Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Question

Morning sun stretches through the cave door, slips across the dry dirt floor, reaches, as all creation does, to the manger-cradle, to the babe who lies, all embracing, alert to the possibilities, amongst straw and hay, hope and love. Teenage parents rest nearby, the shepherds gone, the kings not yet arrived, the future about to begin.


All this because God said, “I will”.

All this because Mary and Joseph said, “I will”.

And what comes next, what follows after, whether disaster or compassion, fear or hope, hate or love, depends on one thing. Do we dare, despite the risks, and against all obstacles, challenges and hindrances, to call out to eternity and to our homeless God with outstretched hand: “I will”?

A knock at the door, a cry in the night, and a question in our hearts. For courage, hope, peace, justice and especially for love… Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent Grief; Advent Joy

The tragedy that unfolded this past Friday in Newtown Connecticut rips the soul and breaks the heart. How could a gunman kill 20 children and 6 adults? How could such a thing possibly happen? The questions bring no answers, just a sharp and enduring pain, and a relentless horrible silence.

But silence, like everything else, leaves room for God. As we move toward Christmas, we remember even as we celebrate the birth of Christ, that much later he would endure a tortured and lingering death. No one would save him. No one would stop the suffering. And his mother, who cradled him at his birth, would stand helplessly and watch him die, murdered on the cross. All hope would seem lost in that final breath.

But not forever.

Christmas is linked to Good Friday and to Easter. In every moment of joy lies the seed of loss, in every loss, the memory of joy. It is far far too soon for those who grieve to take comfort from this. Maybe they never will. Maybe that isn't the point. But perhaps we who are at a distance can pray for the relatives and the friends, for the victims and survivors, that somehow, some way, the hope of Easter, how ever we name it and whether we can even see it ourselves, can find its way to them.

Christmas is coming, the time when we remember that God chose to walk as humans do through the dirt, the pain, the horror and the suffering of our world. And to stay with us through it all, no matter how painful, no matter how grievous, giving us hope that somehow despite everything, despite it all, there exists such a thing as enduring love, eternal care, and lasting peace.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Dream of You

You
Disappear around the corner, your ragged cloak dangling
Just out of reach
And I do reach
And hurry, but always too late, too slow
For You.
An empty quiet meets my call
Nobody listening,
Nothing there.
The crowds behind their windows
Deaf and blind
To You,
Distract me
Their world so smooth, of plastic and glass.
I stop, captivated, then remember
You.
Deep breath, call again, follow again the footprints in mud and snow,
Winding through pits and prisons, shelters and food banks,
Leading through other crowds,
Other eyes that see,
Other ears that listen.
And losing myself, losing the world
I stumble, fall, collapse and find
You.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

For Teachers


The halls flood with students, noise erupting from classrooms as the race begins for the door. September rushes to an end, signaling that the school year is well underway, with all its challenges and all its possibilities.

But it’s tough times to be in education. The world devalues what teachers do, tells them they are overpaid and underutilized. Despite the every-increasing demands placed on schools, educators are still viewed in some places as mere purveyors of facts, and the first to be hit by budget cuts to education.

But teachers know they are more than that. In a world that measures people on wealth and appearance, good teachers are gift-bearers and hope-bringers. They embrace our students’ present, and point to their future. They let our children know that they belong now, here, today in their classroom, regardless of what they look like, how they learn, and how well they do. Teachers provide an alternative to the media-centered ideal of what it means to be important and good.

Beyond and above everything else, teachers develop imaginations. They tell their students: imagine what this world could be like if we treated others with respect. Imagine what your future might bring if you just keep trying. Imagine a world of sustainability, justice and peace. Imagine the endless possibilities, like stars across the sky or fractions on the number line.

Teachers give students tools and knowledge, yes, but above all they give them hope. It’s all possible.

When the world tells teachers their work is worth little, I hope they will hold to faith. Because educators are involved in something bigger than themselves, something like hope, something like love. Some days they are the only ones standing between the future and an abyss for a student. Some days they are the only ones to make a child welcome in the world.

So teachers, what you do today matters. Your life, your vocation, is a gift and a blessing. As we head into October, may you keep spreading your blessings widely. It makes all the difference in the world.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Conscience and the Military: The Case of Kim Rivera


In 2007, American soldier Kimberly Rivera decided that she could no longer participate in the immorality of the US war on Iraq. She had seen for herself the lives lost and the horror of war. Two-thirds of the 100 000 casualties of the war on Iraq are civilians according to the US army’s own estimates. This ongoing persecution of innocents, and the fact that Iraq never has been a threat to the US, led her to take the radical and dangerous decision to refuse participation in an immoral war.

Rivera became a conscientious objector, resigned without permission from the military, and came to Canada to seek refuge. Three weeks ago, on August 30th 2012, the Canadian government ordered her deported to face court martial in the United States, almost certainly followed by prison time and a lifelong conviction. She has four small children.

Rivera has the support of many Canadians, and of Amnesty International. Twice parliament has voted to allow US Iraq war resisters to stay in the country, just as happened during the Vietnam war. Canadians understand the importance of personal conscience, of staying true to principles that matter. But the Harper government refuses to allow Rivera any justice.

Her case highlights the problem with the military. What if a war is illegal by international standards? What if it is conducted in a morally reprehensible way (assuming there actually could be such a thing as a morally acceptable way of violence)? In the years following WWII the Nuremburg tribunal made it clear that soldiers have a duty to refuse to follow illegal orders. Thus we do not excuse the soldiers who guarded the gates of Auschwitz.

We teach our children to think for themselves, to make their own decisions and to stand up for what they believe in. But in the military as young adults, they are told to follow orders, to let their superiors do the moral thinking for them about whether to kill or not to kill. They are separated from their conscience, and taught that obedience supersedes all. They are hoodwinked into believing that it is the one who makes the decision who is really the killer, that they are simply an innocent tool, while at the same time their officers are taught to believe that since they do not pull the trigger they too are innocent. Who then truly bears the burden of responsibility?

The answer is simple. Every person involved in the process from beginning to end bears responsibility for their own decisions and actions. Conscience overrides obedience every time. This is what the Nuremburg principles teach us. This is what Jesus teaches us when he rejects violence even to save himself. It is not about obedience. It is about a rational all-giving love, that asserts the dignity of the life of every human person.

If you would like to send a message to the Canadian government in support of Kim Rivera, go to http://resisters.ca/. (Picture from resisters.ca)

Friday, September 7, 2012

Looking for Rainbows

The ark creaks against barren rock, washed clean by the endless flood. It catches and holds, stabilized at last against the mountain as the waters recede into rivers and valleys. Out of the doors pour animals and humans, fleeing each other, embracing the space of a wide-open world. But the humans tumble to their knees, breathless before the slash of brilliant color lighting the sky.

The rainbow first appears in the book of Genesis, the oldest book of the bible, written thousands of years ago. It marks the end of the story of Noah’s ark, the survival of humanity in the midst of destruction and despair. It testifies to humanity’s awe before beauty, and our willingness to see the touch of God in the world around us. The story tells us that the rainbow marks God’s promise to us, the presence of the Divine in human life for all time.

But the rainbow tells us something else. It tells us to trust in a reality beyond what we see on any given day, in any given place. Apparently many types of animals cannot see rainbows. Their eyes lack the ability to distinguish colors, so a rainbow covered sky means nothing. It does not exist. It is not real.

We humans are programmed to doubt anything we cannot see, touch, hear or smell. If we were colorblind we would not believe rainbows existed. But unlike animals, it’s not that we can’t see, it’s that we don’t allow ourselves to see. We turn from the face of the other. We turn from our invisible soul. Yet we cannot see our own soul without first seeing the soul of our neighbor.

The soul thrives on compassion, hope, and love. It grows in the company of others. It has eyes of its own, that seek out the poor and oppressed, that cannot stand the pain of suffering and loneliness. This is why Jesus cries to us to care for the poor. This is why Jesus exhorts those who have eyes to see - really see- the truth of relationship, wisdom, and care.

When we reach out to the bullied, the forgotten, the poor, the oppressed, the brother, and the sister, we reach for rainbows. We witness to a truth beyond the mundane and every day. We celebrate the multicolored hues of diversity and difference. We recognize a kingdom of color beyond the grey of our daily existence. We hear laughter in silence, and see light in the dark.

