justice

Here’s to a positive, difficult non-rationality

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Voters these days seem more and more lazy and irrational. We are addicted to the easy sugar of slogans and of self-serving lies. Through history, to our shame, Christians have also been dangerously irrational. But always, thankfully, some of the faithful have also been NON-rational – not IRRational, – but non-rational, in a positive and difficult, discipleship, way; that is, revelatory, narrative and reaching for a dream that may never be realized, but makes life better in the meantime. Loving your neighbour, doing good for no return, giving up privilege for the sake of those who have none – these are also non-rational actions. They follow a dream of service, not selfishness. Luther wrote: ‘We are God’s work, and God’s poem. God himself is the Poet; we are the verses God creates (LW 7:366)”.  When we embrace this kind of non-rational openness, we open ourselves, not to slogans and lies, but to art, visions, and transformative dreams.

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Stop, Hey, What’s that Sound?

Gabe and Papa’s latest (January 2017) In light of recent events.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/201590711″>Stop, hey what's that sound. Gabe and Papa</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user32514305″>Matthew Anderson</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Again the Call

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‘Wait and see what Trump does.’ How many times have we heard that, lately. Such terrible uncertainty. Everywhere. But hasn’t it always been that way? Jesus called the first disciples during brutal military occupation. Martin Luther became a monk and then a reformer  during societal earthquakes. Martin Luther King was who he was because he lived out his dream during, and precipitating, crises that shook the world. And so again the call.  This Jesus walks by us too. And says: ‘follow me. NOW is the time. Despite: no – because of – the risk. Follow me.’

The Surprise

Chagall Chicago Art Inst of Design

Chagall window, Chicago

God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation, says Mary. NOT “God’s mercy is for the rich”. She didn’t say that. NOT God’s mercy is for the upper-class. She didn’t say that either. And neither did she congratulate the selfish who are increasingly rewarded in our society and by our politicians (and apparently, by our votes): the influence-peddlers and the professors in their offices and the business-people in their downtown towers. For the mighty one of Israel, Mary said, has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and  sent the rich away empty. Notice that word: empty. You and I –we’ve already had enough. Advent is about who we see and who we ignore, an announcement about place and privilege. It’s about justice. It’s about how much a cup of coffee costs, and who manufactures our shoes, and whether some government committee paid for by our taxes cuts funding for social programs. And it’s about our political and economic and environmental opinions just as much as our religious opinions. Because the surprise we’d better learn now, is that those things cannot be separated.

The Threshold

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A gate is an entry point. Or, depending on how you look at it, an exit point. Either way, a threshold is a place of potential, of encounter. It can also be a place to decide against encounter. Then Jesus said to his disciples. ‘There was a rich man dressed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man in his house. The poor man at his gate. Miles apart – even only a few feet. Doors – gates, borders – our liminal places – are INCREDIBLY important. Where we are in relation to them says a lot about our theology. Lazarus never, ever, made it into the rich man’s home. And the rich man never chose to go to the border of his own comfort. Later in the story, he PLEADS to go to a gate – from hell back to his home, to warn his brothers. But it’s too late. Father Abraham, the rich man begs, Let me go. If someone crosses the threshold from death to life they will listen. To which Abraham replies: let them listen to the scriptures. At our margins and borders (dangerous places: crucifixions take place at the borders of cities) we risk change. But only there, outside our comfort zone, can we share in the blessing of Abraham.

 

 

Vintage Love

Norwegian teapot

This last week I was in a used-items store in Verdun when something on one of the tables caught my eye. It was a 1960s teapot, white with green figures in peasant costumes. There was a man and two women at an outdoor picnic. I loved the design – in fact, it looked kind of familiar. I picked it up. Underneath was stamped: made in Norway. Wow, I thought. Norway. Right here in Verdun! I don’t remember this particular teapot. But given the fact that I was a child in the 60s, and with all the Norwegian-background families I grew up around (my church was called ‘St Olaf’s’), it wouldn’t be at all surprising that maybe I’d seen that exact design before. Definitely something from my past.

