On Narrative, Nostalgia, and Hope (Or, “The stories we tell ourselves”)

I sometimes feel like every post I want to write could be titled “The Stories We Tell Ourselves.” Anyone who has known me over the past fifteen years knows just how important the concept of narrative is for me. This sense has only been reinforced by my readings in theology, history and psychology (and by my own life, which included a significant rupture that robbed me of my story for a couple years). There is nothing more human than to make stories, and the stories we tell ourselves—the myths we make and uphold—go a long way in defining who we are, what we believe, and how we interpret the world around us.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past couple of weeks in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprise win in the American presidential election, since so much of the Trump phenomenon seems to be driven by a powerful narrative of dispossession and loss, which in turn fuels another, related narrative of nostalgia for an America that once was “great” but has since lost its way. Coincidentally, last week I also started reading Mark Lilla’s wonderful little book The Shipwrecked Mind: On political reaction, in which he discusses the thought of several reactionary thinkers of the past century. Much like American Trumpists today, these thinkers all craft a kind of Golden Age narrative about some point in Western intellectual history after which everything went wrong and Western society declined and decayed into individualism and moral relativism. (I’m sure we’ve all heard at least one such story at one point or another!) Reading these narratives reminded me of a lot of Western theology of the past few decades, which has been dominated by similar (and similarly tempting if misleading and partial) grand narratives of failure and loss. Or even in a much lower-stakes situation, of many Canadian Anglicans’ wistful nostalgia for the ‘glory years’ of the 1950s and 60s, when churches were full and diocesan budgets expanding.

These narratives are so strong that no facts or statistics can overcome them. (Unsurprisingly in such a context, “post-truth” was just announced as Oxford English Dictionary‘s Word of the Year.) The stories we tell ourselves become to a great extent Truth for ourselves. And this is true whether these stories are political, historical, personal, or religious. This makes them incredibly powerful. And to my mind this makes it even more important to be aware of the narratives, the stories, the myths that shape our views of the world, and to try to be intentional in finding the best, most helpful, narratives possible.

The only way to counteract a story is to replace it with a more compelling story.

An intentionally narrative turn is, I think, both a tremendous opportunity and challenge for communities of faith, particularly in this moment. It’s an opportunity because—contrary to demythologizing agenda of liberal theology of the past two centuries—it insists that we tell our stories, that our stories are nothing to be ashamed of, that we try to strip Christian Truth from Christian narrative only at our great peril. To this end, I’m deeply gratified that the Christians I know under the age of 45 are unanimously creedal (in the sense that they are committed to the traditional formulations of Christian doctrine, which are themselves deeply narrative in character) and evangelical (in the sense that they are committed to telling the story of the Gospel (regardless of any other connotations that word may have today)). But it’s also a challenge because, if indeed the stories we tell ourselves interpret the world for us, we must give thought to how we tell our stories. Is the story we tell, preach and proclaim one of a lost Golden Age or does it point with faith and hope toward the future? (To use a nautical analogy, are we looking ahead from the bow or are we looking back from the stern?) On the flip side, however, is the story we tell naively dependent on political ease and ‘social progress’? Or does it understand what Fr Alexander Men beautifully called “the paschal mystery of the Church,” the idea that the Church is always suffering and dying with its Lord, but never defeated by the powers of darkness? Who does our story include? Who does it leave out?

It’s not surprising that my reflections this week and this morning would return to Fr Men, a man whose thought has influenced me more than probably any other aside from Jesus. As I’ve quoted time and time again, on the night before he was killed (likely for speaking out against the rising tide of nationalism in the Russian Church at the fall of the Soviet Empire), Fr Men proclaimed words that changed the course of my life, and which remain an incredible source of strength and inspiration to me, and which seem as good a place to end these reflections as any:

Only near-sighted people can suppose that Christianity has already happened. Christianity has only taken its first, I would say timid, steps in human history. To this day many of Christ’s words are incomprehensible because we are still neanderthals in spirit and morals. The gospel arrow is aimed towards eternity, and that which we call Christian history is in many ways a series of clumsy and unsuccessful attempts to bring Christianity about.

With Fr Men, I am heartily convinced that Christianity’s best days are not behind us. There is no Golden Age. That doesn’t mean the  road ahead will be easy; far from it. But as our story tells us—from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; through Israel in its troubled monarchy, devastating exile, and incomplete restoration; through our Lord Jesus in his betrayal, execution, and ultimate vindication; up to the Church which has needed every last one of its “clumsy and unsuccessful” Saints to survive to the present hour—God will be present with us in the midst of it all: in success, in failure, in consolation, in abandonment, in rejoicing, and in suffering. And as our story also tells us, no matter the times, the work is always the same.

Let us go forth, then, working out our salvation in fear and trembling, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God, with our eyes firmly fixed on that Gospel arrow aimed towards eternity.

Some thoughts on Creation & Marriage

I have a number of half-completed and ultimately abandoned draft posts attempting a constructive theological engagement of the issues same-sex marriage presents for the Church, and particularly the Anglican Church of Canada and broader Anglican Communion in this difficult season of its history. The drafts have all been started because I don’t feel I can remain quiet and abandoned because it’s just a difficult thing to write about well, particularly when I feel the way the conversation has been defined misses the mark in certain important ways. But here I go again…

One of the more helpful contributions of  “This Holy Estate,” the theological report commissioned by the 2013 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada,*was its teasing apart of differences in the biblical witness between approaches grounded in Creation and those grounded in Redemption (p.47). The assumption seems to be that, if we ground our theology of marriage in Creation, then there is little room for the inclusion of same-sex marriage within the Church. The concern for a theology of human personhood, relationships, and sexuality that is grounded in the Creation narratives is reminiscent of something my theology professor said in our very first class thirteen years ago: “The question we must ask about homosexuality is not what it says about us today but what does it say about Creation?”

I wonder, though, whether this is really the case. Even if we accept that Creation rather than New Creation is the best place to look for such theologies, it seems to me that whether homosexuality is part of God’s good Creation or part of the fallen world is to some extent irrelevant: I’m not sure it clarifies anything, or even what criteria one would use to decide what kinds of differences among people belong in which category.

I suppose really there are three options: 1) homosexuality is not part of the created order and is a result of explicit, conscious choice; 2) homosexuality is not part of the created order and is a consequence of the generational sin that pollutes every human interaction; or 3) homosexuality is part of the created order.

I don’t think the first option deserves much comment; if it’s the case then the conversation is over: my experiences and the experiences of millions like me of an innate, early-manifesting, and persistent orientation are entirely delusional, Paul’s comment in Romans 1 is an etiology that is literally true for all of us, and there is no need to continue the conversation. But assuming the Church doesn’t want to simply write off the lived experiences of millions of people and the increasing scientific evidence that suggests some genetic or prenatal environmental influence (if not outright causation) on sexual orientation, this isn’t a very attractive or theologically interesting option. Really, in this case Christianity becomes little more than a ‘language game’ walled off from the world we actually experience.

