4 July 2017

God's Breath

I'm writing this from Leipzig, Germany, at the World Communion of Reformed Churches. 10 days of meetings and worship and site visits with delegates and visitors from every corner of the globe.

Last Friday afternoon, there was a panel discussion on theological norms and values, and one of the speakers was Allan Palanna, a professor from United Theological College in Bangalore, India.  He was speaking about the principle of Sola Scriptura, one of the principles of the Reformation - the idea that our faith is grounded solely on scripture. The challenge with this principle is that scripture is always linked with interpretation - the four-way dialogue between the words that are written, the context in which they were written, the person who is reading/hearing, and the context in which the words are heard/read - the dance between text and context.

In his presentation, Dr. Palanna referenced 2 Timothy 3:16, that scripture is "God-breathed." Dr. Palanna spoke of scripture as the breath of God, and told us that God's breath can not be contained.  If, by our interpretation of scripture, we try to restrict it to one so-called "correct" interpretation, we constrict and contain God's breath and neglect the dance between text and context.

I would propose that the moment that we try to constrict the breath of God is the moment that breath becomes only air and ceases to be life-giving. Earlier on Friday afternoon, we had heard from Jürgen Moltmann and one of his themes was that the God of Christianity is a God of life in contrast with the many gods of death in the world. The message is not only merely life but fullness of life. Life where all people have access to the same resources and opportunities. Life where no one "falls between the cracks." Life where everyone is a valued member of a community.

And so I ask, how can we allow scripture to be the life-giving breath of God?

8 June 2017

The Break - Katherena Vermette

One more book review before I head overseas!  I finished this book last night, though it took me many months to get through.  I cared so much about the characters, and there was so much tragedy in the pages of this book, and I found myself reluctant at times to pick it up as I didn't want anything else bad to happen to the characters.

This book is set in the Indigenous community of Winnipeg, and the city is almost another character in the book with it's quirks and geography underlying everything that happens.  It is also a story of families and how the lives of the families intersect with one another.  There is a family tree in the front of the book, and I found myself referring to it frequently, even in the closing chapters of the book.

One of the characters, a semi-outsider who is Métis but also a police officer, sums up the book in one sentence towards the end.  "All these women holding each other up."  This is very much a book about the bonds between women - family bonds and bonds of friendship and bonds of community.  When a young girl is raped in the opening pages of the book, the women rally around her, and "hold each other up."  Men come and go in their lives (though even when they go, they tend to remain connected), but it is the women that are the living core of the family and the community.

This was a heartbreaking book to read, in its realistic depiction of the poverty and violence and addictions that are found in too many Canadian Indigenous communities.  There are gangs, there is violence against women, there are missing and murdered Indigenous women.  And yet the book ends on a hopeful note - at least for most of the characters.

This is a book that will stay with me.  This is a book that has stayed with me, even when I haven't been actively reading it.  I care so much for these characters, and my heart breaks for them, and I celebrate them.

This is book 15/13 for the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set.

7 June 2017

dust or fire - Alyda Faber

This is the last book I have to review to catch up to my current reading, and another volume of poetry.

Disclaimer - this was written by one of my professors.  Or, now that I have graduated, I should probably say one of my former professors.  Though when I read it, she was still my professor.  Which brings up the question - how can I objectively review a book written by someone who is grading my essays?

Fortunately, I enjoyed this book.  (If I hadn't, I probably wouldn't be reviewing it on a public forum!)  I found it as compelling as a novel to read - I would be reading it at bedtime and think to myself, "just one more poem," which would inevitably become many more poems.  My first time through, I read the whole book over the course of two or three evenings, and as soon as I finished it, I turned back to the first page in order to re-read it.

What caught my attention with this book was the emotion captured both in the words and between the words.  The poems tend towards autobiographical, with the author capturing her family story as well as her Frisian heritage.

Take, for example, these tragic lines from "Paperpants"

Distress: the long aftermath
of a death, wishing
dead the undead parent,
wishing alive the dead
parent, the rages of an
infernal father hiding
love under piles of bones...

