Friday, March 8, 2019

A Small Glory Story

The Small Glories began their touring season of 2019 on a cold February night in a little old country church in Beausejour, Manitoba. Not the church that had been planned, mind you, because the furnace conked out and the toilets froze. We could see our breath when we got to the venue. “How do they heat this place?,” I wondered. “Looks like candles,” said JD. I laughed. “That’s it. Just light all the fucking candles!” I swear more when the temperatures drop from below zero Celsius to below zero Fahrenheit. That’s what the minus F stands for for me. 

JD lit some candles on the old altar, and I called my buddy Mike McLean. Mike got the furnace going again, but when JD went to take a piss and found the water in the toilet bowl as solid as the porcelain that was holding it, Cara said, “What are we going to do?”

By that time folks were streaming in for the gig. Darlene Omichinski had a key for Zion Lutheran, but they were hosting a tap dance thing. Duane and Deb Versluis had keys for Grace Lutheran. Don Zueff joked that we would be going over to the dark side, but we all piled out the door and headed for Grace and warmth and working toilets. In the end it was just another Small Glory story, a story about trying to make something work, about failing and picking up the pieces and starting all over again.

It struck me that The Small Glories made it safe for us that night to all gather in one church, then safe to leave it and gather in another. That’s no small thing. I know this because I am friends with a lot of the people who came that night. Some of them can’t go to each other’s church, and a lot of them can’t go to church at all, because it’s dangerous for them. So it was odd, and glorious, to enter into music in a church that night that held space for all of us.

People have been gathering in churches for hundreds of years. Sometimes you came because you fell in love with somebody and you wanted to make a big promise. Sometimes you came because you had a new baby and you wanted to share this new happiness with your neighbours and enlist their help. Sometimes you came because someone you loved had died, and you needed good way to say goodbye. Sometimes we came to tell ourselves a story that made us feel better about ourselves than the people who weren’t there. And sometimes we came to fall on our knees, praying like the angel from Montgomery: “Just give me one thing that I can hold on to, ‘cause to believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”

Those places are emptying out now. And after a while the toilets freeze or some other damn thing breaks down. I don’t know if we need churches any more. I do know that we need some songs that can gather us, and some places where we can sing together, now more than ever. “Truth is bread,” said Simone Weil, the 20th-century mystic who refused Christian baptism, “you know it by its taste.” I believe the same is true of art. It’s bread for the journey, and people nowadays are starving for it.

The Small Glories are feeding the people. They know something about truth and art and harmony. They know that one note can get together with a different note and open up a space between them that brings us all in. They know about the many ways we suffer, the many ways we love, the many ways we heal. Their new album is about a couple of come-from-aways who landed at the meeting place of the Assiniboine and the Red, a side-winding meanderer and a fat and lazy prairie river with more power than you would guess. Two wondrous travelers arrived here and made their home with us. I’m so glad they did. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Love Supreme, Supreme Danger

I've been catching up on the literature of CPT. CPT stands for Christian Peacemaker Teams. But today when I read their publications, I more often read the adjective "Christian" in reference to problematic nouns like "hegemony" or "Zionism." You can still see "christian" in the small font of their elegant logo, a white dove sitting on a length of barbed wire that is vining into an olive branch under the dove's feet. The dove's eyes are keeping close watch on the barb. The olive leaves are either less interesting than the barb, or simply growing of their accord, like the seed of the kingdom that sprouts and grows, we know not how. (Mark 4:27)
Image result for christian peacemaker team logo

In its repentance of Christian hegemony and its growing friendships with peacemakers of many faiths, CPT today identifies its mission as "Inclusive, multi-faith, spiritually guided peacemaking." I am encouraged and troubled by this, both at the same time. CPT for years has been a light on the hill that I could point to to say, this is what authentic Christian action looks like in the world. With so many abuses committed in the name of my saviour, CPT was an example I could feel proud of. "No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket," says Christ in the conclusion of the Beatitudes. Then, not long after, he says, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them." Oh, Christ, you're on to me again.

