The inexplicable question

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I don’t mind people knowing that I’m “religious”, but I typically avoid using specific language or trigger words around my non religious friends out of my assumption that they’ll misinterpret what I mean, think, or believe. Words that are often prone to misunderstanding like karma, nirvana, heaven I skirt around, I especially avoid the biggest one of them all, “God”.
I’ve been asked in the past by sincerely curious atheist and agnostic friends, and as a challenge by my more confrontational ones; “What or who is God?”” Explain to me what it is you think God is, or does, or wants in some kind of concrete and easy to understand fashion.”

Problem is, I don’t know what God is. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to articulate “it”. It’s something utterly beyond my intellectual capacity to grasp. It’s the “Great Mystery.” I do think I can experience this Great Mystery in some limited way. Little glimpses out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes I get a glimpse in more formal and structured spiritual practices like meditation, or contemplative prayer, in liturgical worship or at the Eucharist. Sometimes the experience of transcendence occurs spontaneously while out walking in nature, sharing a laugh, or tears of sorrow with a loved one. In the smile of a stranger, or communing with the universe through the lens of a telescope. Or simply sitting still in a quiet place. Or in one of a thousand other ways.

But putting that experience into words is simply not possible. That is after all what religion itself attempts to do. If taken at face value, if viewed through some literalist lens, religion becomes entirely superficial, rigid, narrow, limiting and even regressive. And it misses the mark entirely.
But if religion is viewed for what it is, a man made attempt to point you towards something. Not to dictate, not to judge, not even to give you concrete answers of any kind. Its a finger pointing towards the moon. Remembering at all times that the finger (religion) is not the the thing itself, it’s not the moon ( the mystery we choose to call God). Religious scripture is full of metaphor and allegory from various people throughout the ages trying to convey what it is they believe their experience of this Mystery or Other is. It’s done through the extreme limitations of language, and through the filters of their own time period, culture, and limited understanding of the world around them. When viewed this way religion can be dynamic, enriching, enlivening, expansive and even enlightening. But even then, it can only take you part way. As one friend of mine , an Anglican priest that used to be a Buddhist monk, once commented to me. I’m paraphrasing I think: “In truth, both the Buddha-Dharma and the Gospel of Christ fall short of the mark, they are simply among the best we can do..” Religion points you towards an experience with God.

But *what* is God? I have absolutely no idea how to answer that.

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A short rant about the Christmas season.

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I really don’t like the Christmas season. No matter how hard I try to go into the Christmas season with a positive attitude, it invariably happens. Well before Christmas Day even arrives I hit the proverbial wall and just can’t wait for it to all be over.

It’s not Christmas *itself*. Christmas I rather like. For one thing I like its inclusivity. It can be celebrated, meaningfully, by almost anyone. It is of course largely a Christian holiday, one in which Christians the world over celebrate the birth of Jesus. But it is of course also in part a pagan one. In that the day itself was chosen to coincide with the celebration of the winter solstice, to help along the conversion process of the pagans in the first several centuries , CE in Europe. Christmas still retains pagan symbolism as well, like the Christmas tree for example. Many pagans today mark the solstice, but also celebrate Christmas as part of the festivities, given its pagan history and symbolism. It is also very widely celebrated as a secular holiday with no religious overtones at all. But the “Christmas Spirit” can still be very much there in the celebrating of the holiday and the shared human values of love, compassion and goodwill. I care not whether one celebrates Christmas from a Christian perspective, a pagan one, or a purely secular one. They all can contain the “True Christmas Spirit” …or lack thereof…