This is a world we can find. It is a world we can create. It is a world we are called to every single day by a God who walks with us, whatever we choose to do, whatever we choose to see.

The topic of blindness returns again and again throughout scripture. Over and over we are told by one prophet after another to look in a different way, to seek in the physical world what lies beyond it. Here we find faith rooted in love. Here we find vision beyond vision, and reality beyond the real. Here we find our ever present, invisible, multi-colored, all-embracing, always loving God.

.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

When Tears are not Enough: An Appeal for Christian Activism

“Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5: 23-24).

I cry easily. When my children were little, they loved to listen to me read the Velveteen Rabbit because they knew I would inevitably tear up at the beautiful ending. I cry at weddings and funerals. I cry when I hear sad stories. I cry in the face of beauty.

But when I visited Palestine this summer, and witnessed the relentless State and personal oppression Palestinians face, I could not cry. We sat under tarps with families whose stone homes had been destroyed. We met and ate with people whose children had been hit or threatened. We heard stories of the burning of villages during the Naqba of 1948 and ever since. We saw graffiti calling for the gassing of Arabs. Every day we met survivors of pain and sorrow, and watched the ongoing humiliation and degradation that threatens them daily. But while several of my companions cried copiously, for me the tears would not come.

I have to admit I was bothered by this. I wanted the release of tears, the relief from pain. But it would not come despite the deep unabated sorrow I felt, and the anger. I have been home now for almost a month, and have had time to reflect on my dry eyes.

I recognize first of all that the dominant emotion I experienced during this trip was anger, not grief. How can we as human beings treat others so badly simply because of their religion or ethnicity? Have we learned nothing from the lessons of history? And I am not ready to fully let go of my anger. Pray for me.

I realize too that I have not lost hope. While I can cry for joy and I can cry in the face of death, I cannot cry when the story is not over. The incredible resilience of oppressed people left me speechless. We received hospitality. We shared food, drink and laughter. Israeli and Palestinian activists – Jewish, Christian and Muslim - are working every minute of every day for a better peaceful future in this grief-stricken war-torn oppressed land. Foreigners stand with them, supporting them with acceptance, love, understanding and peace, telling their stories over and over.

I admit my anger fuels my hope too. This is not right. This cannot continue. I am compelled to write. I am driven to speak. Deep down, I don’t want to risk release. I don’t want to forget. I want to believe it will get better.

But speaking about global injustice can make people feel uncomfortable. It somehow doesn’t seem polite. Better to focus on improving ourselves, saving our own souls and those of our neighbors. Local issues are safe, and yes, important. Global issues threaten people. Yet our environment and our corporations bind us together even if somehow we could forget that we are all brothers and sisters. The desperate foreigner who has no one to speak for them needs us like a beloved family member.
In what sense are we Christians if we refuse to speak for hope, faith and love for all? In what sense do we dare say we follow Christ if we do not advocate for the


poor, the oppressed, the sick, the stranger, the widow, the orphan? It’s not enough to just engage in charity at home. It’s not enough to simply worship our God for our personal blessings. We need to stand up and be counted as people who oppose violence, oppression, poverty, degradation, colonization, sexism, racism and every other form of discrimination and injustice that blights this planet whether in our own neighborhood or across the globe.

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’. Notice that Peace doesn’t just happen. It needs to be made. It needs to be created one person at a time. It needs me. It needs you. And when we create it, the tears of joy we share will baptize this world for all of us.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Bethlehem: Wall of Pain, Wall of Shame

The Wall

The Separation Wall stretches across the ancient land of Palestine. Like the walls of any European ghetto or East Berlin or any prison, it proclaims the might of the State (in this case Israel) and its 'right' to control all who live in this land according to its own rules, right or wrong.

And it is wrong. It is hateful. It is hate itself.

The city of Bethlehem is a prison today. In order to leave Bethlehem, we join the local inhabitants who must pass through a cattle run that stretches a good 300 meters, with metal bars keeping people gated in. I feel claustrophobic. Then we must pass through two lockable turnstiles with a courtyard in between. After the second one, a metal detector must be traversed, with all metal objects and shoes placed in bins to pass through an X-ray as in the airport. But that isn't enough. We are then herded into line, and must show identification papers to a border guard. Palestinians must also be fingerprinted. Only then, if all gates have been passed, are we allowed to walk out beyond the walls of Bethlehem.

This can take hours. Which means, if you work on the other side of the Wall you must line up in the early hours of the morning, and never know when you might make it home. It means that if you own an Olive grove outside the new wall, you will lose it. Any land uncultivated for three years is taken by the Israeli government. So people are locked away from their land.

Yet the feeling inside Bethlehem is welcoming. People deeply appreciate that we have taken the time to come. The Israeli government will do anything to stop people staying the night in Bethlehem. Tourists come for day tours only. Our hotel is nearly empty and the people so kind. We spend an evening in the courtyard of a local businessman, sharing his food and listening to his stories. The stars shine down as they always do here in Bethlehem.

Jewish Israeli citizens are not allowed into Bethlehem by order of the Israeli government. They do not want their citizens to see the poverty, the way the wall has killed commerce and created suffering. Better to believe people are happy to be imprisoned behind the wall. Good fences make good neighbors...

The Wall is a travesty of human rights. Still it grows, separating people, whispering hate. The Palestinians fight back, decorating the wall with proclamations of peace and brotherly love. I pray their wishes come true. I pray we open our eyes. I pray we remember that Jesus came to set the prisoners free - his words not mine. And he came here first. I pray the Wall comes down.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hebron Hills: Heaven and Hell

Part 1: At-Tuwani

We drive up through hilly rocky land to the stone building in the center of the small village of At-Tuwani. Laundry flaps in the wind from other buildings, the whole place giving a sense of space under bright hot skies. Hafez meet us at the door, and invites us in to sit on mats as he tells us the story of the village.

At-Tuwani is a tenacious town, clinging to its centuries old history. But it has suffered. In 1980 almost 700 people lived in the village, surrounded by their lands where they grew olive trees, and pastured their sheep. But in 1982 the first of the illegal Zionist settlements was established on the hill tops around the village, on land that belonged to Palestinian At-Tuwani families. They have the deeds to prove it dating back to the Ottoman empire. Neither the legal documents nor the actual existence of Palestinians living on the land stopped Zionist settlers from destroying fields and orchards and building houses, aided and abetted by the Israeli army.

The same story took place all over the South Hebron hills, and refugees from other villages fled to At-Tuwani. Other villagers left for Yatta and further places to escape the persecution. But At-Tuwani fought back, and with the help of human rights organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights, Tayush and the International Solidarity Movement they tried to stop the continual encroachment of Israeli settler homes onto At-Tuwani land. By 2002 the population of the village had dropped to a mere 100 residents, the others fleeing in self-protection from attacks from the settlers that were neither impeded by the army or prosecuted by the courts.

At-Tuwani grew as a centre for non-violence. Operation Dove from Italy and Christian Peacemakers Teams arrived to help ensure that there would be an international presence to document the continued abuses, including attacks on children as they made their way to school. Some of these observers suffered serious injury in attacks. Tony Blair heard of the village thanks to the media efforts of the international peace workers, and showed up for a visit in 2010. With his influence the village was finally able to obtain electricity and water, forbidden by the army until then even though wires and pipes ran through the village to the settlement.

Today the village is still under constant threat from the settlers who move closer and closer one house at a time. Hafez tells us of a particularly horrific attack on his elderly mother as she herded sheep. When he heard her cries he was meeting with Jewish Israeli peacemakers. They ran to the field where she was being attacked and found her bloodied with her jaw broken. One of the settlers shot at Hafez as he ran toward them, wounding an Israeli peacemaker. Only when the bullets were gone did they turn, abandon the sheep they were trying to steal and run back to their settlement.

Hafez talks about how hard it was afterwards to stick to his commitment to non-violence. But his mother, released from hospital three days later, told him that he must look to the future, to hope and peace. Revenge was worth nothing.

Today At-Tuwani runs an annual festival for non-violence. Jews, Christians and Muslims both international and local come together to work for a just future. It still suffers attacks from settlers and persecution from the army. But it is a place of courage and hope. Villagers have started to return and the population has risen to 350. Every week the villagers perform a non-violent resistance action, whether it is simply building a fence or replanting trees. But their greatest action is simply staying there and working for a normal future for their children on the land of their ancestors.



