Month: November 2015

The Pillars of Paris

Grief in Pere Lachaise cemetery      

      Those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to be to Paris are probably all thinking, today, about that place. A lot of us have memories – often very good memories, of being there. It’s such a wonderful city. But it must have been a very dark, a very frightening place, Friday night. I imagine it still is, with lots of fear and anxiety and grief as Parisiens try to recover from something it’s impossible to recover from. I was there just for four days last February, staying near Pere Lachaise cemetery, very close to where the attacks took place.

The bloody murders of so many innocent people give a new meaning to Jesus’ words: Beware that no one leads you astray. …. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

The news Friday felt so apocalyptic. It feels like the end of everything we count on being stable in a society, when gunmen enter a nightclub for the sole purpose of murdering innocent youth. Yes, I know we’ve been spared what others go through regularly. I know that such violence is tragically the case in too many places in the world. Beirut for instance. That poor suffering city. But not Paris, or London, or New York. Or Montreal, we hope. I was busy texting my daughter on Friday night: “where are you?” “are you okay?” We cannot imagine the fear. We cannot imagine the loss, for those parents and grandparents whose children did not come home that night, who now, because of hate, will never be able to come home.

For nation will rise against nation, Jesus said, and kingdom against kingdom.

The borders of France are now sealed. The army is in the streets. Presumably, soon there will be even more cameras, more checks, more eavesdropping and surveillance. The French, like the Americans after 9/11 and like us last year with the attack at Parliament Hill and Bill C-51, are going to be even more willing to give up freedom in exchange for the promise of security.

It’s that word – SECURITY – where the warnings of Jesus really hit home. Jesus was standing by Herod’s Temple, and his disciples were going on and on about the stones. Yes. They ARE great stones. I’ve been there. The stones in the Temple foundations are, individually, the size of city buses. Can you imagine if our buildings were built on solid pieces of granite the size of a Montreal city bus? Not just one but thousands of them? We’d think ourselves pretty secure. In Jerusalem the stones are beviled and cut so carefully that you would think they’re put together with mortar, the lines are so perfect. It is a feat of engineering and strength. Something you would think would last thousands of years. But in the end, did even such a miracle of engineering offer security to the people of Jerusalem? Not at all.

Do you see these great stones? asked Jesus. Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.

Jesus’ point is about security. Where it exists and where it doesn’t. No matter how hard we try. For one thing, he’s telling us, security DOESN’T exist in or through the state. The Jerusalem Temple was the closest thing that Jesus and other Jews in his day had to a state institution. It was grand. It was permanent. But Jesus points out – it’s NOT going to save you. And it didn’t. All will be thrown down.

When we put our trust, as we will, in cameras and guns on the street, and surveillance, we will be saying at least in part we DON’T put our trust in community, and discussion and peace-building and mutual concern and education. We will become, perhaps marginally safer, but at a cost to ourselves. And that’s always the way it is with our attempts to safeguard ourselves. They injure us. Ultimately, in this changeable and dangerous world, Jesus is saying that all attempts to be secure and safe result in our putting trust where it doesn’t exist – in other words, all such attempts end in idolatry. FALSE security.

It was actually the Temple, and the City, and the State, that eventually put Jesus to death. Because the authority of the state ultimately rests on violence as well, even if that violence is systemic rather than a bomb strapped to some deluded martyr’s chest.

So. Where do we find security? Only one place: the place where, paradoxically, as Jesus showed us, security seems the MOST absent. The foot of the cross. Paul wrote: I decided to know nothing while I was with you, he except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. In other words, I will live with complete insecurity, for the sake of love.

Where do we find our peace? It’s not that complicated. When we depend entirely on Love, especially the love that created and sustains us, that’s Gospel. When we depend on threat and power, that’s NOT Gospel. And so police, insurance policies, borders, weapons, buildings – precisely those things that normally make us feel solid about ourselves, are probably the exact things that put us on shaky ground with our God, and with the community of love we are supposed to be trying to build.

