Monday, December 7, 2015

The Gift of the Blind

Mary reflects; she ponders. Even as a child they branded her the quiet one, the introvert. But this is only because they couldn’t see the power of the images inside her, or hear those voices, or taste that sweetness. She works hard too, even in the torturous noonday sun, bowing under the weight of the water pails, wrestling with the laundry, pounding the grain, not just for her family, but for the children, the neighbours, the sick, the weak and the blind.

The Holy Ones command, “Stay away from them! Stay back. Stay pure. They will infect you with their sin, inseminate you with their horror, ravage you with their hopelessness.”

But Mary rejects purity. She peers instead at the dust-encrusted face of the blind man by the well and is shocked by the pain etched across every wrinkle of that not-so-old brow, the loneliness on each sun-blotched cheek, the fear in each unseeing eye. His name is Bartimaeus, and she spies on him, reaching into his eyes with her own. She finds her village there, her family, herself. Her fingers brush the ragged arm of this outcast man, and as he trembles, she feels his pulse, senses his warmth, unveils his humanity. If she leaves him untended, then she abandons not only him, but every friend, every enemy, every person she has ever known.

Every day, she draws water first for Bartimaeus, and waits as he drinks. He sips carefully, making sure that none of the life-giving liquid is wasted, and when he is finished, she wipes his face with a damp cloth. Their conversation is ragged at first. It smoothes with time. Mary describes to him the landscape of their world, and he describes to her his life of solitude in plain view. If he has owned anything, it is time and thought, and these he shares eagerly with her.

The village women shake their heads, and keep their distance at the well. Only Joseph understands, pausing in his work on the hottest days to mop his brow and join in a drink of cool refreshing water. Bartimaeus smiles, grows quiet and listens as Mary and Joseph converse. He knows. He has heard it before.

Joseph and Mary only speak with each other at the well but their eyes meet repeatedly through the rest of their day. He nods at Mary across the sweltering market as he selects the finest wood, humble at that, and builds a shelter not for her but for the gnarled, sightless one. Bartimaeus shall have a home.

The shavings rise from Joseph’s workshop, swirl towards Mary, gather her to him. Mary reflects: there is a greater vision that does not require eyes, an understanding that forfeits ears, a wisdom that overflows the heart. And so they are betrothed, promised to each other, perfect one for the other in thought, in deed, and in love.

And now? Perhaps this would signal the end, the ‘happy ever after’, the grand finale, but there are no secrets in heaven. This love commands attention. This moment has come.

The universe rustles with hope, angels pause, the Spirit hovers.

Sacred night. Betrothed but not yet married, Mary sleeps. Suddenly the darkness shatters, all peace destroyed. She bolts upright on her sleeping mat. Listens. Gasps breathless before the Angel. How can this be? His call breaks through the night, explodes in her heart, shakes her to the soul.

A question lies veiled behind his words, but how do you answer a question such as this? What kind of a person can accept such a challenge? What kind of a God would ask this of her?

What kind of a woman would say yes?

Only one that is blind, deaf and mute. And Mary is all that: blind to social status, deaf to idle chatter, and mute before material possession. She ponders this in her heart; that blindness is nothing but inward sight, that deafness is just the potential to hear the possible, that silence is necessary to grasp the sublime.

And so, Mary stretches out towards the Presence, offers herself as sacrifice, trusts God and wraps herself around the Innocence that burgeons within her.

She will give her life for this Child that He may give His life for others. She will raise Him blind to hate. She will raise Him deaf to wealth. She will raise Him mute to insult and slander.

And she will give him the vision, the sound, and the Word of a world that belongs to God.

(Originally published in DisciplesWorld, November 2007)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Questions About Cardinals

The picture from my last blog entry has generated a few questions so, as I sit at my desk watching the beautiful red cardinal (bird) family that lives in the tree behind my house, let me say more about their human counterparts.

The College of Cardinals exists to advise the Pope, and assist him in running the Church. Typically, only bishops or archbishops are selected for the College by the Pope, but Catholic teaching affirms that in fact any baptized Catholic may be so appointed. Understandably, this is a fact rarely covered in Sunday homilies, thus many lifelong Catholics may be unaware of it.