I loved it. So I carried it to the clerk at the cash.

Oh, she said, with a funny expression. I was wondering when someone would take that. She didn’t look entirely pleased. It’s one of my favourite pieces, she went on.

Now. Maybe store owners always say that, to make the customer feel good. But I don’t think that was the case here. She turned it gently in her hands and looked at it again. This one, she said….This one deserves a good home.

Well, I told her. I see it’s made in Norway. My grandparents came from Norway, and my father’s first language was Norwegian. She brightened a bit at that. Not that I’m all that Norwegian myself, I hastened to add. But I will DEFINITELY appreciate it.  At that she smiled. We had a little back and forth about what it’s like for her to go out looking for items, to spend time and attention and care on things and to have them in her store, just to have someone come along and take them away again. She wrapped the pot carefully and almost reluctantly handed me the bag. There, she said, I hope you enjoy it!

I will, I answered.

Then, just as I turned to leave, she blurted out again: make sure you take good care of that teapot. I want to hear that it’s in a good place.

Don’t worry, I reassured her. It will be!

All that, over a teapot. Don’t get me wrong. I’m already quite attached to it. But the teapot, and the fact that two sensible human beings were both so worried about giving a home to this inanimate object proves one thing: everything we do, we human beings do within a web of attachments, memories, hopes and desires. Life is never just a question of functionality. We’re so biologically and spiritually wired for contact and attachment that even a teapot – and the memories and culture and symbolism and life and expectations attached to it – can be important. You are with me, says the twenty-third psalm. You anoint my head with oil (which means – you call me your special one, the one YOU turn over in your hands and say: this one deserves special care and attention). You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You cancel all my appointments, and make me breathe and wipe the worry off my forehead  and anoint me with oil. And you do this in Mosul and Montreal and Attawapiskat. Whereever the need for justice and care are the greatest. Maybe the best and most valuable thing about shepherds, especially in light of what Jesus says in the Gospel, is simple. Maybe it’s just that a true Shepherd is always THERE. To relax in the presence of, to be oneself with. To be cared for. Like one is with a really great teapot, full of tea.

Life After Normal

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photo: Matthew R. Anderson

‘Do you love me?’ Jesus challenged Peter. ‘Lord, you know that I love you.’ ‘Then feed my sheep’.  ‘Simon, do you love me?’ A second time. Peter, wondering why again the question: ‘Lord, you know that I do.’ ‘Then feed my sheep.’ And again: Jesus being a bit pushy. ‘Simon, do you love me more than anything?’ Big Peter, stung now, maybe turning red, and being a man of quick temper maybe a bit angry: ‘Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.’

And finally, only then, Peter, always a bit dense, realizing too late what the importance of the number three was. Precisely how many times he’d betrayed Jesus. That’s a whole new kind of hope and life. It’s truth-telling, and repentance. It’s surprising, and life-GIVING rather than life-taking. As if all the hidden,  bad banks in Panama we’ve been hearing all about were suddenly to open their books and say: okay, now all of this money can go BACK. Take it. Take it back, back to the hospitals with their peeling paint and the falling down elementary schools that governments couldn’t keep open, and the health care workers being paid minimum wage, and the veterans who aren’t being given payments. All those austerity measures so the rich could get richer. Take it BACK! Let this wealth create life rather than destroy it.

John Mellencamp sings: “Life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.” Sometimes, there’s just no going back to normal. The Gospel of the resurrection is the sacred word that sometimes we shouldn’t even try – because normal wasn’t right to begin with.

The resurrected Jesus stands on the shoreline of our lives, calling out to us in our little boats. Don’t go back to normal, he shouts out. That’s done, now. You can grieve it, if you need to, but it’s gone. Come sit, and be quiet, and have a little something to eat. And then together, let’s talk about what you’ll do next, now that things have changed. Let’s sit and think and ponder whatever resurrection is needed in your own life.

