had heard of how the Brokenhead got its name, a tragic story of a Cree tribe wiped out by the Lakota in a war over access to guns and trading opportunities with the new pale-faced people in the land. The Cree never settled along this river again.

I do know that I asked Darrell what advice he had for me about how to live in this place in a good way, because I still remember his words that day. His answer was simple and definitive: "I would listen to the land."

A man and a piece of advice not to be forgotten.

Travel well, Little Black Bear, travel well.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Turning 150

Regarding the anniversary of Canada's confederation...

What a bunch of Englische did or said in a room in Charlottetown 150 years ago is really neither here nor there for me. My history and home are found in other stories. My ancestors at the time were raising wheat, sunflowers and watermelons on the Steppes of the South Ukraine, thanks to an equally colonial decree issued from Moscow by Catherine the Great, inviting  the Mennonites to displace the nomadic sheep-herding culture of the Kosacks. In this place at that time, another nation was being born, one that captures my imagination considerably more than the Dominion declared by John A. MacDonald and his compatriots.

Manito-Ahba, "The Place where the Great Spirit Rests," is the birthplace of the Métis nation. The Métis were neither a colony of foreigners transplanting a European clone culture onto native soil, nor were they strictly an expression of the treaty principle negotiated in the Two-Row Wampum: We'll share the river, but you stay in your boat and we'll stay in ours. At the Red River Settlement was a community descended of White people and Red people who had more than jumped into each others boats. They had made babies and raised families together. They had birthed a whole new culture.

It keeps happening in Manitoba. Stan McKay, the elder who taught me the meaning of my home province's name, is a Cree man from Fisher River. Stan married a lovely farmer's daughter from Gladstone, Manitoba. Together Stan and Dot did not only raise a batch of strong, beautiful bi-cultural children, they also assisted in the birth of the Dr. Jessie Saulteaux Centre (now known as the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre), a school and retreat centre for cross-cultural education just a few twists of the river downstream from our farm.

Many of us feel ambivalent about celebrating 150 years of confederation. To just shoot off some fireworks at the Forks and wave those adorable little paper Canadian flags they hand out on such occasions feels like an endorsement of a fundamentally arrogant colonial act: to stand on the far eastern edge of a continent and declare sovereign nationhood over vast lands and diverse peoples that the founding fathers had little knowledge of, nor rights to. I have stood and taken a piss at the edge of a number of woods and farmers' fields. It did not make them mine.

Still, I am too grateful for my life here and too aware of beautiful births arising from settler-Indigenous contact to stand grumbling outside the big party.

I grow suspicious of the hand-wringing of some of my white liberal peers, flagellating themselves, their country and their faith tradition over colonial this and colonial that. At a certain point, this becomes a connivance to assert one's moral superiority over one's elders, the very opposite of deep listening to the nations on whose hospitality we are here. And it becomes an escape from the messiness of real relationships.

To be fair, the well-meaning progressives probably just don't know what else to do. They feel bad, as they should, about their ease of access to Canada's bounty, when Indigenous people continue to be poorer, more disrespected and more criminalized than any other social group in this country. Something is very wrong with this picture, and we should resist the temptation to paper over this unjust reality just in time for Canada to have a nice birthday party.

Maybe what we need is a different kind of party. I am getting excited about one - a festival and a feast that some settler and Indigenous people are planning together. We'd like to re-tell the history of Europeans and First Nations coming together. And for this occasion at least, rather than grieve what was the worst in that encounter, we'd like to lift up what was best, in the hopes of our descendants being able to celebrate another anniversary together 150 years from now. (Or, to choose a marker of time more native to this place, seven generations from now.) We would like to assert, with John Raulston Saul, that Canada is truest to herself when she recognizes that she is a Métis civilization, and not a colonial satellite.

Provisionally, we called our event a "vernacular feast," drawing on a term Ivan Illich uses in inspiring resistance to what he calls the "war on subsistence." Illich sees the West's mania for "development" as the latest and most pernicious mutation of the colonial impulse Westerners have to "rescue" the other. Today, the same drive that gang-pressed Aboriginal children into compulsory Western schooling takes aim at "underdeveloped" people in need of full recruitment into consumer society. Witness the latest ads by Facebook, pulling beautiful children out of the doldrums of their dusty village life. The internet arrives, the party starts, the heavens open.

For Illich, a revival of the vernacular means partying locally, convivially - not by escaping our rootedness in place, but by re-discovering it. It means pushing back on colonization and reclaiming a wide range of activities, from speaking one's mother tongue to connecting with mother earth. Illich reminds us that the Latin vernaculum meant “whatever was homebred, homespun, homegrown, [or] homemade.” It is around the home-made and non-commercial that people can gather as friends. For Illich, friendship can only be practiced in activities that escape commodification, “activities of people . . . not motivated by thoughts of exchange, . . . actions through which people satisfy everyday needs—the actions which by their nature escape bureaucratic control.”

