Unbraiding Sweetgrass

A Rocky Start

I’ll be honest. When I read Braiding Sweetgrass by bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer for the first time, I wasn’t impressed. The introduction had said the book was going to braid Indigenous and Western wisdom together in the service of a more ecologically oriented culture and relationship to earth. Kimmerer is a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who is trying to re-learn her language and cultural knowledge. Rather, what I read in the first chapter felt like a polemic against the entire Western tradition embodied in the creation myth of the Abrahamic religions.  

For Kimmerer, both her own and the Abrahamic creation stories involve the planting of a garden. In one, the earthlings are exiled from the garden and in the other, Skywoman descends from on high to plant it. Despite the complexity and multiple versions of the creation story, Kimmerer clearly elevates her own as a parable of ecological care and gift giving. She then simplistically contrasts this with the biblical myth. She writes:

On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for taking its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her. That mother of men was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the juicy fruits that bend the branches low. In order to eat, she was instructed to subdue the wilderness into which she was cast (6-7).

So much for braiding. Instead, this felt more like the drawing of a line in the sand.

In Kimmerer’s telling, we meet Skywoman as she is already falling to earth with a small bundle of seeds. The animals below rescue her. Her fall is broken by the Geese. Muskrat sacrifices himself to bring earth to the surface so that she might have a place to stand on the self-giving back of Turtle. The earth-dappled shell expands, and Skywoman goes to work seeding the new world with plants.

Kimmerer does not mention however, how Skywoman fell from the sky. There are of course many widely available versions of the Skywoman creation story. She is a member of the Sky people, who inhabit a land in the sky. In most, she is pregnant. In one Iroquois telling, Skywoman is sent by the Sky Father through a hole at the base of the Tree of Life; in another she is pushed through the hole, which was made when her enraged husband knocked down the Tree of Life. In Haudenosaunee and Mohawk tellings of the story, either Skywoman or her husband are greedily digging at the root of a sacred tree in order to make tea from it, a hole opens in the sky and Skywoman is alternately pushed, falls or jumps through.

Kimmerer suggests that at the heart of our destructive ecocidal culture is a myth about shame, fear and exile. A story about the fall from grace. A story of the denial of earthly gifts. Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden for disobedience and then commanded to subdue the earth. However, as different as the two stories seem from Kimmerer’s telling, her story is the one that actually involves a literal fall. Skywoman begins as an exile and becomes native to earth. Adam and Even begin as native to earth and become exiles. In both cases, humans are not entirely at home in the earth. And yet, Adam and Eve were fashioned from the very flesh of Mother Earth herself. Adama literally means earth in Hebrew, and Chavah, Eve,means to give life. They are earthlings, not celestial sky beings.

While Genesis 1 contains an admonition to exert dominion over the earth as a just ruler might, Genesis 2 commands them to dress and keep the garden in a way that is absolutely harmonious with Kimmerer’s continual theme throughout the book of the fact that the vocation of humans is as gardeners. Yes the Genesis creation story has been used to justify destruction in the name of human supremacy; but it does not compel that destruction, which is rooted in the dark shadowy vices of greed, selfishness and lust, that were ignited by the Enlightenment and industrial revolution from the fuel of Greco-Roman Christian civilization. These same vices we are told, are later embodied in one of the twin sons birthed by Skywoman after her arrival on earth. So the motif of exile and return in Genesis, of dominion and tending, is mirrored by the motif of light and dark, generosity and greed in Kimmerer’s Skywoman.  

I also like to point out that Indigenous myths and stories are not immune from anthropocentrism, sexism and even racist elements. One Potawatomi creation story speaks of Earthmaker making people by baking them out of clay. ‘White’ people turned out to be undercooked, ‘black’ people were overcooked, and ‘red’ people were apparently cooked just right![1] But this of course does not mean that Indigenous peoples are therefore constrained by these singular elements for all time and eternity. They do not diagnose some deep rupture in their very existence as Kimmerer seems to suggest of the Abrahamic myth to Western civilization. By telling the story the way she does, Kimmerer sets up a binary between modern and Indigenous that she has just professed to want to blur.

The Break Through of Grace

In Kimmerer’s chapter ‘Witch Hazel’, I wept. This story from Kimmerer’s own life felt like the most beautiful of braids. While living and teaching in rural Kentucky, Kimmerer befriended her elderly Christian neighbor, Hazel. Told in the voice of Kimmerer’s daughter, despite their differences, Kimmerer and Hazel eventually connect over gardening and become close.

Hazel, a settler with deeper roots than Kimmerer in Kentucky, had cultivated her own sense of place and had accrued her own ecological knowledge—often by gardening in her slippers. Hazel had formed a deep connection to witch hazel, a native tree with myriad health benefits. Her simple theology came from her connection to place,

That witch hazel…it’s not just good for you outside, but inside too. Land sakes, flowers in November. The good Lord gave us witch hazel to remind us that there’s always somethin’ good even when it seems like there ain’t. It just lightens your heavy heart, is what it does ().

I pictured Hazel was an elderly and tired Eve, exiled from her childhood home-garden, longing to return. Her Adam is long gone, and her son Sam is now a retired coal miner, disabled by breathing the toxic dust of the substance that powers Western civilization—coal. He worked by the sweat of his brow to get ahead, to make a life for his family, only to remain in relative poverty, unable to work. His offering was accepted by the god of capitalism. Hazel had come to live with her son after he had a heart attack on Christmas Eve, a holy-day that Hazel loved.

Kimmerer felt to me like a stand in for Skywoman, though I don’t imagine she intended this, who is able to reconcile the feud she started with Eve in Chapter 1. Kimmerer is able to see that even in exile, Eve was a loving and kind human being who had stayed close to her dear Mother Earth, despite the hardships of her life, and the necessities of her friends and family working in an industry that has taken Genesis 1’s dominion to the most radical extreme in human history. At one point, Kimmerer takes Hazel to her former home, a place she deeply missed living with Sam. It was mostly ramshackle, and they spent a little time tidying up before leaving. Hazel had left the place almost as it was the Christmas Eve she went to live with her son.