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.

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photo by Matthew R. Anderson

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

Tree Lot on December 23

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Maybe one of the saddest things you can do, the evening of December 23rd, is to stand on a sidewalk and look at a Christmas tree lot. It’s like peering into the fairy-tale ballroom after Cinderella and the Prince have left. You see the evidence of something magical. But no actual magic. And no people. There are tags strewn about, needles stamped into the earth, bits of twine here and there from the wrapping machine, placards wired onto the fence advertising the prices– scotch pines, ten dollars a foot. A Big “Merry Christmas-Joyeux Noel” still stencilled on the entrance. But the party’s over. All that’s left is garbage.

Which is why it’s doubly hard to see a tree, on such a lot, hours before Christmas. A tree that apparently, no one wanted. I empathize with those trees. On the lot by the church in my neighbourhood last night, it was dark. The speakers on the lightposts in Verdun were still playing Christmas music: Jingle Bell Rock and Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas. But on the lot, the lights had been put out. A half-dozen trees leaned forlornly against slat fencing. No one even bothered to guard them– the gate was wide open. You want a tree? Go on in and take one, someone would have said. If someone had bothered to be there.

The trees, so valuable just a few days ago – are now for the asking. The problem is, no one’s asking. The bubble of Christmas tree speculation – if we can call it that – bursts somewhere during the evening of, probably, December 21st. A Christmas tree alone on Christmas Eve is as unwanted as a turkey after Thanksgiving. Worse, actually. Because at least a turkey can stay frozen. People get hungry again. No one gets the urge for a Christmas tree in January. Not even a beautiful ten-foot balsam fir. And because they’re cut, the tragedy is, no one can replant them. These living creatures have been sacrificed for absolutely nothing. Actually, less than nothing. They’re a liability.

So there I was, my hands full with last-minute groceries, looking into the lot, hearing the carols, and thinking about Christmas. And abandonment. I was remembering all the times in my life I’ve felt like one of those trees. The times I’ve been at some conference and realized that all the important people around me were being taken up, disappearing one by one into conversations, lunch-plans, networking, wanted for their value. And I was left behind. The times, so many years ago, when I was a teenager, when I sat at home alone, my social capital less than nothing. Times have changed, in my life. That’s not true anymore. But my memories still remind me what that’s like.

And then I thought about my students. All those young people, on the day they start CEGEP or college, trying so desperately to figure out what might get them a job five years down the road. It’s such a crap shoot. The stakes are high. Some of them will get it right. They’ll be the ones snapped up like the premium Christmas trees at the beginning of December. Many of them will get it partially wrong. But they’ll get picked up just the same, like the tree that’s a bit quirky but just right for that family in the small apartment, or the one that’s sold for a few dollars less. But after that, a few students will see the promise, feel the action so close but so far, and for any number of reasons, they will be passed over. They’ll wind up like these trees. Those are the people I said a prayer for, standing there.

Then I thought about Luther. Because doesn’t a person automatically think about Luther, looking into a Christmas tree lot?  Luther LOVED the Nativity. But he said, and I quote: the birth was pitiful. There was no one –those were his words: no one – to take pity on this young wife who was for the first time to give birth to a child; no one to take to heart her condition. She, a stranger, did not have the least thing a mother needs in a birth-night. There she is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, no one offering her service. Luke says, in describing Jesus’ birth, that the family was painfully unwanted. Desperate.

And then I thought about my tree, in my apartment. With its lights it glows in the dark and makes me feel warm just looking at it. On its branches I’ve placed the memories of so many beautiful places and people and encounters. G’s friend came for a visit yesterday and said it smelled great. These trees, I thought, looking at the ones scattered and alone in the dark lot – they will never have that moment of beauty.

