Climbing Down the Ladder

I spent a few days on retreat, preparing myself spiritually for our Anglican General Synod which is taking place in Vancouver July 10-16. No, I am not a delegate and I won’t be on the ground. But I am deeply engaged in the Anglican Church and will follow as much of the proceedings via live-stream as I can make time for.

This year’s Synod has some big ticket-items on the agenda:
* Making concrete decisions towards greater self-determination for Indigenous Anglicans within the Anglican Church of Canada;
* Second vote on the motion to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples:
* Electing a new Primate for our National Church.

As alluded to in some previous blog entries, while all three subjects are significant, the middle one is likely to generate the most difficult conversations. In the three years since the last Synod it has become clear that our church is not of one mind on whether a same-sex union can be considered akin to marriage. How do we engage one another on this salient question in the Spirit of Christ? There has been plenty of preparation from the National Office, including the summons to regard one another with profound respect and an open heart.

So, you may ask, what did I do on my retreat to prepare for General Synod? I spent time in prayer and reflection with an ancient spiritual manual: the Twelve Steps in Humility formulated in the sixth century by none other than St. Benedict of Norsia, considered the father of western monasticism (his Feast Day is July 11). The idea came from Sr. Joan Chittister who has spent the last four months posting a column on each of the twelve steps. I collected all twelve, printed them, and took them with me to my retreat sanctuary where I was alone with God. The first time Joan wrote on these steps was back in 2009; already then I was intrigued by them.

Rather than get caught in polarizing positions and controversial statements on either side, I committed to growing deeper into a receptive posture for come what may. The Twelve Steps are a climbing down the ladder of pride and arrogance, defiance and judgement, and ascend the ladder of humility and generosity of heart. Not an easy trek, but as Joan writes, the only trek that leads into true freedom and honesty still today. In her usual blunt yet eloquent style, Joan shows how each of these steps speaks unashamedly into our world today, from politics to ecology and right into my own life. Their challenging power is proof of their perennial wisdom. So I listened and prayed deeply with each step — wrestling and resisting, questioning and resonating — allowing each one to grow me a bit more.

Here are some nuggets from my own journal entries:
1. Pride, says St. Benedict, is the basic human flaw; humility is its corrective. Pride dons many masks: dismissing another’s humanity, taking privilege for granted, reveling in superiority and entitlement.
2. God is our driving force; therefore desiring to do God’s will is best for all. And God’s will is for us to come to full bloom, to manifest divine glory in our very being and let that shine out into the world.
3. Submit to the authority and wisdom of others through deep listening for the love of God. I have done my fair share (and continue to do so) of this deep listening to supportive and challenging guides and mentors. I have tasted the importance of this commitment.
4. When difficult things arise, endure/hang in there and do not grow weary. There are situations where the best course of action is to leave for the sake of safety, protection and well-being. But my decades of living my priestly calling within the constraints of the RC Church without growing weary has brought forth much fruit in inner freedom and endurance, fruit I continue to reap today.

5. We do not conceal sinful thoughts or actions, but confess them humbly. Julian of Norwich said, ‘God does not punish sin, sin punishes sin.’ I could not agree more. It’s mighty hard to conceal wrong-doing, and I feel so much better when I fess up. There are times, however, when it is prudent not to share thoughts and feelings openly so as not to hurt another person. Is that akin to nursing secrets than can eat away at integrity of heart?
6. Be content with the lowest and most menial treatment. This is a tough one. On the one hand, if I’m not aspiring to be promoted, I can simply enjoy the moment and do well in what is right here and now. On the other hand, if I have never tasted appreciation, good fortune, and the joy of accomplishments, this step could create an unhealthy type of humility, one that erodes self-esteem even further.
7. Not only on our lips but also in our heart, we much admit to be inferior to all. I wonder if it’s easier to desire this when safely cradled in a circle of love where I have been valued and appreciated, encouraged and inspired. But what if a person has lived deprived of all that grows this basic security? Then admitting inferiority to all can be a death-blow to one’s own humanity.
8. We do only what is endorsed by the common rule of the community. Gosh, if there was ever a million-dollar question, it is this: what needs to be let go of and what needs to be carried forward into a future of hope? I belong to the Church for it has fostered my growth as a person. I value its teachings and guidance. This Step is the most challenging in the current conversation — I struggle mightily with both hard-nosed conservatives and impatient progressives. Joan’s reflection seems too simplistic, as if it’s crystal clear what needs to be discarded and decided. What do to when boundaries, essential to some, become barriers to others?

9. We control our tongue and remain silent, not speaking unless necessary. I can relate to this step about remaining silent and its importance. In many ways I have become more silent in proportion to the realization how little I really do know and understand, especially about another’s life story. There is an increasing desire to make ever greater space for another and honour the other’s reality.
10. Do not be given to ready laughter, for “only fools raise their voices in laughter.” (Sirach 21:23). Excessive laughter is a sign of a weak and undisciplined character. Really now? Here I must disagree with good old St. Ben. Did he never experience the joy of a good belly-laugh? But in one way, he has a point that deserves merit. While today we consider it healthy and necessary to be able to laugh at ourselves, we should never mock another or deride another with sarcasm and laughter. Only when I can face my own shortcomings and limitations will I stop the sneering and snickering.
11. Speak gently and with laughter (not again), seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising voices. The wise are known by their few words, measured tones and gentle words. On the eve of GS2019, this step cannot be stressed enough. May the Holy Spirit work overtime and flood hearts and conversations, may mercy flow abundantly towards all …
12. Always manifest humility in our bearing no less than in our hearts, so that it is evident in all we do and say. Well, if I can absorb even a tidbit of each of the above steps, then step #12 is a given and humility becomes not second nature, but first nature. Lord, hear my prayer.