Part 2: Susya

The ramshackle collection of makeshift tents hardly qualifies for the title village in my experience, but Susya has a heart of home. Nasser Nawaja tells us of the severe persecution suffered by this little village as it tries to maintain its precarious existence under constant threat. Like At-Tuwani, a Zionist settlement has been established nearby on the land of the Palestinian villagers. And they want to grow.

Susya was first demolished in 1986 when the Israeli government discovered an ancient synagogue on their land and told them that they could not live that near to an archaelogical site. Many of the stone homes of this old village were destroyed and the villagers shifted across the road. A month later, zionist settlers moved into the remaining houses and started to build their own.

The Susya Palestinians complained but to no avail. Their new houses were constantly attacked, either demolished by the army or sabotaged by the settlers. They were told they were on their land illegally and had to leave. Their wells were poisoned, one by settlers dropping an old car in it. Their olive trees were cut.

Then four months ago a radical settler organization called Rigavim applied to the supreme court to have Susya destroyed once and for all. Human rights organizations, both Israeli and international have been advocating and protesting but so far without success.

The whole area is under attack by settlers and army. Last night 45 olive trees belonging to a neighboring Palestinian family were cut down by settlers. Any semi-permanent residences are destroyed. Roads are blocked.

Nasser's cell phone rings as we sit under the tree. We can tell by his voice he is agitated. He works for a Jewish Israeli human rights organization called Bet' Salem, or 'Shoot Back', which takes pictures of human rights violations. The caller tells him a road into a nearby village has been bulldozed by the army. We ask if we can go with him to take pictures and he invites us along. We are joined by some members of a British Jewish human rights organization called Yachad. Their leader is a Jewish Israeli man, a young former soldier who also joined a group called Breaking the Silence, former soldiers who speak of the atrocities they performed and work for justice and peace. it's worth googling them to find out more.

As we drive to the village, we stop briefly so Nasser can show us the olive trees chopped down last night. 'Death to Arabs' has been spray painted on a nearby rock. When we arrive at the road, it looks as if bombs have been set off all along it. The stone walls that lined it have been caved in and deep gouges intersperse piles of boulders. Nasser tells me the road was funded by 'Save the Children' foundation. A neighbour tells me it is the only access to the village, who were supposed to receive a water cistern.

The army says it can demolish roads and homes because if they are built without a permit. But the Israeli government does not grant permits to Palestinians. So clinics, schools and homes must be built without permits only to be destroyed again and again. I wonder how the families in this village will cope. I wonder what the generous people of 'Save the Children' will think. I wonder how and when this will ever end.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Checkpoint Persecution: Racism is Alive and Well

Persecution at an Israeli Military Checkpoint

We approach the checkpoint leaving Hebron without much expectation of a problem. Tour buses only occasionally get stopped. But three Israeli soldiers pull us over, each of them barely out of their teens, if that. The one in charge is belligerent, angry. He demands our passports and orders Tony, our Palestinian driver out of the large van.

Our leader Bob Holmes hands over his passport and makes a joke, "I hope you like it." The soldier has no patience for humor. He mocks Bob, a man in his 70s, then asks, "Do you think I like this? Look at what I'm wearing! It's hot!" We agree, because what else can you do, and it's true.

By now Tony has descended from the driver's side, and the soldier starts yelling at him. Tony replies, and goes to open the back. Their voices go up, and the soldier begins to say one word over and over. Tony's face darkens and his response is angry. We learn later that the soldier was calling him a donkey. I look at the two other soldiers. They look uncomfortable, embarrassed even at their companion. But they say nothing.

Tony is ordered over to the side of the road with his hands behind his back. They make him sit on the rocky ground in the sun facing us. I can see the stress on his face, and I find myself gripping my seat, but he catches my eye and winks. I think, he must have done this dozens of times before - faced harassment and winked at his wife, his daughter, his sister to reassure them he is alright.

Bob exits the car, and politely engages the soldier, asking him what the problem could be. The soldier doesn't even try to find an excuse. "I don't like the way he talks to me." Tony tells us the soldier wanted him to open the bags at the back, but he had told the soldier to ask us since they were our bags. We offer to open them, but the bags are not, and never have been, the problem.

The problem is that Tony is Palestinian. His race is the problem. His existence is the problem. Although his family has lived in this land as far back as memory allows, he is not considered worthy of human consideration by people like this soldier.

One of the other soldiers calls their captain. I leave the van and go over to talk to him. He's from Nazareth, and I think truly unhappy about the way this episode is going. Bob has gone to talk to the aggressive soldier again, but to no avail. Tony is ordered up off the ground, but keeps his hands behind his back as he too argues his case. It doesn't matter because there is no case.

We wait, trying to make conversation with the soldiers and touch their human side. One of my companions offers them plums but they refuse. Tony is ordered back into the sun, but he refuses, a small act of defiance which the soldier must let go under our watchful eye. A half hour goes by and the captain arrives. Again Tony must stand in front of them with his hands behind his back. Bob tries to talk to the captain but he will not answer him. I talk to one of the other soldiers and find out he is only twenty. My daughter is twenty.

Tony has returned to us and urges me to talk to the captain. I approach but none of the soldiers will even make eye contact. They walk away, gather the nail studded chain they have laid across the road, and all of them depart with Tony's ID.

We are left on the side of the road, and Tony tells us it will be at least another hour before they return with his ID. They want to make him sweat, but he told them to take 8 hours if they want, he doesn't care. He has reached his limit for today. Earlier, as we walked through Hebron, he had already been detained and harassed. It's ongoing he says. They want the Palestinians to leave or die. He tells me he has watched soldiers hit his wife and children, and threaten them with guns. "Why?" he asks, "Why?" He talks in his broken English of the stress he faces every day, and clenches his fists to his chests to show the feeling it provokes. And he is just one of millions of Palestinians who face this every single day.

It is somewhat unusual to have a bunch of tourists stranded by the side of a highway in Hebron, and cars pause to ask what we are doing. One car stops and two Palestinian men get out. They are appreciative that we have come, and listen to what we are doing. One tells me that nothing we can do will resolve the situation here, that it's up to God, but still we must do it. And their act of solidarity puts their words into action. They take a few of us to pick up drinks for the group, even though they themselves cannot drink since this is Ramadan and they fast during daylight hours. They wait an hour with us, talking and making music on a flute one of my fellow travelers has bought. They talk to Tony, and help ground him in ways we cannot.

I sit on a rock by the road, looking out over the scrub brush toward the city and begin to journal. We are prepared to wait, all of us, as long as is necessary. After about an hour and fifteen minutes, a military vehicle pulls up in front of one of my companions and without a word hands her Tony's ID. The soldiers drive off before she can say anything. Tony's ordeal is over, but only for now. He may get stopped again before he reaches home. And tomorrow. And the day after that.

I wonder if it was like this in 1930s Germany when the Nazis persecuted the Jews? We have already seen graffiti today written by Zionist settlers in Hebron that proclaimed, "Gas the Arabs". The city is tense, with 520 Palestinian family businesses closed because of the occupation, soldiers on rooftops, and frequent harassment. The soldiers are there to protect the settlers, not the peace. Settlers throw refuse, excrement and eggs down on Palestinians in the Souk with impunity. They carry guns. They beat up Palestinians. But less than 0.3% face arrest.

I wonder where God is today. And then I remember Tony's wink, and the men who stood with us. I remember that Jesus was oppressed in an occupied land - this occupied land. I am rattled tonight, frustrated and upset. I can't imagine how Tony lives with this. But he is not alone. Wherever the poor are found, wherever the oppressed suffer, wherever violence threatens, the non-violent Christ will be there, offering solidarity, hope and love.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Tent of Nations

A GUEST BLOG FROM FELLOW TRAVELLER TIM O'CONNOR:
Another magnificent day in the Holy Land surrounded by what I have come to know as the Living Stones - those are the voices who celebrate the quest for a just peace through their prophetic voices. While many people come here to be inspired by the architecture and the sacred religious sites, I have found that the living stones provide the most inspiration to me.