The second option, however, requires a lot more thought. If we want to argue that homosexuality is not part of God’s original intention for Creation, but is a manifestation of the generational sin that infects and affects all of us, our cultures, systems and structures, relationships, and personalities, there is much to commend this view theologically. Certainly, homosexuality doesn’t fit in easily to the Creation narratives as received in the Scriptures. Nor does this perspective cause any problems for the legal strictures in Leviticus or to Paul’s comments, such as they are. It therefore requires no disruption to the traditional understandings of gender, sexuality, and marriage.

And yet, as tidy as the Creation narratives are, with their firm divisions of night and day, water and dry land, and male and female, what we actually see in the created world is far more complicated. Between night and day there is always dawn and dusk, and as anyone who has ever walked a beach at low tide knows, there is plenty of middle ground between sea and earth. And so it continues: there are mammals that lay eggs, there are fish who bear live young, there are carnivorous plants, fish with lungs, aquatic mammals, and even flightless bats. So diverse and unexpected is the created world that there was a common patristic belief that everything that God could create was created. As much as our Creation narratives love straight lines of division, the fact is, in our world as it has been given to us, when we see a straight line, we know that it is a human hand at work, and not God’s. In a world like this, unless we want to claim that the platypus is a result of sin (and really, hasn’t the poor platypus suffered enough ridicule!) all we can do is to stand back in awe and wonder and proclaim: How glorious are your works, O Lord! In wisdom have you made them all!

Even the seemingly cut and dry areas of reproduction and biological sex are far more complex than one would imagine. There are creatures which reproduce by division, creatures which reproduce by cloning themselves, creatures which can reproduce by parthenogenesis, and others which can revert back to less developed stages and begin life anew. Even among creatures with sexual reproduction, there are species that exhibit such great differences between male and female that the males are little more than genetically necessary parasites. (How glorious are your works, O Lord! In wisdom have you made them all!)

Then there are individual creatures that are biologically neither male nor female, or both, for entirely genetic reasons. What do we say about these creatures, human or non-human? Do we despise them as outside God’s creative will, or do we, as Jesus did with the man born blind, say that they were born as they are “that God’s works might be revealed in them”?

Our world is an unfathomably diverse place, and the fact is that our Creation narratives, as beautiful, profound, and paradigmatic as they may be, touch on only the smallest sliver of reality. So, when it comes to human sexuality (and also gender identity, which is a separate issue), why can’t we see — or why shouldn’t we see these things which are givens of earthly existence as equally part of the complexity, bounty and beauty of what God has made? (As an aside, I love the analogy of the paradigm for these kinds of discussions; anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows that while paradigms are very helpful regular patterns and categories through which words change form, very few words fit the patterns perfectly — they are helpful descriptive tools of what generally happens, but are never prescriptive statements about what should or must happen.)

So, when I look at the world around me, I see ample reason why the goodness of God’s creation is vast enough, creative enough, and complex enough to include me, my sexuality included.

And yet, I find myself somewhat ambivalent between the second and third options I gave above. Or perhaps more accurately, my affirmation of the third option must be coloured by my affirmation that no aspect of human existence — sexuality most certainly included — is untouched by the impact of sin. If we are too quick to affirm that sexual diversity is part of God’s good creation in all its glorious complexity, the “Baby, I was born this way” mentality can all too easily blind us to the reality that all human relationships, and therefore all human sexuality, are skewed by our weakness, finitude, and sinfulness. It can therefore easily cause us to miss important aspects of our lives that require healing and sanctifying. No matter where we stand or who we are, no matter how easily we may fit into the our society’s traditional gender and sexual norms, or how paradigm-busting our humanity may be, the warm glow of God’s affirmation that “It is good” is always chilled by the cold wind of sin. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously reminded us, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Getting back at long last to the issue of marriage, the good news is that where exactly we fall on this spectrum is actually irrelevant. Same sex marriage is not dependent on one view or the other, really. Even if homosexuality belongs to the fallen world, it means that it can be redeemed and saved by being turned towards God in and through Christ, just as all less-than-sanctified aspects our personalities must be. What greater way of saying, “You intended this for evil, but God intended this for good” could there be than to enter into a committed, God-focused, ecclesiastically-oriented relationship, forsaking all others, and committing to the hard work of working out salvation together in fear and trembling, till death parts us? Not to “explain away” the Scriptures but to live them out as fully and life-givingly as possible: to devote our life together to bearing good fruit and contributing to the flourishing of the community, not to demean, belittle or use someone for our own sexual or psychological gratification;** to see clearly God’s “invisible attributes” in Creation, not making excuses, but knowing and glorifying God, being thankful and giving our thoughts and hearts to the light of the Spirit;*** and neither trampling down the humanity of others in aggression nor being blown about by any and every passing whim of ourselves or others in passivity.**** Turning what might not be godly over to God in an intentional way is simply what believers do in all facets of life.

And in a very real sense, this means it is no different from heterosexual marriage. Something that often gets lost in these debates in the Church is that there is nothing essentially good or holy about marriage, procreation, and family life per se: these can be just as wicked and destructive as any way of life unless they are directed wholly, persistently, and consistently towards God. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann points out in his brilliant essay on marriage, “[M]arriage is, as everything else in ‘this world,’ a fallen and distorted marriage, and that it needs not to be blessed and ‘solemnized’ … but restored. … Needless to say, this restoration infinitely transcends the idea of the ‘Christian family’. … Family as such, family in itself, can be a demonic distortion of love — and there are harsh words about it in the Gospel.” And again, “The real sin of marriage today is … the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God.” ***** Those who choose to ground their theology in Creation can often, I believe, turn family life into just such an idol and therefore mar marriage’s genuine iconic nature. As important, beautiful and profound as family life is, Christianity is not and has never been a fertility cult. All human relationships find their meaning and their ultimate fulfillment not in finding ‘true love’ or in raising children, but in in the Kingdom of God, represented canonically as the marriage of God and Israel, of Christ and the Church. In this sense, marriage is not “heteronormative” as much as it is “christonormative.”

In a paradoxical way, this both centers and marginalizes gendered existence. It centers it in that the union of male and female in an iconic reading of marriage requires the male to ‘play the role’ of Christ, in his agency and priestly vocation, and the female to ‘play the role’ of the Church, in its radical openness towards God. And yet, even assuming for the moment that these traditional gender roles are good and holy, these differences are also marginalized in the Kingdom, for in Christ there is neither male nor female. Since we are all, male and female, within the Church Christ’s Bride, we are therefore called to embody this stereotypical symbolic ‘feminine.’ And since we are all, male and female, called to offer our lives in self-sacrificial love, as well as to offer up creation to God in thanksgiving as the priests of creation, we are also therefore called to embody the stereotypical symbolic ‘masculine.’ And this is true not only in our orientation towards God, but also to each other. When it comes right down to it, both stereotypical paradigms boil down to the same thing: humble, self-giving love.

