The other side of Goodbye #backtoschool

September is a busy and important time here at The Presbyterian College, with new and returning students arriving for studies. For six years now, as a faculty member here, I’ve been part of a team receiving students as they arrive in Montreal.

Often those students come from other places in the country, or even from overseas. They may be arriving from Charlottetown or Edmonton or Yaoundé. Having said their goodbyes to family and friends, they arrive in Montreal to settle into a new neighbourhood, a new culture, and a new pattern of life. One of our tasks at the college is to make students feel at home, to welcome them into a new community, and help them settle into a new rhythm.

This year I’ve also had a new experience in the return to school. For the first time, I am also on the other side of those goodbyes. What do I mean? Well, my wife and I have just dropped our eldest daughter off for her first year of university in Ottawa. This time I’m not on the receiving end of a student, helping her become oriented to university life and a new city. Rather, I’m on the side of saying good-bye and then driving away, leaving her to settle in. 

This time I’m on the other side of good-bye.

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Apricot Summer

My column for July 2021, in the Christian Courier.

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Words are more than their definitions and letters. They are not limited to their pixelated representations on a screen. Words overflow, pouring and flowing in all directions according to the gravitational pull of history and of our experiences.

This May I planted two apricot trees purchased from a local pépinière – more with a view to their Spring blossoms than any fruit they might bear. When the trees were delivered to our home, though, they were mature enough that they already bore a few hard, green apricots. I visit the trees every few days, soaking the soil and worrying over that handful of apricots. I wonder if they will ripen into the rich orange/yellow/rose colour evoked by the name, though I confess I am not entirely confident. I half expect to find green-yellow fruit lying beneath the trees any day now.

A well-travelled fruitIn a sidewalk conversation with a neighbour, Elaine speaks of the lush and flavourful apricots picked fresh in her native Hungary. She says “ā-pricots”, I say “aa-pricots.” She tends her ordered and haphazard flower gardens with care, concerned more for blossoms than for fruits and vegetables. Nevertheless, a wayward and insolent plum tree has rooted itself in Elaine’s front garden, almost daring her to uproot it. Yet her own Jewish tradition (owing in part to such texts as Deut. 20-19-20) resists the cutting down of any fruit tree. So Elaine watches her plum tree and I watch my apricots.

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Home Depot Prayers

It goes without saying: Worship has been dramatically altered by the pandemic. Some of these alterations have been less than desirable, of course, but some of them have also been worth celebrating. Among the gifts of the pandemic, I would suggest, is our increasing attentiveness to everyday work and workers. Over past months there has been a new energy given to our congregational prayers for front-line medical workers, for those who deliver online orders, and for staff in grocery stores. 

As we enter the new normal of worship in the days ahead, my hope is that our shared prayers for everyday work will be enriched and deepened—that we will remember that most of us participate in God’s mission through our everyday work; that our everyday vocations are a means by which we serve Christ in the world. As an encouragement in this direction, I offer these prayers for some of the workers I have encountered in just the past few weeks. 

O God who provides home and shelter, we lift to you those who install windows and doors. As they pry out old, rotted window frames, scattering dust and splinters of wood, they thwart drafts and mildew. As they install new windows and doors, they provide protection against wind and cold and rain and heat. Remind each one that their work with hammer and level and cordless driver are your work for the wellbeing of others. As we celebrate their work, O God, we also remember and pray for those who live without such protection from the elements; we pray for the coming kingdom of Jesus.

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Senegal, 1997

My latest column in the Christian Courier…

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We are anxious and at a loss, staying in an empty and mosquito-infested YWAM residence in Dakar—a busy, confounding city that neither of us knows. My flight has just come in from Vancouver, via New York; she has taken all manner of public transportation (bush taxi, ferry, bus) from a rural town in The Gambia. It has been a year since our last in-person conversation and now we are thrown into complete dependence on each other, for which neither of us is prepared.

The phone call that saves us is to Christine, back in Sibanor. A generous soul if ever there was one, she is strong in compassion and full of wisdom. In this moment she offers a window of hope: “There are friends in the town of Richard Toll. Go north to find them.” Wasting no time, we throw on our backpacks and rush to the bus depot, hoping we aren’t too late for transportation. We aren’t.

Sometimes salvation is a lumbering bus with a heavy diesel engine. The bus rolls north with open windows through sun-burnt countryside. We trundle past seaside St. Louis and then veer north-east toward Richard Toll, a town that sits on the border with Mauritania. It’s a town that throws together North Africa with Sub-Saharan West Africa along the Senegal River—a colonial town producing sugar from its founding to today. Our arrival is late, but the arms of Jenny and Maria are as wide open as could be imagined.

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Return to Normal – a poem

Ouroboros, by Manuel Mathieu.
Image Credit: Denis Farley

Return to Normal

Riopelle exhibit of bronzes and canvases
hidden for months behind a digital
interface; pixelated representations
longing for in-person encounter.

Surprise government opening of museums
with limited time slots available.
Join a cohort of the free
walking those familiar, high-ceilinged rooms.

