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Life of a Montréaler Dept: I find out today is Sunday is something called “Kodumaalt Lahkumise Jumalateenistus” (Leaving Estonia ahead of the advancing Russian Army Sunday). Such a thing exists? So I include prayers for modern-day refugees. As the Estonians file in for church, there are two visitors who happen to speak only Russian. What are the chances? They want to know if I will take their book, in Russian, and find a translator for the Finns, the other group I am responsible for. They may be Karelians with links to Finland, but I can’t tell. So I wave at the replacement organist for my Estonian service, who happens to have moved to Montreal from Ukraine. She comes over and they talk, in Russian, about the Finns, while I put the finishing touches on the Estonian-English liturgy about fleeing the Russians. Another day as a Lutheran in Montreal.
A week ago I woke up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. I had my cell phone, which is a little black rectangle the size of my hand, on which I do my banking, take my pictures, shoot video, get directions when I’m traveling, write poetry, and check updates from high school friends I haven’t seen in 30 years, right by my bed. When I woke up I saw I had text messages from my kids in Montreal: ‘when are you coming home?’ ‘I’ll be there in a few hours,’ I wrote back. Crossing the Atlantic in a few hours? ‘Oh, okay,’ they wrote back. ‘C U later. We weren’t sure if it was today or tomorrow.’ I had breakfast in my hotel, got on a train that took me straight to the airport, where I had to stand in a machine that whirred around me and looked through my clothes and probably into my body cavities, to make sure that I wasn’t bringing anything bad on board. Then I filed onto a metal bird weighing hundreds of tons, as high on its wheels as my three-story apartment, and carrying as many people as live in many Canadian small towns. We went really, really fast down a runway until we lifted up into the air and through it at over 500 kilometres an hour. About two thirds of the way into the flight, I checked on a little screen in front of me and I saw that we were going right over Greenland. I’ve looked down from a plane before and you can see, on a clear day, the glaciers of Greenland and the mountain peaks. It’s a perspective that the ancient Vikings thought only the gods would ever have: looking down on the ball of the earth from five miles up. And then that huge mountain of metal safely landed, and I got home, and a week later looked at the texts for this Sunday. And I thought: this will never work. I have nothing to say. These texts are all about miracles. And there are no such things as miracles.
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.
It’s always bothered me. In John’s version of Easter, Mary, when finally she turns around and bumps into Jesus, thinks he’s the gardener. Isn’t that a more than a little bit strange? I’m sure I’m not the only one. After all, we know who’s supposed to be Jesus. And unlike us, Mary was there. She’d known Jesus. But she sees him at the grave and – very strange – instead of being overjoyed doesn’t even recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener. That just doesn’t make sense. It had only been, what? Thirty-six hours?
The whole thing is weird. Despite church tradition the first (human) words from the resurrection aren’t really “he is risen”. The first words from the resurrection are really “who are you?” Not an assertion, but an ongoing question, the same one we’ve been asking 2000 years.
Maybe it was the shock. Maybe it was Mary’s grief, blinding her to the man standing right in front of her. Those are all good, rational arguments. But for me, there’s another, more interesting possibility.
Maybe, I wonder, maybe new life ALWAYS changes our appearances somehow. Maybe the kind of passage from death to life that we celebrate strips away everything, like a fire, and only leaves the real person that the Creator intended. Including with Jesus.
Maybe reality is upside down, and it’s not that the resurrection isn’t real so much as what we’re living right now might not be. Maybe it’s not so much that we change, but that, given enough love and time, and perhaps some divine intervention, we become, if we’re lucky, who we really are.
