Month: February 2015

The Twenty-One Witnesses

Rezk 21 Coptic Martyrs

So now we can’t ignore it anymore. We saw 21 men, twenty of them Egyptian Coptic Christians, and one believer from the beautiful happy, singing church of Ghana, paraded down a beach in Libya in orange jumpsuits. Holding them were black-suited, hooded members of the group ISIS. The hands of the twenty-one were tied behind their backs. They were made to kneel in the sand. Then they were beheaded. For only one reason. Because they were Christian.

I expect that all over the world, Christians are waking up to a new meaning to Jesus’ words. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow me. It’s a new meaning which is actually just the old meaning, remembered. Martyrdom for faith in Jesus never went away. But here in Canada and in the West, because it tends to happen in far away places (and often to people of another skin colour), to our shame we’ve been ignoring those OTHER Christians fairly successfully. Until now. ISIS is so intent on spreading terror, and so good at social media, that increasingly we can’t escape what bloody Christian martyrdom looks like.

Oddly enough, despite the horror and loss to those twenty-one families, ISIS may be doing the western Church a favour. We’ve forgotten our roots. We’ve spiritualized, abstracted, and made metaphors of Jesus’ words in the Gospels about martyrdom. We’ve reinterpreted them and tried to find their inner meaning, not necessarily for bad reasons, but because these aren’t situations WE face. We’ve hemmed and hawed and turned this way and that and managed to escape the blunt awfulness of the thing: If any want to become my followers, let them take up their crosses….

The twenty-one who were murdered were not rich. They were poor, from poor families and poor villages south of Cairo. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been working in such a dangerous place. Even though some of those men had university degrees, they had left Egypt to do manual labour to try to support their families back home. They did not live saintly lives, but that does not mean they are not saints. Especially now. They join the many, many Christians who have already lost their lives in Iraq and Syria, and elsewhere. Now Libya.

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed.

Apparently, after the initial shock of seeing the executions, the feeling in one village where so many of the men came from, gradually turned from grief into a kind of grim joy. “At least if they were going to die,” said one mother, “we wanted them to die for their faith. They have done that, and now they have joined the martyrs.”

Joined the martyrs. Do we have any idea here in the West what that means? I don’t. It seems to me that only by listening to the experience of these other Christians – being forced, in a way, to listen to what they have been living, that we here can re-learn some basic truths. We do not share their experience. Of course that’s a relief. But in our western blessed peace we have forgotten how to notice, to listen, and to pray, in solidarity with those who suffer for the sake of the Son of Man.

In the Psalm it says: for God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted. God’s face was not hidden…God heard. So must we hear, and not ignore. The God we say we believe in is no stranger to suffering, or compassion, and calls us to be the same. NOT to flee into mindless comfort ignoring the other, harder realities in this world.

A Coptic Christian artist living in the United States, Tony Rezk, created an icon showing the twenty one. Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s a bit like a classic Orthodox or Coptic icon, but different. The twenty one are kneeling, their hands behind their backs, as they were when beheaded. In front of them is Jesus, lifting his hands to show them the crowns that they’re about to receive.

The high-profile executions on the beach have done what few other events could do: they’ve galvanized some kind of solidarity. They’ve brought together Coptic and Roman and Protestant Christians, black and white and brown, from all over the world. When he was asked about the faith of those twenty-one, the artist said: “historically, the Coptics have give three gifts to the wider church: theology, monasticism, and, again, it seems, martyrdom.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but for some months we’ve been quietly praying for our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and in Syria. Syria, in particular, was, after Jerusalem, the first Christian community in the world. In the New Testament, it says that Paul and Peter met and argued in Antioch, and that the first missions west went out from what is now Syria. There are ancient churches and monasteries there – the MOST ancient – that are being destroyed even as we speak. Our elders in the faith.

If we pray for these elder brothers and sisters, we will also remember them. And if we remember them, we will also welcome them, as some of us are trying to organize to do. And if we welcome them, then, God willing, maybe we will also learn from them.

What we cannot do, and must not do, is pretend that we share their experience. We don’t.