But beyond the gender stereotypes, we know that both biological sexes include the full spectrum of personalities, strengths, and abilities. And it is not difficult to see what bad fruit is borne when gender paradigms are enforced strictly in a fixed and inflexible way, without reference to the personhood and individual characteristics of each man and woman. Even where men and women may match the gender norms perfectly and naturally, in some ways, they can act as too-convenient excuses that hide the genuine differences between two persons, as well as provide too-easy justifications for bad behaviour. (It’s exactly the same “Baby, I was born this way” attitude I was speaking of earlier.) As much as it can be true that part of the beauty and challenge of marriage is the overcoming of the solitudes of Male and Female, a world where ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ can mask the fact that the true gulf lies between ‘I’ and ‘Thou’. To appropriate Solzhenitysn, the true gulf of separation lies not between the sexes, but between two human hearts, and every two human hearts.

And this is where I begin to see the theological prospects for what genuine part gender and sexual diversity might play in God’s good Creation. The idolatry of ‘typical’ family life and the reification of gender differences is always a temptation, whether in ancient Canaan’s fertility cults, or in Christian groups today who are obsessed with procreation and the 1950s-style nuclear family. The presence of same-sex couples, and the celebration of these relationships as channels for the working of the Spirit of God, can remind the Church that Christian marriage is not primarily about making babies, but about manifesting the Kingdom of God; just as the presence of those for whom traditional understandings of gender don’t apply can remind the Church that we all, male and female, are in this together, and are called to be Christ to one another, and are simultaneously called to be His Bride, that we contain within ourselves, and are called to cultivate within our selves, both halves of the marriage icon.

These are clearly very complicated issues and these reflections are only a small part of a vast picture. But as I sit here writing in the quiet beauty of my mother’s garden, I can’t help but marvel at how all these things I see — the birds, the flowers, the trees, the insects, the slugs, and even me! — are wonderfully and fearfully made. How glorious are your works, O Lord! In wisdom have you made them all!

 

Notes: 

*This report has sadly been largely ignored, and inasmuch as it has been read at all has been much maligned on all sides, I believe unfairly. It is a humble document, aware of the limitations of its scope and of the intractability of some of the hermeneutical difficulties faced; it is also a comprehensive document, giving full voice to the broadest scope of opinions within the Church; it is also very careful and generous in its conclusions, saying: “To say that it is theologically possible to make this change is not to say that the change is theologically desirable. We have attempted to show how it might be done—not why or even whether it should be done.” It is far from a perfect document, but I think it’s a helpful one and I hope it isn’t mothballed and forgotten.

** As Rabbi Steven Greenberg points out in his brilliant Wrestling with God and Men, the misogyny of the Levitical injunction against “lying with a man as with a woman” cannot be ignored. It was an assumption that the act of sexual penetration was demeaning and evidence of women’s inferiority to men. This would explain why there is no injunction against sexual activities between women.

*** cf., Romans 1

**** arsenokoites and malakoi

***** For the Life of the World, p 82 and 90.

Making Meaning and/or Being Wrong

Yesterday morning, as I was sitting on my mother’s garden patio, basking in the peace and blessing of a new day, a hummingbird appeared as if from nowhere and hovered a few feet away from me for a about thirty seconds before flying away. For whatever reason, I was inspired in the moment to look up the spiritual significance of hummingbirds in North American indigenous cultures. I discovered that across diverse cultures, hummingbirds represent such ideas as “new birth,” “joy appearing unexpectedly,” “lightness of being,” and “love, relationships, and marriage.” As I’m in a transitional period in my life, and since joy and lightness have been particularly elusive fruit of the Spirit for me, these are a welcome set of associations. And so, I chose to accept the appearance of this hummingbird as personally meaningful—not necessarily as an omen or prophecy, but at least as a reminder of what I already know and believe from within my own tradition: that the greatest blessings are often unexpected, and that the Spirit is within me as a constant source of new life, bearing fruit of love, joy, peace, etc. from the depths of my heart.

But the question is, why did I choose to experience this hummingbird as meaningful? What was it about this encounter with this hummingbird that inspired me to look up its significance in cultures other than my own? Why not the raven that flew past me just a few moments later? (As it happens, in Pacific Northwestern cultures, ravens symbolize prophecy, changeability, and, as quintessential ‘trickster’ characters, polyvalency and unpredictability—a set of meanings that would be equally appropriate, if not quite as alluring, to my present circumstances.)

I find such questions about meaning-making and discernment very compelling. Meaning-making is one of the brain’s primary tasks, at both a subconscious and conscious level: We are unceasingly bombarded by an array of data our brains must process, the vast majority of it without our active, conscious involvement. Whether we’re talking about weather conditions, distant sounds, facial expressions or body language, our brains are constantly sorting and filtering information, looking for potential threats or opportunities. And yet, these deep operations of the limbic system are prone to error and so we must also learn to consciously override them. This is the glory of the evolution of the human brain: when our anxiety spikes at a loud noise, we have the ability to discern whether or not the perceived threat is real: backfiring car or shotgun? freight train or earthquake? And so, unlike our feline cousins, we know we don’t need to hide under the bed when we hear the vacuum cleaner. But in order to do this successfully, we must learn to discern which perceived threats are real and which are not. And, as those of us with tendencies towards anxiety know all to well, this is often easier said than done.

A similar process happens with how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. We carry around with us internalized narratives about who we are and how we fit in with our surroundings. Most of these powerful narratives are subconscious and they are not always helpful. So, just like our reactions to loud noises, if we’re going to live healthy and meaningful lives, we need to bring these subconscious narratives into the light of day and learn how to help shape them in positive ways. We have the power to choose what elements of our past we incorporate into our stories and therefore how we interpret that past and what it might mean for the present and future. But with power comes responsibility: as with the previous paragraphs, the question becomes one of discernment: How do we go about choosing which elements ‘fit’ our narrative? And how do we know which story is the ‘right’ one to tell?

Belonging to a faith tradition interacts with this process in an interesting way, providing a set of ready-made narratives through which believers understand our own stories. So, for example, it is common for Christians to understand their experiences of suffering in the light of the sufferings—and ultimate vindication—of Christ. Yet, these ready-made narratives can be as problematic as they can be helpful. When the story doesn’t go ‘as it should’ it can create a strong cognitive and spiritual dissonance that often leads to disenchantment and disillusionment. (By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. … How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?’) Of course, any faith tradition is big enough and broad enough to contain many narratives and sub-narratives through which we can subsequently be reenchanted. And, because of the way we form and shape our own stories, we see this reenchantment not as a re-illusionment after disillusionment, but as a re-illumination, a coming out the other side with a deeper, more complicated (and therefore truer) understanding of ourselves, our faith, and our God.