God of our ancestors, God of our future,
who was and is and is to come,
you have named us in baptism,
and called us into friendship with you and one another.
In this General Synod, give all participants grace to listen well,
to speak with respect, to deliberate with wisdom,
and to honour this gathering of your beloved Church;
through Jesus Christ, before whose name we bow
in adoration and praise, now and for ever. Amen.

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Falling Silent

A regular reader of my blog commented recently that I only seem to post sermon texts these days with rare exceptions. I wasn’t sure how to interpret the comment: as a criticism, as a request for more, or simply as stating a fact. In any case, it did get me thinking: there was a season in the life of this blog that I shared thoughts on current events that moved me in one direction or another. There was a time when I engaged passionately with the news far and near: a disaster, an injustice, a scandal, a tragedy, a good news story even. I wanted to share my two-cent’s worth of thoughts and opinions. Now for the most part, I have fallen silent, unless I weave world events into my preaching.

Why the silence? Is it caused by paralysis, afraid to say anything that could offend someone somewhere? Is the silence fueled by helplessness and powerlessness, because I am at a loss as to how to keep up with a world that seems to suffer more pain than joy, and that seems to be changing faster than the speed of light?

Some negative reasons surely play. I got burnt on Facebook and my blog a few times by misperceptions and rash judgments. So I quit FB posting, except for work purposes. Social media can bring out the worst in us; it is no substitute for f2f encounters with meaning and depth. Moreover, I’m not interested in serving as an information feeder to companies tracking my “likes” and other social media behaviour so they can target advertising to my personal interests.

I do hope that my silence is grounded in something deeper. As I move through days filled with an array of encounters and situations, I learn and grow as well as lament and hurt. As a committed disciple of Jesus, I strive to make room for all whose stories and challenges find their way into my heart. It is then that I fall silent. No question, words are a gift and blessing; playing with them is still my favourite pastime. But there comes a time in life when silence has more to say …

I fall silent at the uniqueness and beauty of each child of God,
at the fact that I know so little about anything …
I fall silent at the layers and layers of meaning behind words,
at the political and ecclesial scandals and decay,
at the divine colour palette in a prairie sunset …

I fall silent as my heart stretches into compassion,
so love can get through my occasional verbal diarrhea …
I fall silent at blooming wildflowers in a ditch,
at the morning chorus of birds.
I fall silent to soak in peace and mercy,
as the surest way into a genuine embrace …
I fall silent when others have more to say than I …

I fall silent to dissolve anger at injustice and exploitation,
I fall silent to breathe calmly into chaos,
at snowflakes quietly falling, pulling me into awe …
I fall silent to gently hold another’s struggle,
as trickles of mercy crack my hardened spirit,
when another needs my ear more than I need hers …

I fall silent when it speaks louder than words,
when there’s no room for me,
to be washed in mercy,
in protest of the virtual poverty of social media …
I fall silent to be more present,
to make room for another’s holy ground,
in order to speak the right words …
I fall silent in horror of innocent killing of bodies and spirits …
I fall silent because it might just foster wise aging …

I fall silent into a loving, all-knowing, and merciful God,
in shock and despair, in gratitude and in joy,
into divine communion and holy mystery …
I fall silent to listen ….
In the loving and rejoicing,
weeping and wailing,
forgiving and strengthening,
laughing and consoling,
God … you are present in the
sound of silence, here and now:

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When I heard it, I wrapped my face in my mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave… (adapted from 1 Kings 19:11-13)


Fighting Demons

In the past few weeks, we’ve been kind’a in a party bubble in our church. We celebrated a baptism, three confirmations and the blessing of a lovely renovated hall with Bishop Chris. That’s quite the list of events, events that brought us much life and joy. And that’s good, that’s all really good. We need happy times – they help us store up energy and courage for the tough times.

So did you store up enough goodness and joy? Ready for today? Because today’s Scriptures bring tough times and tough situations. It doesn’t seem fair to be served these stories right when our spirits are light and when summer is at our doorstep. But we all know, shit happens when we least expect it. Take a deep breath, and let’s dive in, and see what the Holy Book has to say.

Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-15) is on the run – on the run from Ahab who wants to kill him, and on the run from God who wants him to keep needling Ahab with the truth. Elijah’s spirit is running out of steam, running out of courage. He’d rather die in a forgotten corner in the wilderness: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.

Talk about discouragement and feeling like an utter failure! We know the feeling; we try to do the right thing, but life throws too many curves that we can’t handle. We think we understand what God is asking of us, but our efforts don’t seem to find much favour in the world. We want to love like Jesus, serve like Jesus and forgive like Jesus, but crisis upon crisis sabotages our best efforts, depleting our hope and energy, our courage and motivation. And so exhaustion has us fall into a deep sleep …

And what does God do … when he finds us asleep into that forgotten wilderness corner of our own lives? Come on, … get up and eat … eat some love bread and drink some soul-care … Walk in the beauty of God’s creation, feel the wind and the sun (or the rain!), laugh at a good joke, create a work of art, read a good book, have coffee with a friend, sit on the beach and watch the waves, share a family meal, write a gratitude list, lay down in a field and look up at the night sky, pray for someone else, dig in the garden, hold a baby … God’s first concern is … to … nourish and strengthen us, just as Elijah experienced … God knows our need to just stop … take a deep breath … Amazing really … how replenishing … simple love-food can be for our spirit…

But what if such love-food, instead of recharging our battery, is devoured instead by … demons??? That is what we hear about in the encounter between Jesus and the demon-possessed man in the Gerasene country (Luke 8:26-39). Here is a dramatic show-down between the One who is God’s love-food for all and the greatest enemies of God, the demons who absolutely despise everything good and beautiful and holy.

