Sunday, October 14, 2018

Spinning Water, Flat Water

A Visit to Chùa Hải Hội Temple
As an assignment for my Spirituality and Family Therapy course, I was tasked with attending a spiritual gathering outside my comfort zone and write a reflection on the experience. It was an assignment I enjoyed very much. Here it is.

"In my contacts with these new friends, I feel consolation in my own faith in Christ and his indwelling presence.” 

- Thomas Merton, upon connecting with Buddhist monks in Tibet.

I pull into the parking lot quickly, a little later than I had intended. Beside me, an Asian woman is just getting out of her Porsche SUV. She opens her trunk and pulls out a plain grey tunic, which she begins to pull on over brand-name clothing. I walk quickly past, hoping to get inside and meet up with my interpreter before the service begins. A nun with saffron robes and shaved head greets me - the same calm and friendly voice that I spoke with on the telephone two days ago. She introduces me to Di Van, a soft-spoken, slender woman with slightly greying hair: “She will interpret for you and answer your questions.” We shake hands (on my initiative, I think) and bow to one another (on her initiative, I think). East meets West on friendly terms, and she leads me up several flights of stairs into the temple.
We enter into the back of what feels to me immediately like a throne room. I associate it in my mind with the royal courtroom of Kublai Khan as I saw it in Marco Polo on Netflix. Three large, gold-embossed buddhas are enthroned across the front of the room. The side and back walls are adorned with thousands of identical little Buddhas. Worshippers are kneeling and bowing toward the front. Di Van tells me to bow and I follow suit. Now is the time to be a gracious guest and not the time to make a stand about bowing to idols. I don’t even know if that’s what’s actually going on here. I have the feeling of being surrounded by powers and facing a power that do not quite understand. I am in someone else’s territory. I am grateful for a guide who speaks to me with gentle courtesy, doing her best to orient this Western stranger, who has come for reasons she accepts to be his own. Neither she nor the nun ever asked why I wanted to come here. I asked, and they welcomed. It was that simple for them.
All the prayers and scriptures are chanted, to the rhythm of a huge slit drum, accented by massive bells that seem to ring endlessly into their diminishment. I cannot tell apart the tonality of the language and the tonality of the musical scale in which the group is singing. To my ears, the sound is plaintive and primal, the cry of humans reaching higher than themselves for help and blessing. The drum varies the pace of prayer considerably, like a train leaving the station, gradually picking up the speed for all those aboard, and then with perfect control applying the brakes for a smooth stop at the next station. The physicality of the ritual cultivates a feeling of calm alertness. The body is seated, but the back is straight. The voices call out, the liturgy guides. The song is a balance of passion and structure.
I am impressed by how much the prayers are other-oriented. There is a long prayer for the spirits of the deceased who are stuck in lower, more miserable states of consciousness, “different levels of hell,” in the words of Di Van. A significant aspect of the community’s spiritual work seems to be to come to the aid of these lost spirits. Later, the scripture reading relays the story of the Buddha going into the spirit world to find and assist his mother to let go of attachments that kept her spirit in a state of suffering.
Memorials for the recently deceased are part of the ceremony, and celebrants walk amongst the congregation with pieces of paper that they lay on the heads of family members, “so that their relatives will recognize them,” Di Van whispers.
Next are prayers for those who are suffering in this life. I don’t know what I miss in the content that is not translated for me, but I am surprised that at no point do I hear anything of the type of self-help spirituality that I tend to associate with Western practicioners of meditation and mindfulness. There is talk of helping others to reach nirvana, but not of seeking nirvana for oneself. 
Next there is a food offering ceremony for the Buddhas. I am reminded of similar ceremonies in Indigenous community, and I wonder about the cultural and genetic connections as I look at the woman chanting with the slit drum, her long black ponytail running down her back. 
There are some things going on that I am not comfortable with. Are the food offerings, in Buddhism or Indigenous practice, a way of “wheeling and dealing” with the spirit world? Why do these spirits need earthly food? Why do they need paper certificates to recognize their relatives? And I don’t like the Buddha I discover in the corner of the room, with big hair and angry eyes and sword in hand.
But I know that my own religion is full of pomp and garishness and superstition, and that from its swollen body it has birthed saints. Who can say what is bloat and what is pregnancy? We too have caked the Christ with gold and addressed him as our feudal “Lord.” The laughing Buddha and the banqueting Christ seem to suggest that the subversion can run powerfully in the other direction, that they are more than capable of seducing the status-obsessed monkeys that build their shrines into a glory beyond our schlockiest dreams. So if they aren’t worried, I can relax too, even about that crazy red swastika on the chests of the ten thousand Buddhas gazing calmly at me from their perches on the walls. Whatever it means to them, I know it’s not what it means to me.
After the ceremony, Di Van leads me downstairs to a banquet hall where folks are sitting down for a delicious vegetarian Vietnamese noodle soup. I ask her about the grey tunic she is wearing, and she explains its significance. The grey colour is to encourage calmness, to reduce distractions for the eye in the temple. I get a sense that part of what is being discouraged is the rating game by which humans signal our specialness and stature to each other through the  clothes we wear. “Rivalry,” as James Alison says, “is the enemy of worship.” It is as true here as it is in Christian sanctuaries.
The grey tunic is also a sign that Di Van is a devotee of “The Five Precepts” - which are to stay away from killing, avoid lying, avoid adultery, avoid intoxication and avoid stealing. Each of these cloud the mind and sow discord in the human community. Anger seems the most important  state to avoid and calmness seems to be the most desirable state of being, but again, not for one’s own sake, but in order to be reincarnated into a higher state of consciousness, to return to the world able to help people. Di Van admits that those who come to the temple infrequently typically come just to seek favours for themselves and their families. “They do not yet understand the real teaching.” I am impressed that her tone is neither blameful nor embarrassed. Her voice is untroubled, matter-of-fact.
A young boy chimes into our conversation. He introduces himself as Christopher, and I have to laugh to myself that here in this place, at this table, I meet a young friend whose name means, “Christ-bearer.” 
“Excuse me,” he says. “When I was at Chinese temple, I went to the toilet to pee, and when I flushed the toilet, the water spinned around and around and around.” I am delighted by his change of subject and his passion for it. He proceeds to tell me of other places he has seen this spinning water: bathtubs and raging rivers. “That river is dangerous. You can’t swim in that spinning water. You have to swim in the flat water.” He sounds like a little Buddha.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Look at that Buddha.” He points behind me to a fat and jolly laughing Buddha who looks like he’s just heard the best joke he’s heard all week. 
“He looks like he’s having a good time,” I say. 
“Excuse me, because he’s happy?” says the boy. “The Buddha loves children,” he adds, and then, out of the blue, “And I love Jesus.”
Di Van smiles into her soup, and Christopher’s slightly embarrassed mother laughs.

