Wild Geese

"I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of the Imagination." -- John Keats

"WILD GEESE"

by Mary Oliver

"Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine…"

You do not have to be good.

 You do not have to walk on your knees

 For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

 You only have to let the soft animal of your body

 love what it loves.

 Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

 Meanwhile the world goes on.

 Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

 are moving across the landscapes,

 over the prairies and the deep trees,

 the mountains and the rivers.

 Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

 are heading home again.

 Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

 the world offers itself to your imagination,

 calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --

 over and over announcing your place

 in the family of things.

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Homecoming

Homecoming

It’s been four days since Lucy left for Tatamagouche. She went there to attend a conference, to take photos, to stand back and see the big picture for the gathering of international students. She enjoyed it. But in the wake of that departure there was a “missing you” effect for myself, her mother and most emotively, our dog Nova. Nova moped around the house, slept on Lucy’s bed, looked forlornly at her empty room and then looked at us, as if to say, “Where is she?”

Of course we missed her too. Lucy is the perfect foil for me and she makes her mother laugh and laugh hard. Lucy is much smarter and much quicker than me, she knows how to respond to me, she does not get emotional or upset, she uses reason and hunour to undermine my arguments and she usually gets the better of our exchanges. I pity the teacher who would take her on. Lucy is also very considerate, kind and thoughtful and rarely does she miss the opportunity to share something with us that meets our need before we know it is even needed.

When I think of homecoming I often think of Luke’s story of the Prodigal son.

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.

Many people focus on the forgiveness aspect of this story. I have always been moved by the homecoming, “When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him.” It’s a powerful demonstration of celebrating a presence that had been lost or missing and now was found. The son returned and a “wonderful time” commenced. Beautiful. I am not a sentimental person, not prone to feeling disappointed in how others engage me. But I confess that when I return after an absence if there is no one there to greet me I feel a little disappointed. It does the heart good to know you were missed, more importantly to know there was a space unfilled that felt a little “less than” until I returned to occupy that space again. It is reassuring, it is affirming, it is an existential experience that my existence does matter to someone, somewhere.

I like homecomings, I like seeing them at the waterfront when military families are reunited, at the airport when people return home or visit friends and at church when people have been absent and are greeted back. I tend to move forward and not look back so it is rare for me ever to return to a former community I once inhabited but I really like returning to an organic community of friends or family I am still engaged with and feeling the affirmation that they missed me and I like to welcome people back who return to their own homecoming.

Lucy is almost home. Nova is waiting, tail wagging…

Doing Good, Large and Small

Doing Good, Large and Small

By former Methodist Bishop William Willimon

Throughout the gospel of Mark Jesus moves out into the world. But Jesus is not just traveling, rather he is moving into the world doing good – preaching, teaching, healing, exorcising demons, and opening the eyes of the blind. Jesus’ disciples move with him. They have learned quite quickly that if they are going to follow Jesus they have got to follow him throughout the world doing good. If any of you have genuinely, sincerely tried to do good in the world, you know that doing good is not just a matter of good intentions. We are not called simply to do good work on behalf of others in need, but we are to do good work in Jesus’ name.

We are to do good in the name of Jesus, that is, in the spirit of Jesus. And the disciples of Jesus, in today’s gospel, find out that can be a challenge. “What are you doing to fight mass incarceration in America?” the speaker asked the evening meeting. “We have more people in jail—two million—than any other country in the world, civilized or uncivilized, democratic or not. America puts more people in jail, many more people, than the Chinese dictatorship. What are you doing about it?  We are here this night to get organized, to do all the things we need to do to become a force for good in this community.”

A couple of congregations in town had representatives in the meeting. The speaker, a community activist, was not a church member, not even a self-identified Christian. Someone had asked, “Are there no Methodists who are working in this area?  We ought to find one of our own to guide us if we want to work on the problem of mass incarceration.” “But this guy is the leader of the effort in our community. Who cares where he goes to church or does not go to church?  The main thing is that he is boldly confronting this problem and he can help us to do the same.”

So, we went to the meeting where he asked rhetorically, “What are you doing to fight mass incarceration in America?” In the ensuing discussion after the speaker’s stirring remarks, one of my church members—a retired school teacher said, “What are we doing about this terrible mass incarceration problem?”—well one thing we are doing is some friends and I make cookies—chocolate chip cookies—for the young men at the young corrections institution outside of town. Whenever one of them has a birthday, we give him a little batch of cookies tied with a bow. I have seen huge, hulking young men fall to the floor in tears when we give them those cookies—first birthday present anyone has ever given them. It’s a little thing, but it’s something that can mean a lot, and it’s something we can do.”