Imagine being a tadpole. Your whole life has been in a pond. All you know is water. That’s the limit of your comprehension. And one day, your close friend, another tadpole, disappears. You think she’s gone, but she’s just following nature, which means that there’s a resurrection of a sort going on. She’s changing into the adult. A toad. Something all of you tadpoles don’t even suspect exists, even though it’s coming for all of you. Then, one day, from somewhere, somehow, into the water dives this magnificent creature from beyond. Not a tadpole. Something completely different. And yet you sort of recognize her. If that happened, it would alter everything you believed about reality, there in the tadpole world. Maybe Jesus became who he really was, who we will ALL someday be, only by going through the suffering he did. That’s certainly is the case for other people. I can safely say that at 56, my sufferings have changed me, and I know I’m not alone.
Easter doesn’t mean life eternal. It means life after death – or maybe better, through death. The spring of our lives is upon us, but there will never be a spring without a winter, and every winter, no matter how hard, carries spring in its bosom. Northern Europeans know that well enough. May God give us the eyes, and the hope, and the expectation, actually to believe, see and trust in THAT kind of resurrection.
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.
This last week a friend of mine, Orit Shimoni (http://www.oritshimoni.com/), came to town to perform. She’s also sometimes known as Little Birdie. Years ago she did graduate studies at Concordia, which is where I met her. Now, she tours all over the world playing her music. The place she sang at last Wednesday was a café on Cote-St-Luc road (not very far from here). It’s a small venue – fits maybe thirty people. She did the set with just a guitar and nothing else, so the words were really clear. Orit’s got kind of a theological bent to her music, which is one of the reasons I like it. One set of lyrics in particular struck me. It was about Cana, sort of.
Apparently, in Cana, in Galilee (that is, in the north of Israel), Jesus and his disciples were attending a local wedding. During the reception, more by chance than anything, Jesus performed his first miracle. He turned water into wine. But for her song Orit turned the words around. “If I could turn wine into water,” she sang, “you would not be alone.” Wine into water? What did she mean? “If I could turn wine into water,” she sang again, “a path to you I’d find.”
Oh, I thought. Oh.
There’s a tragedy behind that song. I didn’t ask her, but I think it’s about alcoholism. Orit sings a lot of sad songs, and songs with bite. But this one in particular has a ring. IF I could turn wine into water. Meaning: I can’t. And even though I don’t know the details, and I don’t know if it’s even about Orit: whoever that song is about couldn’t make a miracle. That’s what the song is about. That person couldn’t stop the alcoholism. Couldn’t turn wine into water. And so now, instead of singing about a happy future, the song is about regret.
Makes for a great song. But a sad memory.
In the Bible story, the bride and groom, in fact, the whole wedding party, are headed for a disaster. Not an earthquake, ice-storm, tsanami kind of disaster. But the small kind of disaster we all run into every day and all hate: a major glitch. A screw-up: the wedding reception was about to run out of wine.
Now. This is not the worst thing that could ever happen. But if you’re the bride and groom, or the person responsible for the reception, it’s bad enough. No wine means unhappy guests. Probably guests leaving. So it says that Jesus’ mother stands up from where she’s seated, and makes her way over to see him.
The writer makes it clear that Jesus and his disciples were at the wedding in Cana, NOT to face any tests, but just to enjoy themselves. It’s not even clear if Jesus knew the wedding couple. I imagine in the hills of Galilee, it might have been a bit like some Italian weddings I’ve been to, where the whole neighbourhood is invited.
In any case, when we meet him Jesus is off in a corner, well-hidden. He’s out of the spotlight and wanting to keep it that way. But then the wedding runs out of wine.
Mary’s clearly a mother who knows her own kid better than he seems to know himself. She comes to his table and announces: “they have no more wine.” As if the next step is obvious. “They have no more wine – now, do you want to leave your own mother without a glass of Chardonnay?” Quite naturally, Jesus responds: “what does that have to do with me?” I love that. This is NOT the pious, angel-faced, head-upturned or downturned Virgin Mary we see in statues so often with her hands clasped meekly at her side. This is a tough Jewish mother who knows what her son is capable of, and won’t take no for an answer.