But what I really, really hate, is guilt inducing aspects. The unrealistic expectations. The capitalistic, pro-corporation and  bastardization  ( or what Don Cuppit called “the Disneyfication of Christianty”)of what should be a meaningful and personally nourishing holiday. A holiday to spend with loved ones, not spend yourself into debt (the gift giving aspect of Christmas is actually a fairly new tradition), or feel guilty over not remembering a card for every last friend or family member. Nor should there be a misguided attempt to prove you care by madly juggling your schedule to try and make every last Christmas dinner or celebration you’re invited too. Thereby doing little more than upping your own stress level. Christmas should be about slowing down. Remembering to be grateful for what you have.  Remembering those shared human qualities of love, compassion and goodwill towards others and think about how we may better bring those qualities into our everyday lives in the coming year. It should be about loved ones, blood and not, and if you’re so inclined, about your religious communities and engaging with your chosen spirituality, Christian, pagan or other. But…fuck the consumer, capitalistic, corporate bullshit. It has no value. It’s a distraction from values. Leave the sales alone, maybe we could each just buy our immediately loved ones a single gift, and make sure we tell everyone “I love you”? Maybe we can admit we don’t need a closet full of more stuff, but we could use a life with more meaning and loved ones that are held close?  Maybe we can think about slowing down and taking a deep breath and just…. Remember to just simply *be* and laugh and love and pray?

But seriously. Fuck the consumer bullshit. That’s not Christmas. It’s a caricature. A poor one at that.

Musings on Thomas Merton by an old friend

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Father Mathew Kelty, from the Abbey of Gethsemani, reads a paper that he had written about his friend Thomas Merton just a year after his death. Interesting to listen to what was an intimate memoir of not the famous (some may say, infamous)  Thomas Merton. But of a man seen through the eyes of a friend.

Big Tent Anglicanism and the future of the Anglican Communion

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Anglicanism, a tradition within Christianity that has around 80 million adherents world wide, is the third largest denomination after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church’s, and prides itself on its “Big Tent” approach. One that allows for a wide range of differing theological views and interpretations. Which can vary significantly not only from country to country, but diocese to diocese, even parish to parish within any given diocese.

Being both catholic and protestant, some Anglicans lean more to the catholic end of the spectrum. Others to the more protestant end. Some are very conservative, others extremely liberal. All still, Anglican. This big tent approach has been called both a strength and a weakness for the Communion. Its a strength for its inclusivity and diversity. But its weakness’s are really starting to show.

Anyone following the latest goings on in the Anglican Church (latest, meaning the last several decades really) will be aware that there is a serious division taking place. One that threatens to split the whole Anglican Communion and take down the tent. Some of the differences have gotten so big, that many can no longer even simply agree to disagree. One big example is homosexuality. While here in the West, within both the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church (Anglican church in the United States) many, although not all, Anglican churches have become not just tolerant of homosexuality and gay marriage, but many have openly welcomed them with open arms, as both parishioners and as priests. But in other parts of the Communion its anything but. In parts of Africa for example, most notably Uganda, the leaders of the Anglican church there have not only fully endorsed imprisonment for anyone found to be openly gay, but even support the death penalty. The Uganda Anglican Church has been deeply and intentionally influenced by American Evangelicals for many years. Over the years even the story of how Christianity got started in Uganda has been altered to ensure that a strong homophobic bias is part of the Ugandan Christian identity. So debating or encouraging that they(Ugandans), at the least, take a more tolerant approach to homosexuality isn’t just a theological or doctrinal issue for them, its an attack on there very identity as Ugandans. Good luck with that… And its not just homosexuality, and not just between Uganda and the rest of the Communion in Africa and abroad  ( South African Anglicans as an example, are on the whole accepting and welcoming of Homosexuality). But the differences between the conservative and liberal branches around the whole Communion have gotten so big that they “can’t even agree on metaphors anymore.” Things are beginning to look more like this:

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So when the question gets asked “should the Anglican Communion split?” Part of me thinks “Yes. Of course…who wants to stay together within an organization that has branches that promotes bigotry, intolerance, even death? An organization that cant seem to agree on anything.” Where some see poetry and metaphor and allegory within their scripture, others take a more literalist view. And worse of all….they increasingly aren’t even speaking to one another anymore. Whats the point then?