But what if we’re wrong? What if yesterday morning’s hummingbird was meaningless? Or what if the real sign for me was the raven? How do we know if our spiritual or cognitive re-enchantment really is re-illumination and not re-illusionment, an exercise in self-deception and delusion?

And I think it’s these questions that lie at the heart of why I find the idea of meaning-making and spiritual discernment so compelling. In the midst of the endless confusion of data, what is signal? What is noise or static? And how do we know what a signal means? In the case of the hummingbird, the stakes are low: worst-case scenario is that I was reminded of something that is universally true. But of course there are other areas in life in which the stakes are far higher. Before my life took its sharp turn in 2010-11, for example, I was unable to reconcile my sexuality and my Christian faith; when my faith reasserted itself two-and-a-half years later, this thing that had been so huge, so immovable, for so long, had ceased to be an issue for me. In one way or the other, my story requires me either to have been wrong, either before or now. Is there any way to know?

With the hummingbird, I was inclined to see it as meaningful because it appeared at a moment when I was in the midst of deep prayer and profound praise of the beauty of God’s creation, a moment when the universe felt particularly transparent to the presence and glory of God. Yet this is not a criterion I can really use for the other issue, because in both of the seasons of my life in question I was equally committed to following Christ and to discerning the leading of the Spirit. So what gives? Has God’s will for my life changed? Or was I just wrong all those years? (Or am I wrong now?) None of those options feels satisfactory; each raises more questions than it resolves. (In may ways, I think this is the crux of the issue felt by the Church at large right now when it comes to ‘the gay issue.’ Has God changed his mind about gay people? Has the Church been wrong all these centuries? Are the experiences of gay Christians simply deluded? These notions are very difficult to fathom and all seem somewhat unsatisfactory, and I think this is ultimately why there has been so much fear, anger, and mistrust involved in the conversation.)

Now, I have good reasons to believe that in my own story, it is the case that I was wrong before, that there were things in my life that clouded my ability to discern matters correctly: un-dealt-with anxiety; a desire for certainty, structure and black-and-white answers as I witnessed my family falling apart; a longing for a sense of belonging after a rootless childhood; a personality inclined to trust authority and disinclined to rock the boat; and a deep-seated, neurotic need to be ‘normal.’ Indeed, looking back at my pre-2010 faith, as beautiful and formative as it was and as grateful for it as I am, it was also marked by an unhealthy neediness and clinging. (One perceptive observer once told me that I seemed to be someone who needed to be Christian; I see now that this need was unhealthy and motivated entirely by fear of the reality of my life.) It seems by no means coincidental looking back that my crisis of faith occurred just as I was beginning to address my anxiety; to a surprising degree, a faith that I remember and experienced as being rooted in love and gratitude was really rooted in fear. In a more positive line of thought, however, I also have reason to believe that I am correct now: As a Christian, I trust Jesus’ teaching that ‘a tree will be known by its fruit’ (Mt 12.33), and there is simply no doubt that the fruit my life is bearing now is so much more abundant and good than that borne by my previous faith.

Could I be wrong? Of course. Only a fool would be so bold to answer otherwise. We are finite creatures with limited understanding, so of course I could be wrong. Six years ago I couldn’t fathom thinking as I do now about my life then. And I trust that six years from now I’ll look back at my life today with a similar sense of deeper understanding and perspective. Every interpretation of the signs and signals of life must be held with an open hand and open heart; every telling of our story is provisional. I don’t think this is a bad thing; God is always at work creating and re-creating, and so are we always creating and re-creating our experience of being alive, shaping and re-shaping our stories. And this process can bear surprising fruit and unexpected joys and blessings—just like the hummingbird I encountered on a garden patio yesterday morning.

Why Orlando feels different

Much to my shame, I’ve become so accustomed to stories of mass violence that they barely even register anymore. But, somehow Orlando feels different. Living in a major urban centre in a progressive Western country, the risk of a terrorist attack that I, my work colleagues, my friends, my coreligionists, or Muslim neighbours, could be caught in or targeted in, is simply a given. But, somehow Orlando feels different. I read often about attacks of one kind or another—small scale, large scale, physical, political, or theological—on the “rainbow communities.” But, somehow Orlando feels different.

As I’ve been reflecting over the past day as to why it feels different, my mind has drifted to the last time there was an attack that left me with the same feeling, and it was an attack just under a year ago at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. There’s no doubt that these are very different attacks: a church and a nightclub are certainly not the same, and the struggle of rainbow communities must never be equated with the centuries of systemic oppression, suppression, and dehumanization the African American community has experienced. However, what these two terrorist acts share is that they shattered safe space, places that acted as a refuge of security and hope for a marginalized group.

It’s hard to understand from the outside (and even at times difficult to remember for someone like me who is on the inside but doesn’t resonate with much of the ‘gay subculture’) just how important these nightclubs have been for this community. It’s easy from the outside to simply see them as places where the most hedonistic stereotypes of gay people are played out. But, this is not a fair assessment. They are and have been places where people who feel they have to hide their identities in their day to day lives can be free to be themselves; places where people who don’t feel safe holding their beloved’s hand walking down the street are able to show their basic human affection in public; places where people carrying painful emotional and psychological scars from the past, or deep anxieties about the future can leave those pains at the door and, even if just for a few hours on a Saturday night, just be. And so, because it robbed a community of its safe space—and thereby to some extent, the safe spaces that exist all around the world for all kinds of marginalized peoples, Orlando feels different.

Orlando also feels different simply because it’s Pride, a celebration that originated with a small group of people defiantly saying ‘we exist’ and which has transformed in many parts of the world into simply one of the biggest and best parties of the year. (I remember last year talking to a (middle aged, straight, white male) colleague who expressed—to my surprise—his excitement about going to the Pride parade. As it turns out, many years ago, as a paramedic, he’d been assigned to work the Pride parade; he enjoyed it so much that he volunteered to work it the next few years, then started bringing his children to it annually. Why? Because it was, in his words, ‘the safest, happiest, friendliest, funnest cultural event in the city’. High praise coming from someone with no vested interest!) Yet, Orlando is a reminder that despite how far we have come, our Existing is still an act of defiance; and so, Orlando feels different.

Pride is also simply the time when the rainbow communities are at their best. Even as we advocate for diversity in society, we are by no means perfect in dealing with our own diversity: “bi-erasure,” difficulty in understanding and acceptance between gender-normative and gender-queer people within the community, and outright racism are genuine struggles. But every June, groups that have little in common except for their difference march together and cheer each other on. And just like how attacks against religious groups always cut deeper when they happen around their important celebrations and holy days, because this attack struck at Pride, when our ‘best self’ is on display, Orlando feels different.