You would think that the Lord speaking should be enough for any human being. But no. Mary ignores Jesus completely. The Son of God, the Lord of Life, and what does she do? She goes back to her own table. And tells the servants: “do whatever he tells you.” She KNOWS he’s going to fall in line! The fact that the Bible treats a lack of wine as a disaster is already interesting. But that’s NOT the main point. The main point, at least in my thinking, has to do with the water.
You can imagine Jesus sighing and shaking his head. Once a kid, always a kid, even Jesus. Do you see those stone jars over there, he tells the servants? Fill them to the brim with water. Then, he says, go, take a jug, and fill it up from those same stone jars, and take it to the chief steward.
And so, timidly, one of them does.
This is where you and I come in. You and I are that one scared servant. Like the woman my friend Orit was singing about, you and I don’t have the power to do miracles. If we could, we would.
All we can do is carry the miracle. Every time we get together, every time we pray, and especially every time we go OUT in Jesus’ name and try to do something for the world, we’re the poor, terrified, uncertain servants. Just like at Cana, it’s all simple stuff – water, bread, wine. Or maybe in our cases, it’s a hug, or a song, or an ear, or a moment’s time, or a few dollars, or a few words. Now draw it out, Jesus tells us, even though it looks like simple water, and take it to the world.
So. If we’re faithful, if we’re trusting, and more often than that, even if we’re doubting, we do that. We draw the water out of our unremarkable, unmiraculous lives. Because ultimately, THAT’S ALL WE HAVE. Then we go. We carry what we fear might be way too ordinary, to a world that doesn’t expect or believe in miracles, but like the wedding guests need them just the same. And if it turns out that the water is just water, then, like St Paul said, we’re the greatest fools of all.
It took faith for whoever that first nameless servant was, to take a jug of what he or she was pretty sure was worthless, and take it to the head steward of the whole feast. And it takes faith for you and I to do OUR simple commissions, with our simple lack of resources and abilities. But we have to. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That is how we will be judged.
And just in case you and I think we have nothing to offer, we should think of the news story from CBC this last week. Did you hear about it, or read about it? There was a fourteen year old kid who was begging on the street, saying he was homeless, and in the midst of that terrible cold of this past week, although a few folks gave some change, guess who was the ONLY person to stop and offer this kid a coat – in fact, the coat off of his own back? The only person to help was another street person, an Inuk man, Putulik Kumaq, originally from Nunavut, but homeless on Montreal streets for the past 17 years. It turned out that the 14 year old kid was doing a school project and was being filmed secretly by his brother, which is the only reason we know about this selfless act.
Anytime we say we have nothing to give, we can remember the servants, who were just asked to carry water, and we can remember Putulik, who said “it’s cold, and I had a feeling he needed help”.
On the third day, it says, there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and here, amid the food, and drink, the visiting and gossiping and the stuff of life, Jesus did the first of his signs.
Wine from water is just the beginning. That is the real point. In your life and mine, wine from water is nothing, compared to what our Creator can do. You are carrying miracles, if only you know it, says the Creator of singers who come to Montreal, of street people and poets, of Putulik and Paul, and of you and me.
To see Orit playing the song, watch:
It’s January third. And I think it’s safe to say that this year, there’s not a lot of optimism. New Year’s Eve I was at a small dinner party. One of the people there had prepared some lovely cards with questions on them that went around the table and we all had to answer. When the questions were about last year, each of us shared warm memories. It was great. Lots of laughter. But then came the question: “what significant happenings do you expect on the world stage in 2016?” And all of a sudden, you could feel the chill. Each of us had wonderful recollections of the year past. But most of us were quite apprehensive about the year coming. War, violence, financial crisis, disease, climate change, breakdown. One after another we laid out forecasts of doom. That’s what we saw in the stars.
When the Magi heard the king, it says, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star they’d seen at its rising.
Apparently, not all stars say the same thing. At our dinner party, we saw bad things. Trouble, and difficulty, and pain, and disaster, despite our fairly rosy personal stories. But according to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi also followed a star, right to the Messiah.