As time passed, Kimmerer noticed that Hazel was depressed. When she asked, Hazel admitted that she wanted to spend one more Christmas in her “dear old home.” Kimmerer too had come to cherish and celebrate Christmas, but that year she were not going north to spend time with family. So Kimmerer with her daughters devoted hours to secretly cleaning up Hazel’s old home, getting the electricity turned back on and inviting neighbors to a beautiful surprise Christmas dinner. Like the 1987 film ‘Babette’s Feast’, where Babette, a French refugee in a strict Christian Reformed Danish town, wins a large sum of money in the lottery only to spend it on a sumptuous multiple course meal for the small village. Like Babette, Kimmerer prepared a sumptuous Christmas dinner for Hazel who beams with joy on entering her cherished home which has been decorated and filled with friends.

Eve-Hazel, filled with joy, had returned to the garden from her long exile. She is showered with the undeserved, unexpected grace at the heart of her faith, who Kimmerer, an Indigenous woman, quite naturally embodied through her kind, selfless action. It is a perfect parable of both Christian virtue and the abundance of earthly gifts which Kimmerer highlights throughout her book. Grace, like the gifts of the earth, is generous and beautiful. Grace calls us into deeper relationship with its source and entangles us with the world in a never ending cycle of life, death, and resurrection. That is the seasonal cycle at the heart of Kimmerer’s gift economy, and it is also at the core of the Christian Pascal Mystery. So even when our stories open up pathways to greed and exploitation, as many do, there is always the possibility of choosing grace instead. As Kimmerer later says to her daughter, “There is no hurt that can’t be healed by love.” This felt like a good braid.


[1] http://railsback.org/CS/CSPotawatomi.html

Memento Mori

I want life to teach me to become better acquainted with death.

During the more strict days of quarantine, I would go for a walk every day in the Mountain View Cemetery. I watched the cherry blossoms bloom and then fade.

I watched the tulips, irises and lilies blossom and then fade. But this undeniable beauty was foregrounded by deep anxiety and fear about the ravages of COVID-19.

There are some headstones in the Mountain View Cemetery with a name and a birth date. The date of death is still not etched into the stone.

This got me thinking.

What if when we were born we received a grave stone and a plot in the cemetery? What if every year on our birthdays we took a pilgrimage to our graves? Would we learn something? Would we be better prepared for death when it came?

A tree in the forest is born and dies in the very same place.

I marvel at that simplicity, that certainty.

Jesus as ‘Way’

[Sermon delivered at St. Mary’s Kerrisdale on May 11, 2020]

Readings

Ps 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; Jn 14:1-14

Preface

As some of you may know, in the summer of 2018, I was privileged to be able to walk the French Way of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. It is often just called The Camino, or Way. When you pass fellow pilgrims it is customary to greet each other with an enthusiastic ‘Buen Camino!’  The entire trail is over 750 KM, and I walked at least 700 in about 30 days. One thing I noticed as I walked was that there are at least two kinds of pilgrims: Those who were most excited about the destination, and those who were able to really appreciate each step of the journey toward the destination. The former pilgrims would wake up before dawn so they could get a head start. We would be awakened by flashing headlamps and rustling backpacks. They always seemed to be in a rush to get to the next destination. They wanted to make it to Santiago in record time. They ate quickly, they snapped hasty pictures at the sites, and moved on. The other kind of pilgrim was in no particular hurry to arrive anywhere. Often they weren’t even sure where they were going to sleep that night. Some weren’t even all that excited about getting to Santiago! They were just happy to be on the trail. This kind of pilgrim often stood transfixed before the changing scenery, the sunset, and the architecture or vaulted ceilings of the many ancient churches and cathedrals. They sat chatting on the side of the trail. They savored their food. And even though I was very eager to arrive in Santiago, I really tried to be more like the latter kind of pilgrim. I want to draw some parallels between this emphasis on Way and Destination, and our Gospel reading today where Jesus tells his disciples that HE is the Way. And that HE is One with the Father.

Introducing John 14

John 14 is a continuation of John 12 and 13, and it’s helpful to know what comes before what we’ve just read together. At the beginning of Chapter 14, Jesus says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” This is because Jesus has just alluded to his impending suffering and death on the Cross. He has broken the terrible Good News. In fulfillment of Jewish scripture, Jesus has come to Jerusalem as both triumphant King, and suffering Servant. Mary of Bethany has anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume and her own tears. Jesus takes a cue from Mary and models his servant leadership by washing the disciples’ feet.Jesus also predicts that Peter will deny him. Jesus senses that someone will betray him. After verse 14, Jesus goes on to promise the presence of the Holy Spirit. We can feel the disciples’ resistance to the reality of Jesus’s impeding suffering and death. On the other side of the Easter shore, we know the outcome. But for the disciples, what was coming must have been unthinkable.

The Way of Jesus

Early in the Chapter, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them with the Father. John has Thomas naively, but logically, ask Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” ‘OK, so there are enough rooms in the AIRBNB for all of us, but just to be safe, can you give us a Google Map before you go?’  Jesus responds with a bold and puzzling claim: “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We might be tempted to think that Jesus is talking about the church as an exclusive club one must join in order to get to heaven when you die. I have nothing against the Church, and nothing against heaven, but personally, I find this reading to be quite narrow. It is a reading that missing the contemplative riches of Jesus as Wisdom Teacher. So let’s dig a little deeper into this I AM statement.

First, a distinctive feature of the Gospel of John are these I AM statements. I am the bread of life; I am the true vine; I am the light of the world; I am the door of the sheep; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life. These statements would have immediately triggered his Jewish audience’s understanding of God. I AM in the Torah refers to Yahweh. For Jesus to say I AM is to identify himself with God. The Path is a Person. Jesus’s ‘Way’ is not Google Map to heaven. Whereas the Torah sees the Way as a Law to follow, Jesus claims that the Way is a person we can fall in love with. Jesus is God come among his people; Immanuel—God with us. Of course in the synoptic Gospels Jesus is much more muted in his statements of divinity or Messiahship. In John Jesus’s divine identity is on full display.  Jesus says that he is going to prepare a place for his disciples. But it is not a physical destination as the author has Thomas insinuate. The time-place that Jesus is preparing is the HERE-NOW of God’s indwelling presence. The Kingdom of God is within as Jesus says elsewhere. Toxic Religion is susceptible to turning the way of Jesus into an instruction manual for evacuating earth, rather than an invitation into an experience of fullness.