The early Christians, in their astonishment at the light of Christ, made bold claims. "God...highly exalted that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend...and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." (Phillipians 2:9-11) David Cayley, in a recent interview on The Ferment, says that anyone who is a Christian, if they really are a Christian, wants to share the Good News. But he soon after adds that the prerequisite of this sharing is a profound silence before the other. 

In the great "every knee, every tongue" hymn of Phillipians, Christ's glory is coupled with and preceded by Christ's supreme humility: 

"though he was in the form of God, 
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross."

In light of this example Christians are exhorted: "Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus." (2:5)

It is such a mind that repents of chauvinism, that resists the temptations of prestige and recognition, that empties itself of divine claims in order to bring out divinity in the other. It is such a mind that drops me to my knees.

For many of us Christians who are waking up to our history of arrogance and our complicity in colonial oppression, there is an impulse to recoil at the early church's proclamation of the universal lordship of Jesus Christ. Of course. A more convenient handmaiden to empire could hardly be found.

But this continues to cast the problem of Christian mission into the categories of who is better than whom. The early church cast the problem in categories that are more radical, and more revealing: Christ/Anti-Christ. They understood the Love Supreme that was astonishingly, uniquely and indispensably revealed on the Cross of Christ to be accompanied by a supreme danger: a new "mystery of wickedness" nested in the church, capable of a kind of evil not seen in the world before. Ivan Illich, who I am following here, taught me to see that the lordship of Christ, uncoupled from Christ's humility, could become an imperial standard that could violate not only the geographic sovereignty, but the spiritual sovereignty of the other. Roman spiritual imperialism only insisted that you bow before their gods. Christian spiritual imperialism insisted that you invite the colonial anti-Christ into your heart.

In a recent interview, Cree elder Walking Buffalo (Stan McKay), reflecting on the confusing character of Canadian racism that he experienced in residential school, said, "Many of them were nice to us, even as they were destroying us." As I watched the viral video this week of calm, polite CFS workers and RCMP officers take yet another baby from the arms of yet another weeping Indigenous mother, Stan's words rang in my ears. There is a mysterious, confusing evil at work among us.

When Stan recalls the teachings of his mother and father to never take more than you need from the earth, and to consider anything extra you have as something to be shared in community, I have to confess (as did a significant minority of early missionaries) that the cultures that Europeans encountered on Turtle Island were spiritually more attuned to the way of life outlined in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount than the grasping, control-seeking, imperial cultures that funded the drive for Christian conversions in this place. When my Haudenosaunee friend Adrian Jacobs asserts in an Indigenous Testamur that Indigenous theology is the host of any non-Indigenous spiritual tradition brought into this place, I breathe in the hope of the Beatitudes: that it is the anawim, the humble, righteous, simple-living people--who we call in English "the meek"--who are the rightful inheritors of the earth. When the people who in their own languages call themselves Inninew or Anishnaabeeg tell us that they are the keepers of the earth in this place, set here by the Creator to practice Mino Pimatissiwin--the good life lived in harmony with all our relations, I understand them to be saying little else. When these meek (again) inherit the earth, I will understand our prayers for Christ's kingdom to "come on earth as it is in heaven" to be answered.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Gospel and Trauma

There is a vast generation that has been traumatized by the Gospel story as a propaganda tract for terror and war, as a bedtime story for cultural euthanization. Before this generation the evangelist must now keep silent. But there is another generation coming up behind this one that will be traumatized by their lack of any story at all, of a story that can make sense of their twittered and splintered existence, and of the apocalypse that is coming for us all. The day will come when they will need the story of the angel in the fiery furnace, or they will go mad in the great conflagration that is underway. Already any of them who are awake see the flames licking at the doors of their house. It is for them that we must hold the story of a peace not as the world gives, a story of forgiveness, resurrection, and the eternal possibility of beginning afresh.

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.