A hard wind blows

What the story doesn’t tell us, but we nevertheless know to be true because we are men and they were too, is that they fought in the boat.  Not fisticuffs, no, not like that, but there were voices raised to be sure, and words exchanged, salty ones, and comments made about the rowing ability of some, and an ongoing argument about the insanity of pressing ahead into the night when the wind was against them, the waves were high, they hadn’t even reached the midpoint of the lake, and for Christ’s sake why were they doing this?

Let’s just go back.  Turn around and head for shore.  Let the wind drive us back to Jesus, where we saw him last, waving us off from the beach at dusk.

It had all started so well.  They had been heroes, every one of them, each taking a bit of the boy’s donated lunch from Jesus’ hands and watching it multiply over and over again in their own hands as they distributed it to the crowd.  The sunny day paled in comparison to the glow of public recognition and appreciation in which they basked.  The accolades and thank yous and gentle ribbing continued when later they were sent back into the crowd, fetching their fishing baskets from the boat first, waste bins for leftovers of bread and fish.

“Go on,” said Jesus as the sun was setting, “I’ll send the crowd away and catch up with you on the other side.”

And so they drifted off into the peachy dusk, their boat bobbing gently on a tranquil lake, voices from the diminishing crowd echoing faint across the water as they drew away, points of flickering flame appearing in the darkening shore behind and in the sky above, campfires, torches and stars.

What a day.  What a great day.

Every now and again life grabs us and says “do this!”  We may not have the benefit of a real flesh-and-blood Jesus giving us the specific instruction to “go to the other side”, but most of us will at times embark on a new venture, confident enough that, even in the absence of undeniable divine sanction, the stars in our private universe are at least sufficiently aligned toward good fortune that we should set out.  We recognize a course for our lives and trust that it rests under the blessing of God.  And for the most part we take these commitments on when we have reached a place of confidence, of feeling pretty good about ourselves.

We pop the question to our sweetheart, we sign the contract with our new employer, we make the move to a different city, we join in as an eager volunteer.

We are sent off from our old station in the glow of well wishes, in the calm of confidence and camaraderie, munching on the leftovers of our latest success.

And then one day, not long into our new commitment, we feel the faintest of breezes on our face, we notice the ripples on the surface of the water, and a distinct change of attitude among those with us in the boat.  The honeymoon over, we are calmly eating our breakfast cereal, minding our own business, when our sweetheart, for no reason whatsoever, frowns and grumpily says, “I hate it when you do that.”  And we have no idea what she is talking about.  The boss calls us into the office and hands us a task that is decidedly not in our contract.  Tourists no more, our new location isn’t living up to its billing; why did we ever leave?  And that volunteer job that was going to change the world?  Meh.

By the time Jesus came to the disciples in the middle of the night they were in genuine peril.  Straining at the oars for hours they had made little headway.  The experienced fishermen among them were handicapped by the dead weight and inexperience of the others, those new to the sea, the ones leaning over the gunwales retching their bread and fish dinners. There was a real threat of capsizing, of drowning all, fishermen too.

Who saw it first they don’t remember, but in the end they all saw it: a ghostly figure moving over the water in the distance, disappearing and reappearing as their boat thrashed violently up and down in the waves.  Suddenly they were gripped by fear and by each other.  From their youngest days they had heard the stories of those in the throes of death whose eyes were opened to the underworld, how as one passed from this life to the next spirits would become visible, the two worlds melding into one.  Their fate was now confirmed; death was upon them.

That thing that seemed so right, so clear and simple way back when?  It became difficult, complicated, fraught, didn’t it?  And now the situation is completely out of hand; as far as you are concerned, it’s over.  The journey is done, the boat will go under, and you will too.

The most remarkable phrase in the telling of this tale is one we skip right over: “Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass them by…”

From Jesus’ perspective, the circumstances surrounding the voyage were not themselves the voyage.  He asked them to go to the other side and told them he would meet them there.  They were all still working to that same end, wind, waves, emotions and attitudes aside.  To their credit the boat was still facing the direction he’d sent it, and the men were still rowing.

Going back to find Jesus where they’d seen him last would have landed them on an empty beach.

There may not have been a single man of great faith in the boat, but there were twelve men of faithfulness.

Gentle reader, keep rowing.

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Of romance, exile and silver platters.