The Little Way of St. Therese

Yes the Christian path involves morality, ethics, and sacraments. But at its heart is a Person. Thus our own spiritual lives should always be oriented toward cultivating a deeper and deeper love for God and what God loves, Creation. But the Way is not always the heroic way of moral perfection, suffering, or the asceticism of the great saints. You may know about the Roman Catholic saint and Doctor of the Church Therese of Lisieux. She was a French Carmelite who only lived to be 24 years old. She was admitted to her monastery at a very early age, and she was barely known when she died of Tuberculosis in 1897. But her writing on the contemplative path is the work of a true spiritual master. Saint Therese called her path the Little Way. Some of great Saints, her own namesake, Teresa of Avila for example, accomplished great things. But Therese was sickly and uneducated. She couldn’t possibly achieve all that these great saints had achieved. Thus she compared herself to a little flower among the great and showy flowers of the garden of the Saints. She wrote:

“The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.”

Every person has value just for being who they are. And every intention and act of love is a step on the Little Way. Each of these steps is progress on the Way to God. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis I have worried that I am not doing enough. I am not volunteering, I am not a care worker or doctor. But Therese assures me:

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

Yes, Jesus healed the sick, was a master teacher and suffered on the cross for humanity; but he also quietly knelt and washed his disciples’ dirty feet. Feet that carried them on the dusty pathways of Palestine.

Father and Son are One

Ok, now back to John. Jesus said he was going to the Father to prepare a place for his disciples and that he was the Way to the Father. Philip, annoyed that Jesus wouldn’t tell Thomas how to get to this mysterious mansion then asks: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” ‘OK, so if you’re not going to tell us how to get there, at least tell us what we are looking for!’  Perhaps a bit bluntly Jesus answers: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The path leads to the Father. I am the Path. Therefore I am One with the Father. In our Trinitarian theology, Jesus is the Second person of the Trinity. God the Father is Lover, Jesus is Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the love shared between them. Jesus is the Logos in John, the Word spoken by the Father from the beginning. The Father and the Son are one, they are a dynamic and mutually indwelling Cosmic Dance.

This is why we can speak of Christ as so much more than a single person in first century Palestine. There is a universal dimension to Christ that Jesus is pointing out by claiming to be One with the Father. The Apostle Paul never met Jesus. But he was in love with Christ. He is constantly saying that we are in Christ. How else could this be understood than on a cosmic scale? God spoke the World into Being, and thus all of Creation is a Word of God. Jesus is saying to Philip: Can’t you see the Father in me? Can’t you see the Father all around you?

Julian of Norwich’s Christ as Mother

Jesus used the word Abba, Father often. This is not because God is exclusively male; but because God is as intimate to us as a loving Parent who brings us into being and nurtures us to fullness. But today is of course Mother’s day, so I wanted to briefly honor a spiritual teacher who spoke of the motherhood of God and even Christ. We recently celebrated the feast of the 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich. Julian, an anchorite, wrote unflinchingly of God’s Father and Motherhood. And extrapolating from Paul’s language of being IN Christ, she wrote of Jesus: “And our Savior is our Very Mother in whom we are endlessly born, and never shall come out of him.” While Jesus uses the language of journey and Fatherhood, masculine language, Julian shifts the analogy to birth and gestation of the soul within the cosmic mystery of Jesus as Christ.

The Journey and the Destination

So, in John 14 we learn that Jesus points the way to God with his very person. That human personhood, creatureliness, is fundamentally united with God the Father. If we were to read on, we would see that the Holy Spirit enables OUR fundamental unity with Father and Son. That the way up is also the way down. Down into the depths of our True Selves. That place where God is mothering us into being at each moment. Journey and destination are inextricably linked. The author of John represents Philip and Thomas as no nonsense kind of pilgrims on the Christian Way. They want to know how to get there, and what to look for when they arrive. But to me, just committing to be on the trail, is to already to be united with the destination.

On the day that I arrived in Santiago, I admit, I was excited for my long walk to be over. But I was also a little melancholy that it was all done. I was excited to stand triumphantly in front of the Cathedral at Santiago. The journey had exposed both my strengths and weaknesses. I had tried to appreciate the journey as much as the destination. But my journey didn’t come to an end when I stood facing the façade of the Cathedral. And in fact it didn’t begin with I set out from Pamplona a month earlier. The Way of Jesus is made up of the millions of tiny steps each of us take every day. The steps we take to be a little bit kinder to ourselves and others. The steps we take live a little more deeply from the place of awe and wonder. The steps we take to realize that we too are one with God.

A Guide Book to America’s Sacred Groves: A Review of America’s Holy Ground

A Guide Book to America's Sacred Groves: A Review of America's Holy Ground  | News Break

REVIEW OF: Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on our National Parks (Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2019).

Written by journalist Brad Lyons and Disciples of Christ Minister Bruce Barkhauer, America’s Holy Ground is something of a Holyscapes guide book. The authors are rooted in the Christian tradition, and present readers with 61 meditations on US National Parks through. Founded in 1916, the National Park Service began as a way of preserving some of the US’s most beautiful places. Recently celebrating its 100th anniversary, the National Park Service has since shifted its focus from making beautiful places accessible, to caring for the ecological health of some of North America’s most complex and biodiverse ecosystems.

America’s Holy Ground makes an excellent companion to any bird, tree, geology or insect guide book. At 256 pages it is a slender volume, with durable (but not weather proof) pages. It is packed with full color images, and easy to use alphabetical entries. There is also a resources section in the back and blank journal pages for writing notes while you are out on the trail or at a sit spot.

The book begins with an Invocation and ends with a Benediction, each of which contain an eclectic mix of scripture passages and quotations. A few of my favorites:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29, NRSV)

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

Let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord. (Psalms 96:11-13, NRSV)

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter. (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring)

The purpose of the book is to explore the connection between theology, spirituality and the natural world as experienced in the National Parks. It is premised on the Christian notion that to contemplate beauty is to enter into the presence of God. That to be fully present to a Creature is to be present to the Creator. To listen to the symphony of crickets and frogs is to invoke the voices of angels. To enter a grove of towering redwoods is to enter a cathedral. To be in the presence of something wild, is to be in the presence of our wild God. To experience the seasons of life, death and resurrection, is to enter into the paschal mystery. That to be fully alive is to grasp our vocation as Imago Dei. And that to look up into a night sky in its full velvet darkness, away from the blingy obscurity of city lights, is to ask the only question worth asking: Why all this?