But specifically for me, and I’m sure for many other gay Anglicans in Canada, Orlando also feels different because of current debates—wholly unrelated to this horrific terrorist act—going on within our Church, which are leaving us feeling rather exposed and vulnerable. We find ourselves in the awkward position of either not participating in an important conversation that directly impacts us and our community, or having to re-engage (for the thousandth time for many of us) with arguments which have proven to be harmful and poisonous to us and our faith. While conservative advocates often accuse us of simply not dealing with their arguments, they fail to realize that we have been confronted with these arguments all our lives. And many of us have accepted them, taken them to heart and lived them out, only to discover that they are destructive to our hearts, souls, minds, bodies, faith, and relationships. And for many of us, the memories of the destructive power of these poisons are still too vivid, their wounds still too raw and fresh, to want to address them again. We feel like we’re being asked to re-live the darkest nights, and re-fight the most horrific spiritual battles of our lives, and to do so in public, under the false guise of an ‘objective’ theological discussion. And so, because this terrorist act comes at a time of increased vulnerability, Orlando feels different.

It’s far too soon to tell what the impact of the massacre in Orlando will be. But, I know that it feels different, and I believe that I am different accordingly. I may not resonate strongly with gay (or more broadly LGBTQ2S+, what I’ve called ‘the rainbow communities’ above) subculture, but I am more committed than every to creating safe spaces for authentic and integral personhood. I don’t care much about Pride events, but this year I am committed to being loud and proud. And, while the last thing I want to do is wrestle with the poisonous arguments of those who would exclude me from the Table, I am committed to engaging the conversation, to telling my story, and to preaching the Gospel, which is and must be good news for all people.

 

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Turning Pages

Life is not for the faint of heart. This little phrase is one that has come to mind often for me over the past few months as I’ve reflected on the past three, five, ten, twenty-five, and thirty-six years of my life.

Within this often harrowing adventure that is human existence, we are often unaware of what moments will turn out to be important—seemingly insignificant events can change our lives, while things that at the time feel like earthquakes can quickly fade into obscurity. But there are rare occasions that are genuine moments of turning a page in our life.

This past Thursday was one such day for me in two important ways.

First, I paid off the last of my debt. While this is always exciting, this was of particular meaning for me because I had accrued the debt during my difficult entry into Toronto. In a genuinely freeing way, paying it off felt like finally turning the page on that difficult year. I hadn’t noticed how much of that experience I was still carrying with me in my heart until I could see the end of that debt and all that it symbolized in sight. But with the tap of my thumb on Thursday morning, it was all lifted from my shoulders—the disheartening job search, the horrible part-time job where I was set up to fail, the mouldering furniture, the unreliable electricity, internet, and hot water, the trio of unhelpfully critical people in my path, the disappointed hopes, and all this during the most unrelenting winter in recent local memory—it all moved permanently into the past, where it belongs. (And good riddance!)

This would of itself represent a wonderful page-turning day. But later that morning, I received word that I had been invited to be a postulant for ordination in the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. This is obviously a big deal and will involve some big changes in my life. But, just as importantly, in its own way, this too lifts some of the weight of the past from my shoulders.

They say discernment is an act of defiance, of “staying with the discordant notes of our lives”(Wilkie Au & Noreen Cannon Au, The Discerning Heart, p.19). I love this definition because my life has involved more than its share of dissonance. Even ignoring the Dark Night of my soul and its long aftermath, my spiritual life has been marked by irony and oddity from the start: I never felt at home in the Anglican tradition in which I was raised; an evangelical charismatic parish taught me to value Tradition; my first encounter with the Orthodox Church taught me to value the Future; it was the very integrity of my Orthodoxy that made that Tradition an unsustainable home for me; it was encounters with Buddhism and drag queen wisdom that allowed me to hear the voice and call of Jesus again; and I ended up back in the church of my childhood, but (at least for a time) as a spiritual refugee.

While beginning the journey to ordained ministry in the Anglican Church in many ways represents the ultimate of these ironies—following in the footsteps of my grandfather and father after such a long and winding road—it also represents the resolution of many of the “discordant notes” of my life. (Far from all of them, but at least it is now far less noisy than it was even a few days ago!) And even more amazingly, it is the path that brings the most of these notes, the most of my past, with it, no longer as absurdities, inconsistencies, or loose threads, but as deep resources of joy and strength. (See what wonders the Lord has wrought!)

This news will likely bring much joy to many of you who read this, but by no means to all. I know that some of you, for deeply held and understandable reasons based in traditions in which you have experienced liberation, truth and joy, cannot imagine how the affirmation of homosexuality can coexist in faithfulness to the Gospel. I understand where you are—I’ve been there myself! And I know some of you, for your own deeply held and understandable reasons based in a culture in which you are now experiencing liberation, truth and joy, cannot imagine why a (seemingly) intelligent, thoughtful gay man would have anything to do with ‘organized religion.’ I understand where you are too!—I’ve been there myself!

But whether this is news you can celebrate or not, I would ask that you would walk with me on this new journey I am undertaking, and uphold me in your prayers, thoughts, and intentions. Because, Life is not for the faint of heart. And if I am to make it through the next three years, five years, ten years, twenty-five years, thirty-six years, and beyond, I’m going to need you by my side.

Ashes

I’ve been thinking — rather unoriginally this time of year — about the symbolism of dust on Ash Wednesday: For you are dust and to dust you will return. I used to be tempted to see this as a minimizing message, reminiscent of the high school bully throwing me against a locker yelling, “You’re nothing!” But this is a false temptation. Remembering that we are dust is certainly about smallness — Sagan’s “pale blue dot” (1) comes to mind — but smallness doesn’t make something any less beautiful or precious. The preciousness of smallness is of course not a new idea. Centuries before Sagan spoke of being made of “the stuff of stars” (the expression was actually widely used by astronomers from at least 1918 — Sagan merely popularized it) (2) and of the pale blue dot, Julian of Norwich spoke of all that is created as “a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, sitting in my hand,” something so small she marveled how it could even hold together. She was assured that “it lasts — and will always last — because God loves it; and so all things exist by the love of God.” (3) C.S. Lewis wrote more extensively about this paradoxical inconsequential-ness and infinite value in Perelandra, where he writes:

That Dust itself which is scattered so rare in Heaven, whereof all worlds, and the bodies that are not worlds, are made, is at the centre. … Each grain, if it spoke, would say, I am at the centre; for me all things were made. Let no mouth open to gainsay it. Blessed be He!” Each grain is at the centre. The Dust is at the centre. … Where [God] is, there is the centre. He is in every place.

[…]

He has immeasurable use for each thing that is made, that His love and splendour may flow forth like a strong river which has need of a great watercourse and fills alike the deep pools and the little crannies, that are filled equally and remain unequal; and when it has filled them brim full it flows over and makes new channels. We also have need beyond measure of all that He has made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely necessary to you and for your delight I was made. Blessed be He!”