Any kind of hysterical reaction to the martyrdoms is not helpful. It is not WE who are being persecuted, it’s our brothers and sisters in those lands in bloody contact with radical Islam or with others who hate what Christians represent. The temptation in the West has always been to make everything about US. “Oh what a frightening world we live in. We should react angrily against the Muslims who are our neighbors here. We should protect ourselves even more. We should become paranoid and give more power to politicians and to businesses.”

The fact is – we’re actually incredibly safe from terrorism. Yes we had the two murders here in Canada last fall. They were tragedies. No doubt. But they were only two. Scott Gilmore, a columnist in Maclean’s magazine, said the same when he wrote, last issue, about getting perspective. Terrorism is not a real danger to Canadians, in Canada. Statistically, we are far more likely to die from hitting a moose. Apparently, when some Italians heard the terrorist threats on social media to over-run Rome, they laughed and offered advice on rush hour traffic.

The point is, it’s not about US. God has not called US to be martyrs. Not now, anyway. Maybe we wouldn’t be capable. I don’t know. But what we CAN do – perhaps what WE will be judged on – is whether we now, knowing about these martyrdoms, live in solidarity with these martyrs. Can we be with them, in prayer and in compassion and in other real concrete ways such as support for CLWR, for refugees and for immigration? Our brothers and sisters are dying. We must remember, and pray, and do what we can.

The church has never been just here, just us. There’s a beautiful evening hymn that has the words: “as to each continent and island, The dawn leads on another day, The voice of prayer is never silent, Nor dies the strain of praise away.” We are not Coptic Christians, or Egyptians, or Syrians, but we are tied together with them forever, in the Body of Christ. And if we forget them, we have forgotten ourselves. For those who want to save their life will lose it, says Jesus, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it. And then words that could be aimed straight at us: for what will it profit you to gain the whole world, but lose your life?

The blood of the martyrs cries out from under the altar of God, and we must not close our ears to it. It is crying out – not for fear, and not for revenge – but for prayer and love, for solidarity with those who still have to go on in those difficult places. There are twenty one new martyrs. May God help them, and help us to remember them.

Found in Translation

Radio Dei Ulla and Salla

Matthew Univ of Lapland

A really good interviewer gets you to forget everything except the conversation. You get so comfortable you just say how you feel. As a documentary maker I’m usually on the asking side of the microphone, so during my radio interview I was surprised to fall into that forgetfulness.

Salla was my translator. She’s a student I will always be grateful introduced herself to me when I was still bumbling through my first evening in northern Finland. She’s personable, intense and intelligent, and speaks English almost like a native. She volunteered (or was coerced?) to do the simultaneous translation for my interview with Ulla M. Despite their difference in age, as soon as I walked into the studio I could feel the warmth between the two women.

Ulla, the driving force and talent behind Radio Dei, has the perfect FM radio voice: a deep alto, unrushed, with always the hint of a smile. She also has a quiet charisma that may come from her performances of poetry and song with her husband, the music director of the parish (for her singing, think Ute Lemper or even Marlene Dietrich, minus the scandalous German lyrics). She sat me down on the other side of the desk, put a microphone in front of me, looked me straight in the eyes and I was quite lost. If I were a criminal I would have confessed.

Fortunately, the questions – at least at first – were rather easier.

Why are you here in Rovaniemi? Partly by accident. I looked at the farthest point north on the map that seemed to have an airport. Where I might have contacts. Sari Kuirinlahti has been a wonderful host. For people who think of themselves as unfriendly, the Finns have been very welcoming.

Why are you interested in Finns? I wasn’t. But every year more I work with them, I find the country, its people, its emigrants – and its music, more fascinating. And I think the sauna is a great invention.

Just when I thought I was safe, the zinger: So, you asked all these people where was home? You seem to travel quite a bit. What’s YOUR answer to that question?