Today, I met Daoud Nassar - a Palestinian Christian who has created a magnificent oasis of peace outside of Bethlehem called the Tent of Nations. You can't drive right up to the Tent of Nations because the road has been intentionally blockaded - for security reasons he is told (more on that in a moment). When we climb over the blockades which are clearly the refuse from home demolitions (sending a message perhaps), we are greeted by a warm and peaceful man. This is Daoud (David). You are immediately struck upon entering the tent city by the painting on the rockface - It reads "With heart and hand, we change the land..." The painting was created by youngsters who attended an annual two-week non-violence camp here. Similar paintings adorn the landscape as we enter.

Inside, we are treated to some delicious grapes and fresh tea while listening to the unbelievable story of this place. Daoud's family has been here since 1916 - and they have documentation to prove it. He has been in court for 20 years at a personal cost of $150,000 in an effort to establish ownership of the land. The court proceedings are a total travesty. He is told the documentation is not enough - he needs eyewitnesses. So, he comes back with 50 eyewitnesses - they are left outside standing in the sun for 5 hours before a soldier comes out and they are told that the court has no time to talk to them today. They are told to get the land surveyed. They do - 11 times. Then they are told that the surveys are inconclusive, they need eyewitnesses. But Daoud persists and they become legally strong - so the settlers begin physically attacking the Tent of Nations. When they cal the police, they don't respond. So, 250 olive trees are destroyed - but Daoud replants.

So, with violence failing, the Israelis offer a blank cheque to buy the land - anything to get the Palestinians off the land. Daoud refuses. "Our land is out mother - and our mother is not for sale" So, the next strategy is isolation. The access road is blockaded so that people can not drive on and off the property. Checkpoints are established on the highways so that teachers who live on the land can not drive to work. They must move - or face losing their jobs.

But through this all, Daoud and his family persist. While 70% of Palestinian land is now under direct Israeli control, he believes that "anything built on injustice can not last". They have no running water - and no electricity - but the Tent of Nations persists. They collect rainwater and arrange for solar panels to provide their own electricity. But, of course, they have no permits for solar panels, they are told - so these are illegal. This is the game that is played here - day after day, year after year. Many leave. Some get violently angry. Daoud develops another approach - We refuse to be Enemies - he declares and the Tent of Nations is born. They choose to develop a quiet and creative response. They plant trees and international support comes in. Volunteers from all over the world come to run a childrens camp in July that uses theatre, painting and non-violent games to empower the children in the community. They work on women's empowerment projects in Bethlehem.

There is a life on this hillside that is absolutely beyond words. You stand in this tent village and look out at the snake-like settlements that enclose it - but you can't help but feel renewed by the spirit that is bringing in volunteers from across the world. We meet two such volunteers from Seattle and from Germany.

As we leave, we climb over the obscene rocks and refuse that forms the blockade on the road. Perhaps, the Israeli government is on to something when they identify Daoud as a "security threat". This seems such a laughable accusation as we sit and chat with him here, but upon reflection, Daoud is a legitimate threat to the occupation. I think that the occupation tries to provoke a violent response. People like Daoud are much more difficult to intimidate.

What a beautiful place. I am inspired.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bedouin Sorrow

Palestine Pilgrimage Day 5

The hot desert wind pushes and pulls at us as we stand on the barren hill in the Negev desert. Our Bedouin host gestures toward the land, showing us the makeshift homesteads where he and his family now live. We are in the Sagaya, the ghetto created for Bedouins in the Negev after they were ousted from their ancestral lands by the Zionists. The establishment of the state of Israel rose out of the call for 'A land without a people, for a people without a land'. Noble, but it never took into account the 100 000 Bedouins who farmed the Negev region, on land passed down to them for generations. The Negev provides a perfect environment for growing wheat and barley in the rainy season, when the desert is transformed, and for herding camels, sheep and horses. Olive orchards thrive here too.

We are welcomed into the home of Nuri Al-Uqbi. He shows us the deed for his land, purchased by his grandfather decades ago. He shows us references to his family's farm in anthropological texts. His family name appears on an old official map. But the Zionists promote the myth that Bedouins are nomads, and have no land, eerily echoing the voices of Canada's first European colonists, who also saw the land as empty despite the presence of our aboriginal people. Nuri has been arrested 60 times for re-entering his land, or holding signs across the road from his farm claiming it. His family was forced out, and then the government of Israel declared his land unoccupied, and so available for settlement and reforestation.

We hear many other stories from the Bedouin. Homes and orchards demolished. Children denied schools. Families moved again and again. These stories are repeated across the country, but barely scratch the consciousness of the West. Now I know. Now you know. What can we do?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Protest in Palestine

Pilgrimage Day 4: Women in Black and Sheik Jarrah Protests

The old city of Jerusalem is crawling with soldiers and police this morning. It's the first day of Ramadan, and 10 000 more Palestinian Muslims have crossed the checkpoints into Jerusalem to worship at the ancient mosques. Here and there we hear soldiers yelling at the pilgrims, gripping their rifles tightly as they move the crowds. People who pray are so terrifying...

We wander the narrow stone streets, exploring the souk and checking out the various gates to the old city. The crowds press against us, but the atmosphere is celebratory.

We participate in two protests today. The first is the weekly gathering of the Women in Black. These are Jewish Israeli women who are reaching out in solidarity to the Palestinian women. The protest began after the Intifada or uprising in 1988, when teenagers armed with rocks were brutally assaulted by the Israeli armed forces. The Jewish women saw the suffering of the young and their mothers and stood up to end the occupation which steals the rights, the homes and sometimes the lives of Palestinians. We stand with the women in the heat at a busy round-about in the heart of the Jewish part of the City. A woman comes by yelling at me, then finally spits. Drivers give us the finger and yell obscenities I can't understand. Counter-protesters yell at us from across the street. But I am honored to stand with these courageous women, awed that they would subject themselves to this every week out of compassion and hope for a better world.

The second protest is in a Palestinian neighborhood called Sheik Jarrah, where Palestinians are being evicted to make room for Jewish families. The houses had been abandoned in 1948 by Jewish owners and authorities had allowed Palestinians displaced from their own homes by Zionists to move in. Now they are being told to leave. The Palestinians would be happy to leave if they too could be given their ancestral homes back, but this is not on offer. They will be given no compensation, and no access to the lands stolen from them. In this community we are roundly supported by the Palestinian locals who honk and give us a thumbs up, or even join us. The day is long, full of emotion, and I struggle to find sleep in the night, wondering how the people who live in these situations ever find rest. I pray for them,think of the struggles Jesus faced, and slip into sleep.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Palestine Pilgrimage 3: Justice and Peace Seekers

Pilgrimage 3: Sabeel, ICAHD and Mordechai Vanunu

Sabeel

We begin the day with a bus ride to the headquarters of Sabeel, a Palestinian organization that seeks peace and justice through liberation theology. Sabeel means the Way, and Water, because traditionally Palestinians left clay urns full of water out by the road for passersby. We sit in a circle in a bright friendly room and Omar, a young Christian Palestinian tells us what it is like to find out you are a descendant of Goliath, and to realize the bible has always been interpreted for you through the eyes of other peoples. He talks about reclaiming the biblical stories from the perspective of Palestinians. He tells us of the struggles of his family to maintain citizenship, and the right to live in their ancestral home of Jerusalem. His sister married a man from the West Bank and her children cannot come to Jerusalem. Neither can her husband. Many Palestinians live in Jerusalem secretly with their spouses, dreading the day they will be discovered as illegals. The penalty can include detention without charges for up to six months. Love and marriage is no excuse.

Cedar Daybuis reminds me of a grandmother, as she sips water and talks with us about the history of this land, and the need to speak for peace, to find a solution. She speaks of the hope when Israel declared itself a nation that would care for all its citizens. Then the terror that followed. She tells us of fleeing Haifa in 1948 at age 12, after other homes on her street have been destroyed, and after petrol was run down her street and lit on fire. Those who tried to stop the fire were shot. Loudspeakers in the night announced that anyone who stayed would be massacred as had happened in a nearby village. So they fled with nothing to refugee camps and the homes of relatives. She speaks of families that have never been reunited. I am overwhelmed.

We follow with a eucharist led by a Methodist minister. We pray and experience fellowship of spirit, then of body with lunch.