Or, from the central poem in the collection, "Leeuwarden Train Station"

After a week away, in the hall with a suitcase, my cat greets me with
a trill; I hold her close and kiss her.  I do not do this instinctively with

Though I found the overall tone to be melancholy, there was an overall movement towards hope and forgiveness and moving on.  Each word felt very precisely chosen so that each poem packed a big emotional punch despite appearing spare on the page.

I have heard that Alyda Faber (I feel like I should still be calling her Dr. Faber!) is working on another collection, and I look forward to reading it when it is published.

This is book 14/13 for the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set.

Small Mechanics - Lorna Crozier

I have mentioned before that I find it challenging to review poetry books.  I don't know enough about poetry to be able to write an insightful analysis.  I can tell you if I like something or if I don't, but I can't necessarily tell you why.  That being said, I have read more poetry this year than is my wont.

There is a fun story to how I acquired this book.  I was visiting McNally Robinson bookstore in Winnipeg a couple of summers ago and was amazed at the selection of books.  There was not only a poetry section, but a Canadian poetry section.  And so I had to celebrate this fact by buying a book, and this was the one that I chose.  Unfortunately it took me a couple of years before picking it up to read.

I did like this book.  I read it over the course of several months, beginning at an Advent retreat last November.  It was the perfect book to bring to that retreat.  The poems are short and they tend to present a vivid image.  I was sitting by a window in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic overlooking the Halifax Harbour; and the understanding was that if you were out of the conference room, you didn't want to talk.  I read a poem, then pondered it while looking out at the rainy day outside.

My favourite poem in the collection, one that I have shared with several of my friends, is "A New Religion," and it begins:

If I were called in
          to construct a new religion
I should make use of cats.

Several would have fur
between their toes - Maine Coons perhaps -
so they could re-enact the miracle
          and walk on snow
without falling through...

Theology and cats - what could be more perfect?!

This was a quiet, gentle, and occasionally delightful collection.  Nothing too earth-shattering, but I enjoyed it enough that when I saw another collection of Lorna Crozier's poetry in a used book store, I didn't hesitate to buy it.

This is book 13/13 for the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set.

4 June 2017

Book Reviews (catching up)

I've been participating in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set.  I was pretty good up until Christmas at getting my reviews posted in a reasonably timely manner, but I've slipped since then.  I'm still reading - I just haven't posted any reviews.  The only way that this is going to happen is if I start lumping books together and write mini-reviews.  I will cover the Canadian novels I've read since Christmas in this post, and write about the poetry books tomorrow.

Bone and Bread - Saleema Nawaz

I read this book back in February (I finished it on Reading Week while visiting a friend).  It first caught my attention last year when it was one of the contenders for the Canada Reads competition, and even though it was eliminated early, it caught my attention.  It is the story of two sisters dealing with tragedy - their father dies when they are young, and their mother dies a few years later.  The older sister, Beena, seeks affection wherever she can find it and becomes pregnant at age 15, while the younger sister, Sadhana, develops a severe eating disorder at the age of 13.  One of the most striking images in this book is of Beena getting bigger and bigger with her pregnancy while Sadhana is fading away.

The book jumps back and forth between the present when Beena is coping with the unexpected death of Sadhana as well as a moody 17-year old son, and the past as Beena and Sadhana are trying to navigate their life as orphans.  This style worked for me.  The story wasn't just presented as a straight-forward narrative - instead, I was engaged with the characters, and interested in how they would grow and develop.  I ended up reading this book in just a couple of sittings, inhaling large chunks of it all at once.  In the three months since I finished it, the characters have stayed with me - I really cared about what happened to these sisters who were suddenly set adrift.  The emotions felt real to me.

Mary, Mary - Lesley Crewe

And now for the not-so-good.  The best way I can describe this book is unmemorable.  Mary lives with her mother and grandmother, has a boyfriend renting the apartment upstairs, and has a cousin and aunt and uncle in very different circumstances.  Mary tries to be the person who holds the dysfunctional family together, but her mother and grandmother keep sliding further and further into squalor while her cousin's rich family falls apart from not being able to communicate.  Talk about clichés!