Finally, when the mic was turned off, I was afraid I’d said too much. Then again, I wish I’d said more: about the soppa, or warm blueberry soup, that Ilari made me, his smock over his clerical shirt. About skiing around the pond looking at the devotional signs that Sari and Matti designed and put up, and how I got cocky thinking about Canadians on cross country skis and almost wound up flat on my back. About meeting Milla in Helsinki, the director of the press unit for the Finnish Lutheran church, and sharing an evening of laughter and conversation over some kind of Russian pancakes with caviar I’ll probably never taste again. About the strangeness of an altar fresco that shows wolves tearing apart a reindeer and the familiarity of wood curved so smooth by handwork you feel you are touching the essence of the tree. About Pekka Simojoki’s music and Levi’s snow and reindeer soup as a staple, about Lestarian faith and not ever getting proper wifi. About being Canadian at the Arctic Circle of a land I have never known.

So much more I could have said. How can one ever sum up even a week’s life in a few short minutes? One thing I made sure to say: even when we think our lives are small and unimportant, we should know that they are grand, and every one full of drama and hope and fear and promise.

“I’m afraid the interview won’t be any good,” Salla blurted out when we said our goodbyes. “You’ll be able to hear us smiling all the way through!” What a wonderful experience this Suomi-conference sponsored trip was. My one and only task was to experience Finnish culture. I feel I barely got started.

Pekka and me suprised

Mari and Matthew selfie Helsinki

Milla and Matthew

waiting at the baggage Helsinki

English is so Difficult

ski trail Psalm 23 Finnish

Several times now while walking downtown I’ve walked by a children’s park on the river with colourful images of the game “Angry Birds”. Wow. These Finns are really commercialized, I thought. Until Sari told me: did you know that Angry Birds was invented here in Rovaniemi? The creators donated money and play equipment.

I walk past the lonely little fast-food “grilli” where, my first afternoon, I bought a sausage and stood in the snow in the middle of the empty parking lot to eat it. Then up the pedestrian walk, past the display of reindeer antler jewelry, imitation Sami shoes with their upturned toes, and ice sculptures. I wander into one of the local “Safari in the Arctic” waiting areas. There are two friendly young women at the reception who tell me they don’t mind if I use the wi-fi. As I work, a United Nations of tour groups pass through. They are back from snowmobile and snowshoe journeys, and are returning their helmets, gloves, and full-body suits. There is a long wall of packed snow blocks that the city has required the companies to erect to muffle the sound of so many snowmobiles taking off. I hear Chinese, Hebrew, French, Russian and English, and some languages I can’t identify.

My few phrases of Finnish are already growing stale: “Mina olen pappi ja professori montrealista” “kiitoksia” “hyva paiva”. But I’m at least starting to be able to identify a few words better when Finns say or sing them: “makara” (sausage),   “kirkko” (church), “kotti” (home), “karhu” (bear), “lapsi” (child), “laulua” (song) and “rakasta” (love). I guess the words I’m learning reflect my visit. Or maybe Finnish culture, at least here .

The fluidity with which Finns switch genders in their speech is often funny, and sometimes disconcerting. Because there aren’t different words for “he” and “she” in Finnish, when speaking English to me, the Finns here may just choose one at random: “Oh yes, my husband is a tall man and she is strong too.”

I’ve also learned that there are many different words for “bear”. The reason, apparently, is that in the “old religion” you were never supposed to say that word. They came up with synonyms and other ways of describing the powerful creature, which not so many years ago had the status of a god. I think about the Bible, and the way that Yahweh’s name was never to be spoken aloud.

My host for the last day in Rovaniemi is Ilari K. He is a pastor in the church that is hosting my second set of documentary showings. Although he looks to be barely out of his twenties, he tells me that many years ago he and his wife and first two children (they now have five) spent a year in Saskatoon. Immediately we start comparing memories. He takes me to the university where I meet the chaplain, Heini, and tour the building. We three have lunch together. After, when I ask him to drop me at a wi-fi spot, Ilari simply takes me to the family home.

I walk in to meet a very young-looking woman whom I assume to be Ilari’s wife Kaija. I give her the flowers I bought at the supermarket while Ilari picked up groceries. “This is my daughter,” Ilari says as I hold out the flowers. Then, just when, stammering, I start pulling them back, he corrects himself: “I mean wife.”