In that spirit, Indigenous community leaders and settler allies are going to gather for a week of subsistence activities on the land at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre in October of this year. We called it Mamawe Ota Askihk, "Sharing Together on the Earth." We will winnow wild rice together, tan an animal hide from a local farm, smoke fish, can berry preserves, share skills and tell stories. We will remember how English industrialists used to complain that access to England's great forests and common pasturelands made English peasants "too much like the Indians" - self-sufficient and unwilling to leave the land for shitty factory jobs in smoggy cities. Perhaps we will laugh at that together while we feast. Perhaps we will even birth a new culture.

If you think you would like to get in on the party, click on this link to learn more about Mamawe Ota Askihk.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

How to go the distance

I heard the whooshing of wings overhead while I was picking broccoli yesterday. I looked up to see a perfect V of twenty cranes heading west. They are not migrating yet, but they are practicing - grouping up to rehearse the efficiency of movement, the just right spacing of bodies, the timing of wingbeats, the trust of the others, and most importantly, the deep listening to the mystery within that will coordinate and orient them for the long, long flight to their winter home. When they are ready, these twenty will join with other tens and twenties, riding the thermals in a great communal spiral that will climb to heights I can barely see, then glide southward on a descent more drawn-out than I can fathom.

If you want to go fast, go alone, goes the African proverb. If you want to go far, go together. The human race has gone incredibly far, both by going together, and by going against each other. In a sense, that has been the nature of any togetherness we have known so far. I learned what it means to be on a team by putting on a uniform and squaring off against others who wore a different uniform.  I knew who I was together with by knowing who we were together against.

In recent centuries, new social possibilities have emerged. One is the possibility of going it alone. The possibility of an "I" that is prior to the social "we." There is a positive aspect of this that the African proverb does not convey. The possibility of individual conscience, of innovation, of telling truths that the collective would rather hide, entertaining ideas the collective has forbidden, making friends with people the collective has declared enemies.

Which is the other new social possibility. A togetherness much bigger than my tribe of origin. A togetherness not against anyone else. A universal togetherness.

But the cranes remind me that before I am ready to join the great community in its epic journey, I have to practice the skills of community in a smaller group, making smaller excursions. It is with a few, specific friends that I learn how to come close and how to give space in a way that is safe for everyone. How to be a helper and how to accept help. When to follow and when to take my turn in the lead.

On the news, I hear continuously of big collective problems requiring big collective efforts to turn things around if the human race is going to go much further together: climate change, fossil fuel addiction, mass incarceration, habitat loss, refugee crisis, soil degradation, groundwater depletion, etc.

One response is to despair. To withdraw into myself. To go it alone. (Or rather, to pretend to go it alone, while I float along in a sea of other disorganized individuals all making remarkably similar consumer choices, carried along by a wave so large we neither perceive that we are in it, nor that we could possibly move against it.) Another is to join consciously into large counter-movements. This is a more hopeful response: to sign the petition, to attend the march, to send some money to support the cause.

But I moved to the farm because I was dissatisfied with that kind of activism. I found it necessary, but not sufficient for the task at hand. What I learned from Wendell Berry's In Distrust of Movements or from Ivan Illich's idea that at a certain size, human institutions inevitably produce results opposite to their stated goals, is that bigger is not always better. To quote one more luminary in this tribe of contrarians, the solution to many of our big problems may be to rediscover that "small is beautiful." (E.F. Schumacher)

It is at the level of local community that deep integration is possible. This is where practices of stewardship, habits of eating, ways of thinking, methods of praying can knit together and be given form. The local is the womb of the universal. We are birthed out of small spaces into the larger world. That is the way of things.

It seems to me that our peculiar challenge in this networked, global age is to respond to global issues without succumbing to the fantasy of a global civilization. That has been the dream of tyrants throughout the ages, and we should let it die with them. We know by now that no one world religion will save us. We are more tempted by "universal human values" or universal declarations of human rights, or global accords on climate change. But do we really want the one world court, and the one world police force that enforcing such a universality would require? For a healing, universal global movement not to turn tyrannical, it must be voluntary, and for it to be voluntary, it must be local. Its grand coordination will have to remain a mystery. I will have to get together with friends in one place and pursue there our particular vision of the Good, and you will have to get together with friends in another place, and pursue your vision of the Good according to your own lights.

And if we practice well, we may just find that when the time comes, a mystery bigger than us all will draw us together to go the long distance on the journey we all need to take together.