Well, there are those, that while vehemently disagreeing with others within the Communion, still hold fast to the Anglican principle of inclusivity. That there is strength in that, and there is at least the potential for fruitful dialogue. That there is still much that can be learned from one another and we can be positively influenced by each other. The Ugandans for example have developed a very rich sense of, and expression of, spirituality that has been influenced by their various African traditions and the Evangelical tradition, and all has been infused into what many consider an otherwise drab and boring Church of England, Anglicanism. Many may point out that not only are their services and worship richer, but their sense of spirituality is woven into the very fabric of their life. Something that is largely absent within the Western branch of the Church, in which people think of religion more as a once a week thing, like hockey practice, or poker with the buddies, or some other hobby… We can still learn and be positively influenced by those we may profoundly disagree with on some topics. Hopefully. Maybe they will be positively influenced by us in turn. The whole “polity” that Anglicanism prides itself on, and can only truly function properly, when its inclusive and open to differing views. Otherwise the doors slam shut and we all get our little exclusive country club. One in which we are right, or at least more right, and those that disagree (that are wrong) can take a hike and do their own thing. Christian spirituality, when done right, is going to be messy. Theologian Kortright Davis made a great observation when it comes to whys of widely differing views within a body as large as the Anglican Church:

“Western Theologians are now attempting to educate themselves about the new theological surges emanating from the Third World. They have finally realized that there is no universal theology; that theological norms arise out of the context in which one is called to live out one’s faith; that theology is therefore not culture free; that the foundations on which theological structures are built are actually not transferable from one context to another. Thus, although the Gospel remains the same from place to place, the means by which the Gospel is understood and articulated will differ considerably through circumstances no less valid and no less authentic”

Theology is culture bound, and is tied up with a host of influences that effect that culture. Some we will agree with and some not, vehemently so. But is breaking up the body the answer? Is breaking contact and the opportunity for mutually beneficial engagement the solution? I don’t really know which is best. But I do think that spirituality and religion work best when its messy, when there is the tension of apposing views and at least a little bit of dissent. Of course this only works when all involved agree to do at least that much to start. Which is what Anglicanism has always attempted to do. But it was easier when there was more Church of England style uniformity across the Communion. That’s now challenged by the modern world and the absence of control, like there is by Rome in the Roman church. I think a split of some kind looks unavoidable. But I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. That may just leave us with our own safe, self-reassuring, stagnant and exclusionary spiritual country clubs. Like you already have with all the evangelical protestant churches. Just like Jesus always intended?

The Abbey and Emmaus, My thoughts.

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I went and checked out a new spiritual community this afternoon. I was scheduled to be up island at a family Thanksgiving dinner, but I reluctantly bowed out due to feeling a bit under the weather lately. But when I was reminded on Facebook that this new community is gathering Sunday afternoons now for an hour, and that my friend the Venerable Alastair McCollum was asked to preside there today, I thought what the heck I’ll check it out.

The Abbey, that is founded by the Emmaus community. “A new monastic, intentional Christian community based in the Fernwood / Oaklands neighbourhoods of Victoria. The Abbey is a ministry of the Emmaus Community.” They’re a ministry of the Anglican Diocese of BC, and from what I gather are also cosponsored through the local United Church. Their “heritage” is Anglican, the Rev. Meagan Crosby-Shearer that leads the Abbey is an Anglican Deacon. But they are themselves ecumenical/multi denominational.

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Its impossible to get the full feel for any community after just one exposure, especially a community that is just starting out! The  Neo-Monastic community, Emmaus itself, has been going for a little while now. But this was only the Abbeys second Sunday! However, I was both surprised by the vibe there and impressed. I was expecting more of a formal Anglican liturgical feel to it, even though I knew they considered themselves ecumenical, simply because of the fact the Rev. is a transitional deacon within the local diocese and a deacon at St Barnabas Church, a local Anglo-Catholic parish. Which would have been just fine with me, as I find I really rather like ritual, ceremony and formality. Something I grew to appreciate through my involvement with and practice of Zen Buddhism. The Abbey was not exactly what I expected though. Being Thanksgiving it was a bit more upbeat, if that’s the right word to use, than last week was from what I gather, and they really wanted to have a feel of gratitude to the whole service. And it certainly did!