English is so difficult. Either that, or it’s that Finnish sense of humour again.

Heini Ilari and Matthew

Ilari Kaija and family

If You Put Mont-Tremblant at the Top of Europe

Levi ski area

Okay, there are a few differences. At the bottom of the hill at Levi, Lapland (about 120 km north of the Arctic Circle), behind the state-of-the-art chairlift (heated seats, a tinted canopy and a conveyor belt to help you get on), there’s a wooden tee-pee where people crouch in the semi-darkness over a fire and cook their sausages for lunch. There’s one electric-car recharging station in the town, and the rental shop carries the standard glittering equipment you’d get at Lake Louise or Chamonix. But there are also posters advertising reindeer rides and Lapland igloos where you lie on your back and watch the northern lights. (They neglect to mention that there’s been little sunspot activity this year and a corresponding drop in occurrences.) The snack bar has all the usual fries and hot-dogs, but also salmon on rye rusks, reindeer burgers and a kind of potato pancake that they call ‘bread’ here but reminds me of a thicker Norwegian lefse (apologies for using one obscure Scandinavian cultural reference to help try to explain another!) In fact, we’re only a couple of hundred km from that northern reach where Norway and Finland greet each other overtop of Sweden, and sometimes ski accident victims here might be taken to a Norwegian hospital rather than a Finnish.

I help Kaapo and Oiva, my host family’s boys, get into their snowsuits. Kaapo is not feeling well. Their father, Matti, has been shovelling snow off of the family’s cottage roof all day, but the big man seems none the worse for wear despite the back-breaking labour. Sari and Matti take me to the restaurant near where they met, and treat me to a local speciality: a warm, flat Lappish cheese with accompanying cloudberry sorbet, and a thick caramel sauce on the side. I may not be in heaven, but I’m close. On the way out, I pick up the local Levi Times paper: “Kittila became an independent parish by Russian imperial edict on 30 January 1854,” it says. “Population 6500. There are 900 inhabitants in the town of Levi and rooms for 24,000 tourists. Unemployment rate 13%, 718 lakes and reindeer approximately 12,000.”

with Oiva and Kaapo Sari and Matti

The Accidental Ambassador

poster at Wiljami theatre Rovaniemi      movie is starting

Even though the Suomi Conference of Canada sent me to Finland to experience Finnish culture, I’m realizing now that I’m here, that I’m representing Canadian Finns to the homeland. Which is ironic. Who needs an ambassador who can’t even speak the language?

But the pleasure – and the privilege – is that I’m meeting relatives of Finns in Canada, who come to see my documentaries just because I’m a living connection to their family. “We are cousins to Heiki and drove 100 km to see you,” says one man, in carefully-practiced English. I hope that he will get something from the (not-Finnish-language) films. There are Finns who spent a winter, or two years, or a few weeks, in Vancouver or Toronto, who have come because I represent that land they left behind. Or Finns who might be coming to Canada for a term or a job, because they want a sense of the place.

First there are local singers who perform. Then my documentaries. After seeing the movie, the people shake their heads: “it’s not easy being an emigrant,” they say, “being caught between here and there.” Then, through translation, some of them talk about being caught between Helsinki and Lapland, or about their grown children traveling to the United States or to South America – and how they’re afraid that they will meet someone and settle down there, away from parents and home. A few in the audience know someone in the film. One woman cries, quietly.

When they hear that the Suomi choir in the film is coming back to Finland, I hear murmurs: “they’re coming here to the north I hope!” I answer “We’d love to!”, even though I then have to add that I know nothing about the choir’s schedule and have zero power to change it.