Now in our sophisticated day and age, we might think it kind’a freaky to talk of demons and demon-possession. Maybe we think of it as an ancient and out-dated concept. But not so fast …

When we speak of trauma, of PTSD, of the need for deep healing, when we speak of addictions, of dysfunctional behaviours, of obsessions and destructive habits; when we speak of mental illness, paranoia, and all the negative forces preventing us from becoming who God intends us to be, aren’t we in fact naming the demons of our time? We are just as surrounded by – yes, possessed by – as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered.

There are eary similarities between the demon-possessed man Jesus encounters and the demons that possess us. The person in the Gospel was totally cut off from family and society. He didn’t live with people, but “in the tombs,” probably in caves that were used as burying places. He was also “driven by the demons into the wild.” In other words, he was a living corpse, separated from normal people and normal living. The man was naked, and so overcome by violent impulses that he could not be restrained even with chains and leg-shackles. Furthermore, the demons were harming him. In Mark’s version he was “bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:1-20). Finally, and most sadly, he was so totally possessed that even though the demons recognized Jesus as “Son of the Most High God,” the man could not free himself …

Recently I read about Victoria Morrison, a young woman from Windsor, ON, who fell prey to sexual exploitation in Winnipeg. Her case is now in court, and her 30-year old captor pleaded guilty to human trafficking, forcible confinement and obstructing justice. The man who captured her sounds “possessed:” among other things, he burned Victoria with a hot iron, shocked her with an electrical wire and locked her in a freezer. He also blindfolded her and tied her hands with bed sheets, then strung her up to the ceiling with a cord. This man’s demons not only ruled him, but deliberately set out to dominate and destroy another human being.

Other types of demons primarily rule and destroy the persons whose spirits they invade, such as the man in today’s Gospel. As we just marked National Indigenous Peoples Day in our country, my thoughts turned to the demons that have set up dominion in many Indigenous communities. The extensive historical research, the Truth & Reconciliation Report, the national inquiries such as the most recent one into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls are revealing the ugly face and death-dealing effects of these demons. The inter-generational trauma of colonization, which has inflicted cultural, social and spiritual devastation, has lead to the demons of self-destruction, personally and collectively.

Those demons have names, just like the demons in today’s Gospel: Jesus asked, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered. Indeed, the demons in the Indigenous community have names too: addictions and abuse, violence and death-dealing life-choices, mental illness, despair and depression, suicide and a never-ending cycle of sabotaging, dysfunctional behaviours.

The demons in the Gospel knew who Jesus was. Jesus’ energy of love and grace and mercy pierced them and there was no hiding: it scared the livin’ daylights out of them! Why? Because demons know that when love-grace-mercy appear on the scene, their days are numbered. Casting out demons with the love-food and liberating power of Jesus is now our call, our task, but how? The flow of God’s love-grace-mercy is not as strong in us as in Jesus: our sinful streaks block that flow quite effectively, unfortunately. Yet Christ still calls us on the healing path of love and mercy. Jesus calls us to the hard road of reconciliation, as the way to cast out the demons of all oppression and broken relations. Here are some words from Rev. Ginny Doctor, the Indigenous ministries coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. She published these words recently under the title: Where are all our flowers going?

Where do we go from here? How do we talk about a problem so large – a demon so strong – that it needs a thousand pages and its own acronym? MMIWG have been with us for a long time; it goes way back to first contact with settlers. And it’s here with us now. Every day on Facebook, I see postings on missing Indigenous women and girls. Each one breaks my heart, and I wonder, “Where are all our flowers going?” They are gone to death and human trafficking. How to cast out these demons of destruction?

What needs to change to protect our women and girls? For one thing, we need to cast out the demons by making a good life for them in our communities —a task that is social, economic and environmental. Maybe then, they won’t have to travel bad roads looking for something better. We must tend to the gardens in which our flowers grow, increasing self-worth in each person, and provide economic stability in our communities.

The other way is spiritual. We need to see the beauty and value in these women and girls, in their very being. This is about honouring our women and girls by reconnecting with traditional values: respect, humility, wisdom, truth, honesty, courage and most important, love.

Ginny makes an important point here: the most effective way to cast out the demons of personal and collective destruction lies in finding the beauty in one another, in honouring the image of God in one another, in fostering God’s worldview with respect, humility, truth, wisdom, honesty, courage and most important, with love and grace and mercy. And I would add to this, cast out one another’s demons by sharing and carrying one another’s pain in the same way Jesus took on the pain of our sins on the cross.

After being back home in Windsor for 10 months, Victoria has relied heavily on WE Fight to ease her back into society. The organization helps survivors of human trafficking get back on their feet with income assistance, clothing and food as well as mental-health supports.
WE Fight brings the healing power of Jesus to those possessed by the demons of human trafficking: when love-grace-mercy truly enter the person’s heart, the demons days’ are numbered, and get chased out of our spirits. Victoria Morrison asked the court not to impose a publication ban that would protect her identity. She wants the public, and those who may be suffering or have endured similar experiences, to put a human face to this horrific story. “I want people to see how normal I am. I also want people to know even if you go through something this terrible, you can get out of it,” Morrison said.