Israel Coalition Against Home Demolition

In the afternoon we take a tour with Chaska Katz of the Israeli Coalition Against Home Demolition, or ICAHD. Standing on a hill overlooking Jerusalem she shows us how the wall snakes along dividing the city, making life miserable for Palestinians. A walk across the street to the university now becomes a two hour journey to the checkpoint and back. We visit the wall up close, see its threatening presence for ourselves. But the graffiti gives hope. 'We are all human' someone has proclaimed. 'Freedom for all'. We head up to see a gorgeous settlement, with fountains and flowers in the desert. The homes have running water and garbage pick up. The Palestinian homes (Muslim or Christian) right next door have neither, although all pay the same taxes. This deliberately makes life difficult for the Palestinians, encouraging them to leave as refuse inevitably piles up or burn piles smolder. The water delivered to them once a week must be rationed carefully in containers on the roof. This feeds into a stereotype for tourists of 'dirty Arabs' . It's a strategic move on the part of the government because who in the world is going to get excited about municipal services? But day to day it makes life miserable.

Mordechai Vanunu

That evening we sit on our rooftop terrace with Mordechai Vanunu who had blown the whistle on the Israeli nuclear program in 1983. He tells us his story - immigration to Israel from Morocco as a child, growing up in a devout Jewish family, military service, the realization that militarization was wrong, his growing horror at the bomb, conversion to Christianity, of sneaking pictures of the plutonium producing facility where he worked, his search in Europe and Australia for a newspaper to print his store. Then the Sunday Times agreeing to it, and the Daily Mirror finding out and trying to subvert it, then the wait while the Times checked him out, exposing him to Israeli authorities.

As he speaks, fire crackers go off repeatedly celebrating high school graduation in the Palestinian quarter where we are located. The light dims to dark and a cool breeze helps us slip into his story. He tells us of the woman he met who was so friendly, and who invited him to Rome where he was kidnapped, drugged and shipped to Tel Aviv. Eighteen years in prison, twelve in solitary confinement. Lights on at night, harassment, authorities refuse to let him talk to a priest or his girlfriend. And now, released in 2004, telling his story to people like us. He breaks the conditions of his release in doing so - he recently spent 3 more months in prison for speaking with CNN. He has been nominated 9 times for a Nobel Peace Prize, has support from people over the world, but still struggles with loneliness. His story moves me in ways I cannot yet express.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gethsemane, the Wall and Via Dolorosa

Gethsemane

I can see why he came here. The peace emanates from the olive grove, wafts around tall evergreens, wraps itself around me in this ancient place. The Mount of Olives lies relatively unchanged after two thousand years, still providing a quiet counterpoint to the busyness and violence of Jerusalem's history. Tellingly Jesus chose to come here for his last moments of freedom instead of the temple, the predictable place of prayer. His spirit lives richly here, and prayer cannot be resisted.


The Western Wall

Why do we build walls to separate ourselves from God? I understand the need for respect; I know the biblical story. But when I finally see the western or wailing wall, full of eagerness for a sense of the divine, of history, this last standing part of the Temple of Jerusalem simply disappoints. I am moved by the people who come to pray, and yet saddened by those who are kept out. Women on one side, the smaller side of course, men on the other. A checkpoint to keep Palestinians out.

When did humanity become so divisive? When did we first forget that every human is created in the image of God and loved by God? When did we first say God is for me, my people alone, or at least those among my people that worship according to the right rites, the right dress, the right gender? Because every religion does this. So when are we going to let God out from behind our walls and into our hearts?

Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Via Delorosa

Our guide Johnny speaks precisely, sharing the history of this walk of sorrow. We see the Church of the Flagellation, the fortress of Antonia where Pilate lived. The markers let us know as we come to each station of the cross. On this hottest of days we finally make it to The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, perched on top of the hill. The art is beautiful and disappointing. Too much for a place so simple and so sacred. Here Jesus died. Here he was anointed and buried. I am most moved by the places where the bare rock still shows through.

Shared by seven denominations, visited by thousands, the Church testifies to our struggles for ecumenism. Mostly the churches work together well, but there is much more to do. A simple wooden ladder leans against a window on a ledge. We ask its purpose, and our guide explains that no one remembers. But it is located in a place where no one denomination has specific jurisdiction. No one has the right to take it down. So it sits there year after year testifying to humanity's unreasonableness in this holiest of sites.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Palestine Peace and Justice Pilgrimage 1



We arrive at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, nine of us pilgrims, tired but excited to begin our two week journey through Palestine. Our bus driver negotiates the checkpoints and country side to bring us the hour's journey to Jerusalem. We disembark outside the old city at the foot of the steep cobblestoned street that will lead us through the Lion's Gate, through more narrow stone streets to our guest house at Ecce Homo. Run by the Daughters of Zion, the name means 'Behold the Man', because the house rests above the place where Pilate condemned Jesus. 'Behold the city' would be an equally appropriate name, as the terraced roof offers breathtaking views of the Dome of the Rock and the rest of the city, looking out toward the Mount of Olives, and upwards towards the Church of the Sepulchre.

We have all come looking for something - a new experience perhaps, self-knowledge, a glimpse of a land we have heard so much about, wisdom about the political situation, hope for the world even. I don't know yet what I will find. But despite missing my children, jet lag, some anxiety and disorientation, I know I'm in the right place.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Working Faith

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Italy with a group of my high school students. We had spent months preparing for the trip and in every way it lived up to our hopes and expectations. We visited Roman ruins dating back thousands of years, the vastness of St Peter’s Square, medieval towns with narrow stone streets, and small family artisans whose work beguiled us.



We spent a few days exploring Florence, a city famous for its architectural beauty, its leather works, and its intellectual and artistic history. On Sunday night we decided to attend Mass at the Basilica di Santa Croce, the burial place of both Galileo and Michelangelo. We knew the mass would be in Italian, which none of us knew well, but thought that too would broaden our horizons.

Our footsteps echoed on worn tiles as we entered through a darkened side door just before the service was supposed to begin. To our surprise, the beautiful old Church was nearly empty, and our group of twenty almost doubled the congregation. A few chairs had been set up in front of the main altar, which we could now see was under construction.

Despite our weak language skills, the mass embraced us in its familiar rhythm, and I found myself sinking into prayer, surrounded by walls and sculptures that had greeted faith-seekers for centuries. But the construction scaffolding and empty Church reminded me that faith is not indestructible. It requires care, acknowledgement, even work.

Faith is lived in the real world. We build it with our hands reaching out toward each other. We strengthen it with every work done out of love, whether of stone, or speech or outstretched hand. Church buildings are metaphors, gathering places that help us remember who we are and where we come from, but even a beautiful basilica like Santa Croce will only last for so long.

The real church lives in the hearts of millions of people, each testifying to faith with actions large and small, living in compassion, forgiving in love, and building a kingdom of peace. Although I loved Italy, we will not be returning. Next year we visit an orphanage in Guatemala, a place full of living faith, equally under construction, but in no danger sadly of being empty soon. I can’t wait.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ontario Catholic Schools and GSAs

I have never been prouder to be a member of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA). This week my union took a public stand in support of new legislation that decrees that students have the right to have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in their schools, and, just as importantly, to actually call them Gay-Straight Alliances.

Previously, and under pressure, the Bishops of Ontario in conjunction with the Ontario Catholic Trustees Association allowed for ‘Respecting Differences’ Clubs to address general bullying, but forbade the use of the word ‘Gay’. Teachers were instructed to address their LGBTQ students as ‘persons of same-sex orientation’. (Now there’s a mouthful.) For many teachers, disowning the students’ right to name themselves as Gay felt like disowning the students themselves.

Naming matters. The issue of naming is biblical, ancient, fundamental. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and Saul becomes Paul, transformed in the experience of encountering the Divine. During the sacrament of Confirmation we invite the newly confirmed to choose a new name if they wish. We recognize their maturity, and their right to define themselves before God in the full dignity of their humanity.

History recognizes the importance of naming as well. “What’s my name?” Muhammed Ali cries. Those who name hold power, as every slave master knew when they bestowed names on their slaves’ children. To remove the right to name is to exercise control of the highest degree.

The new legislation also makes clear that the word ‘Gay’ refers to a person, created in the image of God. It cannot be used as an insult. The legislation supports teachers who refuse to allow their students to use statements like ‘that’s so gay’ as a put-down. GSAs proclaim that there are people here who will stand up against homophobia. They make it clear that our schools welcome and celebrate all their students in all their diversity.