As I was standing there, a young man who had been loitering across the street from me, under the awning of the metro, sauntered across, hands in his pockets. He looked in at the trees, like I was doing. I thought at first that he had come to ask me for change. But he ignored me. To my surprise, he stepped right past me, into the lot, and up to the abandoned tree I was looking at. And suddenly there was an old truck there, pulling up to the curb, and other young people, two bearded fellows and a woman, gloves on. As I watched they began to load the trees onto the back of the pick-up.

Wait a minute, Hey, wait! I called out to the first kid. What are you doing with these trees?

We’re rescuing them, he answered, with a smile.

What do you mean?

If we leave them they’ll just go into some landfill. The City has a recycling program, but they don’t come here. So we’re taking them. Why? Do you want one?

No.

He shrugged, Okay. Better for us. We can use them. These ones are the best. They’re not plugged up with tinsel and all that other crap (actually, he didn’t use the word crap).

What do you do with them?

The young man evaluated me, but only for a second. With my hands full of shopping bags, and my Anglophone accent, it was pretty clear I wasn’t some sort of city authority.

We take them to our farm, and we grind them up, he answered. Well, not all of them. The really misshapen ones we use as bird-feeders. They’re perfect, like this guy here – he indicated one particularly straggly, ugly tree. We’ll hang bags of suet from his branches and the birds will just love to make a home in him.

The other ones – he nodded to the rest – well. He hoisted one in his hands. They’ll give their wood to mulch and their needles to the strawberries. They don’t make good Christmas trees. But they’re far more valuable for us. They’ll help new life grow, by sheltering the berries under their needles.

And then the fellow jumped in, and the truck took off, and I was left alone again. And I stood there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, and I thought about Christmas again, and about the angels above the hills of Bethlehem, and what it was they were actually singing to the shepherds. About a God who picks out – and picks up – ESPECIALLY the unwanted and the abandoned. The ones left behind. Who uses even that, even loneliness, and death, and injustice and oppression and the stripping away of beauty, as a way of bringing new life to the world. Who has never stopped, as it turns out, being the Creator. And I realized that there is more than one way to be noble. And many ways to be of service. And that the true message of Christmas is in a refugee child, leaning against a fence, forgotten but not alone, whose life means hope and whose death shelters new life, again and again, always Christmas. Always, evergreen.

candles in the snow

Who’s Missing at Christmas

Chagall Chicago Art Inst of Design

I have a confession to make. I haven’t made a parcel for my son D. yet this Christmas. This has been on my mind a lot the last few days. I haven’t gotten something together and baked cookies and wrapped up little reminders of home and sent it all away via Canada Post. Christmas morning will come, and way off in England somewhere, D. and his girlfriend E. will wake up, and brush the sleep out of their eyes, and get some fresh coffee, and stretch and yawn, and then they’ll sit and open presents. And there won’t be anything from Daniel’s pappa. Me. And the worst part is: it’s too late now. I could make all kinds of excuses: it’s final exam marking time, there are so many emails going back and forth about the Finnish and Estonian churches, the research for the book on pilgrimage is taking too long. Things were crazy-busy at the university. All true. But really, is any of that an excuse? I just haven’t been paying enough attention.

At this time of year, one of the questions that comes up, in very many families, is who will be missing this Christmas? We don’t just decorate the table – we start to think about who will be around it. And who won’t. Sometimes it’s because of a death. This is the first Christmas for me without my mother. Some of you have lost loved ones in the last couple of years. You know how hard that is. Sometimes it’s because of distance, as it is for me with my middle son. Sometimes it’s for other reasons. Children grow up and go to their partners’ parents, or have Christmasses of their own. Sons or daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters, are off at school, or away traveling. Maybe there’s been a rupture in the family. That’s especially difficult it seems, at Christmas, in what is supposed to be a season of love and forgiveness. There’s a reason that this is also the season of greatest depression and anxiety. “I’ll be home for Christmas” isn’t just the title of a song. It’s a feeling we have in our heart. It’s an urge, almost instinctive, to be home, wherever we feel home is. It’s an unconscious, powerful urge to gather in loved ones under our wings.