The speaker, the expert on mass incarceration replied, “Lady, I’m glad that you are baking those cookies and I’m sure the guys appreciate them but I’m sorry, that’s not going to do much to impact the problem of mass incarceration. In fact, it may make some people think it’s OK to put these young men in jail as long as they get a few cookies once a year.” “What are you doing to fight mass incarceration in America?” Now in that evening, and in that brief exchange, I think you have something roughly analogous to at least two aspects of this morning’s gospel. Jesus’ disciples come to him saying, “Master, we saw this unknown guy casting out demons in your name and we told him to stop because he wasn’t one of us.” And Jesus responded, “No, don’t forbid him to do his good work. Even if he is not part of our little band of brothers he’s doing good and that’s good enough for me.”

Our church partners with many organizations and individuals that are not part of our church. Jesus has commissioned us to address social ills in our community and we find these groups to be allies with us in obeying Jesus even though they don’t worship Jesus. Sometimes, in working with these allies, we find that their good work makes our good works pale by comparison. Sometimes we have the opportunity to tell them about our church, to witness to the Christian faith because of relationships we have made with them.

Demon possession seems to have been so widespread in Judea that Jesus appreciated any help that others, even unknown exorcists, could give him in responding in compassion to such a big problem. Jesus is not just concerned about the needs of those closest to him, or the troubles of those who have self-identified as one of his disciples. He came to save the whole world. He is concerned, not just with what’s troubling our hearts but also cares about what’s troubling our world. When we work on the world’s problems, when we think big and tackle the challenges posed by systemic injustice and structural oppression, we are signaling Jesus’ larger, cosmic, global concerns. If we are not in some way mixing it up with the demonic, we are not engaging in ministry in the name of Jesus.

Jesus moves, rather surprisingly, from a debate with his disciples about what to do about an unknown exorcist who, though he does good work in exorcising the demonic, “is not one of us,” to mention of the cup of water given in response to the needs of “little ones.” There are some spectacular encounters with demons in Mark’s gospel. As we have noted in Sundays past, in going head-to-head with the demonic, Jesus shows that he is in touch with the most mysterious, perplexing, and powerful forces of evil. Jesus does not just minister to individuals and their personal needs, he engages and overcomes evil and oppression in whatever guises they present themselves.

Jesus also calls his followers to engage in less dramatic acts of mercy – the cup of cold water offered to a thirsty person, the considerate phone call, the thoughtful text sent to someone who is having a rough day. We are not to disparage these small but essential acts of kindness. There’s a heap of loneliness in our culture. We put a high value on individualism, autonomy, and self-help. No wonder lots of people feel isolated and alone. In this sort of culture otherwise small acts of kindness can mean a great deal, particularly when they are offered in the name of Jesus.

A person mentioned to me the other day that when there is a death in her congregation, she always flips her calendar ahead and notes the anniversary of that bereavement. Then, on the date of the anniversary of the death, she calls those who are mourning the loss of that person, telling them, “Something made me think of you this day. Just want you to know that I’m remembering your loved one today and know that I am there for you if you need any help as you continue to mourn your loss.”

“Something made me think of you this day,” probably ought to be phrased, “Someone made me think of you this day,” – that someone is Jesus. In his name we do our part in the cosmic, national, community struggle against injustice. In his name we attempt to be thoughtful, kind, and considerate in offering the cup of water. Large or small, our acts of goodness show that we are trying to play our role in Jesus’ loving move into the world.

Some of us are good at organizing and working in the large areas political, governmental, social activism. Others us have gifts for the smaller, more intimate, and personal gestures. Whatever gifts Jesus has given you to help others, use them for his glory as a sign, a signal, a witness to his coming reign.

Let us go forth in his name to do his work in the world. Amen.

Remembrance Day

A few years ago a colleague of mine, a Canadian Forces Padre, asked me to fill in as a Reserve Unit Padre. I enjoyed the work and meeting young women and men committed to serving others. One of the tasks associated with this role was to meet with soldiers who had been asked to serve overseas, deployed to a mission where troops would be “in harm’s way”. The soldier could choose to have this interview, to assess whether the solider was supported in this mission by her/his family, friends, and how ready they appeared for the stresses of the situation. I interviewed a handful of soldiers. A few shared with me that the mission was “part of the job”, they had signed up to serve and this was the country asking them to “step up” and do their duty. They accepted this covenant. Others told me that with heavy student loans or children in university they could use the extra money, pay for deployment was significantly more. But one answer stood out, the soldier told me she wanted to go because, “there are young girls in Afghanistan being murdered because they want to learn”. What struck me about the answer was this, a woman in Canada, with all of the opportunities and supports most women in the world would love to have was willing to put all of it at risk, to potentially lay down her life, for a girl living in Afghanistan. These women shared no family, no religion, no nationality, but a commitment to “love one another.”