Calling for the inclusion of women in the College of Cardinals is thus not an act of heresy. Canadian theologian Michael W. Higgins (past president of St. Jerome’s University, current vice-president for 'Mission and Catholic Identity' at Sacred Heart University, authorized biographer of Henry Nouwen – you get it, not a Catholic lightweight), stated in a 2013 article in the Globe and Mail: “Such an innovation is not a departure from doctrine, does not compromise the church’s authority, and is not a frivolous concession to faddism. More important, it makes eminent good sense.” (

Recently, Pope Francis took steps to diversify the College of Cardinals by selecting 20 new members from 18 different countries. None were from the US, and only one was from within the Vatican bureaucracy. Clearly, he values advice from a variety of voices. However, all the new cardinals are bishops, so there is still work to do to include lay people - both men and women.

Francis had had his struggles with the College of Cardinals as it stood before these new appointments. In 2014, he demoted ultra-conservative Cardinal Burke from his powerful position within the Vatican court. Burke made headlines recently for lamenting the ‘feminization’ of the Church (taking time from arranging his lace robes and the 20 foot silk train on his cloak to do so). In late December, Francis also harangued the College for its cliquish behavior and a “catalogue of illnesses” that included “spiritual Alzheimer’s” (yes, he said the words in quotes).

So the time is ripe for change, and the Pope knows it. It is time for women in the College of Cardinals. As I watch the birds twitter, circle each other, and converse against a background of pristine snow, I can only think what a beautiful thing it would be.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Advent 2014: The Impossible God

The earth spins and circles, one moving speck in a vastness beyond all imagining. Trillions of other dancing bodies weave and travel across a universe stretching over fifteen billion years. Time moves slowly, if it exists at all, across the night sky of cosmic infinity. The nebula hesitates…

And on earth, at one single point in time, in one single place, a man and woman travel through the night, under sparkling night skies, on a path to eternity.

The impossibility of it all… one single child born one single night in one single stable on one single planet, changing every single thing. Why that night? Why that stable?

The nebula explodes, and on that Bethlehem night, God transforms all at once from the universal to the intimate, and becomes unmistakably present, unmistakably vulnerable, and unmistakably real. A touch, a cry, a waving arm. Helpless without compassion, unable to grow without love, unable to continue without warm caress, unable to thrive without tender touch, God requires, demands, and receives, at least for one night, the love of the world.

And so the cosmic God of all the universe reveals a Spirit most present, most immediate, most human. And proclaims that every moment matters, and every journey, and every person, and every thing, in the interconnected web of life.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Meadow Across the Creek"

I am six years old. I skip along a dirt road on the edge of the Ghanaian fishing village where we live, feeling the heat of the sunset against my face as it turns the world a deep reddish gold. Palm trees sway, and hibiscus flowers tremble and begin to close in the early evening breeze. My brothers race ahead and my little sister walks behind hand in hand with my parents, their voices drowned by the sound of the ocean. The smell of sea salt mixes with the smoke of cooking fires. Soon the sun will set behind the distant mountain but for one last moment it gives me everything – beauty, glory, happiness. It is my first explicit memory of utter mind-blowing joy.

This memory is my personal ‘Meadow across the Creek’, to echo Thomas Berry in The Great Work. It is my first awareness of my place in the world, and the absolute greatness of that world. It is a sacred memory, one that informs my life both in terms of recognizing the glory of our planet, and the interconnectedness of that recognition with a sense of love for family and place. Later, I will want my children to feel what I felt, and as a teacher I will want my students to feel it too. Berry notes, “if we observe our children closely in their early years we see how they are instinctively attracted to profound experiences of the natural world.” The world awakens the aesthetic instinct which yearns to be fed and then to feed the world in return.

As a chaplain at a Catholic high school, it is one of my tasks to offer students and staff experiences of the sacred, and to walk with them in their challenges and their joys. This is a cooperative venture, and together we rely on our shared talents to offer the widest variety of experiences possible. My husband Brian, an Outdoor Education and Special Education teacher at the same school, helps in designing activities that offer experiences of nature to students at all levels of achievement. The sense of the sacredness of the universe is open to all, regardless of abilities or talents. As Thomas Berry states, “This we need to know; how to participate creatively in the wildness of the world about us. For it is out of the wild depths of the universe and of our own being that the greater visions must come.”