“He has no need at all of anything that is made. An [angel] is not more needful to Him than a grain of the Dust: a peopled world no more needful than a world that is empty: but all needless alike, and what all add to Him is nothing. We also have no need of anything that is made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely superfluous, and your love shall be like His, born neither of your need nor of my deserving, but a plain bounty. Blessed be He! (4)

We are both everything and nothing: everything because we exist and are sustained by God’s love; nothing because we are completely unnecessary in and of ourselves. This is a beautiful balance.

But more than smallness, I think the power of the ashes metaphor is what it says about impermanence. It doesn’t matter what we build or amass, how much we know or how defined our abs are, it will all just be dust in a matter of years, “three score and ten, or if by reason of strength, four score.” The most beautiful cathedral or temple, the tallest skyscraper — even the mightiest peaks of the Himalayas — come from dust, and will return to dust (albeit on a slightly longer timescale than our own lives). When we look even at the history of our planet we see this long process of things coming into being, existing, then being broken down again: continents and land-masses, animal kingdoms, ecosystems, species, and entire modes of life, have all come and gone. The time scales of these processes are incredible. (Again, we are so small! so impermanent!) God in this sense is always at work, always Creator, always making all things new. I think this is one of the most exciting and beautiful things science has taught religion. There is such cause for wonder and humility in this. We really are “like grass, which is here today and gone tomorrow.” And the Word of God — the Logos, the Deep Structure or Grammar of the Universe which is eternally bringing forth newness and life — really does “endure for ever.”

Yet even within the span of our lives we see that everything is in a constant state of coming into being and disintegrating. Nothing is permanent. We blink and infants have become toddlers, blink again and our hair has turned grey and wrinkles line our faces. And whenever we think we’ve got life figured out, the rules of the game change without warning and we are left to start over again. Despite the universality and ever-present reality of change, our minds strive for and cling to permanence, to what has been, to what is safe and predictable. This fear, grasping, striving, is at the heart of so much suffering and the root of so much sin: It’s such a huge issue for our unwillingly impermanent minds that how to manage it is the fundamental question behind one of the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions, Buddhism.

It’s no wonder then that at the start of this season of penitence and honest reflection, we remind ourselves of our smallness and impermanence. Over and against the ego’s instinct to puff itself up in the face of these simple realities of existence — like a house cat arching its back and raising its fur at the sight of its reflection in a mirror — we instead lean into our smallness and impermanence and remember that, just like the hazelnut of Julian’s vision, we are crafted and sustained by the love of an infinitely creative God.

And this is good news indeed.

 

1. Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (New York: Random House, 1994), xv.

2. Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection (New York: Dell Publishing, 1973). For further information on the use of “star stuff,” see: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/06/22/starstuff/.

3.  Julian of Norwich, Showings of Divine Love, Chapter 5.

4. C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (London: The Bodley Head, 1947, 1963), in Canada, available at http://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lewiscs-perelandra/lewiscs-perelandra-00-h.html.

A Bright Lent

Those of you who know me undoubtedly know my deeply ambivalent feelings about Lent, or more accurately, about how Lent tends to be celebrated. Too often this season of penitence is defined by external things, like the lack of flowers on the altar, or depriving oneself of one favorite food or another. Or, what has always been for me the greatest of sins against Lent, is the Western tradition’s insistence on eliminating the ancient and venerable word of of praise “Hallelujah” from its vocabulary during this season, as though somehow remembering our need for repentance ought to make us forget how the story ends. (This is, as it happens, purely a Western neurosis; in the Eastern Church, if anything, Hallelujah is said more often during Lent.)
My issue is not with these acts in themselves: simplicity is a wonderful virtue, fasting is an incredibly valuable discipline (more on that below), and taking time out to be more intentional about repentance is always a good thing (forbidden ten-letter words notwithstanding). The difficulty I have with conventional Lenten practice is that these well-intentioned things come together to turn Lent into a rather dark and dreary time — not only a long, dark tunnel, but one in which we are meant to stumble around with our eyes closed lest we should see the bright light waiting for us at its end.
The analogy of the light at the end of the tunnel is as fitting a place to begin as any because, of course, Lent began as a time of preparation for catechumens awaiting baptism at Easter, celebrations filled with the imagery of brightness, fire, and light. And, just as the catechumens would look forward with anticipation to their baptism, so too should we always keep the Light and joy of the Resurrection before the eyes of our hearts during Lent. Yet, it’s not only by looking forward that we can bring Light into our Lenten journey. In fact, far from being a dark and dreary season at all, I believe Lent — if properly understood — is just as light and bright as any time in the year.
Ever since Christmas, we have been celebrating the season of Epiphany (Christmas was, in fact, originally part of the Epiphany celebration), the season when the Church celebrates the various ways the Light of God shines into the world in the person of Jesus, who is the Sun of Righteousness, the Light to enlighten the Gentiles, the Light of the World, and the one who was transfigured with the Divine Light on the Mountain. It is an incredibly joyous season in the life of the Church.
Yet this Light doesn’t go anywhere when Epiphany ends. Lent isn’t the undoing of Epiphany — the Light that has shone into the darkness is still shining as brightly as ever. Lent is rather the fulfillment of Epiphany, its application in our own lives. Lent is the quiet season when we step back and allow that very same Light in which we’ve been basking since Christmas to penetrate and permeate into the deepest, darkest corners of our lives, when we proclaim to our own hearts, “Arise! Shine! Your Light has come!” and exhort ourselves to “live as children of the light” so that we might become “the light of the world,” a city on a hill for all too see.
This is, I believe, the heart of repentance, a word that is unjustly difficult to talk about in our culture. There is certainly a side of repentance that is, in the words of Michael Ramsey, about “saying sorry and turning.” But this isn’t necessarily about guilt (though there are often times when it can be and should be, since we all actively wrong each other from time to time), and is certainly not about shame. In our culture, I would even argue that the primary ‘sin’ we experience has nothing to do with doing bad things but is rather about allowing ourselves to be distracted and aimless, like lost sheep. (As it happens, my spiritual director wrote beautifully about this image yesterday.) At its centre, repentance is not about guilt or shame but about a reorientation of the heart away from the self and towards God. Preachers often talk about the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, as meaning “a change (the ‘meta’ part of the word) of mind (the ‘noia’ part, coming from the Greek word nous).” But we English speakers can get badly off track with this interpretation, because nous isn’t “mind” in the way that we understand the term. Whereas in English, the mind is the organ of cognition, thinking, and planning, in Greek, the nous is rather an organ of perception; it’s the “eye of the heart.” So if we’re going to play the etymology game (a dangerous game, but one that I do think is instructive here), it’s less a change of mind we’re talking about than it is a change of heart and perception. Repentance is a fundamental reorientation and changing of how we see and understand ourselves and circumstances. In the jargon of positive psychology we might even say that to repent is to reframe our circumstances, and specifically in the Christian context, to reframe them in light of — or rather in the Light of — the Gospel.
Of course, when we allow the Light of God to shine into the dark and shadowy places of our hearts, we won’t always like what we see. It’s easier to be in the dark, even if that darkness is harming us and our relationships, because seeing reality — becoming aware — demands responsibility on our parts. Illusion, delusion and ignorance are always tempting, because dealing with reality is hard work and demands us to change and sacrifice. Not only do we often prefer the illusions of our fantasies to reality, but often — particularly in our culture which demands perfection while constantly moving the bar of what that ‘perfection’ looks like — we often project false versions of ourselves to others because deep down we believe that who we truly are doesn’t measure up, and is therefore unworthy. Yet, the bubble will always pop eventually.
Even if remaining in the dark is easier, we know that doing what comes easiest is never doing what is best. This is because always taking the easy path is a rejection of our freedom. This is a truth that our spiritual forebears understood far better than our own culture does. They rightly understood that acting on whatever passing fancy of the ego or id may come along — what they helpfully called the passions, those things that rob us of our agency and freedom — is not freedom, but enslavement. To be truly free to drink the beer or eat the cheeseburger or have sex, we must also be free not to drink the beer, not to eat the cheeseburger, not to have sex. (Otherwise we’re just addicts, even if what we’re addicted to is self-gratification rather than the substances themselves.) This idea isn’t some obscurantist, self-loathing mediaeval idea; in fact, it’s becoming increasingly common in the field of positive psychology, a discipline all about helping people grow and reach their goals and full potential. In positive psychology, it’s simply called being “in choice.” It’s no good to justify ourselves or others by saying, “Oh he has a slutty side,” or “I’m just a glutton,” because it deflects our responsibility — our freedom — over our behaviours and attitudes. While deflecting responsibility may have a compassionate motivation, it misses the mark, because it diminishes us and our freedom, while also making the areas where we may struggle into indelible parts of who we are, obscuring the fact that we were created for goodness and beauty in the image and likeness of God. The genuine compassionate response is not to say “I’m just a glutton” but “I’m not as free as I’d like to be, yet.”
This is why fasting is such an important part of every spiritual tradition. If we want to grow, learn, live well, and be fruitful — if we want to be healthy — we must be free to say ‘yes’ or to say ‘no’, we must be “in choice.” It isn’t a matter of always saying no to our desires; it’s about cultivating the ability to say no and the wisdom and the discernment to know when we should say no (and, just as importantly, when we should say yes — a rigid and ungracious life of deprivation is just as much an enslavement to the passions as a life of unrestrained consumption). And, bringing this discussion back to the topic at hand, the only way to learn this wisdom and discernment is to hold our desires up, expose them, reveal them, to the Light of God. It is challenging, but beautiful and bright. And that is, at heart, what Lent is about.
May we all live as children of the Light as we enter this challenging, beautiful and bright, Lenten season.
Arise, O my Soul! Shine! Your Light has come!
The glory of the LORD has risen upon you!