In one sense, it’s always about security – where we try to get it, where it fails, and how THEN, we go out and try to find security elsewhere. Paris is terrible, and right now feels unique. Yet there will ALWAYS be wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes, flood and drought. In other words, we’re chasing a dream. We can do what we can do. No more. Try as we might, security will NEVER actually be “secured”.

Beware that no one leads you astray, said Jesus. Permanence is not something out there, in walls and stone, in guns and fences, but in here, in who and what we belong to. Walls go up – and walls come down. Someday EVERYTHING that we consider permanent, if it’s manmade, will probably be changed. There’s no getting out of life without suffering, or ultimately, without death. That should not make us careless of life, but it should remind us that security comes from reaching OUT rather than walling IN.

Paris has always been known as the ‘City of Light’. That fact reminds of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness.’ Dr King went on to say, and he was speaking from hard experience, ‘only light can do that. And hate cannot drive out hate. Only LOVE can do that.’

When I was in Paris in February, the last day we stopped by Pere Lachaise cemetery, where so many famous people are buried. The cemetery is within a few blocks of many of the attacks Friday. There are beautiful monuments everywhere you look in the cemetery. One of them in particular is a statue of grief, standing beside the dead person, mourning. That’s the photo here.

That will be Paris for some time. Grieving its dead. Inconsolable. We will pray for Paris and its people. And we will also pray for Beirut, and for the thousands of unknown little villages in Syria and Iraq and in so many places where this kind of hate and violence are a fact of life, the kind of hatred that is causing so many to flee.

This must take place, Jesus said, but the end is still to come. It is the PEOPLE who are the real pillars of Paris, and of our shelter, and humanity is the roof that is over our heads. We pray that these are the bricks and mortar that can be strengthened, in love, in Paris and throughout the world in the coming weeks and months.

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All Saints and Some Bones

Kateri painting

Yesterday, as some of you know, a group of us went to Kahnawake. We’ve been told by our last National Convention and also by our Bishops that we Lutherans should get to know our First Peoples neighbours. For us, that’s the Mohawks. So the Montreal Lutheran Council and Dean Jim Slack planned a morning of visits. Yesterday, off we went, across the Mercier Bridge.

Part of our visit was to go see the shrine of St-Kateri. Kateri was – IS, I should say – the first ever Indigenous woman sainted by Rome. A local saint. A lot of the Mohawk don’t go to church anymore and don’t necessarily care that much about it. But there was a member of the parish of St Francois Xavier church who gave us a very nice historical intro to Saint Kateri . Our guide proudly showed us the marble Kateri shrine containing the remains of the Saint. He showed us the painting of Kateri, who it is said, suffered from terrible smallpox scars on her face up to just moments before her death, when her skin miraculously cleared up and was made clean.

Our guide was a nice man, a very kind man, and a generous man. And clearly he was very interested in Saint Kateri. He was enthusiastic. He’d finished his historical intro and we were going to sing a hymn and say a prayer, when he said: “wait – if you’re interested, I have a special treat for you.”

What could he possibly mean? We wondered. He disappeared and came back with a small woven basket, with something in it. “Since you’re interested in Saint Kateri,” he said, “This may be for you.” There was something white in the basket. “If you’d like to have a special moment of veneration,” he went on, “we have one of the wrist bones of St Kateri. You can pray with the bone of the Saint right here.”

We all smiled. Several people nodded their thanks. Then our guide left. And we Lutherans just sat there, a bit stunned.

As a good Roman Catholic, it was perhaps the most gracious thing our guide could have done. It was incredibly generous. In one way, it was very thoughtful. But did our guide miss the memo? Did he not know that the group who were visiting the shrine yesterday was a group of Protestants? Not just that, but Lutherans? And visiting on, of all days, Reformation Day, the very day commemorating Luther, who railed against relics?

            Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, says the book of Revelation, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘see, the home of God is among mortals…and then the clincher: God himself will be with them.’