The guidebook is best used as a kind of devotional, read before and after one has experienced a given park. It is a kind of supplement to a lectio divina of the land, stimulating questions, themes and resonances with scripture. It can also be a means of guiding a group discussion or Bible study.

The anatomy of each passage is quite simple. The park is named, located and dated to its founding. The park is associated with a spiritual theme such as Beginnings, Endings, Life, Signs, Community, Language, Reflection, Movement, Adaptation, Faithfulness, Grandeur, etc. Then, each theme is elaborated by a short passage from the Bible related to the theme, and the park and theme are woven together in an entry that ranges from 1-4 pages.

I have many fond memories from childhood camping trips in Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. I have spent time in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico’s National Parks and public lands. But the National Park closest to my home is North Cascades National Park, located in Northern Washington and founded in 1968. The theme of the chapter is ‘Place.’ The scripture reference is from Psalms 104:18: “The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.” The passage and entry reflect on the biblical notion that the world appears to be arranged in an ordered way, poetically attributed to the creating power of God. It asks the reader: What does it mean to be in the right place? Of course, evolutionarily we know that the world did not come into existence all at once, even Genesis 1 poetically expresses creation as process. Yet to our tiny lives embedded in the eternity of geological deep time, the world seems to be stable, eternal, and balanced. The National Parks were founded as monuments to this stability, this grandeur. They are the Sacred Groves of a kind of Nationalist Paganism, where Nature capital ‘N’ is stand in for the Transcendent God of the Bible.

Love in the Time of Corona Virus

[Sermon delivered on March 22, 2020]

Readings

1 Sam 16:1-13; Ps 23; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41

Dear friends in Christ, welcome to spring! But what an unprecedented and devastating way to start the season of resurrection. I hope you are breathing deeply, and loving even more deeply. Please take care of yourselves and let me know if there is anything I can do. 

Yesterday during the Quiet Day, I talked about the Desert as a symbol of the spiritual journey. Desert spirituality is a call to strip down our lives to the essentials. To sink into the mysterious presence of God. One of the early Church Fathers, Jerome said: “The Desert Loves to Strip Bare.” I love that! And spiritually speaking, that is what Lent is for. The Desert Ammas and Abbas believed they could find paradise through the harsh realities of the desert. It seems we are entering in a civilizational Lent. A dark night of the soul. A desert.

The very nature of our gathering [Zoom broadcast] speaks to the unspeakable strangeness of this global crisis. We are living through a devastating global pandemic that threatens the lives of millions, especially the most vulnerable among us. COVID-19 has “hijacked” our need for social connection. Only a demonic force could cause us cancel the Eucharist! In today’s Gospel reading we hear a chilling echo, of the question we are all asking at some level. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? ”Why is this happening?

In theological terms we are grappling with our own Theodicy. Reconciling the Goodness of God with natural and human suffering, pain, death and injustice. Perhaps some might say that famine, disease and war are signs of divine displeasure. Most human cultures have taken some version of this view. Bad things happen because Celestial agencies are displeased with humans, or simply being capricious. Yahweh sent 10 plagues as punishment of the Egyptians for oppressing the Hebrews. I read about one American Pastor who blamed Marriage Equality for COVID-19. There is an alluring but horrifying simplicity to this reasoning.

Or, perhaps we prefer to see God as a distant watch maker, who gets the universe going, and then steps back to allow natural laws to take their course. A pandemic is just the grit of the grinding gear box of evolution. In this view, COVID-19 is the product of a cold indifferent Nature. Slowly working its endless purposeless course. Our fate is sealed.

A more Gnostic view, might say that illness, sickness and death are the work of evil forces. These exist in themselves, in opposition to GOD and goodness. There is a cosmic battle between good and evil, and we must choose sides.

Perhaps you see this crisis as an invitation to reflect on the incompatibilities of our civilization with the flourishing of life? You may be seeing references to the “Revenge of Gaia.” Or “Ecological Karma?” The earth’s natural immune system is rejecting US. The earth has sent us to our rooms, to think about what we’ve done… (as one meme said).  We certainly cannot deny the ecological benefits of mass physical isolation. I am seeing stories of pollution clearing, CO2 levels plummeting, and birds and dolphins exploring the canals of Venice.

To be clear, I personally would never want to justify human suffering in this way, no matter what the ecological benefits. But some of our greatest nature writers have grappled with the stark fact that great beauty and immense suffering inevitably coexist in the natural world. Death and life are intimately woven together. Death is natural. Not to be feared. How else can change, evolution, growth happen? God works through evolution to bring about greater complexity, beauty. Earthquakes, tsunamis and disease are the inevitable byproduct of a living earth. In Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm and The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she unflinchingly examines the horror of death and suffering, a world that is so richly charged with God’s grandeur. Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them…”

Horrifying as it may be there is ultimately an evolutionary meaning behind death and suffering. God wraps their arms around both the beauty and pain of life. Life and death are part of a grand mysterious whole.

For some this is perhaps a favored view of the crisis. That as bad as it is, there is some opportunity hidden behind the chaos. If God doesn’t cause evil directly, God permits evil in order to bring about a greater good. For example, in 1665, Isaac Newton developed his theories of optics, gravity and calculus while in self isolation during an outbreak of Bubonic plague. Of course, this is not to say that God causes evil to bring about good. Many of us are talking about how this crisis has enabled the possibility of stillness. We are being called to a kind of global retreat. I was recently reminded of this quotation from Philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from [our] inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And perhaps this is the scariest part of the crisis for some!

There is much merit in these latter views. I often find myself fascinated with the ecological dimensions of death and dying. It is however, more of a Pagan view than an authentically Christian one. A theology of evil, a theodicy, in the Christian tradition, does embrace the beauty and pain of the world. Evil is not a thing that exists in itself, as in the Gnostic view. Nor is God a distant watch maker. God is goodness itself, not the whole that comprehends good and evil. Evil in this view is a deprivation of the Good. A negative space that does not exist on its own. In David Bentley Hart’s book, The Doors of the Sea, he writes that death and suffering represent a sort of world within a world. He writes:

“The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.” (60-61)

In Jesus, we have hope that God has ultimately defeated suffering and death. How far away that reality seems sometimes!  How dark is the glass through which we see! So, while I laud efforts to find meaning, to make the best of this crisis, might I also suggest that during this time of Civilizational Lent, this Desert time, that we stay a while longer at the foot of the cross. Don’t look away. This crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. Why should we do this? Because as Richard Rohr has recently put it, “for God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us….Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered.” The suffering of others is not just an opportunity for retreat. It is an opportunity to allow suffering to wound us so that God can reach us. And then we might be able to muster the courage to live out of a place of love. Jesus came to make the blind see and those that see to become blind. Who have we been blind to? Who are being pushed even further to the margins? We might be devastated to be fasting from the Eucharist. But as a theologian named Brian Flanagan writes, “In this time in which we are not able to encounter Christ in the assembly or the Eucharist, we always have the opportunity to encounter Christ in the vulnerable.”