Tucked into the green foothills of the snow-capped Pyrenees mountains, not far from the mid-point of France’s long southern border with Spain, lies the sleepy village of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges.  Oddly, this tiny hamlet boasts a cathedral for its not more than three hundred souls.

Cathédrale Saint Marie is built on the high point of the village, a knoll which pushes up just beyond 500 metres above sea level and, as with all cathedrals of small domains, its spire, squat and unimpressive as it is, points to more than just the heavens.  It points to history.  For Saint-Bertrand was not always the name of this town and the cathedral precinct was not always devoted to prayer.  In 72 BC the Roman general Pompey, eager to get home to Rome after a campaign in Spain, passed this way and appreciating the strategic placement of the knoll to guard the Aral valley and the passes over the mountains to the south, established a fortress here, Lugdunum Convenarum, a Roman colony which in its heyday would become a city of over 30,000 inhabitants.

It was here in 39 CE, roughly a hundred years after the founding of the settlement, that an aging couple arrived with their small household, weary from a journey of over 2000 kilometres by sea and by foot, political refugees from a far away land, forced into exile by the personal order of none other than Emperor Caligula himself.  The man was in his 60’s at least, the woman perhaps not quite his age.  Long ago when they were younger they had met in Rome while both traveling on other business and had fallen in love, agreeing to divorce their spouses and make a new life together. Through the years and many adventures their passion for each other endured: she, by Caligula’s grace, could have remained in their far away home on the pleasant shores of the Sea of Galilee, but instead she chose to be exiled with her husband, and eventually to die in a foreign land, in Lugdunum Convenarum.

I wonder how the old man felt as he presented their papers to the commander of this wind-swept outpost of the empire, knowing as he did that many such soldiers had once taken their orders from him, that he had once governed entire provinces in the name of Ceasar.  What did they talk about as they sat by the fire in their modest hired home, this man and this woman, as their initial relief at having found a safe haven gave way to the inevitable grief and introspection at all that they had lost?  And as the years passed and death approached, did they ever wonder about what might have been?  Did they pine for the life they once had?  Or perhaps the opposite: having been forced out of the limelight and the pressure of life in a political hotbed, they unexpectedly found peace in the uneventful hills of the Pyrenees.

I wonder.  Did they ever talk about that crazy night in Galilee, his birthday, when they all got seriously drunk, Salome danced, and they ended up murdering the local holy man, his head hilariously presented on a silver platter?  Or was that merely a passing hangover, the morning after the night before, the untidy but forgettable consequence of occasionally drinking a bit too deeply from the chalice of power in the perverse world of Roman Palestine?

That holy man was nothing, an obnoxious meddler, spewing his venom, questioning the legitimacy of their marriage, stirring up the people to ill sentiment towards them, calling the poor masses to turn their hearts to God, calling for justice and the reign of God, whatever that means.  What nonsense.  What a nuisance.  Yes, yes, dear, we shouldn’t have lost our heads that evening, but really, it was good to be rid of him none-the-less.

Well, “be rid of him”.  What is it about these people?  No sooner was he dead and buried when, for all intents and purposes, he was back again, this time in the form of a man from Nazareth, another self-proclaimed prophet, a relative even of the first, an itinerate rabble-rouser traveling the countryside whipping the people up with dangerous expectations for change.  We saw him too, briefly, just before Pilate sent him to the cross.  Thank goodness Pilate took care of that one.  Spooky, he was.

And so they went, Herod Antipas and Herodius, to their unmarked graves in Lugdunum Convenarum, their story never told.  I believe, gentle reader, this is the first time you have ever heard it.

And the two insignificant holy men?  I know you have heard their tale.  You know their names.  And their message lives on throughout the world in the lives of millions.

Advent One*

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”

Silence.

Barren trees upon
Frozen mountains, steely blue under
grey-clad sky;
Witnesses.
Better: underlings, collaborators,
Tongue-biting lackeys of a Higher Power.

The crow dares, dark of heart and wing.
Colour commentator of things
not his business.
“Ga!”, he shouts convincingly.

A single word from above.
The Word that changes everything?

It’s Greek to me.
Or Dutch, and Portuguese.

“Nonsense,” says the crow, clear as a bell,
“it’s Gobbledygook, the language of heaven, and hell.”
He lifts his head and laughs.

Those ancient Semites had it right.
A new day begins with night.
The Old has gone the New is

What it is.

 

 

*I wrote this in 2013 when God seemed to be in a particularly reticent mood with me.