“Well, how ‘bout that,” I say. “So do I.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Planting onions

Today was the day for planting out the onions.

I think onions must be the most painstaking crop we grow. We started them in February in south-facing windows that looked out on to an expanse of frozen whiteness. We watched their little green dinosaur necks crane out of the soil, watered them, gave them haircuts, watched them grow some more and gave them haircuts again. And today we teased them apart and pushed them into soft warm soil, four inches apart, in six one hundred foot rows. It is the first long day in the garden. The body humps along, the mind wanders. I listened to some excellent podcasts: The Verdict of Sir John A. MacDonald (actionable wrongdoing by the standards of a civil trial, but not guilty to the standard of crimes against humanity in his role in the reign of terror in the Red River Settlement and the rations policy that sickened and starved to death hundreds of First Nations people on the prairies) "Is Liberalism Doomed? (in a serious identity crisis at any rate, judging by the range of representations made by the panelists). When I took a break from my iPhone, I noticed the songs of the returning birds. There was a small war among some robins that skirmished through the onion patch with great energy. But mostly, decorum was observed and the contests for territory conducted with such gentility that it hardly seems a contest at all, but the disciplined coordination of a vast community setting up house to raise their kin according to a Rule of Life that surpasses St. Benedict's in its elegance and humble submission to the Creator's word. The birds compete and coexist beautifully.

Beyond the birdsong this afternoon, and the hooting of the owl now as evening settles in, is the steady rumble of large tractors. Every spring I have this thought as I inch along with my handful of onion seedlings, and they plant an acre in less time than I can plant one hundred linear feet: how are they and I living in the same world? I will sell my onions for a dollar a piece at the farmers' market. They will measure their success or failure by tonnage and millions.