God does not cause suffering, but draws goodness out it that the “works of God might be revealed.” What deeper reality are we being called to discover in the heart of suffering and pain? Let us not jump too quickly to Resurrection Sunday. To quaint contemplative purposes in the midst of global suffering. Let us seek to be God’s hands and heart in the world by serving, loving and even suffering. Com-Passion, means to suffer with. Let us not look away. Let us stay close to the Cross.

References

Hart Review: https://theologyandchurch.com/2015/11/10/david-bentley-hart-the-doors-of-the-sea-review-1/

https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/17/how-can-we-be-body-christ-when-coronavirus-closes-our-churches?fbclid=IwAR2pMi3CB6r0LJWAlz9GKnWktaDdFR856iwJ4atSw_RK5ArW7RWXxJFldCQ

Jo Jo Rabbit and Self Giving Love

[SPOILERS]

I recently saw filmmaker Taika Watiti’s Jojo Rabbit. The premise is based on Christine Leunens’s book Caging Skies. The film has received some negative reviews for its lighthearted nature; but the film was picked by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute as one of the ten best films of the year in 2019. It has also received six Oscar nominations.

The controversy surrounding the film arises from its parody of Adolf Hitler as the imaginary friend of Johanes (Jojo) Betzler, a young member of the Hitler Youth. Jojo attends a summer camp where he learns how to be a good Nazi (which includes burning books). At one point, after being humiliated by some older kids for not being willing to kill a rabbit by snapping her neck, Jojo earns the nickname Rabbit. Emboldened by a pep talk with his imaginary friend Hitler, Jojo rushes into a grenade throwing drill, grabs a grenade from Wehrmacht Captain Klenzendorf and throws it with gusto. The grenade bounces off a tree and blow up in his face.

After a short but painful convalescence, Jojo returns to work as an errand boy for Captain Klenzendorf. One day after returning from work, he hears a noise upstairs and discovers that his mother, who is overtly anti-Nazi throughout, has been hiding a young Jewish woman named Elsa Korr in the crawl space of the room of Jojo’s deceased sister Inge. Jojo, a dedicated Nazi is horrified, but reaches an agreement with Elsa that will keep he and his mother out of trouble. In the meantime he decides to learn all he can about the Jews so he can write a book, in service of the Reich, that will expose the insidious ways of the Jewish race. As you might expect, in the process, in his conversations with Elsa, he falls in love with her. Hitler is of course concerned, but Jo Jo convinces him that he is using reverse psychology on her to get her secrets. When the Gestapo unexpectedly shows up at Jojo’s house, Elsa pretends to be Inge, and Jojo is visually upset and worried that she will be found out. She narrowly escapes detection, and Hitler is furious that Jojo didn’t turn her in.

The surprising twist, comes when Rosie, who has been active in the resistance, is seen hanging from a scaffold in the public square. She has been hung for treason. Jojo is crushed and even tries to stab Elsa, but collapses in grief. After a fierce last stand, the war is lost, and Jojo and Elsa walk outside into the new world.

The film obviously seeks to straddle comedy and tragedy, but does this humorous portrayal minimize the seriousness of the Holocaust? This is a question critics have levelled at the film. In my view, the film is a brilliant achievement. The film wraps its arms around the beauty and pain of life. The horror and mundane of war.

Specifically, the parody of Hitler works for several reasons. First, the film shows how a hateful ideology can be shattered through an encounter with the other. Second, our stereotype of Hitler as an unalloyed evil is challenged by his apparent lightness and his friendliness is underlain by a deeply insidious uncompromising ideology of hatred. The imaginary Hitler is as absurd in his whimsy as the real Hitler was in his brutally hateful ideology. In the final encounter between Jojo and Hitler, and in a nod to Quinton Terentino’s cathartic alternate histories, a post-suicide Hitler is triumphantly kicked out of the window by a Jojo who has finally learned the lesson that Hitler’s ideology is deeply destructive.

However, it is the character of Rosie, Jojo’s mother, who supplies the pathway for Jojo’s transformation. Rosie is fully alive, passionate and resistant to injustice. She dances, lovingly teases Jo Jo, dresses in bright clothes and red lipstick, and drinks wine at news of the imminent end of the war. At one point she even dresses up as her absent husband to comfort Jojo during a tense argument about Nazism. She is, throughout the film giving of herself in the care of Jojo, and putting herself at risk in sheltering Elsa. She is killed by Nazism, but her son is eventually transformed, born again, by her act of love and his encounter with Elsa.

In the final scene, as Jojo and Elsa emerge into the post-battle city, a sunny sky illuminates the quaint town, and people are trashing Nazi paraphernalia. Jo Jo asks Esla what they should do, they lock eyes and begin to dance.

A Spirituality of Light and Darkness

Homily delivered on Jan. 26, 2020 at St. Mary’s Anglican Church

Readings

Holy Eucharist: Propers 350; Is 9:1-4; Ps 27:1, 5-13; 1 Cor 1:10-18; Mt 4:12-23; Preface of the Lord’s Day

When I was a child, I would beg God to give me a sign! I remember lying in bed late one night and asking ‘God if you are there, turn on the lights!’ In today’s readings we hear Isaiah predicting that very thing.When God comes to dwell with his people, he will turn on the lights!

Isaiah is looking through the darkness of his present to the bright future of a restored Israel. Zebulon and Naphtali, referred to in the readings, where of course sons of the patriarch Jacob and tribes of Israel. Their territories were on the margins of Israel’s historic kingdom and often took the brunt of invading empires, until their utter collapse under the Assyrian invasion in the 8th century BCE. Their ruin and oppression would someday be undone says Isaiah. The tribes would once again be gathered.

