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.

Friday, July 18, 2014

From My Backyard: God, Evolution and Sacrifice

It's been awhile. Coursework and comprehensive prep for a DMin overwhelmed my writing time for a few months, but oh how good it is to be able to follow my heart in my writing again! Hope you enjoy this too.

Fifteen billion years after the original ‘Flaring Forth’, I sit in my backyard and read about the development of the universe while I breathe its oxygen, listen to its birds, absorb the energy of its sun, and turn the pages of a book made from the dead cells of trees whose origins are the same as mine.

I am reading The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, and reflecting on the way in which all things are related. According to Swimme and Berry, as elements of the universe we are collectively going through a process of evolution that started from an initial event (the Flaring Forth). All things are connected through the web of relationships that spun out from it.

I do not often reflect on the story of the universe quite honestly. I just live in it. Yet the story matters. Stories bond us to each other and the world, while opening up space for creativity and movement within the embrace of truth.

In seeking out the Christian story, we have often limited ourselves to either the written text of scripture or the dogmatic history of the Church, and not looked far enough into the bigger, cosmic story. The universe story provides a forgotten yet all-encompassing backdrop to our thoughts, actions, prayers and relationships. This is deeply embedded within our scripture. God was there, in the beginning.

Some Christians struggle with the concept of evolution, worrying that somehow it dispenses with either God or evil. It does neither, instead demonstrating the larger, longer trajectory of existence spoken of so profoundly in the bible.

In a world threatened by climate change and the degradation of ocean, field and forest, the universe story deserves our attention more than ever. We have choices to make here. In this evolutionary journey, we travel with our whole planet, all of us together. Many things may damage our planet and the interconnected web of life, but only one creature may do so willfully. Only one creature may exercise evil. This is the human difference.

Fortunately, there is a flip side to human nature. Within humanity resides God’s gift of love, and the ability to embrace sacrifice for the greater good. Just as one system will sacrifice energy for another, our future can only materialize if we choose to sacrifice on a personal level for the good of our planet. One system feeds another. Oil is burned – sacrificed – to make a car run. Everything has its price. What will we pay for all life?

Christian theology offers ancient wisdom about the emptying of self for the world (Philippians 2). Acting for the sake of the other – whether human, animal, or vegetable – offers a way forward in the example of Christ. And in fact, acting for any of these is acting for all of these, including ourselves. By living more simply and containing our greed, we give ourselves a future. Standing up against the pollution wrought by tar sand oil excavation, or the clear-cutting of forests, or the greedy extraction of other natural resources translates into standing up for a future where water is drinkable, air is breathable, and life is sustainable. We live only in relationship to each other and to our planet.

According to Swimme and Berry, “the loss of relationship, with its consequent alienation, is a kind of supreme evil in the universe” (78). We must dare to choose the necessary sacrifices to maintain our relationship with the world and with God. If we do not, the story of the universe will continue, but the chapter on humanity will shortly come to an end.