How do you respond to this familiar Gospel command in John 15? Listen. “Love one another, No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." This is Jesus' final commandment to his disciples on the night he was to be arrested and taken away to be crucified. There is a clear reference here to Jesus' own sacrifice -- his own love for his disciples, his love for the “other”, Samaritans, tax collectors, those living with disease, the poor, women who are bleeding, women who are divorced, children, etc… Jesus’ words remind me of the lyrics by reggae singer Jimmy Cliff “And I keep on fighting for the things I want, though I know that when you're dead you can't. But I'd rather be a free man in my grave than living as a puppet or a slave.” Or Martin Luther King Jr who said, "If a man hasn't discovered something he would die for, he isn't fit to live."

That sounds rather harsh! What I've always gained from King's perspective is that it's precisely in being willing to give up one's life, that one's life -- while one is alive -- gains tangible meaning. I think most of us operate on a modified version of this commandment, namely we would be willing to give up our own life in a heart's beat for our children, but as for others… Our love for our immediate families is so strong, so unconditional, so much like animal instinct, how could we do otherwise?

What about a mere friend? Hear this classic story of Damon and Pythias, said to have taken place in the Sicilian city-state of Syracuse in the fourth century B.C. These two men had been close friends since childhood. Pythias spoke out against the tyranny of the ruler, Dionysius, and was subsequently arrested and condemned to death. As a last request he asked if he might be allowed to go back home to say goodbye to his wife and children and to put his household in order before his execution. Dionysius was not willing to risk Pythias' fleeing, until Damon stepped forward and offered to pledge his own life and be imprisoned until Pythias returned. The condition that Dionysius imposed was that Damon must be willing to die in his place if Pythias did not return by the date of execution. Damon willingly agreed and Pythias gratefully left. As days and days went by, and the deadline approached, and there was no sign of Pythias, Dionysius visited the prison to see if Damon was sorry he had made such a bargain: "You were a fool to rely on your friend's promise. Did you really think he would sacrifice his life for you?" Yet, Damon remained confident of his friend's loyalty, explaining that perhaps the winds had kept him from sailing or he had met with some accident on the road. On the day of execution, Pythias still had not returned, and Dionysius smugly greeted Damon, who was bound and ready to die. "What do you think of your friend now?" asked the ruler. Damon simply replied, "He is my friend. I trust [that he has good reasons not to be here, and I am ready to die in his place]." Just as he finished speaking, Pythias suddenly appeared, staggering, beaten and bruised, and nearly speechless from exhaustion. "[Thank heaven I'm not too late!] You are safe, [Damon,] praise the gods," he gasped. Pythias then explained how his ship was wrecked in a storm and how he was then attacked by bandits on the road. "But I refused to give up hope," he declared. "At last I've made it back in time. I am ready to receive my sentence of death." Dionysius was utterly astonished. He was so emotionally overwhelmed by this demonstration of friendship -- in both directions -- that he revoked the sentence and let both go free, asking only that he could be taught how to be such a friend. 

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friend." Understanding friendship as Damon and Pythias did would presumably be enough for any of us. Yet, Martin Luther King, Jr. took it a step further, in the spirit of Jesus' injunction not only to love one's friends, and one's neighbors, but also to love one's enemies. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." In his final sermon, the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King said that he knew he was personally facing death threats "from some of our sick white brothers" if he continued leading marches in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking sanitation workers. Yet, he said, "Now we're going to march again, and we've got to march again, in order to…force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God's children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights…For when people get caught up with that which is right, and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory." Dr. King explained, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will." He spoke of the power of non-violent action, grounded in love. He spoke of previously being jailed with others in Bull Connor's Birmingham. "We'd see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn't adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham."      Dr. King in his final sermon called upon his listeners to "develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness." He retold the Parable of the Good Samaritan, reminding those attending how dangerous the road was down from Jerusalem to Jericho, called the "Bloody Pass." It was a man of another race and religion, hated by the Jews, with no reason to put himself at risk for his persecutors, who stopped for the beaten and bloody traveler on the side of the road, when that traveler's fellow Jewish priest and fellow Levite had already passed by. As Dr. King pointed out, the Samaritan didn't even know if the robbers were still around, or if the man on the ground was merely faking, in order to lure the Samaritan over for a quick and easy seizure. Yet, the Samaritan engaged in "dangerous unselfishness," showing love for a fellow human being who was not his flesh and blood, was not his friend, was not even of his own race and religion.    