Then, the lights lift, and people move to their coats and after a few more “kiitos’s” they are gone. I collect my things. Sari – who has been such a wonderful host throughout – will drop me back to my apartment. She knows I haven’t eaten since breakfast. “Are you hungry?” she asks. I still haven’t figured out the eating patterns here, which seem to include lots of food in the late evening after sauna, and sausages outside following every snow activity. But neither of those is the situation today. I think perhaps this will be the occasion for more Lappish cuisine. “Sure,” I answer. “Great,” she says, leading the way out the door: “I was thinking Chinese”.

singers at presentation

Reindeer and Skiing on Sidewalks

Matti was here graffiti

It was when she started talking about how properly to hang and cure reindeer meat that I knew for sure I was in Lapland. It was also right around then that we realized there were no taxis to take me back to my church apartment.

The day had begun when I set out walking to Arktikum, the official museum of Lapland and of Rovaniemi. It’s a long, elegantly beautiful building on the edge of the Ounasjoki (Ounas river), about two kilometres from where I’m staying. Inside the museum were displays of Sami sleds, Sami traditional dress and the all-important drums. In fact of all of Sami history is represented, including beautiful 7th century jewelry that reminded me of similar Anglo-Saxon and Irish finds.

I walked back through town, just in time to meet the vicar of the parish, Kari Y, who promised to end my internet troubles by handing me a 3-G stick. I asked him about the church that he heads. Some parish: there are 22 or 23 pastors on staff and about 120 employees! I keep bumping into clergy types who tell me they’re pastors in the parish. Apparently, they all are.

Just as I left the office building a smiling woman in a white parka walked into the parking lot. You must be Matthew, Riita K-K said. Do you like ice cream? Sure! Then come taste our newest local product…. From the Arctic Ice Cream Factory. I tried the “spruce tree” flavour – it was delicious. Riita interviewed me for her own paper, the Lappilainen, a weekly, and also showed me an article about my documentaries in another paper, the UusiRovaniemi. I’m glad to know the word is getting out. On my way back from the interview a woman passed me on the sidewalk, on skiis. Most Rovaniemi people, however, if not driving, seem to prefer walking or bicycles, even on the ice and snow.

It was soon time to meet Sari again, this time for a concert and my first look inside Rovaniemi kirkko, or church. The fresco behind the altar is magnificent. By Antti Salmenlinna, it dates from the early 1950s, when the church was built. I asked Sari about all the new architecture. Oh, there are almost no old buildings in Rovaniemi, she said. The Germans burnt the city down when they left in 1944. It’s a bit awkward to say that to German tourists these days, but – she looked at me with that typically inscrutable Finnish expression – it’s all right. As we explored I noticed paintings along the side arches, one of them of a man with a reindeer, to illustrate Jesus’ sayings in Matthew.

The organ concert was wonderful, with two international artists spelling each other off like spoken-word performers, getting more and more physical with the classics of popular organ music. Of course there was also Sibelius’ Finlandia. Sari, who is supposed to be on holidays, doesn’t act much like it, speaking with parishioners and handling details constantly, and I worry that part of that is due to my visit. She gave me an updated agenda for my visit. More meetings!

Then she drove me back to Riita’s place for my second sauna of the trip. I hope you don’t mind, Riita said with unnecessary apology, that here in town we have only the electric type. She fed me bread and cheese and sent me in, after which she and her son took turns. Then we talked for a bit after, over fruit, about global Russian muscle-flexing. Sweden and Finland just signed a pact to share armed forces, she informed me. The Russians have just reactivated a military base that had been abandoned, on the other side of the border. She talked about the old days, about communist youth, and about trips to Murmansk, and Leningrad, and Moscow. Then she told me about her work in helping build community right in Rovaniemi, and the “pop-up restaurant” concept, where Finns get a chance to open a restaurant in their own home or with a neighbour, two or three times a year.

Soon it was late, and I was ready to go. No taxis were to be found. Oh, you’ll be all right, said my host. Just look for the spire of the Kirkko, it’s the tallest building you’ll see. And follow the cross all the way home.

So I did.

through the photographer lens

Rovaniemi church fresco

fresco of reindeer herder

A Warm – too hot! – a welcome to Rovaniemi


Sauna One

My Ash Wednesday in Finland began with a flight north. I left behind the beautiful old 19th and early 20th century buildings, the gritty sidewalks and the cold sea wind of Helsinki and landed in the sunny, white and still world that marks the beginning of Finnish Lapland. It was so strange to be surrounded by banks of snow, yet feel warmer than I had in Helsinki. “It’s a dry cold,” someone said. Rovaniemi feels like Saskatoon or Edmonton on a nice winter day. Even looks a bit like it.