So which is it? Will our coming year be guided by a star of great difficulty, or a star leading to Bethlehem? Which ways are we being led?
Epiphany is such an important moment that every year it surprises me we don’t make more of it. It’s huge. If it wasn’t for Epiphany, there’d be no Christian faith, as we know it. Without the kind of trip commemorated today, those of us from European ancestry, at least, might still be worshipping the god of some oak tree or other in the vast, dark, northern forests.
To put it another way: Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew and died a Jew. That is fact. Insofar as anyone in his day believed he was a Messiah, it was a Jewish Messiah. “Born to set his people free” as the old hymn says, emphasis on HIS people. That we who are non-Jews got in on the Jesus thing is actually kind of surprising. If wasn’t God’s plan – which of course, Christians believe it WAS – then it’s one of the greatest ironies of history (as Nietsche believed!). Christianity is what happens when Israel’s Messiah comes and everyone believes it BUT Israel.
We Christians are not the originators of the Christmas story. And we’re not even its first and most important recipients. Yet, according to Matthew, we were at least invited to the party. How do we know this? Because of Epiphany. Because of the Magi, the first non-Jewish worshippers, following the star to find the baby, born in Bethlehem.
So the very first image we get of our own spiritual ancestors is that they were pilgrims (which is, of course, great for me to be able to say!). They were outsiders, and foreigners, and seekers. They were also a little bit lost.
I started out asking which star you thought this year might be hanging in our skies: a star of difficulty and danger, or a star leading to the love and transformation of the Christ child. The irony is: they are probably both the same star. And isn’t that a pretty good description, maybe, of who WE should be, following it? Pilgrims, outsiders, foreigners, and seekers – despite often being a little bit lost.
A friend of mine was recently riding his bicycle when he was pulled over by the police. He was on the sidewalk, which is illegal. But. He was also going through the Atwater underpass, where there is no bike lane, and LOTS of scary traffic. In some spots there are just inches to spare between you and the cars. A driver swerves slightly, and they’ll knock you down. Not to mention the potholes. You may remember that a cyclist died not long ago going through an underpass like Atwater. After that, the mayor of Montreal, among other people, has told cyclists that they should take the sidewalk on those small stretches in underpasses where NOT to do so would be dangerous.
Apparently the Montreal police haven’t been listening to the mayor. When my friend came through the underpass on the sidewalk, the police were waiting. They pulled him over and hit him with a fifty-dollar ticket. As it turned out, however, that was only the first of his problems.
Give us your ID, the police said to him. Now. My friend is a nice guy. In his fifties. Grey hair. Clean-shaven, riding his bicycle home from his job downtown. Maybe even wearing his dress shirt, and a tie. But he knows the law, and so he said to the police: “I’ll give you my name and address so you can send me the ticket. But the law states I don’t have to give you my ID. No Canadian has to surrender their ID on demand to the police unless they’re being placed under arrest.”
He was right.
However, right isn’t always what’s important, apparently. Within seconds the Montreal City Police had my friend handcuffed, his hands behind his back. They marched him into the back of a police van. They started yelling into his face. Telling him he would be thrown in jail for obstructing justice. Telling him he was going to get a police record and never be able to cross the border into the United States again.
They searched his pockets, pulled out a USB stick that he had, and then, right in front of his eyes, broke it in half. All because he wanted his legal rights.
They say religion and politics don’t mix. Whoever said that didn’t know the Bible. My friend is not religious. But I’m saying that faith has something to say to what you and I should think of a situation like that. In fact, religion and politics mix ALL THE TIME.
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together, it says in the Bible, and they came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him: appoint for us a king.
Samuel tried to tell them.
You don’t WANT a king, the old prophet said to them. Rulers are a BAD idea. Rulers will do what they do best. They’ll tax you. They’ll form a police who will oppress you. They’ll make you slaves. They’ll take your children and put them in their armies and then your children won’t come home. A government will take your money, your food, your security and eventually, sometimes, your life. And they’ll do all this, just because they’re rulers, and you’re not. Are you sure you want a king?