There’s something special when you can remember with ALL your senses. I don’t know about you, but when I smell certain smells – maybe a birch forest, or the smell of fresh bread, or the smell of grass right after a rain – memories just come flooding in. Touch is the same. I have a beautiful Bavarian sweater given to me by some friends in Germany. Every time I put it on and feel that rough wool, the memory of my visit with them comes back to me as if it were yesterday.

So I guess that’s what a saint’s bones might do for a person. That is, the right kind of person, in a tradition receptive to it. Which is not, to be honest, my tradition. I suppose that bones can be a symbol of what the prophet hears in Revelation, when he hears the comforting words God will be with the children of creation, not in idea only, but right there. Not having grown up with any kind of feeling for relics, I must admit that mostly, I found the sight of a wrist bone a bit off-putting. It was, for me, bizarre. I’d prefer to remember Kateri in my mind than to look at her actual enamel and marrow.

But does my discomfort mean there’s nothing to learn, or to be blessed by, in that situation? I don’t think so. Sometime we who are Protestants are too quick to dimiss the physical nature of memory, and the physicalness of the Creator’s love toward us.

On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast, says Isaiah. And it won’t be a feast of ideas, but of real, solid things we know and treasure – the kinds of things we can taste and touch and smell: A feasts of rich food, of well-aged wines. It IS true that certain aspects of our faith are far, FAR more than intellectual. It’s true that some blessings need to be received that way: we taste the eucharist, we feel each other’s hands, or cheeks, when we pass the peace, perhaps we wipe tears from our eyes when we hear a hymn or a passage that touches us deeply. For me, and I think for others, one of the most powerful moments of the deconsecration service for Good Shepherd and for the Finnish church home was when we reached out and physically touched the walls with our fingers while thanking God for the shelter those walls had provided. Our Creator sometimes speaks most strongly to us through our senses.

There’s some talk that now-former Prime Minister Stephen Harper – who is, of course, very much alive – will be honoured by naming the Calgary airport after him. If that happens, it will be like Pierre Trudeau airport here in Montreal – a memorial that lasts long after the person is gone. Memory is inevitably connected to what is physical.

All Saints’ Day is a day for us to participate in this MORE-than-just-thinking, but-also-feeling kind of remembering. It’s a day for recognizing the ways in which, by means of much more than bones, those whom God has called saints have left us their witness. Physically. In bricks and mortar AND in bones AND in all kinds of other ways. This is what is sometimes called the “deposit of faith”, or Tradition. The witness of those who have died still lives on in ways that might surprise us. In our bank accounts in our churches, for one thing. In the hymnbooks in our hands. In our gestures. That witness might be in the very DNA we carry from faithful parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, all the way back to the apostles themselves.

Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. The scriptures want to tell us that this isn’t just the future and it’s not just the past. New life, in love, is what can be beginning, in hope and in the spirit, in our lives, right now. I am the Alpha and the Omega, says God in Revelations. The beginning and the end, the constant source of love and the memorial that can outlast each and every change, even the grave.

I watched what happened at the Kateri shrine after our guide went back to his office for a minute. Some of our little group of Lutherans wandered this way and that in the church. Some looked up at the frescoes. Some prayed quietly where they were for a minute. A few lit candles. Most went straight to the museum and the gift shop. Only a couple went to look at the bone. But nobody seemed all that bothered by it, one way or the other.

The most lasting memorial is love, however it is expressed. It can be expressed by a Roman Catholic guide who offers the best witness he has at his disposal, from his Tradition, to a group of strangers whom he wants to welcome. Love, says the Bible, endures. It is stronger than books AND bones, stronger even than the grave. Death will be no more, says the Lamb on the throne. But love goes on. Behold, I make all things new.

As we remember our loved ones with the sound of a bell and the smell and light of candles, and as we celebrate the faith that made those we remember saints, may these bones we inhabit really live. May the words of the prophet call forth the Spirit from the four winds, into our lives. And may the Almighty and the Ever-Gracious, the Lord of life, someday grant us, in our turn, the best, most real, and most lasting, memorial of life – a love that is remembered, physically remembered and lived out, even in, past and through, the grave that awaits but cannot contain us, God’s saints.

our guide