Right now the Arctic Circle, ironically, is warmer than Montreal. Pastor Sari Kuirinlahti met me at the airport. “I have hugs for you,” I said, “from Riita and Olavi Hepomaki and from Jari and Liisa Lahtinen. Is that okay?” “Oh!” she answered, “I miss those people!” And she let me give her the hugs, even though she blushed. Then she handed me a chart with all the things I’m doing in the next few days, based on what I had emailed her. Two documentary showings in a theatre and a chapel, a couple of interviews, a trip, meetings, some concerts…..

But first, she said, sauna! Have you had sauna yet? I admitted I had been two days in Finland already without sauna. You will be picked up this evening, she informed me. Get ready (I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant). The afternoon gave me time to settle in to the “Piispankameri” or the so-called Bishop’s room, which when a Bishop isn’t visiting is used for other guests like visiting musicians, or in this case, me. Cross-country skiers were passing by in front of my window. Having no skis, I walked to a local store and bought some food for the apartment, with the very kind clerk taking me around by the arm and helping me find what I needed, then warmed up some Karjalan Pirakkat with tea. Sari returned and took me to meet church volunteers. They asked, with Sari interpreting, what I thought the challenges facing my congregation (and the church overall) in Canada are. It turns out there are many similarities, despite the differences. Then another pastor (they seem to be everywhere here), Tuomo K, whisked me away to the church camp at Norvajärvi.

There were men there in the woods by the frozen lake. Many men, of different ages, in the saunas, towelling off, out standing in the snow, or cooking Finnish sausages over a fireplace in a hall. I sat in the sauna listening to the quiet hiss of steam. My host made it hotter and hotter until unable to bear the steam any more we had to run, naked, out to the snow. “A warm – sorry, a hot! – welcome to Rovaniemi” he laughed. We had arrived late so most of the men were already dressed and setting up for their discussion. I waited until the others were gone and then did what I had promised myself I would do. I fell back into the snow and looked, oh so briefly, at the stars, ten kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

The men sang a hymn, said a prayer, and I introduced myself to them in my very few words of Finnish. Then they fell into their planned discussion: how to be a Christian and involved in political life. It was all in Suomi, so I could only pick up a few words – socialism, communism, capitalism, faith, God. In this area the communist party was very strong for many years, and tensions sometimes ran high. Still, after the heat and steam and flight, it was hard not to nod off. The man beside me did, but then revived every now and then to add a few words to the discussion.

Then it was back down the highway, past the “watch for elk” and “Arctic Circle” signs, and boots crunching in the hard-packed snow, back to my room. “Kiitoksia!” I called out. “Good sleep!” my host answered. After that sauna, it won’t be hard to have a good sleep. Welcome to Rovaniemi.

You’re What? An english-speaking Finnish pastor from Canada? How does that work?

Helsinki harbour in ice

When I walked by the Fazer chocolate shop and teahouse, there were two young women standing outside, shivering in heavy coats and aprons. “Do you have hot chocolate?” I asked them in English. They nodded enthusiastically: yes! And for free! So I had some hot chocolate and drank it while looking for the Kappeli, where I was meeting my afternoon appointment, a professor from the Greek Institute.

What a great welcome to Helsinki. And in February, too.

My first full day in Finland was a busy one. At breakfast I met Teemu, who came with two of his children. He was to be my “barefoot” (as the Helsinki locals call themselves) guide. But a last minute situation meant we could only visit over breakfast. “I love Thunder Bay,” he confided. “I go there often. Canada is a good country. Almost great.” He smiled, that same quiet, ironic smile I’ve seen on so many Finns. Waiting for me to get the joke.

