As we rattle and rush across the icy surface of Lake Simcoe I look out the porthole window of the Bombardier R12, watching the snowy world blow by. It’s like being transported in a school bus, really—the same dull roar and smell of exhaust and uncomfortable seats—except with dual tracks and skis in place of wheels. It’s an early morning in February and we are heading toward a group of fishing huts where we will spend part of the day. I’m twelve years old, and so excited to be going ice fishing for the first time.
My classmates in Mr. Oldenziel’s grade six class are to have a morning of sex education. My parents have opted to send me instead on a classic Canadian outing with a friend and his dad; the latter is a hunting and fishing columnist for the Toronto Star. It was sex ed or ice fishing and I’m glad to be heading out on the lake.
The class will probably just be a bunch of science, anyway—how men and women’s parts work together, and how babies grow. Nothing about the stuff that gets us boys guffawing, even if I’m not exactly sure why.
As this column appears in your mailbox we are in the season of Epiphany—in the midst of the church’s celebration of light and the one who is the light of the world. The texts that echo in our ears and minds are those that invite: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” Or which declare: “Jesus did the first of his signs…and revealed his glory.”
Yet as I write the words of this column we are still in the thick of Advent. The present season is as much about darkness and judgment as it is about the light that shines in the darkness. On the Sunday that approaches we will hear “rejoice in the Lord always,” alongside “You brood of vipers.” The one for whom we wait is a judging/saving God who names our death dealing ways.
Thinking beyond the church year, the earth’s tilted, rotating orbit around the sun implies a similar gap between the writing and the reading of this column. As I write these words in early December we are still on our way toward the longest night of the year. You read them on the other side of the winter solstice, with daylight hours steadily increasing.
During the Christmas season many of us are drawn into the world of miniatures, though we might not call it that. Ornaments hang on our trees depicting, at a hand-held scale, Jesus nestled in a manger or the wise men visiting a stable. Each year we carefully unwrap the figures of our nativity scenes – a lamb, a shepherd and a humble mother each passing through our fingers – and set them on a bookcase or on top of a piano. What makes these tiny scenes so appealing?
Several years ago, I visited an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario entitled Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures. It centred on remarkable 16th century carvings that are astonishingly small, impossibly intricate and religiously inspired. Fitting within the palm of the hand, the wooden carvings are spherical wonders portraying the Annunciation, the Visit of the Magi or the Passion of Christ. They were created to support practices of prayer, and created with carving and layering techniques that have only recently been fully understood.
Seeing these creations left me both amazed and perplexed. Amazed at the ingenuity and skill that led to their existence, but also asking myself: Why go to such lengths to create these intricate designs? Why on such a small scale? Aren’t there other less time-consuming and intensive ways to support practices of prayer? The more I’ve thought about it, however, the more I’ve realized that my “why” questions might not be as helpful as starting with simple appreciative inquisitiveness.
Have you cried lately? If so, do you know the meaning of your tears?
It’s a complicated question. We humans are not fully transparent to ourselves—we are not fully aware of the experiences or realities that shape our emotional lives. Our tears in any situation may result from past experiences, diverse sensitivities, hormonal realities, and even how much sleep we’ve been getting. We may know there are tears running down our cheeks, but never fully know why.
This is to say nothing of the deeper biological and evolutionary bases of our tears. Perhaps human tears have been selected for because they invite sympathy and promote community well-being. Or perhaps our tears are a way of moderating anger in those who perceive them. Or maybe our tears relieve tension and allow us to function well in daily lives defined by stress.
There is so much going on when we cry. This means it is always a question of interpreting our tears, in the same way that we interpret scripture or other texts. We can do our best to explain our tears, but we likely will never fully understand them or have a definitive answer for their meaning.
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.
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.
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.
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.