People came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind…
Luke reports that the townspeople freaked out at the man’s healing, and that they became afraid. I wonder how we react when our demon-possessed sisters and brothers, whoever they are, find Christ’s healing and peace and joy. Jealous, because we need that same healing touch and have trouble tapping into God? Judgmental, because s/he doesn’t really deserve this? Afraid and nervous, because I don’t know how to relate to you now? Skeptical, because I don’t trust the healing to be for real? Indifferent, because I’m so exhausted from fighting my own demons?

Or … relieved, eager to share in your healing? Or grateful, ready to dance with you in joy? Or encouraged, because God is real indeed and can heal me too? Or inspired, for Jesus wills all people to be set free? Yes, in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:23-29)

Exhausted and weary of fighting the demons, we (and many others) commiserate with Elijah – just kill me now, God. But God reaches out, gently and patiently, with love-food and soul-drink, through ordinary folks, ordinary events and ordinary things. Listen to Ginny’s words at the end of her article: My niece just sent me pictures of the flowers she has grown; they are beautiful, but not as beautiful as the two daughters and son she is raising. There is beauty all around us and in each one of us. Look for it, cherish it and safeguard it— before you have to ask, “Where have all the flowers gone?”

We claim the healing power of Jesus to cast out our demons – we look for it, claim it, love it, cherish it, safeguard it. That’s more than enough reason to continue our church party into the summer and into our lives, here and beyond. AMEN

Homily preached on June 23, 2019. While the Roman Catholic community celebrated Corpus Christi on this day, we confronted the demons in Luke 8: 26-39. The other Scriptures were 1 Kings 19:1—15 (exhausted Elijah), Psalm 42, and Galatians 3:23-29.

Can We Do Better?

Be the person who breaks the cycle.
If you were judged, choose understanding.
If you were rejected, choose acceptance.
If you were shamed, choose compassion.
Be the person you needed when you were hurting,
not the person who hurt you.
Vow to be better than what broke you—
to heal instead of becoming bitter
so you can act from your heart, not your pain.
~ Lori Deschene

I began writing this reflection in Holy Week, a time of intense spiritual scrutiny as we accompanied Jesus in his final days. The above words from Lori Deschene echo poignantly Jesus’ summons to live into another way, to relate to one another in another way than the adversarial model of the world with winners and losers. “One of you will betray me,” Jesus predicted at the Last Supper (John 13:21—33). Only one betrayed Jesus? Yes, Judas did, but so did Peter, and all his other friends who ran for cover, more concerned about saving their own skin than reaching out to their Lord in his time of need. I’m afraid that all of us betray Jesus, all the time and in all places. I see it most painfully among well-meaning Christians, especially when we disagree on moral matters.

Anglicans in particular have a special duty to take Jesus’ summons seriously as we stake our unique contribution to Gospel discipleship on the quality of our relationships, our bonds of affection. Paul Avis articulates this well in his book The Vocation of Anglicanism: “Anglicanism seeks to hold together (often otherwise polarizing) truth together in theology and practice in order that it may hold people together. (It does this by claiming) to be catholic and reformed, episcopal and synodical, universal and local, biblical and reasonable, traditional and open to fresh insight.” (pg. 182)

In a month’s time we Canadian Anglicans are heading into a most challenging General Synod (GS2019) with the motion to change the definition of marriage up for a second reading and subsequent vote. For those cherishing a traditional understanding of marriage, Jesus’ summons to relate differently is betrayed when regarding supporters of same-sex marriage as apostates and heretics, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Supporters of same-sex marriage betray the same summons of our Lord when regarding opponents as enemies and homophobes, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Both sides dismiss the good faith in the other. Both dismiss the primacy of conscience in the other. Both relate from a place of judgment and fear, anger and pain instead of trust, acceptance and compassion. Then, in an uncanny look in the mirror, both become eerily alike in their worst behaviours.

Acceptance in Christ runs deeper and is qualitatively distinct from approval and agreement. Jesus brought a new way of belonging and relating to God and, by extension, to one another. That new way challenges us all to love radically in faithfulness to our God. This becomes particularly important in matters of deep disagreement. In his book A Letter to My Congregation, Ken Wilson writes:

The demands of acceptance require us to maintain a relationship of honour and respect with those with whom we may ardently disagree. We accept the fact that our convictions (…) differ, and those with whom we differ hold their convictions, as we do, unto the Lord. Inasmuch as this is not easy for us, we commit ourselves to bearing it as part of the disciple’s cross. We don’t agree to disagree by diminishing the importance of the question (…) We recognize that human beings, made in God’s image, must strive for integrity and unity. Violating one’s conscience, even when it is mistaken, can do harm to that integrity. (…) We must respect the measure of faith a person has received without attempting to persuade them to act against it. (…) We practice this form of acceptance by recognizing that each of us stands or falls, lives or dies, unto the Lord, trusting that the Lord is able to make even us wretched sinners stand. We ruthlessly practise the discipline of seeing those with whom we disagree in the best possible light, trusting God to judge their motives, intentions and heart better than we can. (pg. 114/115)

The question of same-sex marriage is a salient one in all Christian denominations. Even Roman Catholics are not off the hook, despite what Rome says. Not only is the conversation among thoughtful Catholics going on “under the table,” so to speak, but Roman Catholic gay and lesbian people are steadily migrating to more welcoming churches, most notably the United Church and Anglican ones. As the discussion on the subject in a recent ARC Canada meeting pointed out, we are very much in this painful conversation together. A unique illustration of this togetherness is the fact that ARC Canada was invited to contribute a submission to the Anglican Church of Canada’s Marriage Commission on the ecumenical implications of a changed definition of marriage between the two churches. This was likely a first; inviting an ecumenical partner to weigh in on an internal ecclesial discernment and decision-making process on a controversial subject is still rather unprecedented.