I was frustrated because Mary didn't seem to grow at all during this book.  The family seems to resolve a bunch of issues over the course of the year, but Mary doesn't seem to learn anything - she just escapes the chaos and continues to float through life.  I also found the writing to be flat - it didn't capture my imagination.

The one fun part of the book is that it is set in Nova Scotia (the province where I am currently living).  The family lives just outside of Sydney which I am not very familiar with, but they make a trip into Halifax and I was able to recognize some of the places mentioned.  The local references resonated as well - Mary works in the local Sobey's, for example.

Bones Never Lie - Kathy Reichs

I used to read Kathy Reichs' books faithfully, as soon as they were released, but the past several years I've fallen behind with the series.  But when I was in a used bookstore back in April, I found the next book in the series for a couple of dollars and decided to pick it up.  I'm glad I did - I flew through this book on the long weekend last month.

I've commented in the past that I've found this series to be quite uneven.  The books were really good early on, then deteriorated to the point that I almost gave up on the series, but then started to improve again.  Fortunately this book has continued the trend, and I found it to be as good as her best books.

I'm not going to spoil the mystery, but I will comment that this book acts as a sequel to her earlier book, Monday Mourning.  I barely remembered the plot of the earlier book - I might have enjoyed this book more if I had recently re-read the earlier book, but I was still able to follow along without too much difficulty as the relevant plot points of Monday Mourning were revealed in this book, usually in the form of characters bringing other characters up to speed.  I did guess the "who" of the mystery, and part of the "why," but not the "how."  I didn't want to put this book down; it kept me up a bit too late for a couple of nights in a row - #baddecisionsbookclub - and it gave me the slight anxiety in the pit of my stomach and sitting on the edge of my seat that I look for in a good mystery.  I don't do horror, I don't do paranormal, I don't do terror, but I do enjoy a good mystery!

And if I've done my math right, this brings me up to 12/13 books read and reviewed for the Canadian Book Challenge!

23 April 2017

The Breath of Creation

Last week, I had an opportunity to walk the outdoor labyrinth at Tatamagouche Centre.  It was a chilly not-quite-spring day, but the sun was shining and the world felt alive.  And this was my experience in the centre of the labyrinth.

The Breath of Creation

I sit upon the earth
            upon the body of creation.
I feel the breath of creation as
            the earth gently rises
            gently falls

I see the breath of creation
            dancing on waves
            swaying in trees
            playing with old, dry leaves

I hear the breath of creation
            in the cawing of crows
            in the whistling of sandpipers
            in the cry of kestrels

I feel the breath of creation
            blowing my hair
            caressing my cheek
            chilling my body

And I am at peace
            as the breath continues to move
                        in the trees
                        on the water
                        through the air
And the earth continues to
            gently rise
            gently fall


(Picture taken not from the labyrinth, but close to Tatamagouche Centre)

2 March 2017

Remember Your Death

Yesterday evening I attended an Ash Wednesday service.  The palm branches that the church had waved last year on Palm Sunday to praise and celebrate Jesus as he entered Jerusalem a week before Easter had dried out over the year and were now burned to a fine ash.

People lined up, down the aisle of the sanctuary, waiting for the minister to mark their foreheads with the ashes in the sign of a cross with the words that echo the funeral liturgy, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

As I sat there, watching people of all ages come forward, I was reflecting that Ash Wednesday is possibly the most counter-cultural ritual that the church enacts.  It is already counter-cultural to be a follower of Jesus Christ, to proclaim that there is a different narrative than the one that the world presents.  And here, in the middle of a death-defying, death-denying culture, people were lining up to be reminded of their own mortality.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Later in the service as I was helping to serve communion, I was standing at the front of the church holding the cup as people lined up to come forward again, each person with the mark of ashes on their forehead.  Again, I was reflecting, as people took the bread and heard the words, "the body of Christ, broken for you," then dipped the bread in the cup with the words, "the cup of the new covenant, poured out for you."  We are all connected by our mortality.  This human flesh that is given to us to possess is a time-limited gift.  We will all die, as the ashes reminded us.  But we are connected by more than that.  Through our baptism, we are joined with Christ - we participate in Christ's life and death and resurrection.  Though we will die, in Christ we will live.  This is the promise of the new covenant.