And the people of ancient Israel said: Yes.
You know what they say: be careful what you wish for. Because now what are WE, and most people in the so-called developed countries asking for? Security. And we’re being asked if we’re willing to pay what that dream might cost.
True faith has never been particularly comfortable with governments. Now – for me to say that is controversial. It’s not an opinion everyone shares. But there’s a reason why the Bible says: “God is a jealous god.” and “You shall have no other gods.” It’s idolatry to mix up our faith with nationalism. The Kings were NOT good for Israel. Similarly, there’s a reason why Jesus died the way he did. Jesus did NOT die helping plague victims. Jesus was killed by a state, and in the name of law and order. Jesus was executed, as a troublemaker (remember my friend) by a legal government. A government, by the way, that was promising peace, prosperity and security.
Just before Jesus died something else happened that was interesting. The Gospels say that Pilate led Jesus out onto the pavement in front of the mob: “Would you have me crucify your King?” Pilate asked. And the crowds, although they didn’t know it, echoed the ancient Israelites. Jesus stood right there, in front of them. And they shouted back: “We have no king but Caesar!”
In other words, one more time people picked a man over their Creator.
The point here isn’t any specific government. The point is about giving up what the Creator first gave us – ourselves. This whole issue is about sovereignty. According to the Bible, we human beings are created in the image of God. We were given sovereignty over ourselves, in order to freely serve our neighbors, including animals and the natural world. And yet, rather than think like saints, rather than act as agents of love just a little lower than the angels, rather than risk uncertainty, most of us quickly give ourselves up voluntarily to corporations or parties or whatever else tends to enslave us. We trade ourselves for convenience.
But the prophet says to us: We do not have to be like the other nations.
This last week the Truth and Reconciliation Commission publicly released its report in Ottawa. Whatever else you might think about this or that provision, the BASIC thing that’s being asked for, the bottom line, is simply one thing: justice.
Governments – of ALL stripes – have been very bad at giving that. Apparently the Conservative minister of Indian affairs refused to stand with others when it came time to applaud the call for changes in legislation. If the prophet Samuel had been in Ottawa, he’d have said to us, ‘well, what do you expect?’ Power doesn’t help the weak. Power tends to serve power. Which is precisely why if we are children of faith, we need to act in a DIFFERENT way from rulers and governments. We need to be COUNTER-cultural. We need to take a stand for others, and with others. We need to identify and then help overcome what every state, of every political persuasion, will do to thwart justice.
Be careful what you wish for says Samuel. It’s good advice. Think about your democratic vote as a theological choice. Do we really want security at any price, including losing our own freedom? Do we really want a slightly better income at the cost of poisoning the environment? Do we really want to save a few dollars at the cost of historic injustices to the First Nations that can and should be overcome?
My friend sat in the police van for about 45 minutes. Other cyclists would come by, get their tickets, and look at him sitting there, handcuffed. “They looked scared,” my friend said. Like they were thinking: ‘what did HE do?’
But harassment didn’t win out over justice. Eventually, my friend said, a policeman came back to see him. It probably didn’t hurt that my friend had no record, and had never been in trouble with the law. The officer took off his handcuffs. When my friend asked what he was supposed to do next, the officer told him to get lost. The irony is that in the end, he didn’t even get the ticket.
Our Creator asks us to look beyond ourselves to a better world. A world that doesn’t depend on peace and security from Ottawa – or anywhere else. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed says Paul, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands. So we do not lose heart.
There have been, and will be wrongs. That’s the world’s system. But our faith tells us that we are to stand, as Jesus did, with those who need justice. Religion and politics SHOULD mix. It’s time for us to get over wishing for a king. We can wish for justice and for peace, instead. And then do what we can to help make it happen.