And this is the kind of love, "dangerous unselfishness" that Martin Luther King, Jr. modelled for us, even unto death -- which for him arrived in the form of a bullet from one of those "sick white brothers" the very morning after this stirring sermon. Jesus in this morning's gospel lesson promises that "if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love." This is my commandment," he says, "that you love one another as I have loved you." And then he tells us what that love ultimately requires: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

Preacher and Biblical scholar Fred Craddock says of this passage, “John’s Gospel actually contains surprisingly little moral or ethical instruction such as we find in Matthew. What are the commandments to which Jesus refers in verse 10? For John it is enough to say that we have the model of Jesus who came to do God’s will…to love one another…We do not easily associate love or friendship with command (verse 14). For many of us love and friendship lie in the feelings and no one can command feeling; we do not even command our own. But it is helpful to recall that love in this Gospel is not a feeling, rather it is being for the other person and acting accordingly. Emotions are not absent, of course, but neither are they central.”

I would agree that Jesus is setting an example, but he is speaking to his disciples about their willingness to die for one another and for him, as disciples, in their mission in the midst of a hostile world. (See the rest of John 13-17.) He is not enunciating a general principle but articulating a potential consequence of being his friend in the world that killed him. Jesus is not creating a proverb (“dying for friends is a loving thing to do”) but borrowing and radically redirecting one. “If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.” Or, to put it differently, the reign of God and the Lordship of Christ challenge all our other allegiances. I think Jesus is telling his disciples (and therefore us) that his kingdom is indeed worth dying for. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, and that obedience to the government is secondary to obedience to God, but also that we should be obedient to the government as good citizens when that obedience does not contradict our obedience to God.

On this morning of remembrance, of grief, of honour, I ask you to consider the broader Christian implications of our Gospel story, namely that we are to “love one another” and be willing to consider even “laying down our lives” for them. This is hard stuff. There is the obvious question of what it means for us to love and lay down our lives for the other, what is the right way to do this and how do we determine such a hard challenge? There are no easy answers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, living in the time of the Second World War, was a committed pacifist. He believed in the truth of the story I shared earlier, namely that witnessing to a love where we are willing to put our life in place of another would tame and soften the heart of leaders like Dionysius. But at a critical point he came to see that Hitler, his genocide, his evil intentions were so malevolent that it required a rethinking of his pacifism, and thus Bonhoeffer participated in an attempt to assassinate Hitler. The attempt was unsuccessful and Bonhoeffer was jailed and later executed. I honour Bonhoeffer and all who struggle through these hard choices of confronting evil.

For us the question remains whom we consider to be our “friends” and how we express and act out of “friendship”, how we “love one another.” That is a journey of discipleship, that is a lifelong prayer of discernment, and that is a conversation for communities of faith like ours. I am a humble servant, I have no clear and direct answers to that question, but I am listening to the Spirit, to you, and hearing these Gospel words. I believe in that holy conversation the Truth will come, the Truth has come. Amen.

I and Thou: Martin Buber

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I and Thou by Martin Buber: A Summary

I and Thou is written as a series of long and shorter aphorisms, divided into three sections. The aphorisms within each section are arranged without any linear progression; that is, they are not supposed to be read as subsequent steps in an argument, but as related reflections. Each of the three sections taken as a whole comprises a stage in Buber's larger argument. The first part of the book examines the human condition by exploring the psychology of individual man. Here Buber establishes his crucial first premise: that man has two distinct ways of engaging the world, one of which the modern age entirely ignores. In the second part of the book, Buber examines human life on the societal level. He investigates both society itself and man as he exists within society. In this section, Buber claims that modern society leaves man unfulfilled and alienated because it acknowledges only one of our modes for engaging the world. The third part of the book deals with the subject of religion. Building on the conclusions of the first two sections—that man has two ways of engaging the world, and that modern society leaves man alienated by valuing only the first of these—Buber tells us how to go about building a fulfilling, meaningful society (a true community) by making proper use of the neglected second mode of engaging the world, and by using this mode to relate to God.

The fundamental concept underlying the entire work is the distinction drawn in the first section between the two modes of engaging the world. The first of these, which Buber calls "experience" (the mode of 'I–it'), will be familiar to any reader, since it is the mode that modern man almost exclusively uses. In Experience, man collects data, analyzes it, classifies it, and theorizes about it. The object of experience (the It) is viewed as a thing to be utilized, a thing to be known or put to some purpose. In experience we see our object as a collection of qualities and quantities, as a particular point in space and time. There is a necessary distance between the experiencing I and the experienced It: the one is subject, and the other object. Also, the experiencing I is an objective observer rather than an active participant in this mode of engaging the world.