If our difficult conversations are truly Spirit-led, modelling a way not of this world, as Jesus summons us, all of us need to practice restraint, suspend suspicion and labeling, and refrain from holding others in contempt. Trusting one another, presuming good faith, embracing instead of excluding – all this might feel like too heavy a cross to bear for proponents of both sides of the question before us. It will feel like dying to ourselves. It will involve relinquishing the need to be right, resisting the temptation to use our pain as a weapon of mass relational destruction.

My heart goes out to those who feel caught in the ecclesial cross-fire on marriage. I share respect and compassion rather than judgment and scorn to all. What if it might be too soon in the cultural, religious and anthropological process of appropriating the Christian implications of same-sex attraction to come to definitive conclusions? Those whose lives are directly affected, who live in this in-between, liminal, space need a robust spirit of ruthless honesty and healthy humility, a healed inner constitution and a mature engagement drenched in faithful patience for the masses to catch up, esp. in our churches.

Can we vow to be better than what breaks us? Do we take seriously Paul’s words: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26) Can we muster the courage to appreciate that the Holy Spirit can draw us together in a powerful unity, despite very diverse perspectives and convictions? Only then do we offer a valid alternative to a world mired in polarization and controversy.

Pope Francis has said that, long before dogma and doctrine, truth is a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity. This is my heart’s desire as we move into GS2019. Please pray for us all.

“We must love them both:
those whose opinions we share
and those whose opinions we reject,
for both have laboured in search for truth,

and both have helped us in finding it.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

A shorter version of this reflection was published on page 6 of the June 2019 issue in the monthly newspaper The Saskatchewan Anglican.

A Woman of Valour

I was to lead a spiritual hour at a seniors residence with about 15 elderly women present. Mother’s Day was coming up and I wondered what to say to these wise elders who have lived such full lives, and who could probably teach me a lesson or two. What to say to these mothers and grandmothers, most of whom were lamenting that their off-spring seem so uninterested in things spiritual, let alone church itself.

And then, just last week, Rachel Held Evans died at the shocking age of 37, a young wife and mother, and a prolific millennial Christian writer and speaker. Ruthlessly taken before her time, she leaves behind two small children, a grieving husband, and a world community of faith that hung on her every word. For an entire day, I engaged Rachel’s witness, her life and her writing. I was riveted. And then I knew — I knew that I needed to share her story with the women elders in my small prairie community.

And so I did — here below are Rachel’s own words, dedicated today to all mothers who grow into women of valour and strength:

The subject of a twenty-two line acrostic poem found in the last chapter of the book of Proverbs in the Bible, the “woman of noble character,” or “P31 Woman,” is cited at nearly every Christian women’s conference as the ideal to which all godly women must strive.

Growing up in the Church, I sat through many a sermon explaining how domestic exploits like these represented the essence of true womanhood, and over time, I began to see myself as less-than, once again falling short of some idealized notion of womanhood each time I turned to Sara Lee for dessert, used duct tape to “hem” my pants, or was reminded for the millionth time by well-meaning deaconesses who didn’t know the half of it that maybe, just maybe, God could still use me, “even though you aren’t a mother…yet.”

So when I decided to commit one year of my life to following all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible as part of a somewhat ill-advised book project, I knew I’d have to come face-to-face with the Proverbs 31 Woman in a way I hadn’t before.

I started by attempting to turn the poem into a to-do list, which should never be done, and which resulted in a 16-item list that included everything from lifting weights each morning (“she girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong”), to making a purple dress to wear (“she makes coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple”), to knitting scarves for my husband (“when it snows, she has no fear for her household, for all of them are clothed in scarlet”), to making a homemade sign and literally praising my husband at the city gate (“her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land”).

I had a bit of fun with that last one, but the rest proved exhausting. Within a few weeks, I’d started and unraveled at least two scarves, broken the old second-hand sewing machine I’d dug out of my closet, cursed at the picture of Martha Stewart smiling glibly from the cover of my cookbook, and embarrassed myself at Hobby Lobby by crying in the fabric aisle.

Finally, I consulted Ahava, an Orthodox Jewish woman from Israel I had befriended during the project. The woman taught me to make homemade challah, so we became forever friends. “So do Jewish women struggle with this passage as much as Christian women?” I asked. Ahava seemed a bit bewildered. “Not at all!” she said. “In my culture, Proverbs 31 is a blessing.”

Ahava repeated what I had discovered in my research, that the first line of the Proverbs 31 poem—“a virtuous woman who can find?”—is best translated, “a woman of valor who can find?” And in fact, the structure and diction employed in the poem more closely resembles that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior than a domestic to-do list. Like all good poems, it was intended to highlight the glory of the everyday; it was never meant to be used prescriptively as a to-do list or a command.

“Every week at the Sabbath table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me,” Ahava explained. “It’s special because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity. All women can do that in their own way. I bet you do as well.” In addition, she said, “eshet chayil”—woman of valor!—is invoked as a sort of spontaneous blessing in Jewish culture, Ahava said.  Think of it as the Hebrew equivalent of “you go girl,” or perhaps even better, “Carry on, Warrior.”