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For one thing, the fact that the Abbey rents a small community theatre space in Fernwood helps add to the relaxed feel of the atmosphere. They also had Bob Marley playing as people came in. Never seen that in a church before. It was definitely a groovy vibe. Children are given more or less freedom to move around and play throughout the service. On the small stage behind everything, they had play-dough festively scented as pumpkin and apple spice for the kids to play with, or anyone really for that matter, they pointed out that the space was there for anyone to go hangout on at any point during the service. One of the first “hymns” sung was “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, kind of dug that too. It was mostly singing, and today at least, was very contemporary and upbeat music.

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Sticking to the theme of gratitude, after Alastair had given his Thanksgiving homily, there was a a large sheet of paper pulled out on the floor and an opportunity for those that wanted to draw something, or write something related to gratitude. A nice gesture and helped bring a group activity to the service. Well, really the whole thing *is* a group activity. But a different than typical group activity.

The Eucharist was a bit more traditional, but with a twist. Instead of what I’ve typically seen, of the those present going forward to the alter to receive it. The bread and wine was simply passed down the rows among the congregants. Which was fine…the only part of the whole thing that felt all that awkward was the Lords Prayer …”Our Father…” it was spoken as a group, but in the language and translation of the individuals choosing. That felt..to me..a bit awkward and confusing. I was saying one version, but in my ears hearing another, which was throwing me off. Maybe the others preferred that fee style prayer?

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On the whole, it was a very cool, welcoming and groovy kind of environment. But more importantly, it didn’t feel like it was trying to be hip at the expense of authenticity. It had a very authentic and sincere vibe. Just not what I personally expected. And that I think was good. I have a thing, as I said, for tradition, ritual and ceremony. But that can at times feel “stuffy”, and variety is good. And The Abbey is a very interesting and very good blend of the old with the new. Tradition and authenticity with a contemporary and relaxed environment. Its just getting started. But I’d recommend those looking for such a vibe to check them out.

One of my favourite places in Victoria, that everyone should see.

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Christ Church Cathedral, which is the “Episcopal seat for the Bishop of the Diocese of British Columbia”, basically the administrative head and spiritual home for Anglicans within this diocese, a diocese with around 50 or so parishes.

In Victoria this is easily one of my favourite places for a whole variety of reasons. For one thing its open 7 days a week to the public. People can come in and stroll around, take pictures, or if so inclined sit and meditate, pray or simply be quiet and collect their thoughts for a while. It’s also a physically impressive place. The place, as you’ll probably guess from my pictures, is huge. The cathedral itself is a massive structure, but also on the property, that takes up a large city block, is the cathedral offices, Christ Church Cathedral School and an administrative building and the office of the Anglican Bishop of BC. Another reason I love the place is the history. There are all kinds of interesting little historical artifacts, from a stone laid out front by Sir Winston Churchill, to chalices, bibles and prayer books that date back several hundred years.

Its also a very friendly place. In spite of the fact that my expectation was that it would be a bit of a snooty sort of place. That hasn’t been my experience. I’ve always felt very welcome and I’ve been here many times to take advantage of a very quiet and contemplative space. I’ve also attended some services here and never dress up or cover my tattoo sleeved arms. I usually just show up in jeans and a t-shirt. I’ve never felt unwelcome. On one occasion, as an example of the openness here, I was sitting near the back in a fairly crowded service when two men that appeared to be homeless wondered in 15-20 minutes into everything. Instead of being either asked what they were doing or even seated in the back, an usher immediately showed them to a spot near the front row, asking everyone to shove down to make room for them. It’s not a snooty place in my experience at all.

I couldn’t take pictures of everything for obvious reasons. Here is a snippet of the place.

The view as you walk in the front door. Deafening silence.

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Looking back from the alter at the massive organ above the front entrance.

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Pulpit. It was made from a single oak tree that grew in England in Sussex. The tree was over 500 years old and the wood then seasoned 30 years before use.

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The Lady Chapel that sits off to the right of the main Cathedral alter. With a statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus at the entrance. It contains an organ that dates to 1862 and some of the stones at the front of the alter are originally from the high alter screen at Canterbury Cathedral and date back at least 700 years.

