Month: February 2016

Grandpa, you were right

Grandpa

photo of John Golling, by Matthew R. Anderson

My grandfather – my mother’s father – was a character. As a young man he’d been a handsome fellow who worked on the railroad all across the northern United States. By the time I remember him, he was a tough and crazy old man. He lived out on my uncle’s farm. Or that’s where he sat, in a chair, in the corner of the farmhouse, and preached. As far as I could tell, he didn’t do much on the farm except some cooking. But he liked to express his opinion. All day long. And he had LOTS of opinions.

It’s the big money people, he’d always say, shaking a bony finger at me. I found this thin, bony old man with the piercing blue eyes more than a little scary. Don’t you ever forget that. When I picture Old Testament prophets, I see him, because that’s what he looked like. All emaciated, bone and ropy sinew, chin stubbly and startling, bright blue eyes wild: It’s the BIG MONEY PEOPLE, he’d rail. Damn them! We’re the little people. We’re just pawns. They’re the ones running this world. They don’t care about you and me. Only the almighty pocketbook!

Some men came to Jesus and told him to be careful about what he was saying. Get away from here, they told him, Herod wants to kill you. Kill the man, kill the message. Jesus was saying uncomfortable things. He was, as they say, speaking truth to power, which gets you crucified. Traditionally when scholars talk about this passage, they call it “Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem”. But the essence isn’t really Jerusalem. It’s my grandpa. It’s a bit of a rant about power.

Oh Jerusalem, says Jesus. You can almost see him shaking his finger, like my grandpa. Oh Jerusalem:YOU BIG MONEY PEOPLE. See, your house is left to you. In other words – the crash is coming. And I tell you, you will not see me again until the time when you say: ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord’.

In Jesus, we see something else about prophecy. Real, honest, reproof is there, not to deflate us, but to take care of us. To nurture us and heal us and make us healthier and more whole. Like a hen who keeps her errant chicks warm and safe.

I don’t know if you noticed this, but did you see who it was who tried to warn Jesus? None other than those same people who are traditionally painted as his enemies: the Pharisees. THEY were the ones who came to Jesus to say: “Get away from here – Herod wants to kill you.”

I used to think my grandfather was crazy. Maybe he was, a little. I used to think his words about how it was the big-money people manipulating everything were incredibly naïve. I grew up to scorn him, a bit. To think he was a conspiracy thinker and a bit loony.

Then came the Gulf War. All those Iraqis dying, and some mostly poor, mostly black, American kids. For the sake of what? Oil. Somebody’s profits. Then came Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans. And the levies, which government report after government report had said to fix, but never were because they were in poor neighbourhoods, were washed away, and the lives of so many poor African-Americans with them. Then came the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and people got sick but nobody paid. Then came the financial crisis, and who gets bailed out together with their huge severance packages? The poor people who lost their homes? No: the bankers.

Maybe my grandfather wasn’t so crazy after all.      

Jesus was a thorn in the side of the rich, powerful, political elite of his day, centred in Jerusalem. Don’t buy into their schemes, he told his disciples and anyone who would hear him. Love is free. The world is yours, not theirs. Is it any wonder he wound up the way he did?

To be a person of faith is to believe our Creator can and does still, somehow, speak to us. If we hear words that pick at us a bit, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Not everything my grandfather said was worth listening to. But he was right about this: there are powers in this world that ARE evil, because they side with death and don’t care about life. In that struggle, we need to be on the side of those who celebrate, share, and preserve LOVE. Jesus said so, with his life. In this one thing, at least, grandpa was right.

harold

photo by Matthew R. Anderson

(this last photo is not actually my grandfather but still a relative, who reminds me of him sometimes)

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We Call it Winter

Today, with how cold it was, I got out the gear. Actually it was kind of fun. Snow pants, long special mitts good to -40 Celsius, thermal underwear, Russian-style hat, boots. Since this winter has been, generally, so mild, it’s okay – maybe even good – when every now and then the temperature drops. Nobody is complaining about the cold snap. So long as you’re prepared, you’re okay. Right?

Jesus, apparently didn’t have much preparation time for his excursion in extreme conditions. Luke says that Jesus returned from the Jordan river area and was led into the wilderness. Just like that. No prep time.