Friends cheer one another on with the blessing, celebrating everything from promotions, to pregnancies, to acts of mercy and justice, and honoring everything from battles with cancer, to brave acts of vulnerability, to difficult choices, with a hearty “eshet chayil!”—woman of valor.

So I set aside my to-do list and began using Proverbs 31 as it was meant to be used—not as yet another impossible standard by which to measure our perceived failures, but as a celebration of what we’ve already accomplished as women of valor.

When my friend Tiffany’s pharmacy aced its accreditation, I congratulated her with “eshet chayil!” When my mom finished her final treatment for breast cancer, I made a card that said “eshet chayil” on the front.  When I learned that three women had won the Nobel Peace Prize, I shared the news with my readers in a blog post entitled, “Meet Three Women of Valor.” When I read an early review copy of Glennon’s brave and beautiful book, Carry on Warrior, I cried a little and then hammered out an exclamation-point-ridden email declaring “ESHET CHAYIL – WOMAN OF VALOR!”

And I realized: We women are brave in so many ways. We are brave in ways worthy of poetry. We are Proverbs 31 Women, not because of what we do, but how we do it—with guts, with vulnerability, with love.

Now, each morning, my inbox is stuffed with stories and pictures from men and women celebrating the daily acts of valor in one another’s lives. I heard from a pair of best friends who, having both recently navigated some scary spaces in their lives, decided to overcome their fear of heights by repelling down a sheer cliff together. They went out and got matching “eshet chayil” tattoos afterwards.

I heard from a husband who was looking for the correct pronunciation of “eshet chayil” so he could surprise his wife at their anniversary dinner by singing this ancient blessing. I heard from the mom who tweeted this: “I got a special power in Mario Kart and my five year old turn to me and proclaimed, ‘Woman of Valor!’” I heard from a woman who had survived sexual abuse, depression, divorce, and the rejection of her church. Standing tall in her words she told me, “I know I am a woman of valor.”

So to all the monkeys who are tired, who think those daily acts of faithfulness at work or at home or in relationships go unnoticed—you are women of valor. Eshet chayil! To all the monkeys who do hard things, who dream up Love Projects, and who belong to each other—you are women of valor. Eshet chayil! To all the monkeys who are feeding sweet babies, or longing to feed sweet babies, or going to meetings, or staring at medical bills, or turning in tardy slips, or making macaroni and cheese for the third time this week, or jumping back into the dating scene, or learning to waltz just for the hell of it, or knitting to keep your hands busy, or hammering out that first draft, or starting all over again—you are women of valor. Eshet chayil!

Carry on, warriors. Your life is worthy of poetry. Love, Rachel ………………….

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Rachel.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive her into the arms of your mercy
and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

Spiritual Lifeblood

A few days after Jean Vanier’s death, our oldest son David called, saying: “Hey, I heard Jean Vanier died. Didn’t you guys have some connection with this dude?” While we have told our kids about the beginnings of our marriage, for some reason Jean’s passing caused this piece of his parents’ life to appear on David’s radar in a new way. So here’s what we told David on the phone:

Jim: Well, it was 1971. I was travelling in Europe and went to the Canadian Embassy in Paris to read the Canadian newspapers. A Canadian couple was there who told me they were staying at a l’Arche community some 100km north of Paris. Noting my interest, they suggested I come for a visit. By the time I arrived in Trosly, several months later, the couple in question had left, but I stayed the weekend. I was warmly welcomed and included in the life of a little l’Arche household. A year later I went back to spend more time. I had arranged to come for a few months; I stayed four years. The experience marked me profoundly and deepened my Christian commitment in a permanent way.

Marie-Louise: It was 1976. I was a young adult searching for meaning and an authentic expression of Christian discipleship. I had paid many visits to the ecumenical monastic Taizé-community in Burgundy, France, including an entire summer, as part of the army of volunteers assisting the Brothers with the welcome and organizing of the thousands of young people who visited the hill (where I got to speak all four languages I learned in high school!). One of the Dutch Brothers had become like a spiritual director, and he told me about l’Arche (the two organizations had already enjoyed a deep and long friendship). Trusting Brother Leonard’s suggestion, I decided to go and spend a year, sight unseen. Scary really, as I had never even said hello to a person with developmental disabilities. The experience marked me profoundly and sealed my Christian commitment in a permanent way.

Both Jim and I lived in the community where Jean lived (and, by the way, his mother Pauline Vanier lived there as well after her husband George passed away) — we met Jean at prayer and at Mass, we met in house meetings and large community events, we met at work and play, we shared meals and celebrations. While both Jim and I lived in the l’Arche community where Jean Vanier began, centered in Trosly-Breuil but extending to Cuise-la-Motte and the nearby city of Compiègne, we are not aware that we actually met each other there. That happened a few years later when I, with another girl from the Netherlands, traveled through Canada to visit friends made at l’Arche in France (there were indeed lots of Canadians there) and to visit several l’Arche communities in Canada. My friend had one contact in Saskatchewan and had arranged that we spend a week on his farm — never let a Dutch girl loose on the Canadian prairies where bachelor farmers are looking for a wife! Jim and I will have been married forty years this year, and are the proud parents of three amazing kids and grandparents to three beautiful girls.