Saint Matthew in this passage and throughout his Gospel, is trying to show his readers that Isaiah’s prophecies had come true in the person of Jesus. Jesus had been baptized by John and called God’s beloved son. In the previous verses of Ch. 4, he has just returned from his 40 days in the desert-wilderness. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near. By teaching the word of God, forgiving sin, and healing people Jesus was acting in the very person of God.

And, by calling his 12 disciples, Jesus is beginning the gathering of the lost tribes, as was promised. The long night of absence was over. The land was filling with the light of the Son!   The play of light and darkness is a powerful image throughout scripture. Today we read:

The people who sat in darkness

have seen a great light,

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death

light has dawned.

We hear an echo of Psalm 23 don’t we: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Light is a powerful symbol of God’s presence, power and mercy. One of my favorite Prayers in the Bible, The Canticle of Zachariah, or Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) Zachariah says:

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The ministry of John and Jesus alike were great lights shining in the dark.  Now working with light and dark can be a very helpful analogy. Light is a symbol of wisdom, understanding, science. The Sun was often deified for ancient pagans. The Greek philosopher Plato used the analogy of light and shadow in his allegory of the cave to illustrate his theory of the Forms. Of course Jesus uses it himself when he says ‘I am the Light of the World.’ And as Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr suggests, “At the resurrection, Jesus was revealed as the eternal and deathless Christ…morphed into ubiquitous Light.” It is very common among the first Christians to be called the children of the light. Paul especially loves this analogy. The EnLIGHTenment was a cultural movement that sought to do away with the darkness of ignorance, and elevated human reason as a source of knowledge. We talk about The Light of Reason; or getting a bright idea.

For some of the Gnostic Christians of the second century, light and dark were in cosmic opposition. Good and evil played out in dramatic terms. I worry that we sometimes hold this (heretical) Gnostic view of light and dark, and neglect the spiritual depth of a view of light and darkness as complementary.

Psalm 139:12: Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one. On Mount Sinai, Moses encounters God in a thick cloud. In Deuteronomy, after revealing the Ten Commandments, Moses says to a gathered Israel: “These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness.” For the 6th century monk Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, darkness was just as useful an analogy for God as light. Rather than seeking the light of illumination, he taught to seek the Cloud of Unknowing. Meaning, all our language, ideas and theology about God is ultimately pointing to a dark mystery beyond our understanding.

In Benedictine and Trappist monasteries, the entire day of chanting and prayer is organized around what the monks call the HINGES OF THE DAY. Morning and evening. Just as in the first chapter of Genesis, the narrator says it was Evening and it was morning the 1st day…” Day and night are complementary. They each speak of God in their own ways. The glorious light of a summer day, and the flourishing of the good earth. The muted tones of dormant winter, and the subterranean fecundity of the soil. Each season has its own unique beauty, purpose and spirituality. Jesus was the light of the world. But he also relished in darkness. For example, the parables were a kind of dark teaching. They were spoken so that some would see but not perceive. They were shadow material.

Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite mystic believed that much of the spiritual journey is a noche oscura, or dark night. In the popular idiom, a Dark Night of the Soul is a hard time, a trial period. But it’s also so much more than that! For John, the spiritual life is about light, it’s about loving God, and deepening our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. And, along the way we get encouragement through graces, blessings, charity. What John calls Consolations. The spiritual life is also inevitably punctuated by periods of what John called Desolations. Times of trial, suffering, spiritual dryness, or even despair. But for John, these nights were signposts of progress on our path toward union with God. For John, the Dark Night is the quiet inflow of God into the soul. But the tricky thing is that the dark night might not feel like Presence.

We often feel the opposite, the apparent withdrawal of God’s presence. This is where we might be tempted to give up, lose interest or grow bitter. In her book When the Heart Waits (1990) novelist and spiritual writer Sue Monk Kidd suggests however, that most living things incubate, or gestate in darkness; whether it’s a seed in the ground or a fetus in the womb, biological organisms tend to mature in the dark.

The 17th century French Jesuit Jean-Pierre De Caussade has one of the most powerful images of this dark fertility: He writes:

“Do You [God] not give fecundity to the root hidden underground, and can You not, if You so will, make this darkness in which You are pleased to keep me, fruitful? Live then, little root of my heart, in the deep invisible heart of God; and by its power send forth branches, leaves, flowers and fruits…”

If we can learn to wrap our arms around both the light and the dark, we will be so much more equipped to enable the inflow of Grace into our lives.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes of our impulse for impatience: “[we] will run away from the darkness, and do the best [we] can to dope [ourselves] with the first light that comes along.” We are addicted to light: On our phone, in our cities, in our homes, and in our spiritual lives.In Mary Oliver’s poem The Uses of Sorrow she writes: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”

Now in case you are wondering, I am NOT saying that darkness is the purpose of spirituality. The play between light and dark is the process by which God enters more fully into our soul. Desolation in itself is not good, but its fruits can be. It is when we chose to love God through our spiritual desolations, through the dark nights that we are able to make progress. This spirituality echoes and reverberates with the Paschal mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Night leads to day, and through Christ, death leads to resurrection. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’ points to this play between light and dark beautifully, he writes:

“Let [Christ] easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-crested east.”

I love how Hopkins uses the word Easter as a verb. He points to the slow process of death and rebirth that is somehow the only way to God. We must be born again, Jesus says to Nicodemus. We look to the east for the rising of the Sun. Jesus is the light of the world but to get to the light we must pass through the darkness of the tomb. And we bring our bodies to this mystery every time we take the Eucharist, and celebrate Easter. And even the resurrection of Jesus showed that a body could be both glorified, filled with light, and wounded at the same time. Light and darkness are not in opposition, they are in cahoots!

As a child I hoped that God would turn on the lights as a sign of God’s reality and presence. I didn’t realize that God was already with me, even there in the dark night.

A Gospel of Joy

Delivered Dec. 15, 2019, Gaudete Sunday, Third Sunday of Advent at Saint Mary’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, BC.

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Ps 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

I spent this week hunkered at my desk marking undergraduate papers. In a very real way, as a professor, I am assessing their value as competent students. Some students are gifted writers, others are…beloved children of God.  I try to be impartial and award grades on merit. But I can’t be giving out grades based on being beloved by God, now can I? I hate that part of my job! So, every semester, around this time, I also send out an email to all my students that reminds them that they are NOT their grades; that they possess an intrinsic value beyond anything my marks can affirm.