I am on my way out of this game. This will likely be my last season as a commercial market gardener. I have developed too many other foolish passions that I pursue for love and not for money. But for today, I am thankful for the day spent on the soil, for the passing of little living things through my hands and into the ground, for life in a world that can be made sense of only through the eyes of love.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

This Little Light of Mine - An Appeal

Someone with a tearful smile told me recently that I made her want to be a Christian again. Of course, I did no such thing. No more than St. Peter made Jesus rise from the dead by declaring him risen. He just found himself known and loved and forgiven and told the story. I'm just someone who stumbled upon an understanding of the Cross that wasn't all emotional blackmail and convoluted back room dealings with the devil, and onto a Christian social vision that didn't divide the kingdom of heaven into God's staff and God's clients. I caught something. This Gospel is infectious, and I got infected.

And now someone wants to help my book go viral. At least a little viral.

Some people call Mike Morrell the Forrest Gump of progressive Christianity. If something big is happening, he's there in the background somewhere.

Mike works with well-known and little-known authors alike, and has helped ignite conversation on titles ranging from Sara Miles' Take This Bread to Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity. He was the only initial marketing on the breakout novel The Shack, which has gone on to sell 26 million copies worldwide.

Mike wants to do a campaign for my book through his networking outfit, a collection of some 1,100 bloggers and 100 podcasters he calls Speakeasy.

Here is the breakdown of what Mike is offering:

1) Create an Executive Summary of Life at the End of Us vs Them for my approval.

2) Send this summary to his 1100+-strong blogger network and a version to his 100-strong podcast and radio show host list

3) Send copies of the book to those requesting, their agreement being to blog about it within 30 days.

4) Retweet/share the best reviews to his personal social networks, 90,000 connections strong.

5) Send me a summary of results 60 days after our campaign launch, containing links to all reviews.

6) Run an excerpt of the book on his blog at He'd also like to send it out to his personal email newsletter, which has 25,000 subscribers. He doesn't do this for every Speakeasy campaign, but in my case, he thinks it would really resonate with his readers.

There is a lot of overlap between the themes of my book and the themes of Mike's own work. Mike's blog of "opti-mystic reflections on spirit, culture and permaculture" speaks to people who are returning to faith AND who are returning to the land. If there is a publicity expert who knows my tribe, it's Mike.

Mike's standard fee is $2,500 USD. He is dropping that by $1,000 for me, which I appreciate a lot. After putting thousands of hours and significant investment into the book, I am at a place where I feel that any further financial support for the book needs to come from a community beyond my wife and family. If I do this campaign with Mike, I will do it based on the support of people who have caught the vision of Life at the End of Us Versus Them and want to share that life with others.

James Alison tells me that the book is too good to rest in a backwater. I take that in the sense of the old Bible camp song lyric: "Hide it under a bushel - no!"

I would greatly appreciate your support in this campaign. If you are so inclined, please send a pledge of an amount you are willing to contribute to  I will follow up with you from there. If pledges above and beyond the cost of the Speakeasy campaign come in, I can put them towards my podcast, The Ferment with Alana Levandoski, or towards the publication costs of an audio book, or towards another book tour (westward perhaps?). I will seek your input on this.

It makes me smile to think that I of all people am raising money for what is really an evangelistic effort. (I had a dream a couple weeks ago that a warm and friendly Billy Graham bought my book from me, despite my warnings that it might push his edges a bit - Ha!) I guess I am going with, "this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." 

Thanks for helping me lift that light up to where people can see it.

Peace and all good!


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Going for Gold

St. Paul says a lot of strange things. This week was no exception:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:20-23)

Paul seems to be describing a kind of undercover evangelical strategy here: putting on the appearance of Jewishness to evangelize Jews, and the appearance of being pagan to evangelize pagans, etc. A cynical reading would suggest that Paul is doing nothing more than listing the tricks of an Amway salesman. But I have slowly been getting to know Paul, and what I now hear him saying is this: All the religious and cultural packaging and baggage people carry around is just that - packaging and baggage. It's a container that can be filled with clutter and bullshit, or it can be filled with gold. Paul is after the gold. He is done fretting over non-essentials. He has caught hold of something essential that he wants to share with everyone he meets.

Which is...?

The kids in the front row of the Sunday School class are pumping their hands up in the air. They know, they know! It's JESUS!

Paul is excited about Jesus, no doubt. But two thousand years after writing his letter to the Corinthians, the name of Jesus is as encrusted with religious and cultural baggage as anything else on offer, then or now. What would Paul get excited about now? Where would he see and celebrate the "good news"?

I keep thinking back to something that got me excited this week. I keep telling people about this conversation I listened in on between Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Imam Abdullah Antepli, hosted by Krista Tippett in an episode of On Being. The episode, entitled "Holy Envy" celebrated the surprising friendships being built between Jews and Muslims in North America over the last several years.