In addition to this familiar mode of engaging the world, there is also another mode available to us, one which we must necessarily make use of in order to be truly human. In this mode, which he calls "encounter" (the mode of I–You), we enter into a relationship with the object encountered, we participate in something with that object, and both the I and the You are transformed by the relation between them. The You we encounter is encountered in its entirety, not as a sum of its qualities. The You is not encountered as a point in space and time, but, instead, it is encountered as if it were the entire universe, or rather, as if the entire universe somehow existed through the You. We can enter into encounter with any of the objects that we experience; with inanimate objects, with animals, and with man. With man the phenomena of encounter is best described as love. We can also, however, enter into encounter with a being that cannot be the object of experience: God. This type of encounter is the subject of the third section of the book.

In part two, Buber takes the conclusions that he has drawn about man's fundamental psychology—the identification of man's two equally important means of engaging the world—and puts these conclusions to work in sociological reasoning. He looks at modern society and notes how it is entirely built up based on the mode of I–It. Politics, economics, public institutions, even much of personal life, are all fundamentally grounded in the fact that we view every other being as an It, rather than as a You. Modern man has come to feel alienated fundamentally because modern society is exclusively an It-world. Existential angst, worries of meaninglessness, and the sense of impending doom that most modern human beings feel at some point in their life (often in the dead of night, when they cannot sleep) are all the result of our strict reliance on experience to the exclusion of encounter.

In the third section, Buber gives us his solution to modern man's woes. He has already made it clear in the previous two sections that this solution will involve opening ourselves up to encounter and building a society based on relation to You's rather than experience of It's. In section three, he reveals how we should go about doing this. All encounters, he begins by telling us, are fleeting; it is only a matter of time before any You dissolves into an It again and as soon as we begin to reflect on the You it becomes an It. Love, then, is a constant oscillation between encounter and experience, and it does not wholly fulfill our yearning for relation. In every human encounter that we undergo, we feel that there could be something more, something more lasting and more fulfilling. This "more" is encounter with God, or absolute relation. We cannot seek our encounter with God, but can only ready ourselves for it by concentrating both aspects of our self (the I of experience and the I of encounter) in our souls. If we ready ourselves for encounter it will definitely occur, and the proof that it has taken place will be in the transformation that we undergo; after absolute encounter we come to see every other being (nature, animals, people) as a You. We come to feel affection for everyone and everything, and to have a sense of loving responsibility for the whole course of the world. This transformation, Buber tells us, is divine revelation. It is salvation. Filled with loving responsibility, given the ability to say "You" to the world, man is no longer alienated, and does not worry about the meaninglessness of life. He is fulfilled and complete, and will help others to reach this goal as well. He will help to build an ideal society, a real community, which must be made up of people who have also gone through absolute relation, and are therefore willing to say "You" to the entire world.

friends

I have friends. I used to have more friends but some time ago I made a decision to focus on my work and my immediate family, one only has so much time and energy. I do not regret that decision, in fact I think it has given me an experience of being grounded I was lacking previously...

Feminism: Part Two

Feminist. Is this a word that annoys you, inspires you, leaves you cold, or makes you feel a whiff of nostalgia? In the early 1980’s it was a word I came to accept and absorb. I am not sure if a man can be a feminist but a man can work with women to make feminism a reality. In the early 1980’s the goals of feminists were clear...

Love is Love

When Kim and I sold our home in Toronto the realtor sent a “stager” to visit us and offer suggestions on how to make our house more attractive to potential buyers. Among the suggestions was to remove all family pictures and replace them with mirrors. I asked why. The stager explained that buyers want to imagine themselves living in the house...

Volunteers

I love working with volunteers. In fact as an ordained minister, I work for volunteers. It’s an interesting balancing act, to serve people and attempt through one’s leadership to inspire the best people have to offer and at the same time as a trained staff person be on the lookout for safety and security concerns that arise in all workplaces...

Eileen Jakeman

As I walked into the entry way for the church this morning I noted the pictures of the old church that are on the wall to the right, the posters for the recent musicals that hang on the wall the faces you as you enter and the large space, complete with pew, that allows people to stand or sit in the open space of welcome to meet other members of the community...

Eastern Pine Island

This poem was written three years after my wife suffered a very serious auto accident necessitating 24 hour care, until she died five years ago. Eastern Pine Island was my refuge where I “learned” to accept the loss of Marion. I felt cradled by creation there and found some peace in the solitude and the sun and water...