I bought a one-day transit pass and hopped the #9 streetcar to the Kallio area. I was treated to lunch and my first Laskiaispulla, or Shrove Tuesday bun, by Heidi R., a pastor, journalist and passionate interfaith worker. The pulla was amazing – but really, really hard to eat! And hard to eat during a radio interview. We spoke about Finns in Canada and the USA, my two documentaries, and the Camino de Santiago. The interview, once edited, is supposed to be aired on Finnish national public radio at some point in the next few months.

After, Heidi took me on a quick tour of a building I’d passed and wanted to see, the Kallio Church. The style, inside and out, is “Finnish Art Nouveau”, says the pamphlet. It looks a lot like Art Deco to me. It’s beautiful, and I loved the altarpiece of Jesus with the local working people of the neighbourhood.

Then it was back downtown by metro to meet Mari R-S, an academic whose work I had seen in the library and whom I had contacted. She brought her new four-month baby, and I managed to steal some time to hold him while we talked about tourism and pilgrimage. We also talked about rashes, and allergies and how much babies sleep (or don’t)! There was more Laskiaispulla, which of course had to be eaten.

After Mari left I walked up to the Cathedral. There was a pastor sitting in the corner, to whom I introduced myself. She seemed a bit confused, but friendly. “You’re what? An english-speaking Finnish pastor from Canada? How does that work?” I told her I wasn’t quite sure how it works, but that it does. She smiled and shook my hand. I’m not sure she believed me, just showing up like that, unannounced. Finns would never do that.

On the way back to my hotel I did some tourist shopping, and then had just enough time to change before meeting Kati B, a former church council member from the Finnish church in Montreal, and Mari T, a journalist who worked at Isien Usko and Kanadan Sanomat, for dinner. Both have now returned to Finland. Over salmon burgers and fish we talked about Canada and Finland, about how long one can be away before they ‘stop being Finnish’ and how long it takes to be Finnish again after coming home. “Maybe our generation is more used to this in-between feeling of never completely belonging in any one place,” said Mari. I believe that in our globalized world, that might be true of many people.

After dessert I walked the two of them to their tram. Tomorrow I fly to Rovaniemi. I’m thankful that the Suomi Conference has sent me here “to experience Finnish culture”. There seemed to be quite a bit happening, even in what was just my first day!

laskiaispulla Shrove Bun

Heidi Rautionmaa Kallio church

Jesus and working class clearest

Fighting Hercules


There’s a fascinating myth, from a time long before the New Testament, about the most famous of the Greek heroes, a half-man, half-god known as Heracles. Heracles is the hero we usually know by his Roman name, Hercules. There must be a hundred tales about Hercules and his exploits and combats and loves. But Isaiah 40 makes me think of one where Hercules meets a Libyan named Antaeus. Antaeus is a giant, and a terrible monster. Every passer-by he challenges to a wrestling match. And every wrestling match he wins. And then Antaeus kills those passers-by and uses their skulls to build a temple to his father, Poseiden. No one travels anymore. The giant has terrified and desolated the whole area.

Hercules meets Antaeus when he is forced to go past him on one of his quests. Antaeus, as usual, challenges the traveler to a wrestling match. Hercules, never one to shy away from combat, of course says yes. Antaeus is a giant. But Hercules is….well, he’s Hercules.

Unfortunately, despite that, the wrestling match doesn’t go well for Hercules. Strong as the hero is, every time he throws Antaeus to the ground, the giant only heals and becomes stronger. In fact, every time Hercules throws him down he comes back twice as fast and twice as tough. Something is terribly wrong.

As the Greeks tell the story, it’s only at the last minute, only just as he’s about to die of exhaustion and from the beating he’s getting, that Hercules realizes the giant’s secret. Antaeus takes his strength from the earth. Hercules realizes that so long as he’s in contact with the earth, Antaeus cannot be beaten. So then Hercules shows that he is a hero not just in brawn, but also in brains. He lifts the giant up from the ground and holds him away from the soil and hugs him in a terrible bear hug. Try as he might, the giant Antaeus cannot reach the ground. And so Hercules finally crushes him, and frees the country, and saves his life.