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making meaning from a compromised national history

There are no simple stories, especially when they are true. Whether we’re talking about our personal stories, our religious myths, or national histories, the truer they are, the more difficult and nuanced they become.

It’s the last of these kinds of story I’ve been thinking most about of late, starting with the emotionally-charged debates surrounding the flying of the Confederate battle flag in the American South. For those of us who have no connection to the South, it’s a simple issue: the flag represents treason, sedition, slavery, and hatred – none of which are things to be celebrated in a modern democracy. Yet for those whose ancestors fought and died under that flag, it carries a very different set of meanings, bringing to mind pride, honour, gallantry and a lost national dream. Now, honestly, I don’t care what these white Southerners think; this is an open and shut case. Yet, much of the discussion – especially among progressives – surrounding this particular flag reeks of scapegoating: we single out the wicked one, destroy him, and go on our way without examining ourselves, seeing only the speck in our brother’s eye and ignoring the plank in our own.

I thought of this the other day walking past a home flying the Red Ensign, which was similarly a military flag that came to represent a nascent country, in this case my own. The Red Ensign is pointed to as the banner that unified Canadian soldiers fighting in the trenches and ridges of Belgium and France a hundred years ago, a formative image burned into our national identity as we remember places like Ypres and the Somme and Vimy and Paschendale and the courage and resilience of the young men who fought there. It is also a lasting symbol of our deep British roots, which gave us our proud history of Responsible Government, our parliamentary democracy, and much of our national character. (Our legendary politeness and wit are in large part remnants of our country’s British heritage.) Yet the flag’s very composition is also a recognition that this heritage is deeply tied to Imperialism, Colonialism, and white paternalism (if not open white supremacy): This was also the flag that was flying as our nation corralled the First Nations into reservations and stole their children, destroying communities, livelihoods, families, cultures, and languages in the name of Education, Crown and Country, and most disturbingly the Gospel. This was also the flag that flew proudly as we turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis (an event that is particularly poignant today as images of dead toddlers washed up on foreign shores fill our omnipresent screens – those who have ears, let them hear) and forcibly detained Japanese Canadians – even those who fought under the very flag – during the Second World War. Why then is the Confederate battle flag a racist banner and our Red Ensign not?

I don’t mean to create a false equivalence between the two; there are degrees of horror and baggage and symbolism that prevent any easy or flippant equivalence. The use of symbols, like the telling of stories, is never purely logical and rarely simple. My point is simply that history is complicated, and despite how badly we may want to look back at the past and see heroes and villains, to do so is incredibly naive. And to look only at the self-serving versions of our national stories is dangerously so. If, as Solzhenitsyn so poignantly pointed out, the line between good and evil runs through ever human heart, how much more does it run through the spirit, philosophies, and worldviews of every nation in every age.

In what is surely a great irony, the true “burden” “white men” must carry today is the guilt and shame at those who looked and sounded just like us not so long ago by historical standards, men who had the scarcely believable audacity and hubris to think they not only had the right but the obligation to recreate the peoples of the world in their own image. And yet, no matter how much horror I feel about the Residential Schools and other colonialist misadventures, it would be too easy and too convenient to think that these were the wicked schemes of evil men. They were, by in large, the ideas of the progressives of their day, people like me, not only in their whiteness and maleness but also in their concern for alleviating poverty, illiteracy, and all manner of social ills. The road to hell is most definitely paved with the best of intentions. So what do we as Canadians (and particularly white Canadians like me) do with this deeply compromised heritage?  Do we again apply the scapegoat mechanism, point the finger at the Evil White Men, tear down their statues and cross their names from our history books, and thank God we are not sinners like them?  Do we circle the wagons and rise to the defense of our fathers, championing their leadership and their forging of our Great Canadian Nation, ignoring the devastation they caused? Or do we do something harder, like use their – our – story to learn humility and grace, to remind ourselves to be wary in assuming we have the answers for other people’s lives, to teach ourselves to listen, and remember that we too have blind spots just like them? To acknowledge our national sins, to repent, and move on hoping beyond all hope that we will do better?