We live in a meritocratic culture. And that can be a very good thing. I want qualified people flying airplanes, and checking my heart. Our economy’s worth can be measured in metrics such as Gross National Product: the more economic activity the better!

Don’t we feel like that sometimes? The more we do the more we feel worthwhile.  Christmas time is often filled with to do lists. We preach a spirituality of productivity! Yesterday, after I wrapped up my marking for the day, prepared this sermon, picked up groceries, and even did some laundry, I felt pretty worthwhile and self-reliant. I felt happy.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete Sunday which means Rejoice in Latin. While it is true that Christianity can make us happy, it is joy that is at the heart of the Christian life. What do I mean?

While happiness is dependent on external conditions, such as good health, economic stability, loved ones, productivity, good grades, careers; joy, properly understood, is not necessarily dependent on these kinds of conditions.

One of the 20th century’s great spiritual teachers, Henri Nouwen, wrote that Joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.”

At the heart of the darkest time of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere, Gaudete Sunday is a reminder that the Gospel of Christ is a Gospel of Joy, even during the dark seasons of our own lives.

Isaiah

Despite what we might think, Isaiah was a man acquainted with joy. Isaiah was an 8th century BCE prophet during a very tumultuous period in Judah’s history. The northern kingdom had been scattered by Assyria, and Isaiah felt that Judah might be next (spoiler alert, they were). His preaching was mostly aimed at Judah, but he wasn’t shy about sticking it to the rest of the known world.

Isaiah decried injustice, immorality and especially idolatry. He was a passionate monotheist and believed the prosperity of Judah rested on their submission to Yahweh’s Torah, the Law of Moses. Isaiah has plenty of doom and gloom moments. For example, in Ch. 34 (just one chapter before our reading for today) he bellows: “Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood.” (This is definitely the makings of a great Heavy Metal song!)

But much of his apocalyptic (utopian, visionary) prophesy seems to be taken right out of his own garden. God began his relationship with humanity in a garden. The places that were closest to God in ancient Israel pointed to that original garden state. The tabernacle and the later temples were oriented and decorated as icons of the Gardens of Eden: the place where heaven and earth come together. Isaiah envisions a joyful time when God’s longing for heaven and earth to be together once again are realized.

I’ll be honest; I think it is entirely possible that Isaiah talked to plants. (Does anyone else talk to their plants? I do). Not only because ancient prophets were a little eccentric, but because his apocalyptic writing is saturated with the poetic, animate, joy of trees, flowers, and the land herself:

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing.

This transformation of the desert into a garden, of predator into pet, of weapons into tool, of death into life, of sickness into wellness, of grief into joy, of poverty into wealth, is a persistent image of what the Kingdom of God might look like for Isaiah.

The use of the crocus flower here is also a beautifully appropriate image for an Advent-tinted joy. A melancholic joy that comes from not knowing when it might come to pass. As many of you know, the crocus is a spring flower. But some varieties blossom during the fall and winter. These understory flowers blossom when they do because they evolved to take advantage of the more abundant light filtering through the still dormant forest canopy.

Gaudete Sunday, is a late fall thaw, an image of the spring to come. A hand clap in the silence candle light of Advent. Just as Isaiah may have seen the coming of the Kingdom of God in his small garden, so we recognize that Holy Waiting for the birth of Christ is riddled with the joy of his eternal presence. God’s paradoxical already-not-yet-ness is a realized-incompleteness. It is the joy that persists through our happiness and even in our sorrows. Or as Franciscan contemplative teacher Richard Rohr puts it: “Incarnation is already Redemption, Christmas is already Easter, and Jesus is already Christ.”

James

James, the Brother of Jesus, who watched in horror as Jesus was tortured and then crucified, also probably touched the wounds in his resurrected hands and feet. James knew the depths of despair and the peaks of joy. James, like many of his contemporary Judah-ite and Gentile Jesus-followers, can feel that the long winter of Absence he has felt in his heart is filling with Presence. The cold, fallow, frozen ground of his heart is thawing. The crocuses are beginning to send up shoots.

“Be patient therefore beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”

Patience, like the farmer waiting for the precious crop. It is much like many of you gardeners waiting for the first signs of spring in these dark, rainy Vancouver winters. Even the hardest soil in our hearts can bear the fruits of grace. That fruit is joy.

Matthew

In Matthew, we hear Jesus reiterating the joy that comes with his Topsy Turvy Kingdom. Matthew was writing in the 80s or 90s CE. He was a Judah-ite who is on his way out of respectability with the established rabbinical communities. He was trying to show that Jesus was the awaited Messiah. Matthew is deeply concerned with showing that the person of Jesus fulfills the prophesies and visions we find in Isaiah. Whereas many of the sectarian Judah-ites of his day boasted of their status, Jesus invited his followers to find the Kingdom of God among the birds. In the seeds of trees. In yeast of bread. In the crocus in our front yards.

John the Baptist’s disciples came seeking some clarity. Are you really him or aren’t you? In classic rabbinic fashion Jesus deflects: You want a king? Go to the palace! You want a prophet? Go out to the desert! But if you want the Kingdom of God, have a seat. Yes, John is a great prophet, but he is also one of us! Look among the least of these, and you’ll find the kingdom there too! Stop your obsession with security and happiness and you will find joy! God has promised us a great transformation, and you are seeing it before your very eyes!

“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Understanding faith-healing in its first century context can be a bit tricky. Each of these conditions disease, poverty, deformity was explained as a natural result of sin, by the person or the parents of the person afflicted. To heal a person was not just to make their lives easier. To heal people was also to erase the social distinction that the keepers of the Torah thought they had over everyone else. Jesus says; the economy of the Kingdom does not run on privileged status. The kingdom of God is a gift economy. Its only raw material is grace. Its only product is joy.

There’s a funny thing about happiness, when we think we have what we are looking for we start to say, well now what? If you have ever seen a graph that tracks the correlation between economic wellbeing and happiness you know that it very quickly plateaus. GNP is a very important metric. But it has weaknesses: war, deforestation, and pollution all add to the GNP. The tiny Buddhist country of Bhutan has implemented something they call Gross National Happiness. GNH. They are asking: How can we build an economy that is a means to human flourishing rather than a growth machine (the logic of a cancer cell).