God was present.  It was a holy moment.

12 February 2017

"Choose Love"

Sermon:  February 12, 2016 (Epiphany +6)
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Lockeport Pastoral Charge (Little Harbour)

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding the world to be a very difficult place to be in these days.  If you look at politics – for our neighbours in the US, for people in England, and even for us here in Canada – if you look at politics it seems like it is a constant battle between us and them.  There is no middle ground, there is no working towards a compromise – instead it is all highly polarized.  And then, if I look at how rights are being taken away from women, from immigrants, from people with disabilities, from people who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, I feel discouraged and disheartened.

And then there is all of the xenophobia – the fear of the other or the outsider – the xenophobia that is behind so much of what is happening in the world.  Six people are killed in a mosque just because they dress differently and pray differently than their neighbours. 

And don’t get me started about the fear.  It seams like everywhere you turn, there is evidence of more fear.  My sister and her husband who was born in the Middle East are now afraid to travel to the US.  People are risking life and limb and a bad case of frostbite walking across the border into fields in Manitoba in the dead of winter because they are even more afraid to stay where they are.  And yes, I know that our Prime Minister tweeted out that refugees are welcome here in Canada, but then you hear stories about refugees who have been waiting for more than a year to come to Canada.

So I admit, I’ve been having a difficult winter.  In my head, I know that God is in charge, and that God’s word will have the final word.  But sometimes it is just so hard to see that.


But then, sometimes, I’ll come across something like the passage we read from Deuteronomy this morning, that will remind me that God is present and that God wants good in the world.

The book of Deuteronomy sometimes gets a bad reputation, and I admit that if you read it start to finish like I had to for a course last winter on Deuteronomy, it can be a bit tedious.  After all, the first 29 chapters of the book are basically a recitation of the law that God gave to the Israelite people – do this, don’t do that, do this, don’t do that.  And some of the laws don’t make sense in our 21st Century Canadian context.  When I took that course last winter, on the first day of class, our professor told us that if we all came around to the idea that stoning wasn’t as bad as we thought it was, then the course would not be a success!

In the overall narrative arc of the Old Testament, the book of Deuteronomy is right before the Israelite people enter the promised land – the land that God had promised to them and to their ancestors.  Remember that the Israelites had been in slavery in the land of Egypt for many generations.  Remember that Moses went to the Pharaoh and demanded, “Let my people go!”  Remember that the waters of the Red Sea parted for the people so that they were able to cross over to safety.  Remember that Moses met God on top of Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law.  Remember that the people then spent 40 years wandering through the desert.  And then we come to the book of Deuteronomy.

Here are the people, perched on the bank of the Jordan River, ready to cross over into the land that had been promised to them and to their ancestors.  For 40 years in the desert, they had been fully and completely dependent on God.  God had led them with a cloud by day and a fiery pillar at night – a sort of holy GPS.  God had fed them with manna and quail.  God had made water come out of a stone so that they wouldn’t die of thirst.  But now they were about to cross over into a land of abundance – a land flowing with milk and honey – a land where it was still God who provided for them, but in a less obvious way.  But God doesn’t want them to forget that they depend on God.

So there, on the banks of the Jordan River, before they can cross over, Moses repeats the law that had been given.  29 chapters of a remembrance of the law that had been received on the mountain in Sinai.  And then we come to chapter 30.  This is God’s final exhortation to the people, a final pleading with the people to remember God.

It’s an equation, but it’s pretty simple math.
Walk in God’s ways = life and blessings.
Forget God’s ways = death and curses.

So what are those ways that God wants the people to walk in?  You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  That comes from chapter 6 of Deuteronomy.  Then there are the Ten Commandments, which can be summarized into two main categories – there are the ones like worshiping only God instead of other idols and keeping the Sabbath that are about being in a right relationship with God, and then there are the ones about being in right relationship with your neighbours – honour your parents, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t covet what your neighbour has, don’t bear false witness.  And running through many of the laws in Deuteronomy, is an obligation to look after people less fortunate than yourself; and the three groups of people who are named are widows, orphans, and foreigners who live in your land.  Especially given the fear of immigrants and refugees we see in the world today, it’s interesting to note that God commands the people to look after foreigners who live in your land, because, as God frequently reminds the people, they had once been foreigners in the land of Egypt.