That word – wilderness, and the mental and physical and spiritual space it represents – is important. We Canadians have our own form of wilderness. We call it winter. We’re proud of it and scared of it, at the same time. Like the people of the middle east, or peoples anywhere, and their wild places. In the Bible the wilderness represents more or less what the hardest times of winter represent for us Canadians – a place of deprivation, but also of challenge, and survival. Also, and very importantly, the wilderness represents a place where Israel, and later Jesus, and later, the early Christians, consistently meet God. In that struggle for survival and meaning they define their true identity.

Interesting, how that works. It’s the HARD places, the difficult circumstances, where we tend to find our true characters under stress, AND where our Creator is to be found. The wilderness is a place that allows us, in fact, drives us, to meet our Maker. It’s just us and the elements, the most basic needs to survive. Lent represents our time in the cold. Our winter.

Drinking Wine for Lent

wine bottle BC

On the morning of Ash Wednesday several years ago, a devout Christian friend of mine went to see his spiritual adviser. This person happened to be an elderly neighbour. My friend had known her for years. He trusted her completely; she’d guided him through some difficult times in his life. He’d gone to see her that morning for advice on how best to mark Lent, the traditional Christian season of preparation.

When you get home after the Ash Wednesday service, she told him, I have a very specific task for you. Yes, yes, he replied eagerly. You cannot and must not falter in it, she went on, seriously. What could the discipline she was thinking of possibly be, he wondered? Perhaps she was going to ask him to fast. My friend has given up chocolate for Lent almost every year since he was sixteen, and most years he gives up alcohol. Depending on the year, he’s set himself various other disciplines as well, such as praying before sunrise, not watching any TV, not eating Fridays, or abstaining from tea or coffee. Just about everything. Yes, he said to his mentor, almost impatiently. What is it I should do for my spiritual edification?

I want you to go home, she told him.

Yes!

Straight home, mind you. She shook her finger at him.

Yes.

Promise?

Promise.

And go to your kitchen…

Yes!

Then pour yourself a nice big glass of wine and RELAX!

What? My friend was in shock. Why would his mentor say that?

There are two parts to what Jesus relates in Matthew. The first is about how we’re supposed to do what we do. When you fast, says Jesus (notice: when, not if), don’t let anyone know it. Surprise even yourself if that’s possible. Just do it. Naturally. And when you give money or time to a good cause, do that also, yes. But be so careless about the whole thing that your right hand won’t let your left hand know what you’re doing. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. Instead, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus isn’t talking about piety. He isn’t talking about good works. And he ISN’T talking about Lenten disciplines. Jesus is talking about attachments. (By the way Jesus almost sounds Buddhist). For most of us, our problem is not giving up riches, which we don’t have tons of anyway. Sure we could use texts like this to poke fun at Donald Trump. But he’s not our problem. At least, not yet.

We’re not attached to great fortunes, most of us. But we have unhealthy, problematic attachments just the same. My friend was wrongly, dangerously, unspiritually attached to some otherwise very good disciplines. It seems odd, but it’s true. Even monks can argue over who stays on their knees praying the longest. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Even if that treasure is the respect of other pious people, or our place in the pecking order of those serious people who really give up something, or our feeling of happiness over being good, or the small glory of being seen to be smart or organized or useful or especially, in our world, BUSY.

Pour yourself a big glass of wine – and relax! It might not be for everyone. But in my friend’s case, the advice was dead on. Avoid any attachment, this neighbour was saying, except the only attachment necessary. For I have given up all things, says Paul, and I consider them all rubbish, except one: the surpassing glory of knowing my Lord Jesus, and being found in him.

There. Christians should be attached to THAT. Being found in Jesus, even if drinking wine during Lent, is a true Lenten discipline, indeed.

Really Seeing Harold

1507_1611harold_matthew_white_valley

This last summer on my pilgrimage across Saskatchewan, we walked an average of about 20 kilometres a day. The journey took place the end of July and the beginning of August. The days were boiling hot, 10 hours a day under a beating sun. The nights could actually get quite cool, in the hills down to four or five degrees. You had to be ready for anything. We faced heatstroke, cold, lightning, constant wind, limited water supplies, poorly-marked trails, and sore feet. So the last week when a senior citizen named Harold asked if he could join in, I was a bit skeptical.

It wasn’t so much that Harold didn’t look fit. He just looked OLD. I couldn’t tell how old, exactly. But old.

Are you sure this is going to be okay? I asked my friend Hugh. Hugh was walking the whole trail with me. Hugh was in top shape, had done most of the planning and had a good sense of what we were facing, better than I did. Don’t forget, I thought: any group is only as fast as its slowest walker.