In this story, it’s actually the giant I identify with, not the hero. We hear, more and more, that we’re the first generation so completely disconnected from the real world. Where is the earth, for us? We’ve covered our planet in so much concrete, and spend so much time indoors, and so often we go straight from work to car to shop to house, that we don’t feel that vital connection to the environment that we need. I know some Finns who actually had their neighbors call the police when they saw them put their baby in a stroller and leave them outside. Outside is considered dangerous in our country! The younger we are, the worse it is, with our heads in screens or on smart phones or working in cubicles or texting. Too often we don’t feel that connection from which, like Antaeus, we gain our strength.

Have you not known? Asks Isaiah. Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? It is the Lord who sits above the circle of the earth, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in, who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as if they were nothing.

And apparently, ONLY the Lord. A lot of our problems in this world arise from the fact that we human beings have ignored the fact that we’re NOT gods. We’re not above the natural world – we’re PART of it. We’re not above time, we’re IN time. And we’re learning more and more every year that we’re certainly not above our bodies. We’re not above the muscles, bones, organs and skin that make us up. We are – every single one of us – finite and physical. And so we need things: we need rest. We need renewal. And we need connection.

Isaiah 40 is one of the strongest reminders in scripture of who we are, and of exactly what connection we need. Have you not known? asks Isaiah. Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, who does not faint or grow weary.

Believe it or not the point here is not just about a deity. By drawing such a strong image of God, Isaiah is showing us what we human beings are NOT. Even the most powerful among us can be brought low by a cold, an infection, old age, or a tragedy. Our riches ultimately mean nothing. Our accomplishments will fade. As Isaiah writes Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when God blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

I don’t know if you’ve seen images of the massive snowfall in New Brunswick this week. There’s been something like – what is it? Four FEET of snow that’s fallen. They’ve been shoveling all week. There’s a video going around that some guy took on his cell phone of a train coming down the track near Moncton. It’s hilarious. You can’t even SEE the train at times, through all the snow that it’s pushing out of its way.

That’s the truth about the world, and about us. We’re in a world that is part of us, and from which we cannot and should not escape. Winter has a way of reminding us – we human beings are not so high and mighty as we sometimes think. We’ve spent so many years thinking we’re NOT part of the created order that we’ve fouled our own homes. The environmental crisis shows it. Imagine if Isaiah had known about asthma, childhood obesity, rising rates of cancers and the epidemic of measles and other diseases caused by the fact that, stupidly, we know about vaccinations but don’t use them: Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.

In perhaps the most ironic twist of all, we’ve also separated any faith we have from our creatureliness. We’ve acted, even in the church, as if God and creation were separate. Paul writes, in Romans: The creation itself waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. According to the apostle, the world, like us, is part of this grand interconnectedness of all things, this sin and rebellion and redemption cycle. Creator-creation-creation-creature. We and our Creator and the earth that we are part of, all belong together. And only together can we connect with the strength of that earth, of being “created good”.

When we go to a funeral we hear these words: “we are dust, and to dust we shall return”. That giant, Antaeus, knew that it was the dust that made him strong. We too take our strength from being part of the creation where God has placed us. The more we realize that, the more we will allow ourselves actually to BE creatures. We’ll allow ourselves to admit that we have needs. We will allow ourselves to admit that in fact, suffering and pain, too, are a natural part of life. And the strange thing is, if we can really be weak, then oddly enough, we will be stronger for it.

God gives power to the faint. Those are the words of Isaiah. The powerless can and will be strengthened. He goes on to say: Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings, like eagles. They shall run, and not be weary. They shall walk, and not faint.

This is what our faith tells us. Hercules is a fine hero, and Antaeus a villain. But I understand my faith, not through the hero, but through the vanquished giant. Like him, we NEED the earth. Like him, when we remember where we come from, when we stay in touch and don’t let ourselves be isolated, from the earth AND from the One who created it, we will be the stronger for it.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? asks Isaiah. Wait on the Lord and renew your strength. God is faithful. May we learn to rely on that faithfulness, and from that faithful Creator, in our world, take our strength.