GSAs will not provide an overnight cure for bullying and discrimination, but they allow us to publicly address the problem. Whatever the bishops may fear, they are not ‘hook up’ clubs, nor will they ‘convert’ our poor straight kids to a different kind of sexuality. Instead they provide support, solidarity and hospitality, just as Catholic schools should. LGBTQ students suffer discrimination and bullying far more frequently than any other group, extreme enough to lead to suicide in some cases. Like Christ, we must strive to walk with these, our most marginalized, and offer them dignity and recognition.

Surely the bishops recognize the affront against the dignity of life that has arisen in our refusal to name the sin of homophobia and address it in its specificity. GSAs provide one more tool we can employ to create Christian community and a discipleship of equals in the footsteps and example of Christ.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Trust


Solid rock this life, and air
Fingers and toes scrape granite cliff, ever rising
Forget there’s a rope, cling, grasp
Too close, too hard, too tense, too high
But then

Wings
Blue sky
Pale distant horizon
Look out
An ant tumbles, catches, crawls away unhurt
Elegant move
Nothing but breath, rock, sky, possibility
Arm swings, foot holds, heart sings
Up
Trust the rope
Trust the Belayer
Trust

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Eliminate Abortion: Make Poverty Illegal

The pregnant teen in my office cries from desperation, fear. Her hands knead the edge of her skirt. What to do?

No woman wants to kill her unborn child. No woman wants a painful medical intervention and years of trauma. Abortion is not a murderous choice, it’s a desperate action by someone hiding their face in an impoverished, oppressive corner, where they dodge the stones in the hands of their accusers. It’s wrong. It’s all wrong.

Fear, desperation and rejection cause abortion. It’s simple really. Eliminate poverty, discrimination, sexism and desperation, and abortion will disappear. The irony is that the pro-life agenda buys into the pro-choice agenda by acting as if abortion were some sort of clear-headed, unemotional choice, separated from a painful, fear-filled reality. It isn’t.

It’s time for the pro-life movement to become truly pro-life. Laws making abortion illegal simply aren’t enough. Making poverty illegal would be more effective. It’s time to embrace the beatitudes, and recognize that the poor and suffering need justice. In a world of love and peace, the most vulnerable amongst us will be protected. Young women will know they can have their unexpected children, safe from the stones of poverty, social ostracism and rejection.

And their babies will be born into a community that will truly recognize the dignity of all, beyond every mistake, past every fear.


Monday, May 7, 2012

On the Mountain


Jesus stood on the windswept mountain and said, 'Love your neighbour'. And then, in case he wasn't clear, 'Love your enemies'. The crowd mumbled, muttered, wondered. So he went on, 'Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.' And his heart asked, 'Do you hear me? Can you see me? Because I mean it... love them all...'

Despite age
Despite eye colour
Despite language
Even mute
Legless
Two-headed
Bearded
Beardless
Tall
Short
Purple skinned
Gay
Lesbian
Trans
Married
Single
Divorced
Sick
Well
Fat
Thin
Rich
Poor
PEOPLE

And knew we wouldn't do it, not often enough. But loved us anyway. And showed us how.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Planting Seeds: Why the Nuns are Right

We sit in the living room of the tiny apartment, old paint peeling on the walls, sipping tea, and listening with our ears and with our hearts. The year is 1970-something, a time of political unrest in Quebec, but nothing in proportion to what our host family have left behind in Vietnam. They are ‘boat people’, escapees from poverty and oppression, striving to make a new life for themselves in Canada.

I listen to the teenage boy, the only one who really speaks English, as he describes his journey and the family’s struggle. I don’t remember his name. There are younger siblings who fiddle at our feet, giggling at us visitors.

I am roughly sixteen years old, finishing my last year of high school in Quebec, and I am in this room with two of my classmates because of ‘Ma Soeur’, the little sister of the Congregation of Notre Dame who teaches my senior religion class. She has made it clear. Like Jesus, we need to learn from the world. Like Jesus, we need to be made uncomfortable with our comfortable lives. Like Jesus, we need to reach beyond ourselves and our Church.

I learned a lot from Ma Soeur and from the other Sisters who ran my Catholic high school. I learned that you need to live beyond the rules, that you need to reach for love, and that if you have gifts they must be shared. I learned that hard work brings rewards, and forgiveness brings bigger ones. I learned to go to the source, and listen to the story of the people. I discovered the blessings hidden away from brand names and shiny boxes, in the hopes and dreams of the outsiders and the forgotten.

So when I read last week of the Vatican’s scathing condemnation of the LCWR, the largest organization of nuns in North America, I was speechless. Without consulting the sisters, the Vatican appointed a bishop to reform the statutes of the LCWR. It condemned the sisters for spending too much time with the poor and oppressed, and not enough time on issues of sexuality and reproduction.

What is it that these sisters are doing? They are running hospices, caring for the poor, advocating for the oppressed, teaching the young, and leading the way through prayer and action to a just and compassionate society. They are educated, contemplative, and prayerful. They live lives of solidarity and peace. They work, write, and speak out against oppression. With informed consciences, they are shining light on the darkest parts of both society and the Church. And that is the problem.

The Catholic Church does not appreciate anyone outside the hierarchy showing leadership. The report against the nuns reminded them that the Bishops are the ‘authentic teachers of the Church’. In other words, how dare these women speak truth without the men’s permission?

I think of that afternoon in the little Quebec apartment. I think of ‘Ma Soeur’. I don’t know now what happened to any of the people there. I don’t remember what my friends and I wrote in our report for class. And sadly, I didn’t stay in touch with the family we met. I regret that. A few months later I moved on to CEGEP then University, then off to Africa to see more of the world.

But a seed had been planted by Ma Soeur and her sisters through the experiences and knowledge they shared with me, and the people they introduced me to. That seed took root and could not be dislodged. I learned something about hope, relationship and justice that year. I learned about possibility and solidarity. I learned that you need to speak up when you see an injustice.

I see an injustice now in the way the Vatican is treating the sisters. They are right to care for the poor. They are right to be concerned with systemic injustice. They are right to comment on political oppression, whether the men who think they are ruling the Church like it or not.

I hope and pray that the Vatican realizes that the nuns are doing exactly what Christ calls them to do. I hope and pray for reconciliation and justice. But mostly I hope and pray that the nuns don’t back down. There are seeds to be planted. There is hope to grow. Go nuns.

And, ‘Ma Soeur’, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, this is long overdue. Thank you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Learning from Students


My student asks, “You mean the bible’s not all written by one person? You mean it’s all different people? “ I can see her wonder, her perception of this Book shattered. It’s not neat anymore.

“Yes, it’s all different writers,” I say. “Over more than a thousand years.” The class is sitting in a circle, spring sunshine warming us through bright windows. We’ve just read some of Exodus, and are part way through the Gospel of Mark. It’s all becoming real. It’s all becoming complicated.

“It’s a conversation,” says another student. He's chewing gum. Doesn't think I notice.

“About God,” someone adds. “And with God.” They’ve been listening.

I can see the first student thinking about it.

“It’s a conversation that’s still going on,” I add. “We’re part of it. Together.”

“But everyone thinks differently about God!”

I laugh. “Yes, that’s the point. God is big. Too big for any one of us to understand. All we can do is feel that presence. Every single one of us. And reach out to God through and with each other.”

The bell rings, time to leave, to think of other things.

I leave wondering if my students actually learned anything from me today. But I know one thing. Today I had a conversation with God.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Resurrection: An Alzheimer's Reflection



We sit staring at the multi-colored fish in the huge wall aquarium, keeping the conversation going. The Alzheimer wing is bright, friendly and my uncle John, its newest resident, is well cared for.

I am no more than a bystander in John’s life, now an unknown stranger. Most painfully, he no longer knows his wife, his three children, his sister or his brother (my father). But he thanks my father and I for coming. Repeatedly. He periodically asks who we are, and where we are staying. He smiles. He comments, “Aren’t we doing well?”

And he is, really, in the grand scheme of things. His wife loves him, misses him, and has been able to care for him well beyond the point most reach. She has found him a good facility close to her home. He has children and grandchildren in town who visit, and a sister and brother who travel from their distant towns as often as possible. His wife and children suffer tremendously, but they are loving him with grace, endurance, and depth.

My father and I talk about family, tell John how everyone is doing. We ask him how the food is here; he says he can’t really remember. My father talks about his own latest singing gig, a St Patrick’s Day event, and launches into one of the songs. John knows a few of the words, so my father tries Danny Boy next. From the first word John joins in. And sings every word. He knows it all.