What was it in our l’Arche experience that remained such a vital part of our spiritual lifeblood? Each of us was deeply touched by the authentic humanity and practical Christian discipleship that was lived at l’Arche, in all its simplicity and complexity of human relations. This Christian faith business wasn’t just some lofty unattainable idea after all. Not that it was smooth sailing to live in community with “the least of these” — far from it. I learnt the hard way that, while arriving with the intent to “help” the handicapped, I had handicaps of my own less visible but equally debilitating for my heart’s capacity to love unconditionally. In a humbling reversal of roles, I ended up being taught and helped and supported by those “less fortunate” than myself. The stubborn intent to see the image of God in the other, however disabled or bruised by social stigma, and to raise up the simple beauty of the other in his/her humanity, including my own broken and inadequate self, was life-changing, causing a joy and peace to spring up from the inside in ways the world cannot possible deliver.

Our marriage drew its courage and inspiration from the l’Arche experience and vision we shared — something we desperately needed to reconcile our very different temperaments, interests and relational styles. For most of the 25 years on the farm, our l’Arche experience drove us to seek community, but we never quite succeeded in creating it in the same way. The closest we got was the group of Christian families who met regularly to share food and kids, prayer and support, joy and tears. We discovered that authentic Christ-centered communion was hard to duplicate. And yet, the memory of having lived it so fully at l’Arche turned out to be enough; the memory that it can happen shaped our faith and guided our engagement with others both locally and globally.

Jim took his stewardship of the earth seriously as a farmer/gardener and seed-producer, a legacy now carried on by our daughter. He kept abreast of social challenges from a faith perspective informed by years of reading and absorbing the teachings of the Gospel through the Catholic Worker newspaper, to which he was introduced at l’Arche in France. We remained part of the global l’Arche family (once at l’Arche, always family!) through Faith and Light, hosting l’Arche friends on our family farm, and now through our support and friendship with the nearby l’Arche community in Saskatoon, now marking ten years of existence. We were both heavily involved in the local parish and on a diocesan level, through liturgical roles and social projects — all of which came with its own set of joys and sorrows. Jim now gardens at St. Peter’s Abbey, feeling a closeness to the monks, with all their graces and quirks, akin to his bonds with l’Arche. I worked in a group home, in a shelter for abused women and children, in pastoral parish and diocesan ministry, in retreat and faith formation ministry. I managed a community center, joined a local soup kitchen, and finally now, I serve as an ordained Anglican priest in one of our prairie towns. Yep, downward mobility all the way with little material and monetary value, but our freedom and fulfillment was literally out of this world.

As our phone visit progressed, David was mesmerized, his synapses forging connections not made before. Maybe for the first time, he saw the spiritual connections with the life-choices his parents had made. Maybe for the first time he tapped into this joyful mystery of communion with someone he himself had never met directly. He was “blown away” (as young people say these days) that his parents had been so close to, and so influenced by, this man who changed so many lives, who is recognized all over the world (little did we know in the 1970’s how big Jean’s influence would become), and was considered a living saint (although Jean objected to anyone who would refer to him as such) and who was in fact responsible for bringing his parents together. Having listened intently, with new questions popping into his head, David finally had an aha-moment: “So, in other words, Jean Vanier is responsible for the fact that I exist!”

For a man who was never married or ordained, and never had his own biological off-spring, Jean Vanier has left a spiritual legacy of enormous proportion and a delightful biological off-spring of sorts, too numerous to count, such as our kids, off-spring which may only be vaguely aware of who has brought their parents together and gave them life. But as for our son, he’s claiming this remarkable man as one of his new heroes and a spiritual Grandpa. And my heart sings in gratitude for Jean Vanier who remains forever a part of our and God’s family of saints.

Well done, good and faithful servant of God. May you rest in peace, and may your witness continue to disturb and inspire generations to come.

For more on Jean Vanier, listen to CBC Ideas program The Rabbit and the Giraffe, Part I and Part II here. At the bottom of the CBC page there are more links to programs and articles featuring Jean Vanier. Jean’s funeral took place on May 16 in the village of Trosly and was live-streamed, beginning at 6:00am SK time.
The Beauty of Compassion is a 30-minute interview with Jean Vanier, introducing a 14-part video-series filmed in the Holy Land.

Believe … and Rise

It was all getting too much. The bitterly cold prairie winter became an apt illustration of the lifeless landscape taking shape in her spirit. Personal challenges grew. The list of family and friends living their own agony, needing prayers, was getting way too long. Strife and relational tensions in the workplace compromised efforts at dialogue and resolution. The weight of the world’s suffering – poverty, war, natural disasters – slowly eroded her capacity to hold onto a certain equanimity and strength. The horror of human evil inflicted on innocent people sank her heart like a boulder hurled into deep and dangerous water, intent to drown every ounce of hope and faith she had left. As if this wasn’t enough, Notre Dame de Paris, the soul of a nation, holding eight centuries of history, withstanding revolutions and wars, burnt down in a matter of hours on an ordinary day. The psalmist’s plea became her own: Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. (Ps. 69) No doubt, darkness—the big void—suffering—evil—death are all real, but is Easter real??

It’s tough to remain anchored in hope when tidal waves of despair wash over the globe and flood our own spirits, including prairie towns where quiet is the norm. The horrific scene of last year’s bus crash was a prairie version of 9/11 for way too many people. We just marked the one-year anniversary of that horrific tragedy that brought such unspeakable grief and unwanted loss. And we can’t help wonder: does God take breaks at the most inconvenient times? Does God sleep on the job, just when we need him the most? Life can sure feel this way, for far too many good people, including here in quiet prairie communities.