One of the ironies of Christmas, is that that warm, family, clannish keeping track of who is home and who is away is actually not very Christmassy. If, by Christmas, we mean the first one.

The first announcement wasn’t about pulling the family all together. It was, instead, about expanding the very notion of family. Blessed are you among women, cries out Elizabeth, as if she can’t help herself: and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why? Because Jesus was going to help his family? Actually, no. As it turns out, he was about to tear his family apart. And a sword will pierce your heart also, the old prophet Simeon warns Mary about her future. This kid will be trouble. But for humanity – well, that was something different. This child was born to expand the whole concept of family, to include, in the sense of all the prophets of Israel, all those people traditionally left out.

God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. NOT the rich. Not the upper-class. Not the influence-peddlers and intellectuals and business-people. For the mighty one of Israel has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things – even better than a Canada Post box from home – and God has sent the rich away empty.

Who is missing this Christmas is an issue that has to do, not with sentimentality and longing, but with who we see and who we ignore.

Christmas, according to Luke, is NOT about happy faces around a table where everyone is related to us. We know that. Of course. But it bears repeating. Christmas is much tougher, and more real. It’s about raw power. It’s about justice, and injustice. It’s about how much a cup of coffee costs, and who manufactures our shoes, and whether some government committee paid for by our taxes cuts funding for social programs. And God’s choice, this Christmas, is as it was the first Christmas, is NOT for US. It’s for the refugee, and the migrant, and the outsider, and the poor, and the working poor. God chooses to lift up, not the rich, not the happy, and not even the middle-class. God’s incarnation was and is, to lift up the lowly.

Blessed are you among women, says Elisabeth. Because God is doing something important through you. In you, God is already lifting up the lowly, and remembering the long-standing promise.

Mary is, in a Biblical sense, the spoiler. When you think about it, she’s a lot like the whole Biblical nation of Israel wrapped up in one person. For just as God once chose a weak, insignificant nation of slaves, so God once chose a weak, insignificant girl.

Firstly, she was a girl. At a time when women were property only one step up from the furniture, God chose of all people, a woman. In addition, she was young – we don’t know quite how young, but young. And finally, she was caught in a scandal, in a society not so different from the societies today where a young woman in Mary’s place would be murdered brutally by her own family for so-called shame of getting pregnant.

This was the one God chose as the theotokos, or: “God-bearer”. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, she replies to the angel. For God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

The message for us is this. If God chose someone as weak and insignificant as Mary for something so important and powerful, then SURELY God continues to choose the weak and insignificant around us. And we need have no shame when we feel that way. AND: we should be ashamed when we ignore the theotokai – the weak and insignificant – who are the prophetic witnesses to what is important and real in our own world.

In the Paris climate talks that just wrapped up, one of the things we learned is that climate change isn’t just about protecting ourselves. It’s about justice. Because it’s more often than not the poorest who are the first to feel the effects of unstable climate. So climate change is once more, a question of how we work out our faith, or fail to.

In Judea, in Paris, in Montreal, wherever you are, God is in the business of using nobodies to perform powerful foolishness. Like Mary said: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has helped this servant, in remembrance of such a great mercy.”

My urge, this Christmas, like yours perhaps, is to bring the family together as much as possible. I want to know who’s missing at Christmas. Somehow to include my son in England. And that’s not a bad thing. But God wants me – God wants us – to think even BIGGER. Who’s missing at Christmas isn’t just the son who isn’t getting a parcel on time. It’s the one who never gets a parcel, the one who waits at the border, the one who lives on a reservation without drinkable water.

What can we do?

We can say with Mary my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God. And then we can let justice be born in us. Even when we are nobodies, worth almost nothing, we CAN do that, with love for Christ and for each other. For we are like Mary in one last, important way. When we think we have and are nothing, but we are open to the announcement of the angel, that’s when God can use us most of all.