The role of experience is critical here. We cannot talk ourselves or others into experiences of the sacred. We can only live these experiences. Sure, we need to talk in order to better understand and share our experience, and build relationships of compassion and love. But the primary sense of sacredness comes from the experience of love itself, an intimate relationship with the world since all that is loved and everyone who is loved come from the Earth. The Word that transcends all words is in the World itself, in fact, the whole cosmos.

Too often in schools, as in homes and churches, we attempt to draw students into contemplative prayer without helping them first experience the greater sense of the sacred in the world. That sense can come through any subject matter, and any revelatory experience, but an initial lasting connection must be made to the primary fact of God’s presence in the world. We must begin with the world.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mountain Pine Beetles, and Salvation

We drive along the TransCanada Highway last summer, leaving BC’s Rogers Pass behind, the mountains slowly separating themselves into wider valleys as we head east toward the Alberta border. The mountains throw themselves upwards, stark and majestic, dressed in dark pines, but scarred here and there with localized clear-cutting. The road twists, and as we come around a bend, a mountain rises before us clothed thinly in the reddish hues of dead pines.

“Mountain Pine Beetle,” Brian says, “millions of hectares of pines are already history.”

“How is it being dealt with?” I ask.

“Clear-cutting. Worst thing, because not just the pines, but everything else is lost too. And it hasn’t stopped the problem from getting worse.”

I am brought back to earth. After an incredible week of hiking in some of the most beautiful places possible, I had been basking in an idealized sense of the interconnectedness of all creation. And sure, that interconnectedness is still there, but I’ve just been reminded of all its dangers.

I wonder if the mountain ecosystems can be saved, and immediately begin to reflect on what is meant by ‘saved’. Christians will tell you that Christ’s death on the cross ‘saved’ them, offering them an otherwise unobtainable redemption and salvation. Sadly though, for many Christians, this idea has been diminished to a perception of atonement (Christ’s sacrifice on the cross) that trivializes that great act and equates it to some kind of magic trick which, ‘abracadabra’, saved all Christians and nobody else (after all, Christ is our ‘personal’ savior). There’s a na├»ve selfishness to traditional atonement theories of redemption that are decidedly un-Christlike. Reminds me of, well, pine beetles: So what if the world is destroyed if I am full (read ‘saved’)?
What then is the atonement really all about?

Christ’s death is a call to humanity to be prepared to sacrifice for each other and for the world, to live in peace, and to act out of love no matter the price. God’s presence lives on in the world after all. The redemption offered by the cross is like love, a gift meant to be given continuously, not a one-time event. Christ calls us to share that redemption in all that we do through loving each other. We offer it to the world each time we repair broken relationships with others or creation, and each time we have the courage to hold to our commitment to life no matter the cost. Redemption is something that spreads outward, not something that’s taken in. Christ’s redemption is for all time, but like his whole life, it’s also a ‘way’.

Instances abound of this as people exercise their conscience and live by their courage. I think of Franz Jagerstatter giving his life rather than becoming a Nazi and killing Jews. I think of Dorothy Stang refusing to back down from her stance in solidarity with the people and ecosystems of South America. I think of the growing number of teenage Israelis imprisoned for refusing to do their mandatory military service, because they cannot condone the unrelenting violence against Palestinians and their land. God is present beyond any religious tradition.

I am suggesting then that, just maybe, God became incarnate in Christ specifically as a human to teach us through solidarity about our potential to love each other and the world. I am suggesting that this redemptive and transformative message can be found throughout all of scripture, peeking out from behind harsher more exclusionary texts that reflect the human (and often patriarchal) context at the time of their writing. I am suggesting that salvation is a ‘group thing’, something for all of us beyond the personal and beyond the self. I am suggesting that the pine beetles cannot stop themselves, but that maybe, with God’s help, we humans can.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Nelson Mandela, Terrorism, and Reflections on Gaza

Serena dances in my mind, pigtails bouncing, voice raised high in song. The little Palestinian girl shows me her fancy footwork in my dream, as she did one starlit night in Bethlehem two years ago. She dances and smiles, and then her face stretches into a scream and I awake, soaked in sweat, helpless.