Cape Mudge

Today we put Mom’s ashes into the ground. She’s there now, resting near family members she variously loved or endured, mostly in-laws; Isaac, Jacob, two Maria’s, Uncle Harry and all those poor kids who died on a cold winter’s day early in 1970. Heidi died too that day but her marker, if that’s what it is, is just an empty space in the line of seven stones. Her body was never found. “Slipped out of her life jacket,” is the conventional wisdom, but of course no one really knows.

We chuckled as we realized that in death Mom would have the same next door neighbours as she had in life. “No, not planned,” said the cemetery attendant standing nearby. Then we got serious again, said a prayer, sang a hymn, stood around uncomfortably in the summer heat until we shuffled off in different directions to see who else we might know beneath the grass.

Later, the sun setting, we gathered at the beach around a fire, cooking wieners, making smores, throwing rocks at the dark water. The same water that took Uncle Harry and his boat and all those kids. Yes, right there – we point at the lighthouse on Cape Mudge across the water – there the one group of bodies was found; the others further down the island, over there.

Tonight I’m in the made up bed in the spare room. Out the window the moon is full and bright, pulling a long golden train across the water. And below, the lighthouse on Cape Mudge beams its single light, every five seconds, keeping a silent vigil over our passing lives.

 

(*This is one of a number of my Facebook Notes which I will be folding into this blog so my writing is in one place.  I wrote this in the summer of 2014.)

Five things they should have told me before I was ordained. No, Six.

I may not be the sharpest pin in the box, or maybe I was sitting behind the door when the instructions were handed out but, in any case, I seemed to have missed a thing or two in divinity school.  My professors taught me to read ancient languages, decipher complicated texts, actively listen, and use Robert’s Frickin’ Rules of Order, but nobody ever mentioned the following:

1. You will be an interloper on holy ground.  Whether it is the moment you hand someone the Eucharistic host, or whether you are the silent third party witnessing a tearful couple finding new life in their relationship after years of pain, or whether you are hearing someone confess for the first time to a crime they committed long ago, these and a hundred other situations will regularly place you on someone else’s holy ground.  Like Moses before the burning bush, it is best to tread as lightly as you can.

2. The bully wins.  Not always, but almost.  You know the one in your church with the super-sized ego?  The one who believes the church would fall apart without them, and everyone else wishes they would give it a try?  (Tip: they were probably somewhere in the picture when you interviewed for the job, but you didn’t realize it then.)  They are variously known as gate-keepers, king-makers and by other – less friendly – terms.  Well, if you decide to be a hero and rescue your people from the tyrant’s oppression, don’t be surprised if, when the crucial moment comes, you’re the only one marching to the fight.  The reason is simple: everyone knows that if you try and fail and end up leaving, they still have the bully to deal with; he or she is still their next-door neighbour and a member of the church council.  You, on the other hand, are dispensable.  Instead of the hero you will merely be the latest in a long line of scapegoats: the sins of the community will be heaped on your back and you’ll be sent packing.  A useful ministry too, but maybe not the one you envisaged.

3. You will have countless opportunities to abuse your position.  Sadly, this has been proven many times over in church history.  Cases of clergy abuse are often in the media these days and have been the focus of heightened efforts of prevention by church leadership.  But the fact remains: your position is one founded on trust and if there are weaknesses in your character or flaws in your integrity, these will have ample room to manifest themselves.  You don’t mind having a little bit of extra lunch money in your pocket from time to time?  Presto: people will push envelopes of cash into your hand, in complete confidence that you will see it to its destination, and with remarkably little interest in verifying that you did.  You have slightly too much interest in the blooming bodies of adolescent youth?  No worries; they trust you, their parents trust you and you will find ways to indulge your interest.  I could go on , but you get the point.  Please, if you know deep down that you can’t be trusted, go find another career where you’ll do less damage.

4. Every object has hidden significance.  Your job is all about opaque signs and symbols, so you should be used to this concept.   You aren’t; not by half.  In churches the meaning behind the thing always works out exponentially.  When you walk into your church facility for the first time it might be helpful to imagine that you are a character in a video game walking into a room full of treasures.  Every single item in the room that you touch, no matter how insignificant, will cost you points, but the value seems to be assigned arbitrarily.  Those old hymnals at the back that have not been used in at least a decade?  A thousand points; very costly.  The set of quality biblical commentaries someone left in the church library?  Oh, we don’t care, do with those what you will.  The 1950’s era, badly framed snapshot of the children’s choir hanging in completely the wrong place?  Don’t even think about it.  That little photo carries more weight than the bearing wall on which it hangs; remove it, and the whole place will collapse….