The rabbi and the imam were funny, they were candid, they were self-critical, they were affectionate towards their own tribe and the tribe of the other. The term "holy envy" came from the experience they described that comes with the mystery of genuine encounter with a person of a different faith - the gifts that are carried by that tradition make such an impression that one finds oneself thinking, "I wish we had more of that." 

And the imam confessed the toxic anti-Semitism he is trying to get out of his system, and the rabbi confessed the Islamophobia that poisons her community. They named the powerful mystery that in meeting with the other, one can meet with God, especially when the other has been one's scapegoat.

What else does the Incarnation entail?

I have to be careful here. Overlaying a Christian category onto the spiritual genius of a rabbi and an imam can easily morph into a colonizing micro-aggression. A respectful engagement must leave intact the Jewishness of the Jew and the Islam of the Muslim. 

But of course, my respectful engagement has to proceed from the particular tradition in which I stand, which is Christian. And as a Christian, I have Paul's voice in my head, trying to explain something odd about how a Christian engages with religious plurality: With a Jew, become as a Jew. With a Muslim, become as a Muslim. In his terms, Circumcision/uncircumcision is nothing. The new creation is everything! 

When I listened to Rabbi Bassin and Imam Antepli, my heart was in my throat. In their friendship, the real thing was happening! What is that real thing? All the words that I have to point at it with are Christian words. Their words are Jewish and Muslim words. But in them, I heard the good news and said, "Amen!"

Reading Paul this Sunday, I think he was saying, "Amen!" too.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Blasphemy (All I have to praise him with)

"Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven..." (Matthew 12:32a)

When I say Jesus is LORD, which I do say, as a Christian, what I am saying is this: The humble, self-effacing God is the one true God.

Anyone who turns the triumph of the cross into a triumphalism has already forgotten its content: the humiliation of the Son of God.

So how can I possibly hope to communicate this mystery to a world full of rivalry, a world bent on dividing everyone into winners and losers? When I say that Jesus has won, how can this not be irreparably distorted, falling into an arena where the victory of one blood-soaked gladiator always means the condemnation of another?

The answer seems to be swaddled in the humiliating descent of the incarnation. The word, to be received, must become flesh. “Jesus is Lord” as a disembodied truth claim is terrible. It is an idolatry - not because I am mistaken in whom I am ascribing divinity to, but because I am mistaken in what I am ascribing to the truly Divine. The whole point of the incarnation is to reveal God as Immanuel, God-with-us, not as some royal totem apart-from-us. God as woundable, God as a beggar for our love, not as the one to whom we beg for love, God taking on the form of a slave, not the form of a king.

Really, the only ones who can witness truthfully to this God are the poor. Only those who are themselves defaced and humiliated can say, boldly and with full confidence, that the humble, self-effacing God is the one true God. To the extent that I have been privileged by the world with status and respect, a chauvinism inevitably creeps in to my declaration of these same words. The meaning goes off. I cannot be confident of my witness. It is a revelation that the world can only hear aright when it is looking down at Jesus, not when it is looking up at him. This is why he had to descend from heaven. This is why he had to empty himself of divinity to communicate the message of God’s love. God is not only in the sunlight shining down from heaven. God is also in the grass trampled underfoot. In the greening, and in the trampling of the earth is a holy mystery. God is not only source of all that is, but the receiver. Not only refuge, but refugee.

Words break apart on the word made flesh. Those with the words do not know, and those who know do not have the words. For the Christian, it is impossible to speak of this revelation, it is impossible not to.

So yes, Jesus is Lord, and I am his fool, and this is my gibberish. By raising him up with these wooden, roughhewn terms, I have crucified him yet again. Only by his mercy am I allowed this blasphemy. I trust that he knows that this blasphemy is all I have to praise him with, and that he suffers me to do so.

By his cross is he made known.

And thus do I know the joy of the Christian: the joy of being wrong, and thus do I dare hope to share it.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

What would happen in Lake Wobegon?

Let me first say: I love Garrison Keillor. Or rather, I love his work. I don’t know him, so cannot love him.

The News from Lake Wobegon made my family laugh till we cried when we were mission workers in Europe. We saw our own people in his gentle lampooning of the foibles of the Minnesotan Sanctified Brethren. He opened a portal for us homesick Manitobans to escape for a while into a world where we didn’t feel like foreigners. He was our prairie home companion. His stories were our stories.