Then he looks at my father and says, “You’re my brother Tom?” My father smiles.

The moment passes. John asks who we are again. We talk some more and it’s time to part, to bid farewell. I take a picture of the brothers, smiling, and John says, “This’ll be a good one.” It is.

Then he walks us strangers to the exit with its security code. We say good-bye again. I can tell he no longer knows who he is hugging. But just as the door closes, he says to my father, “I love you, you know.”

I don’t know if he knows who he said it to. I don’t know if he still understands what it means. But it’s there again, the resurrection, just for a moment. And we know, someday, forever.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Good Friday

Sometimes you lose your footing in the world, find yourself spiraling down and around, grasping at bits of air, pointlessly spinning, lost in nothingness.

Sometimes, the enormity of mortality weighs you down, hard splintered wood against your back, crushing the heart. How are some truths possible?

Which is worse, the directionless spin of the void, or the terror of the solid cross?

God says choose the cross, but you cry not now, not me, not ever. Please

And then God says, I’ll carry it with you. One step. Then another.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Holy Week


How do you keep this week holy? What does it mean to walk the ‘way of the cross’ for you?

This somber week calls us to recognize our mortality, the quick passage of our time together. The tragedy of Jesus’ last days lies not just in the torture, the unfair condemnation, the name-calling, and the final excruciating hours of pain before death. It also lies in the isolation of his plight. Jesus walks alone, without friend or companion to help him on his way. Peter deserts him. Simon of Cyrene only helps him because he is forced to. Veronica is pushed away after wiping his face, and Mary can only approach in the final moments.

If Holy Week teaches us anything, it is to stand by our friendships to the end. Would all the disciples have been crucified if they had stood by Jesus? Or would the weight of their presence have changed Pilate’s heart?

Holy Week calls us to solidarity by showing us what happens without it. This week the students of my school will be showing their solidarity with land mine victims. They will be taking pictures of their lower legs and sending them to Mines Action Canada in a show of support for the victims of cluster bombs. It may not stop indiscriminate bombing. It will not solve every problem. But perhaps for someone somewhere, the weight of the cross will become just a little lighter.

Holy Week makes me ask, where can I show my solidarity with the poor, the lonely, the sick or the oppressed? Who is stumbling on the road to Calvary before me? Who is falling under the weight of their cross? And can I forget my own cross long enough to reach just a little further, just a little more to give them a hand?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Praying for Trayvon

We live in a strange world. Unprecedented violence appears commonplace, even acceptable. It has taken weeks for the Florida shooting death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, an innocent unarmed teenager who’s killer wasn’t even charged, to attain the kind of widespread international public outrage that should have happened on day one.

The police believed Trayvon’s killer’s ‘self-defense’ excuse despite the fact that the teen was half his killer’s size, had no criminal history and his only ‘weapon’ was a packet of Skittles candy. But he was a black kid wearing a hoodie, so he must have been threatening…

I can’t get over this. I have a 17 year old hoodie wearing son. His friends come in all shapes, sizes and skin colors. Would it really be okay for someone in Florida to shoot them to death and pretend, without a trial, that it was just self-defense?? Would the police really not charge the murderer??

We let down God when we allow this kind of injustice to happen in the world. We let our kids down. We let ourselves down. From the execution of Troy Davis in the fall to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, we legitimize a culture of violence when we don’t speak up against it.

I am heartened by the current outcry by Americans from all over their country. I am so pleased that they have created such noise that they have caught the attention of the big news outlets that so often want to pretend that racism, sexism and other discrimination are ills brought upon the self, same as poverty. Laws that let killers walk without trial must be repealed. There is no justification for murder, not by the State as I wrote last fall in the Davis case, and not by the individual.

Like so many others, beyond signing the requisite petition, I feel helpless to do anything. I am not an American and my country is far from perfect too. But I can only imagine the hell the Martin family has traveled through these past weeks. I think of Mary at the foot of the cross, of the resurrection that comes after, but I know for the Martins it is too early, these are still the days of the tomb, of silence, of absence, of the horrific loss that as parents we can’t even let our minds touch.

But together, across this world we can do one thing: We can pray. I invite you to risk for a moment the belief that it makes a difference, that the Martin family will feel some warmth of comfort, and that they will someday find the stone rolled away from the tomb again. In an eternity beyond time may they find their son, hale, happy and surrounded by the love of God. And may all of us stand up peacefully against violence, so that no other family need walk such a painful road.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Hagar in the Desert


A little fictional exploration of Genesis 21 and 22 for our Lenten journey through the desert ... Longer version originally published in the Recorder and Times, March 2011

Tired, thought Hagar. I am so tired. The desert sand burned through her sandals, and the wind cut through her veil. Ishmael stumbled already, his legs not sturdy enough to keep up with his mother's stride. The heat was ruthless, the wind relentless, and the water nearly gone.

Soon Hagar would have to carry Ishmael again. She willed her legs to keep moving, her arms to keep holding, her breath to come in and out with the rhythm of her footsteps. And tried not to hate.
* * *
Abraham nudged her awake before dawn, in that silence before birds find their voice. Hagar thought at first that he wanted her again, a surprise at his age. Not so, thank God. He said little, simply commanded her to take Ishmael, all she held precious, and go.

Hagar forced herself to sit up, confused by the dream that still held her, one of cool branches and deep wells. Abraham whispered in her ear, "Have no fear, it is God's will." As if that made everything alright.

She rubbed her eyes, shook her head. Abraham's face glowed in the strange dark light filtering through the tent wall. He waited, head bowed, eyes down. She could not believe this was happening. Even if she was just his slave, she had delivered him a son, his first-born, his pride. But then the bent shadow of Sarah spread between them, filling the tent. The crone stood outside, listening, spying, demanding: Abraham's first choice.

And Hagar knew in her heart, suddenly, without hesitation, that she could not forgive them this.

* * *
That was three days ago.

Ishmael’s feet dragged, and Hagar, exhausted herself, reached down and gently picked him up.

The sun passed overhead, and began its slow descent. The wind which had cursed them with sand in their faces and under their cloaks, died down, leaving a leaden heat. Hagar's legs buckled. She stopped short of collapse and looked around. Up ahead a jumble of boulders surrounded by spindly thorn bushes promised some shade for the child.

Long enough for death to take him. Long enough for time to end.

She staggered towards the bushes, nearly dropping the boy. He gave a thin wail as she pushed him into shadow. She collapsed and felt the rush of heat from the ground hit her face. There was no room for her in the shade. Hands shaking, she unstopped the ever-so-light skin of water. Only a swallow or two remained. Gently she raised Ishmael's head and tilted the opening. She tried to sing to him but only a croak came from her own split and suffering mouth. Ishmael choked a little as the water hit his throat, then swallowed, grabbed at the skin for more. There was none. He cried then, tearless, voiceless, empty, defeated, and Hagar looked away.

"Sleep my child," Hagar rasped, and Ishmael closed his eyes. This alone frightened her, for her son was never willing to sleep, never willing to let life go by without him. She traced his cheek with her finger, stared down at his tight, suffering face, then bent and kissed him.

Ishmael whimpered as Hagar lurched away. The bow Abraham had given her jabbed insistently at her thigh. She knew what she must do.

She positioned herself an easy bowshot away. When Ishmael slept, when all hope was gone, she would do it. He would not suffer. She would not allow that. Before she was sold into slavery her brothers in Egypt had taught her to shoot, and she would not miss.

The sun was sinking lower now, and Hagar felt the relief of fading heat. Soon she would even be cold. She strung her bow slowly, bending the supple wood tenderly, and placed an arrow on the string. Her son would be the last thing she shot. She would wedge an arrow in the sand afterwards, if her broken heart didn't kill her, then fall on it and lie beside her Ishmael forever, letting go of every memory.

* * *
The women had been up since dawn, fetching, grinding, sweeping. The sun, well over the horizon, signaled that the men not designated as the day's shepherds would soon be up. The others had left earlier, so for now the day belonged to the women and children.

Abraham's s cry riveted Hagar. Sarah dropped the earthen pot she carried, precious water flowing everywhere, and moved toward his tent at a speed that belied her years. Isaac, barely walking, grabbed Ishmael, who in turn hung on to Hagar's dress. Both boys began to cry. Hagar deposited her own pot more carefully and gathered the children.