The terrifying heartbreak of the bombardment of Gaza drives me awake at night, unable to look away from the truths revealed in the images of one blood-soaked child after another.

We do not learn. Education, technology, wealth, faith – Israel possesses all of it – but none of it has been able to curb the willingness of the Israeli government to first dehumanize and then rain death and destruction on Palestinians. Israeli human rights groups protest, the UN condemns, Palestinians plead, we sign petitions – nothing helps.

Canada and the US are of course complicit. We are told a fiction by our governments – that Israel is defending itself, that it’s a conflict between two equal sides, and that Palestinians are irrational and unwilling to negotiate. All this while Israel bulldozes Palestinian homes, throws up UN condemned illegal settlements on Palestinian land, harasses Palestinians at checkpoints, shoots unarmed protesters, surrounds Palestinian cities with huge stone walls (limiting access not only for people but also for food and supplies), stands idly by while Israeli settlers cut down Palestinian orchards or spray paint “death to Arabs” on buildings, and now, once again, bombs the civilians of Gaza. The travesty of suffering of Palestine began with the Naqba in 1948, and has continued unceasing until now. When will it end?

The mainstream media will tell you that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and that they started the current cycle of violence in Gaza. It is sadly quite true that Hamas engages in terrorist activity. But it is not true that they started it. This matters, because the clue to how this can end is found in the cause from which it began. The bombardment of Gaza cannot be understood outside the context of the illegal Occupation of Palestine by Israel.

To try to discuss Palestine without taking the Occupation into account would be like trying to discuss the actions of Nelson Mandela’s ANC without taking into account the original sin of Apartheid.

Few people may now remember, but Mandela was a founding member of the terrorist wing of the ANC, called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He did not begin as a terrorist or end as a terrorist, but for a while, in the midst of the horror of Apartheid, he dipped into that dark evil. He has largely been exonerated across the globe, and seems elevated posthumously nearly to the status of prophet today. And he deserves it. Most people would probably argue that, faced with the suffering of black South Africans, he was pushed into a violence beyond reason.

Interestingly, only a small number of South Africans ever joined the terrorist wing of the ANC despite the brutality of Apartheid. Similarly, only a small number of Palestinians have joined in the violence of Hamas. Israel too, has had to make military service mandatory in order to ensure enough people will engage in violence against Palestinians, and still the number of refuseniks is growing. There is hope within the human race.

But the Occupation must end. The ‘Original Sin’ must be eradicated. Palestinians must be accorded the dignity to live, move, work, eat, grow, and love that we all desire. Violence will never be the solution. Most Palestinians who suffer at the hands of Israel will also never have engaged in violence themselves. This is the message of Christ on the cross, who went to his death rather than strike back at the Roman Occupiers of his day. But Christ did not go silently. His life was a testimony to loving the outcast and the different, to building relationship beyond the sanctions of society, and to speaking for compassion and truth. His voice still echoes across the ages, calling Christians to follow in his footsteps.

This is where we come in, across the globe and in every nation. The Palestinians have exhausted every peaceful avenue at their disposal. Every time they negotiate, Israel intensifies the persecution while the world is distracted by the so-called Peace Talks. The UN has sanctioned Israel and its atrocities in 67 resolutions, without any cessation of persecution.

So it is now up to us. We cannot sit in our armchairs idly condemning violence unless we lend our voice and participate in creating peace. We must speak, loudly and clearly. We must attend peaceful protests and vigils. We must let our faces be seen. We must write to our political leaders. We must support the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). We must produce a collective cry of “no more” that will break down the walls and the checkpoints and free the Palestinians. And then we must support the process of reconciliation that will be so necessary to create a peaceful future for all.

Only then can the children of Palestine truly dance free once again.