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Some old artifacts that can be seen around the Cathedral.

Starting with a stone put in place by Sir Winston Churchill.

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Chalice from 1759

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Chalice from 1684

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Baptistery. Floor made of marble. A white dove in the centre window was included to relay a story of the first baptism done here. The story goes that when the first baptism was done the windows had not yet been put in and a white dove flew in and sat on the ledge for the duration of the ceremony, then flew off.

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The Chapel of the New Jeruselem can be seen through the massive windows behind the main alter. The chapels stained glass windows shining through into the cathedral.

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The cathedral as seen from the Chapel of the New Jerusulem

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A a few other random pictures around the cathedral..

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For those in the city that are not of the Christain persuasion and could use a public space to meditate or pray, but would not feel comfortable in the cathedral itself for religious reasons or otherwise, this space was created at the front entrance. It’s a multi faith chapel and is there for anyone, of any faith (or no faith) to use at their own leisure .

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Outside in the cathedral grounds is a labyrinth constructed by  inmates from William Head Prison. It’s used for walking meditation.

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A few other random pictures from around the property, of the main office, and the school…

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Xenophobia, Christians and the crazy ideas of a homeless dusty ol’ Jewish Rabbi

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This meme has been shared a number of times now on my Facebook newsfeed and funny enough, in each instance, of the times I’ve noticed it shared anyway, it’s been by someone that I know to be a self identified Christian. Which is something that actually perplexes me a great deal. Not even getting into the obvious point that this country is *already* radically different socially, culturally and religiously than it was just 20-30 years ago. Which was different again than the 20-30 years before that, and 20-30 years before that… That’s the whole thing about societies and culture, no matter how hard people try to keep them the same, they change. Always have. Always will. Our culture today even though already changed in almost every way from just decades ago, absolutely and unquestionably will change further again tomorrow. I guarantee it.

But I just wanted to get my thoughts out specifically around this relatively small, but vocal subset of Christians that seem to fear the “other” so much.

A “Christian” is a label that means either a “follower of Christ”, or sometimes translated literally as “little Christ”, which is perhaps an even more descriptive call to action. Not Christian in an “I believe the right things” sense of the word, whatever those right things actually are… but more I think a charge to emulate the actions of, and follow in deeds and the directives of Jesus. To actively work at growing beyond our little selves and become more Christ-like.

That’s where I get confused. This xenophobic and often even racist attitude towards the “other”. This judging without knowing, this hording our blessings and denying them to others, this distrust of our fellow man, is utterly counter to everything Jesus taught during his entire ministry.

He preached repeatedly on not just the importance of, but the expectation of welcoming the stranger. Clothing and feeding the downtrodden and hungry, and treating and loving the “other” as yourself. He in fact lists it as the second greatest of commandments. The whole of the law can be summed up he said, as “love the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And to love your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) That’s all of it in a nut shell.  Simple but not so easy.

I heard the Reverend Martin Brokenleg give a homily today in which he recalled Jesus saying in Luke 9:48 “whoever welcomes this little child in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the One who sent me.”

In order to understand what makes that statement truly radical, and why his disciples where reportedely confused by it at first, you have to put it into its historical and cultural context. In first century Palestine, children where generally not held in the same regard as they typically are today. About 1 in 3 didn’t survive the first year of life and 60% didn’t live past their teens. Food, which was scarce, was reserved for adults first, if there was any left over after they ate what they needed, that went to the children. It was considered paramount to ensure the survival of the adults. Children were actually very low down on the social order. That is why it made what Jesus said so perplexing and hard to grasp given the accepted social status of children. In today’s culture and given our socially accepted norms, Jesus essentially said the equivalent of “whoever welcomes this *homeless man* *mentally ill woman* * drug addict* *brown skinned Muslim refugee* in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the One that sent me.”

What some of my Christian brothers and sisters are forgetting, is that Jesus always welcomed the outcast and the despised,the persecuted, and neglected to his table. As a matter of fact, he gave them
preferential treatment. And he commanded that his followers do likewise.

“Whoever welcomes this little child in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the One that sent me.”