The answer isn’t to fret or faint, to believe we must either whitewash our histories or throw everything away. I believe if we are to learn anything of value from our national stories, we must tell them with an honesty that is critical, receptive, and gracious, being neither afraid to celebrate our successes nor weep and repent for our failures, even as the two are often inseparable. A proper patriotism evokes what certain Church Fathers called χαρμολυπη, joyful-sorrow. It cannot be otherwise. I celebrate my country and culture, our bilingualism and multiculturalism, our sense of humour, our humility on the world stage, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least as it stood before Bill C-51…), the compassion of our social services, our historic commitment to peacekeeping and caution about war-making. (This argument would have been easier to make in 2005 than today, mind you.) But, I grieve and am angered at the horror of the Residential Schools and the lasting legacy of poverty in indigenous communities, and I am right to do so.

To celebrate what is good does not negate the bad; to acknowledge and weep over the bad does not negate the good. This is what it means to be human.

I once criticized the Residential Schools to someone who defended them. She got quite angry and said it was too easy to criticize after the fact, in hindsight, and that I should be careful because those who come after me will similarly judge me. The conversation has never left me, but not in the manner she intended. For, as Jesus said, we will be judged by the same measure by which we judge others. I hope in 500 years, when people look back at the experiment that was the North American democracies, they do so in horror, shocked at our hypocrisy, privilege, prejudice and injustice. And if by some strange happening, one of these people should stumble across a biography of my life or what I’ve written, I hope they will be similarly aghast at my lack of vision, my blind  spots, and inner contradictions. For, as Fr. Alexander Men so brilliantly said, “the arrow of the Gospel is aimed towards eternity” and “we are still Neanderthals in spirit and morals.” As far as we’ve come, we so clearly have so much further to go. But I also hope they will have the grace to see that amidst all that, I – we – were in our own faltering ways seeking Truth and Justice, and that despite ourselves, I – we – managed to push our culture a little further down the road.

It’s a lie to think we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” No, we stand on the shoulders of ordinary men and women much like ourselves, blindly scrambling and faltering as they made their way in a confusing and complicated world. That in no way diminishes their accomplishments; it only serves to make what they created, and what we are creating, what we as a civilization can create and what we as a species will create all the more impressive. But, we will never do anything toward creating a truly great and just society if we fail to examine the stories we tell ourselves.

Can these Bones Live? (A Holy Friday Reflection)

These are heavy days.

Sadly, this isn’t particularly different from any other time. We always seem to be in heavy days. There are always wars and rumours of war, political wranglings, and polarization of opinion. If there’s one thing people from all ages and places seem to agree on it’s that the world is falling apart. (I actually take some comfort in this!) Yet there are times when the world feels a lot heavier than others. And for me the past few weeks have felt particularly heavy, grievous and sorrowful.

I was pondering this as I was waking up this morning, when the words “He chose to bear our griefs and sorrows” came to mind. I recognized the exact wording as coming from Eucharistic Prayer 2 in the Anglican Book of Alternative Services, which I probably hadn’t heard or prayed in over eight years. It is a reference, suitably enough considering today is Holy Friday, to the Servant Song in Isaiah 53:

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

 But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

From the very beginning, Christians have seen Isaiah’s Servant as pointing forward to Jesus and the cross. Much of this association has revolved around the second of these two verses quoted, but on this Holy Friday, my thoughts linger on the first, on this Servant who bears not only our transgressions and iniquities unto the cross, but also our griefs and our sorrows.

We’re used to remembering Jesus as one who ate and drank with outcasts and sinners, who identified with the weak over the powerful, with the sick and wounded as much as with the well, and who died as a cursed exile, rejected by his people and abandoned by his God and Father. But perhaps we have given less thought to this Jesus who identifies with those who grieve and are sorrowful, those of us whose mourning – whether for lost loved ones, lost identities, lost homelands, or simply lost opportunities – is particularly burdensome. This is the Jesus who blessed those who mourn (for they shall be comforted), and who wept with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus.

I find this reminder very profound. We live in a culture where we aren’t allowed to be sad, to express loneliness or need, where a basic human phenomenon like grief is now seen as a diagnosable psychological disorder. Christian churches are particularly notorious for this kind of unspoken requirement to put on appearances that all is well. But griefs and sorrows, no matter how great or how petty, are real. To deny them is to deny reality.

I’m reminded of a story about the Dalai Lama, who candidly told a reporter about an incident many years earlier, when a monk for whom he had great respect committed suicide after misinterpreting something he had said to him. The reporter asked him how long it took to get over this, to which the Dalai Lama – a man who had dedicated his life to seeking clarity and equanimity – told him bluntly that even after many many years, he still grieved the loss of his friend and his unwitting role in it. Grief is an inescapable part of life, even for great spiritual masters.

Since grief and sorrow are inescapable, we have no recourse but to experience them, deeply and fully, but also knowing that our Lord is not one who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but, rather, surely chose to bear our griefs and sorrows, who blesses us when we mourn, and who weeps with us when we hurt. As someone whose adult life has been marked by false starts, confounding disappointments, and far more loss than love, this is surely comforting to remember. And yet we also believe that the cross – our sin, our abandonment, our rejection, our weakness, our grief and our sorrow – is not final Word. Hope, no matter how faint and distant it seems, is always around the corner.

One of the things I miss most about Orthodox Holy Week is the services for Holy Saturday (which are always served on Friday). These services, which follow the story of Jesus’ burial and Sabbath rest, are certainly solemn, yet contain an irrepressible sense of anticipation. Even in the midst of the deepest lamentation, hope cannot be held back in these hymns and readings, like an overheating boiler rattling and shaking before it bursts, or an egg moments before it hatches, or perhaps even more like a small child too excited to keep a sworn secret. The night culminates in the reading of the prophecy of the Valley of Dry Bones, in which God tells his prophet to proclaim new life to his people, who – like many of us – cry out “Our bones are dry! Our hope is lost! And we ourselves are cut off!” The reading ends with the Lord, speaking in the first person, telling his recreated and restored people “I the LORD have done this.”

I can’t help but bring these two strands together in my thoughts today: that the Lord who gives new life to his people and says “I the LORD have done this” is the same Lord who, bearing our griefs and sorrows, says from his cross, “It is done.” We surely grieve and mourn in this world, but we are not alone. And, new life is just a Word away.

[For perhaps a more theologically interesting reflection on the cross, here’s what I wrote last year.]