For a super quick and really well-done overview of the history and current situation in Israel and Palestine, Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) has produced the following 6 minute animated introduction:
The following article in the New Yorker is very well done:
For books “I Shall Not Hate” by Dr. Izzeldin Abouleish whose two daughters and one niece were killed in the 2009 bombing of Gaza is excellent.
For a quick and comprehensive read, Ben White’s “Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide” (2009) is great and includes maps and stats.
Other excellent and well-respected authors include: Gideon Levy (Israeli journalist), Mark Braverman (Jewish American writer), Elias Chacour (Palestinian Bishop), Ilan Pappe (Israeli historian), Dr. Norman Finkelstein (Jewish American prof whose parents were holocaust survivors) and Amira Hass (Jewish Israeli journalist who lives in the West Bank). On Facebook, check out ISM (The International Solidarity Movement), Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), CJPME (Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East), and Dr. Norman Finkelstein. Photo at top courtesy of

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Al-Araqib: Spirit in the Desert

We sit under a simple blue tarp slung across a makeshift frame and gaze out across the hot Negev desert to the nearby cemetery of Al-Araqib. The cemetery and the tarp are all that remain of this once vibrant Bedouin village. Or more precisely, they are the only structures that remain, as the heart of the village beats on within the families who continue to cling to their ancestral land despite the destruction of their stone homes, their olive orchards, and their fields of winter wheat.

It has been almost two years since that day in Al-Araqib, one of the Bedouin communities I visited with the Peace and Justice Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the summer of 2012. At that time, the Israeli police had destroyed the village over 40 times. Today the count stands at over 70.

The Negev has been tended and loved for centuries by the Palestinian Bedouin people who know its ways, and even hold deeds to its lands. But Israel perpetuates the false myth of Bedouin people as homeless wanderers. Israeli officials hope that eucalyptus trees will hide the destruction wreaked as 40 000 Bedouin are displaced from the Negev into towns set up just for them (“for their own good”). An eerie echo of Bantustans (South Africa) and Reservations (North America) lingers in the air. Apartheid, anyone?

Things have worsened since our visit. Up until a few weeks ago, the cemetery in Al-Araqib was left untouched, so the families could flee to its protective confines when the bulldozers and guns arrived. The dead protected the living. But not anymore. Israel has just ordered the destruction of ALL structures in Al-Araqib. Now the dead are desecrated along with the living.

A network of support has grown around Al-Araqib over the years, with volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights and other human rights groups (Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular) engaging with the villagers in replanting wheat and olives, rebuilding the tarp, resisting the bulldozers, and allowing themselves to be arrested for acts of non-violent resistance. But despite court cases and resistance, the demolitions continue mercilessly, horrifyingly. I cannot imagine my home being demolished even once, or my loved ones pushed, hit and threatened. Where do they find strength?

As I listen to Sheik Sayah Al-Turi of Al-Araqib that summer afternoon two years ago, the sun begins its descent toward a distant hill. The Sheik’s adult son gets up, quietly picks up a container of water and heads out beside the tarp. He does not drink despite the wretched heat – it is Ramadan – but instead washes hands and face. Then, he spreads a mat and begins to pray in the direction of Mecca.

I watch the son as I listen to the father. The young man’s eyes focus on his land as his spirit focuses on his God. I cannot help but be drawn into prayer myself. One of my companions, another Catholic school chaplain, quietly cries. There is pain here, but there is also deep communion, and with it a profound sense of the Holy Spirit.

If the Holy Spirit is understood as the divine presence that sustains all life, then it is under attack in the Holy Land. The Holy Spirit suffers in the Negev, the West Bank, and especially today, Gaza. The slaughter of the people of Gaza, imprisoned behind walls built by Israel, is simply incomprehensible in its inhumanity. But Gaza today is only the most public and violent testimony to the ongoing suffering of the Spirit in the Holy Land.

Throughout Palestine, an onslaught of illegal settlements, foreign trees and military vehicles disrupt the harmony of the land and its peoples. Greed and fear drive destruction and desolation, as Palestinians are harassed, detained, abused, and killed. Al-Araqib is one suffering community among many.

If the Spirit is behind and within every creative act, and connected to the very essence of life, then actions that undermine life become attacks on the Spirit itself. For Christians, this has deep connections to Christ. As we destroy people, land, water and air out of greed – and yes, we are complicit when we do nothing to stop violence – we continue the crucifixion of God (and our brothers and sisters) with an assault on the Spirit. We are slowly suffocating the ruach or breath of God in our world.

We must speak louder, much louder, for justice and peace. The Spirit calls us to give voice. The horror – in Gaza, in the Negev, in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, in Al-Araqib, as in so many other corners of the world – begs our attention. We are all interconnected, all living with each other. No one is irrelevant, not even a small desert community holding tenuously to life in a distant land.