Abraham threw open the tent flap before the other men, rushing from their tents half dressed, could reach it. He stopped and whispered something to Sarah. She stumbled back, then grabbed his arm and her screaming drowned all else. Abraham ignored her and strode out toward Hagar, with Sarah still clinging to his arm.

Hagar held both boys closer, and then realized that Sarah was yelling at her.

"Run! Don't let him have him! Please!"

Hagar turned, confused. The men stood motionless, mouths gaping.

"Run!"

Hagar turned and ran.

The path serpented away from her up into the hills. Hampered by the boys whose wails now matched the adults, she forced herself to move, to fly.

It wasn't enough. The men caught her easily, and took Isaac. Abraham marched his son out of camp, impervious to Sarah's cries.

All day, the old woman keened and wept, and Hagar sat with her.

The horizon turned scarlet before Abraham returned, Isaac sleeping in his arms, safe, alive. And Sarah ran to them, grabbed her son, fell, kissed Abraham's feet, and spat on them.

The story came out over the next few days. The sacrificial command from God, the miraculous appearance of the scapegoat at the last minute, the horror, and the relief. Abraham seemed elated, drank more than usual, celebrated. But Sarah was forever changed.

Abraham had been ready to kill her son. Not Hagar's, hers. And as long as Abraham had an alternative heir, it could happen again.


* * *
A strange sound. Hagar looked up, around. A flock of birds flew across the sun. If they came near, she decided she would shoot one, for practice. She shuddered at the thought of injuring Ishmael, making his suffering worse, prolonging the inevitable.
The birds circled, then headed directly toward her. Hagar raised her bow, waited, prayed. Still they came, clearly unworried by the tiny woman who silently threatened them. Hagar pulled back, took aim, waited some more. Her hand shook.

The birds were lowering, approaching as if to land. They called as they came, singing, celebrating, and, before she could let the arrow fly, landed not beside her but behind the boulders, whose shadows now grew long and wide.

Hagar listened. Then frowned, wondered, listened again. The splash of water could not be real.

Dropping her forgotten bow, she crawled then, desperately, urgently, disbelieving toward the sound. Clambering over and between hot rocks, scraping knees, smashing toes, she saw at last the impossible pool crowded with impossible birds.

"Oh," she trembled. "Oh..." Wings flicked water towards her, beaks dipped, life called.

She rallied, turned and ran with strength she didn't possess back to Ishmael. He hardly protested as she grabbed him and tottered back. She knelt by the water, scattering startled birds, and cupped her hands to help her son.

The boy drank, and drank, and Hagar joined him and drank and stopped and drank again. The two sat, water dripping down their faces, birds circling overhead. Ishmael leaned against his mother, still exhausted, but Hagar knew that the incredible was credible, that hope was inexhaustible, and that God was present, here, now.

No more Abraham for her. No more Sarah. No more slavery. She was free. It was time to live, to eat, to drink, to celebrate, to believe, and maybe even, to forgive.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Desert Dreams


There’s something about the desert. It calls you to notice the trivial and immediate – a grain of sand, a single drift. And it calls you to notice the huge and everlasting – the horizon and the endless sky.

Many years ago, I backpacked across the Kalahari Desert in Botswana with two friends. We had spent Christmas in the Okavango Delta, exploring the wetlands in dugout canoes poled by local guides. It had been a tremendous experience, an overload of sensation, with abundant heat, greenery, water and wildlife. We had camped and celebrated the season under stars whose reflections shone out at us as much from the water as from the sky.

Emerging from the Okavango, the desert assaulted us with its aridity and hostility. We found a lift on the back of an open-backed truck bearing the road crew for a band from Maun, at the edge of the Delta, down to Francistown near the border of Zimbabwe. From there we could catch a train back east toward Malawi where we were all working as volunteer teachers.

Between delays and breakdowns the trip took all day, starting at 4:00am. Sitting with my head covered by my African cloth (chitenge) against sun and wind, I peered out at what seemed like an unchanging landscape of grey sand. A scraggly tree or some bushes would break the monotony here and there, perhaps a small hill, but my impression was mainly of endless emptiness.

Speech was impossible on the back of the truck as the wind whipped our words away, carrying them off into the dunes and sky. All we could do was gaze out at the infinite world. I don’t know at what point the emptiness shifted, but I do remember finding myself slowly captivated by both the stillness before me and the stillness within me. The desert became a meditation, a place to empty my heart into earth and sky.

And then I saw it. Against the horizon at the edge of a silvery salt pan, a creature stood - watchful, waiting – an ostrich. The magnificent bird turned its head sideways to observe our rumbling truck. I remember the simple sensation of awe. I had so emptied myself by now, that the vision of the ostrich filled me,and showed me the wonder of all creation, of life against the starkness of empty world, empty sky.

I remember feeling like I could hardly breathe from the beauty of it, wished I could share it, then turned and looked at my two companions. And they were smiling too.

I don’t know what Jesus found in his forty days in the desert. But I know it’s worth joining him there.

During this Lenten journey, may we each find the beautiful detail of the sand crystals in our lives, and the expansive and endless horizon of the love of our God.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ash Wednesday and a Campfire Truth


Surprisingly, Ash Wednesday always fills me with a sense of hope, for all that it calls me to reflect on eternity, on sin, and on death. When I touch the ashes, I’m reminded not just of the mistakes I’ve made, and the people I’ve hurt, but paradoxically of all the ways in which God has been present in my life.

At the end of September, I spent a weekend at Algonquin Park in Ontario, a wilderness site largely deserted by that time of year. I was there with good people who knew how to camp and how to build a fire much better than I ever could. That night we sat around a campfire and talked and joked and watched the wood turn to ash as all the stresses of our work and our lives burned away.

The smoke of the campfire traveled up into a cloudless night, and after a while a few of us walked out on the beach to look at the sky. A slash of stars burned down at us, sprinkling us with blessings, even as our little fire reached up toward heaven. The energy of a billion galaxies laid itself before us, because, quite simply, we had taken the time to look.

There’s a burning for God that consumes the heart and opens the spirit. The burning bush is no metaphor, nor the flames of the upper room. The energy of the universe exists in a God that fills us, heats us, and burns away our pain and sorrow, leaving only ashes behind.

I think of the ashes in my life, the mistakes made, the friendships lost. Call it sin, call it human failure, the truth is if we dare to live, we will err sometimes, miss the mark, and hurt others as well as ourselves. But ashes are the price of living.

We light our little fires here on earth, in our hearts and in our lives, reaching out for an eternal God who can open our eyes to invisible truths. God burns in us as we strive to live for peace, justice, compassion and truth. In our friendships and our care we start small flames of possibility and hope. Only this can strip away the trivial and hurtful - greed, arrogance, fear, jealousy, war, injustice, hate - and so open our hearts to the most profound, the most real energy of the universe. Call it love. Call it God.

Welcome to Lent.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

For Kieran: A Prayer Request for Valentine's Week


Andrea’s voice on the phone is ragged, fluttering away from exhaustion. It’s exactly a week since her son Kieran was airlifted to the intensive care unit at Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). I drove up with her husband Mike in the dark of that first night, making conversation, keeping time, while Andrea flew with Kieran.

No parents could love more than these two. They would give anything and everything for their five year old son. The rare and overwhelming seizure disorder that has complicated their lives since his birth and repeatedly hospitalized him has done nothing but bring into focus their love for him, even as they usually celebrate his upbeat and brilliant personality.

Seeing them love him opens up a pathway for me, a sideways vision of God. Faced with their anxiety, I feel helpless, inconsequential, and yet totally open to a palpable presence that alone can surpass the enormity of their worry. I am reminded of all the parents in the bible who threw themselves before Christ, before God, for their sick children. Sometimes it’s the only thing we can do.

Andrea tells me that Kieran is doing a little better. He no longer has the breathing or feeding tube. But he’s not eating, and can’t seem to concentrate. After a week he’s still spiking inexplicable fevers. He’s so bruised, they can no longer find a vein for his IV. He cries and complains when he’s awake, not his usual funny happy self. She hasn’t really slept in days. They don't have any answers. And she doesn’t know how much longer she can go on.

But she will go on. Whatever it takes, for however long it takes, she and Mike will be there for Kieran. Because this is true love and in the end, it’s all that matters.

If you have a moment this Valentine’s week, please send a prayer out for Kieran and for all those who suffer.