Again: we loved him, but we didn’t know him. It is an odd wonder, so ubiquitous now as to disappear from conscious awareness, this splicing of a human person knowable in the flesh, and that person’s voice, spirit - the Romans would say genius - out into the world via what we call information technology, first through the airwaves as radio, then as television, today as digital traffic on the internet, bringing first the word, then the image of another across the threshold of our homes: disembodied guests, bottled genies we summon with buttons and dials.

And so I read today in my newsfeed a story, copied and pasted hundreds of times over, of a Garrison Keillor scandal. Hodge-podged onto a handful of verifiable facts are a truckload of opinions and feelings. We are all arguing and venting and speculating about what has happened and what should happen with this quirky old geezer caught in a dodgy situation.

I wonder what would happen in Lake Wobegon. The deep nostalgia that Keillor tapped into with the powers of a cypher was our hunger for neighbourhood. For a world where people knew each other. Where there were understandings. And where there was a good narrator. An affectionate, all-knowing voice that saw into the hearts of everyday women and men and loved them. And helped them find their way to a satisfying resolution of their silly troubles. Lord, we miss that.

I don’t know how far Garrison’s hand slid on the back of his female co-worker. I don’t know if, as he says, he just meant to comfort her in a moment of sadness, that he apologized when she recoiled, and they were able to work together as friends until her lawyer called. I know that I want to believe this storyteller. I know I want his more innocent world to be real. He’s always had that effect on me.

What I am pretty sure of is that this is none of my business. It’s not nobody’s business, but it’s not my business. The question for me is, when we discuss a problem like this, what is the shape of the we that is talking? What is its scale? It seems self-evident that a nation-wide scandal is as useless as it is disproportionate to the dilemma between Keillor and his accuser.

That said, I come from a people who have closets littered with skeletons we kept there for centuries by telling ourselves and the world that we could sort this out amongst ourselves. Our victims, most often women and children, by and large did not get a hearing, and our perpetrators, by and large men of authority, were not held to account until our cozy, down-home communities were breached by outsiders, whether with their legal systems, or simply by their ideas, smuggled into our homes via books, via the radio, the TV, the internet.

I would like to imagine a gathering back stage at the Prairie Home Companion, a gathering with food and good coffee and a good outside facilitator. A gathering where things get said that need to get said that haven’t been said for a long time. A gathering where Garrison doesn’t own the microphone, doesn’t direct the show, where his fertile imagination doesn’t seduce everyone with how he wants the story to end. There would be tears. And honesty. And I hope, in the end, but not too soon, there would be laughter. And it would be their tears and their honesty and their laughter. It would be their conversation, not ours.

The genius of creating a fictional neighbourhood like Lake Wobegon was that it allowed an intimacy and an honesty that kept it at a safe distance from the real people in Keillor’s life and the real people in our lives. We laughed because he told all about us without violating our privacy. This made us better able to see our mistakes. I wish Mr. Keillor and his former co-workers a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Conspiratio comes full circle

I wrote this song three years ago, this time of year, for my friend Coralie Schmidt who had received a terminal diagnosis of cancer. Coralie's funeral was in the week of Palm Sunday the following spring, when the church sings the Hosanna echoed by the autumnal Hosanna in this song "casting their garments, Hosanna of the trees.

I loved the song, but it always felt like it wanted a third verse. Early this morning that verse came and woke me from my sleep. I haven't been visited by my musical muse for a long time. I think I wrote one more song after Conspiratio came to me, and that was it. The arrival of this verse feels like something in me is turning over. Fall is here, the last week of vegetable deliveries is here, the final proof of the book is revised and ready to send in to the publisher, a new worship cycle is about to begin at Saint Julian's Table, I'm launching a podcast with my musician friend Alana Levandoski, the leaves are turning and I'm cutting firewood. Good things are ending and making way for new good things. Hallelujah.

O could I fall as beautifully, as graciously as these
Casting their garments on the ground, Hosanna of the trees
This timbered choir sings Hallelujah, Glory to the King
Casting down their golden crowns and crimson robes they sing:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Exhaled airs of greener leaves, sweet substance of my breath
In requiem these golden friends tell of bodies new in death
O symmetry of life and limb, inspiration prior to voice!
Conspired breath in holy kiss, invitation to rejoice:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

O let me sing of Trinity, of rest and holy peace
The Holy Spirit in the wings to receive and to release
And when she takes the centre stage and scales fall from our eyes
Our inward breath will turn around in relief and in surprise, singing,

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.