This is to me what Jesus seems to be saying throughout the Gospels, and here in our reading. Joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” During his short ministry, Jesus did many wonderful things. But he didn’t heal everyone who was sick, bring every death back to life, or feed every starving child. (He doesn’t today). Perhaps sometimes he just sat at a quiet bedside, or wept at a tomb, or went hungry with his poor friends. Joy is the fruit of the seeds of grace. Joy is the only product in the gift economy of Kingdom of God. At the heart of the darkest time of the year, Gaudete Sunday is a reminder that the Gospel of Christ is a Gospel of Joy, even during the dark times in our lives.

Look to the Trees

[Homily delivered at Eucharist for Vancouver School of Theology]

Gospel Reading

Luke 21:25-36

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

A recent headline: “South Florida scientists say we must act now on sea level rise.” According to the IPCC at warming of 2 degrees Celsius, sea level rise could be expected to reach a global average of 4 meters, affecting millions of people. Is Christ coming soon?

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

Another recent headline: “Ecological grief among mental health effects of climate change in Canada.” There is mounting grief at the loss of habitat and species, the rise in carbon in the heavens, if you will, and ecological refugees. There is anxiety about the future, or, Solastalgia, a neologism coined to describe the mental distress of a rapidly changing environment. Is the Parousia near?

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Despite current events, predicting the literal second coming of Christ is a losing enterprise. Many Christians have attempted to do so, and all have been wrong. Even Paul and the early Church were wrong about a literal earthly return. In today’s Gradual Psalm we sense what the Church must have felt after their humiliation at the crucifixion:

1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

2 O my God, in you I trust;

do not let me be put to shame;

do not let my enemies exult over me.

3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;

let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

They no doubt believed that Christ’s return was imminent—within a generation it was said. That Christ would humiliate their enemies and carry the faithful up into God’s kingdom perched at the pinnacle of the dome of the flat-earth’s heaven. Things didn’t quite turn out as they expected, but who could deny the sincerity of their hope as they watched the Romans mercilessly massacre and punish the community at Jerusalem. Jewish rebels held the city for nearly five years. And at the end of it, the temple was destroyed and nearly 30,000 zealots and Jewish civilians died in the siege of the city. The tiny Church must have looked to the sky until their necks ached. And yet, Christ did not descend in a cloud in power and glory.

Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

What is God’s power anyway? A cross. What is God’s Glory anyhow? Creation. During the season of Advent, we marvel that while God’s power and glory are eventually headed for the throne of the cross, they are first on display in a helpless infant lying in a manger.

When is the kingdom of God near? When there were stars to observe, and trouble in the world. Always. Earth and heaven are always connected. Our current ecological crises and their effects on the earth point to the coming of God’s Kingdom because they reflect our civilization’s brokenness. The kingdom of God is near, because the Kingdom of God is a topsy-turvy kingdom of outcasts and sinners, lilies and sparrows. Jesus said, the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, it is like cooking yeast. The Kingdom of God is within; it fits within the bounds of a single human heart.

And even in a world that is always on the brink, we can find that Kingdom in unlikeliest of places: the bud break of a fig tree. When everything around us seems to be falling to pieces, with Jesus, we look to the trees. Silent givers of life, they announce the Kingdom of God with their own silent liturgy, vested in the colors of the earth. Yet, summer leaves also point to winter branches. In the Kingdom of God there is room for growth and decay, joy and pain. God’s Kingdom, at least here on earth, is always filled with both.

It should not strike us as strange then that at the beginning of Advent, at the beginning of the Church year, we are reading about the end things. Before the story begins, we are reading its conclusion. But in the topsy-turvy Kingdom, the beginning is the end; incarnation is salvation. Growing up, I always found the term “Second Coming” to be curious. Like a sequel to a classic film. But there can be no numeration to the Advent of the Word of God, who is eternally birthed from the Womb of the Father. He is always here, yet always on his way.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.

The term Holy Waiting is paradoxical, because we are always waiting, and Christ’s Kingdom is always already here. But our liturgical seasons are the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. They are the inhaling and exhaling of the Church. The summer foliage, and the winter branches. Advent is a season of inhaling. A season of pruning. Of letting leaves die. Of waiting for green shoots. Advent is a season of asceticism and spiritual training. A time to refocus. A time for stillness. A time for quiet. A time for sinking into the dark night of the soul. In a world that threatens so much pain, whether or not we win should not be the factor that determines our commitment to right action. We must continue to live lives of beauty and hope even through the dark seasons of civilization. That is why there are dark seasons in the liturgy. We must not look away from the world. We must look to the trees, especially that tree that is both an instrument of torture and a tree of life. A tree whose seed was planted not in power and great glory, but in the humble soil of the Judean countryside.

May the Lord, when he comes, find us watching and waiting. Amen.

Thomas Merton the Forester

Looking out on the cemetery at Gethsemani Trappist Monastery

During All Souls/All Saints Days this year, I was lucky enough to travel to Kentucky for the annual Society of American Foresters conference. I was attending in order to deliver a short talk on the short history of monastic forestry, a topic that was included in parts of my dissertation. On the first day, I attended a field trip with the History and Philosophy Working Group. We visited Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, and then went to Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey, the place where contemplative writer Thomas Merton lived from 1941 to his death in 1968.

One interesting fact that we learned was that during his very productive writing career, Merton was also the Abbey forester. As Forester, Merton would take the Trappist novices out to prune trees, clear dead branches, and plant trees. In the late 1950s, the monastery had been gifted hundreds of loblolly pine seedlings from the state forestry agency. Unfortunately, this particular variety was not very cold tolerant, and the first winter killed most, if not all of them.

The county also worried about fire in the area, and suggested the Abbey build a fire lookout. Merton, who was seeking a deeper vocation of silence, seriously considered manning the lookout as a quasi-hermit. However, the lookout was rather far from the Abbey, and when a monk-mechanic tried to teach him to drive, he wrecked the jeep within a few minutes behind the wheel. Merton was eventually allowed to live as a hermit on the property, but not as a fire lookout.

Despite Merton’s short lived career as a forester, and failed tree planter, he nevertheless gleaned deep meaning from the Abbey’s landscape. His nature writing is filled with references to the flora and fauna of the Kentucky hardwood forests, pastures and knobs. Though I have been to Gethsemani before, it was a great honor to return to a favorite Holyscape, where the life of a writer I deeply admire lived out his ideas and crafted his bold poetry and prose.