5.  The best two days will be your first one and your last one.  On your first day you will still be living in the fanciful world of the parish profile and your new congregation will still earnestly believe that you are the sum of your CV.  On your last day you will all know the truth, and the truth will set you free, and the people whose lives you’ve touched but never said a word will finally come forward and have their say, and there will be tears and there will be laughter, and pain and satisfaction, and bitterness and thanksgiving, and it will all be right.

6.  There are, actually, some Christian people in the church.  Not everyone, not by a long shot.  And by Christian I don’t mean the baptized, though I suppose they win on a technicality.  And I don’t mean those people with impeccable manners who always behave in such a civilized way.  Nor even those with an active faith who give you books “you should read” and pat your hand knowingly and tell you they are praying for you.  And heavens no, I don’t mean the ones who listen to those awful Christian radio stations and are always going on about how the church should be doing more evangelism and becoming more contemporary.  I mean the handful who have taken Jesus at his word.  Who make the time to care for the materially and emotionally poor.  Who give of their means, generously and quietly.  Who are glacier-like slow to judge the intentions of others.  Who somehow find it in their hearts to love even their detractors.  Who serve without pretense or false humility.  Who come to the aid of the marginalized.  These are the people who get it, and who, in so many ways, will enrich your life immeasurably.

Happy!

This was our family’s Christmas greeting at the end of last year; for some reason I didn’t think to post it here.  It features all of our kids and grand-kids (Lucas has been born since) and was filmed in three different countries.  Even though I’m late I will post it anyway, to make it part of my blog record…enjoy!

White Stone

As I write, Eva, one of my daughters, is at the doctor’s office with her partner, Matt, getting their first view of the new life forming in her womb.  If all goes well, this little child – to be born in the summer of 2015 – has every chance of living into the next century.  And he or she will bear a name which has yet to be determined.

Naming a child can be a precarious undertaking, running the gauntlet of familial expectations and traditions, cultural and linguistic considerations, and the good sense – or the lack thereof – of the parents.  For two of my four daughters, had they been sons, we had chosen the name “Abraham”.  Which at first thought might strike one as perhaps overly-biblical but not otherwise problematic.  Until one takes into account that we were living in Amsterdam at the time and the name would inevitably have been shorted to “Bram”.  “Bram Adan” would surely have been a constant source of cheer during the annual fast in our predominantly Muslim neighbourhood but methinks the teasing would have been unbearable.

Yesterday, nearly four years after leaving the Netherlands, I had another moment of homesickness for that good land.  Eva and I were driving back to Abbotsford, listening to a CD of Dutch pop music, when the song below came on.  Zelfs je naam is mooi (“Even your name is beautiful”) is a touching love song and as we sang along I started to mist-up a bit.  Suddenly Eva interrupted and recounted how a friend in high school once told her about having dinner with the artist at his home.  “Wait, wait!” Eva stopped him, “is his partner’s name Julia?”.  “Yes,” said her friend, puzzled, “how did you know?”  Eva had picked up on a clever aspect of the song: the name which is so beautiful and of which the artist sings so tenderly is never actually mentioned in all the song’s verses but, if one listens carefully, is the final word the singer says as the music is coming to an end.

There was a brief time, following my ordination as a priest, when – as I was able –  I would say the name of each communicant as they knelt before me to receive the sacrament.  I gave up this practice fairly quickly; I discovered that my familiarity with the individual threatened to turn a moment of ineffable holiness and intimacy into one that was mundane and ordinary. How could I be so sure that the name which this person’s parents had given them only a few years before was a true reflection of the identity they bore before God as they knelt to touch the veil of eternity?  Most likely it was not.  Doesn’t John’s Revelation say something about our secret name, written on a white stone, known only to the divine?

Now Matt and Eva have just come by, breathless at the door, bringing me a hint of December air in their clothing and in their hands an ultrasound image of their wee child.  They are so excited and awed by the wonder of it all.  The tears well up again, my voice cracks, I give Eva a hug; Matt looks aside, careful not to intrude in a father-daughter moment.

Welcome, child; be sure of this: God knows your name.