Art gallery visit, not as imagined.
Running late with a warning in mind:
“Arrive 15 minutes early
or lose your visit.”

Rush through revolving doors and
up the sweeping staircase.
Sweaty behind a mask, fogged glasses,
more bodies than imagined. Too many.
The discomfort of proximity.

Wander distractedly past
expansive landscapes with
artist’s trademark palette knife strokes;
walk hesitatingly around bronze owls
both intricate and rough.

Escape, finally, to a tranquil basement gallery,
quiet with the works of Manuel Mathieu.
Solitude with its turquoise framing,
negative space of whiteness,
and a reclined, healing figure.

Ouroboros, an expansive installation
of hung fabric—layered and singed.
Fragile tunnel inviting us to a
future not yet conceived
or given.

Our longed-for return to normal
is by halting, awkward steps.

Advent Crows – a poem

Advent Crows

Cawing, keening crows
loud overhead on the bike path;
inky silhouetted flock
against deep indigo sky,
twilight of Advent.

Lift, turbulence, beating wings;
cacophony in whorled air
become, somehow, invitation to
envelopment in mad feathered flight,
toward hidden social roost.

Memory of Colville’s Seven Crows
gliding in captured stillness
toward some opaque future,
encircled viewer drawn
forward in uncertain landscape,

or foreboding of Cyclist and Crow,
detailed symmetry in acrylic,
anonymous rider enamoured with
jet-black, prominent corvid
following or leading where?

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Kierkegaard’s God, in the Pandemic

My column in the Christian Courier for November 2020.
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Do you have an author you regularly return for insight and wisdom? A voice you’ve come to trust, with a gift for making sense of our lives, our world, and perhaps also for making sense of God? The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has become such an author for me. When I go back to his writings, I am rarely disappointed. This is particularly true in terms of his written prayers.

In this pandemic context, a particular prayer of Kierkegaard has helped me rediscover an important dimension of God’s life and God’s relationship to me. This prayer explores the concept of God’s unchangeable nature. In more theological terms we sometimes refer to this as God’s immutability.

There can be deep assurance in knowing that God doesn’t change. As we pass through waves of the pandemic, or work through relational upheavals, or perceive the instability of the world, there is comfort in the realization that God is a certain and fixed point of reference to whom we may return. We can pile on the metaphors here: God is stable, unwavering, consistent, persistent and faithfully present. Continue reading

Wishing life away?

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

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There’s a temptation to wish life away—to wish that pandemic days, months, or even years would rush to oblivion. That from some bright future these mournful days would become as an Autumn mist burned away by the late morning sun. Forgotten; banished from memory.

Exhaustion of online world and conversation. Two dimensional images displace the play of light on faces and bodies. Loss of loving presence through touch and embrace and quiet nod. Digitized voices never quite capture the person we know and want to learn from. Click “leave meeting” and sit back to recover.

Far-off parents and grandparents reachable only by phone—a Summer visit already distant in heart and mind. Thanksgiving, family dinner over Zoom? Forbidden 600km journey to a meal of roast turkey and baked potatoes and the best stuffing ever and a welcoming embrace. Aching for a world other than the one received today. Continue reading

Optimism vs. Hope, in a Pandemic

My latest in the Christian Courier.

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Where would you put yourself on the optimism/pessimism spectrum? I suppose I land just slightly on the optimistic side, though with serious bouts of pessimism thrown in now and again. Among my friends there is at least one eternal pessimist (with an astonishing capacity to see the worst in every situation) and a few who seem born entirely to optimism (forever confident things will be just fine).

Perhaps we all slide along the continuum, depending on circumstances, but our optimism quotient also seems a fairly fixed personality trait. You occupy some place on this spectrum and there’s not much you can do to change that. Maybe it’s pessimistic of me to say that!

But let’s make this a little more concrete by asking about our present pandemic moment. Are you optimistic we have finally flattened the curve? Are you confident there will soon be effective treatments for COVID-19? That we might see a vaccine within the year? Get back to something approaching normal life in the next two years? Continue reading

Grace in the Pandemic

The past weeks have been difficult and stressful for many of us, or perhaps all of us. It’s no exaggeration to say there have been sleepless nights, worries in the day, challenges in family life, and a kind of fogginess about where life is going. This is on top of the very real suffering that some of us have experienced or witnessed in relation to COVID-19.

In the midst of all of this, we can perhaps also acknowledge that there have been moments of grace and joy—when we have discovered something of God’s goodness, creativity, and grace. We have discovered this in one another and in the world around us. Not unlike in other seasons of our lives, moments of struggle and of grace are often set in tension alongside each other. (Continues below pictures…)

One of the ways in which I have experienced the grace and providential love of God in these days, has been through birds in our back yard. The pandemic season has happened to overlap, in the past few weeks, with the spring migration of all types of birds. In cool mornings on our back porch I have found a gracious reprieve from the anxiety and stress of the day. With their beautiful, feathered fluttering these birds have descended with God’s grace into my daily life and that of my family (though three teenagers are not always as excited about birds as their dad is!). Continue reading