It should be okay, Hugh responded. I’ve known Harold a long time. He might surprise you.

The first day Harold showed up, he came with an ancient orange back pack, the kind I had back in the 1970s. Oh no, I thought. Here we go. And he was slow – a bit. He lagged behind, a tad. But he never once complained. And when the rest of us stopped for a break, Harold kept going, so that he never actually slowed anyone down that first day.

The second day, Harold’s backpack looked different. What did you do to it, I asked him? I’m carrying more weight today, he said. And I’ll carry more tomorrow. My intent is to build up the weight until I can carry everything I need on my own back.

Now. None of us were doing that. We were ALL getting our tents and supplies ferried from one spot to another, just carrying our needs for the day. But Harold was determined to carry everything. And he did. Over the next five days he kept adding stuff to his pack until he was carrying his tent, his food, and all his gear.

And he got faster. By the end of the third day, I noticed that Harold was fairly consistently ahead of me. On the fourth day, we came to a set of hills. Where the rest of us took the lower route around, Harold looked up. “I’m a hydrologist,” he said. “As a scientist I’m really interested in rock formations. I’ll just go up these hills to have a look and meet you at camp.” And he did. We went around, he walked UP. And up. I could see him striding off into the distance.

On the fifth day, I was up early. Unlike the rest of us who had real tents, Harold slept in a sort of plastic sheet. As I watched, he came out it, and stretched, then sat on the ground and made himself tea. He didn’t seem to be half as sore, or as krinked up from sleeping, as I was, and the ground in that spot was NOT warm. He and I had become friends over the walk, so I walked over to where he was, and asked a question I’d been wondering for some time: “if you don’t mind my asking Harold, exactly how old ARE you?”

This man who had transformed, in those few days, into a master backpacker looked back at me and smiled. “How old do you think I am?”

Jesus, it says, was CHANGED in a wild and crazy X-files moment when Moses and Elijah suddenly appeared and the lights of heaven all came on. Transfiguration means changing. But instead of Jesus changing, maybe what really happened that day, what really changed, were the eyes of the disciples.

It’s like Harold. In the space of a few short days, a quiet, struggling elderly man had changed before my eyes. But my question is: did he change? Or was it really me?

In the Sustainability and Diversity class I teach at Concordia one of our readings is by a scientist by the name of Marten Scheffer. Scheffer describes a mechanism of perception that is almost universal in nature. It has a technical name, but we can call it “locking in perceptions”. It’s a way of quickly assessing sensory inputs. What happens – whether you’re a human being or a frog, apparently – is that if you see something that LOOKS like something you’re familiar with, your brain jumps to “lock in” that image or perception quickly, so you can react. We see what looks like a bear and our adrenaline kicks in, before we necessarily get all the information to fill in our initial sensory impressions.

That’s a good mechanism for survival. But not necessarily for judgment.

Often we just don’t see others for who they are. Most of the time, we don’t even see OURSELVES for who we are. When we do, it’s so shocking and so rare we call those moments “revelations”.

Does anyone see in you evidence of the little girl you once were in the old country? The little boy who used to shine his father’s shoes? Is there anyone in this world who can look at you and see the time you travelled, or the books that changed your life, or the time you won the swim meet, or that evening you skated in a magic winter landscape when the trees were frosted, or the key shaking in your hand when you bought your first house, or when you went through that terrible winter, or you shared that wonderful love, or whatever it was that has happened to you to make you the person you are? It’s not a mistake that that’s one of the lines of “Amazing Grace” is exactly that. “I once was blind, but now I see”. Enlightenment means starting to see each other and our world, in an Amazingly Graceful way. Seeing this way means seeing not necessarily the way things are but the way things REALLY are. Behind and through failure, and brokenness, and death, and suffering, and decay. Seeing the life that God is calling up, that we can’t even guess at. The parts of us still hidden in the cross.

So how old do you think Harold is?

I’m 79, he said to me, slowly. I was a rock climber, for years. I was a field scientist for decades. And now, he said, as he shouldered that heavy backpack, and started off ahead of me: I guess I’m a pilgrim, too.

Our Creator promises to see us the way we really are. NOT with the limits and prejudices and preconceptions we normally exercise. How wonderful is that. And what a great and graceful Transfiguration.

1507_1563pilgrimage_white_valley_sk

photos by James R. Page