At the one-year Memorial Service a few weeks ago a video was shown that was simply called Believe. That title Believe has a unique Broncos flavour: Head coach and general manager Darcy Haugan used the word Believe to inspire his team. He was a broken record with only one word: Believe. “We’re not a fifth-place team. You’ve got to believe. Once you start believing, that’s when we’ll turn around. Start believing. Why not us? Why can’t we do this?” *

One day Haugan found an old, yellow piece of metal kickplate. He took it to his office and wrote “BELIEVE” across it. Every Bronco player signed it, a contract of sorts. Haugan bolted the kickplate to the wall above the Broncos’ dressing room door. It was the last thing the players saw on their way out to the ice. The Broncos then began to win 13 of their next 16 games. Haugan had special shirts made with “BELIEVE” printed on the front for the start of the playoffs.

That Broncos motto Believe took on an entirely different meaning in the wake of bus crash. Two days after the accident, Chris Beaudry, the assistant coach, was mulling around the dressing room trying to gather his thoughts when he saw the sign. “I have to take this to the hospital,” Beaudry thought. “That’s where this belongs. It’s staying there until the last boy comes home.’” Indeed, the BELIEVE kickplate stayed at the hospital until the last Bronco, Morgan Gobeil, finally left the hospital in March, 11 months after the crash. In those 11 months at the hospital, Believe became the rallying cry for the 13 boys recovering into a new beginning. The Broncos believed, and continue to believe against all odds.

And so we ask again: does God really take breaks when we need God the most? Or is there that of God in the Broncos motto Believe? In his little book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, Martin Marty claims that even our awareness of the absence of God in fact hides the promise … of the presence of God. “Even the cry from the depths is an affirmation: Why cry if there is no hint of hope of hearing?” We cannot miss something that we have never had, writes Marty, we cannot feel the pain of someone’s absence if we have never experienced their loving presence.

So … could it be that God is in fact never absent? Could it be that it is us who are absent Could it be that it is us who get cut off from the font life and love, getting robbed of the oxygen for our soul by letting darkness and pain swallow us whole, like the 40 below prairie winters that just don’t seem to end?!

On that cross Jesus died. And on that cross Jesus felt cut off when he cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? But was he … truly … cut off? No point crying out if there’s no hope of being heard … And there was a kickplate on that cross. King of the Jews it said. Behind that kickplate was an explosive promise: God’s promise of never-ending love destroying death, destroying death’s ugly power to kill us.

And like the Broncos, we signed onto that promise. We signed onto God’s promise in Christ Jesus through baptism. We have signed on to God’s resurrection promise through faith, through … believing. And we continue to sign onto that resurrection promise every Sunday … in the remembering, in the eating and drinking of Christ’s Body and Blood. At that same Memorial service for the Broncos Logan Boulet’s sister Mariko shared a poem by Margaret Mead that goes like this:
Remember Me: To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated,
But to the happy, I am at peace,
And to the faithful, I have never left.
I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.
So as you stand upon a shore,
gazing at a beautiful sea – remember me.
As you look in awe at a mighty forest
and its grand majesty – remember me.
As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity – remember me.
Remember me in your heart, your thoughts,
your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.

God never promised that we would not suffer or despair or not find ourselves buried alive in sorrow. God only promised that we would not have to face such bitterly cold and death-dealing seasons alone, even when an eight-century old cathedral burns down. God fulfilled that promise in Jesus Christ, the Holy One who has gone before us in all things. In Jesus, God rolled the stone away from death, opening the way into redemption and freedom. In Jesus, God showed us how to hold onto Love in the face of death, and let that Love raise us from the grave. God’s favourite pastime, God’s primary job description, is to dig us out of the holes we dig for ourselves and to keep loving us back to life over and over. God did not rest until all enemies were trampled under foot. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians, that last enemy was death.

Is it really an idle tale, as the disciples thought when hearing the news from the women? No, it is not. We just need eyes and ears in our heart to see and hear. This Easter morning we claim with joy – Christ rose from the grave, trampling death by death. LOVE rose from the grave, never to die again. Notre Dame will rise again from its ashes, and will once again give glory to God in future generations.

Remember me, says our risen Lord Jesus, just as Margaret Mead’s poem urges. Believe, we say to one another, in the same way Darcy Haugen begged his Broncos to believe. Each Sunday God in Jesus Christ begs us to believe. Each Sunday we remember together – God dismantled forever the power of every darkness, every affliction, every death. God destroyed their power by infiltrating death … with LOVE. When love enters hell, the devil runs for cover.

The risen, glorified Jesus says to us today: believe, and remember me – in your heart, your thoughts, in the actions of this Holy Eucharist, in your actions of love and mercy for the least among you. For if you always think of me, I will never be gone …

So, my dear friends, whether our own heart is drenched in Easter joy, still in shock over the burning cathedral, or still shivering in winter/Lenten chills this morning, at least join us in … believing. Believe, like resilient prairie folk, that we too can make it past the winter of life. Believe, like the Broncos, that we can win the game of life with our God who keeps loving us back to life over and over again. Believe that there is no darkness God’s light cannot pierce. Believe that there is no winter so cold that God’s love cannot warm it. Believe that there is no pit so deep for God to reach down and lift us out of the cold and dark into the radiance of new life. Believe! It’s real, this resurrection stuff, more real that all the cold and dark seasons together. Freedom and mercy, salvation and joy over and over again in small and big measures. Believe …. and Rise. Alleluia, Christ is risen again, indeed.  AMEN

Homily preached on Easter morning April 21, 2019
Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

  • With thanks to TSN for the Broncos story on Believe.