So this is how God wants the people to live.  To be in right relationship with God, to be in right relationship with their neighbours, and to look after people who are in less fortunate circumstances.  If the people do this, if the people choose love, then God promises them life and blessings.

And so God pleads with the people:
            Choose life.
            Choose love.

And God reminds the people:
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            my love is stronger than your fear.
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            and I have promised, promised to be always near.¹

When I’m traveling around the city, I often like to take public transit.  It saves me the stress of worrying about driving and traffic, and I can either sit back and let the bus driver worry about crossing the bridge from Dartmouth to Halifax during rush hour, or I can enjoy a short ferry ride across the harbour.  On Thursday morning, a week and a half ago, I had walked down from my apartment to the ferry terminal in order to catch the ferry for a 9am class.  When I got over to the Halifax side, I walked two blocks up to Barrington Street where I can catch a bus that takes me almost right to AST.  There had been a bit of snow the night before, not more than a couple of centimeters, and it was going to warm up in the day so the snow didn’t last long.  But right by the bus stop where I wait, there’s a wall, and the top of the wall is angled outward, and there in the snow, someone had written LOVE > FEAR.  Just those two words with a “greater than” sign in between.  And when I got onto my bus and found a seat, when I looked out the window, there it was, right at eye level with me.  I don’t know how long that message stayed there in the snow.  Maybe half a day.  Maybe only a couple of minutes if someone brushed the snow off the wall right after the bus pulled away.  But for however long it lasted, there was a visible message that love is stronger than all of the forces that work against love in the world.

And so God pleads with us:
            Choose life.
            Choose love.

And God reminds us,
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            my love is stronger than your fear.
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            and I have promised, promised to be always near.

Recently in class, we were talking about the political situation in the US but also here at home, and we were trying to make sense of it all.  One person said, “I heard a program on CBC radio and this was what they were saying…”  Another person said, “I was reading an article from the Huffington Post that was arguing that…”  Another person said, “On the television last night, there was a panel discussing…”  Finally, our professor said to us, “These are all narrative explanations of what is going on.  They are trying to impose order on the story so that we can pretend that we understand why something is happening.”  And then she asked us if there was a different way to make sense what was going on in the world, one that didn’t try to impose a narrative onto the events.”

That question stuck with me for the rest of the day, and I ended up sending an e-mail to that professor the next day saying that I was seeing a different sort of explanation coming from the artists of this world.  I thought of the photograph that came out last weekend of the mosque in Halifax that was completely encircled by people holding hands protecting the people who were praying inside.  I thought about a song that was released on the day that Donald Trump was inaugurated called, “When God Imagined Me” that affirms that all people, no matter their gender, no matter their skin colour, no matter their religion, that all people are created in the image of God and ought to be honoured as such.  I think of the poem that El Jones wrote for the Women’s March in Halifax that names the ways that women have been and are still being oppressed, yet affirms a better way forward.  I think of the painting that looks like a traditional icon of Jesus with wounds in both of his hands, trapped behind barbed wire.  Are we the ones who have put Jesus behind barbed wire like a refugee?  Or are we the ones who are trapped behind the barbed wire of the world, and Jesus wants to rescue us from our imprisonment?

And so God pleads with us:
            Choose life.
            Choose love.

And God reminds us,
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            my love is stronger than your fear.
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            and I have promised, promised to be always near.

It isn’t easy, choosing love instead of fear.  We can choose love in one moment, but then in the next moment we can be caught back up into a cycle of fear.  And so I think that it has to be an ongoing decision, every day, every hour, every minute, to choose love instead of fear.  And if we slip up, if we succumb to fear, it’s not the end.  We still have another chance to choose love.  We still have another chance to choose to love God and to choose to love our neighbour.  And God is with us.  And love is always stronger than fear.  How are you going to choose love?

¹  John L. Bell and Graham Maule, "Don't Be Afraid," in More Voices, ed. Bruce Harding (Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 2007), 90.  Audio of this song can be heard here.