Tears as Prayers

My latest in the Christian Courier. (October 11th edition.)

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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.

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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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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

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

The colour of life – with Toni Morrison

My latest column in the Christian Courier.
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There are a few instances of colour that stand out in my life and memory. The warm red of a steel wagon that was a childhood gift to me; the deep indigo of a Fula shirt my wife (girlfriend at the time) sent to me from West Africa; the myriad blossoms of Springtime annuals in the greenhouses of my late uncles.

Colour has been especially on my mind since I went back to the writings of Toni Morrison several weeks ago. Morrison, who passed away on August 5th, this Summer, wrote as an African American woman and wrote for a specifically African American audience. While she acknowledged the presence of a non-African American, white readership, she worked hard not to let the questions, concerns, or judgments of that audience determine the shape of her craft. That is, she wrote as a woman of colour for people of colour. She was, as the New York Times put it recently, “an iconic author of the black experience.”

Toni Morrison

Photo by Maggie Hardie/REX/Shut-terstock (490822g) Toni Morrison, 2004.

So again, colour has been on my mind. Yet it has been on my mind not only in terms of the acute questions of identity that Morrison raises, but also in terms of the simple reality of colour (blue, orange, violet) as she weaves it within her work. For example, in Morrison’s unfolding of the difficult and compelling narratives of Sethe and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, in Beloved, colour finds a place of subtle prominence. For Baby Suggs, in the last years of a life marked by violence, oppression, and slavery (a life equally marked by her articulate and faithful resistance), colour becomes central. Continue reading

Touch, Sight, and Faith #worship

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

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A large wooden crucifix stands toward the front of the crypt sanctuary in St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal. While the crucifix is not central within worship, it evidently receives much attention. A striking feature of the crucifix is the worn nature of Jesus’ feet — the paint is worn away and the surface smooth from the many hands that have rested there. Over the years, thousands of hands have been placed on those feet in a posture of prayerful need, of seeking the grace of God.

For those of us in the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition, this devotional attention to a crucifix will likely raise questions — questions as old as the Reformation itself. Doesn’t every artistic representation of Jesus somehow diminish him? Why not turn to the living Jesus in prayer, rather than to a lifeless statue? Aren’t these acts of prayerful devotion tied up with the idea that a human creation (a crucifix) can dispense grace?

Our tradition has been almost entirely word-centered, which means we are suspicious of visual and sculptural representations of Jesus or of God. In terms of the questions posed above, we have wondered whether such representations (idols!) distract us from the free grace of the living God. Our Reformed tradition has created only one narrow opening for such visual representations, in the specific case of those who could not read. In such cases, images (pictures) have been seen as a way to tell the story of Jesus and to share the truth of that story. This allowance for images focusses on their educational and not their devotional use. Continue reading

Belonging and Exclusion – A Conversation

The latest issue of the Christian Courier takes the question of belonging as its theme, with a particular focus on issues of race and culture. Here is my “column” for this issue.

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The theme of belonging is rich with challenge and possibility and it seemed to me that I would do better not to try and explore this theme merely on my own. As a result, I share with you the content of an interview/exchange I had with the Rev. Oliver Kondeh Ndula, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and a graduate student at McGill University/The Presbyterian College, here in Montreal.

RDV:  The idea of “belonging” is understood in variety of ways. How do you understand “belonging”?

OKN:  I understand “belonging” to mean the ease with which people get integrated into communities, especially communities other than those of their origin. From this perspective the concept is dualistic. On the one hand the other needs to take the initiative to get integrated into his/her new community. On the other hand, the new community can either facilitate or impair the process.

RDV:  Do you think it is possible to fully belong in some place or community? Continue reading

Telling the truth about our lives #Bach #Zagajewski

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

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Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by JS Bach—the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution.

At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of eleven hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah”.

bachAs we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics—we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. Continue reading

Safe Sex?

I came across a quote about safe sex, today, from Wendell Berry, and was reminded of this article I wrote for the National Post about 14 years ago. I might change the tone and style slightly today, but the basic argument is one that I think is worth repeating. 

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Sex-education and school children can be a volatile mix when parents believe the curriculum offers more detail than their children need to know. This perennial debate arose lately in New Brunswick, where parents have vowed to fight for changes to a new sex-education program they consider too explicit. In Marysville and Woodstock, concerned parents have gathered in recent weeks to ask whether their middle-school children need to know the details of erection, vaginal secretion, ejaculation and masturbation.

The new program, based in part on a University of New Brunswick study of parental attitudes toward sex education, introduces abstinence alongside such issues as sexually transmitted disease, masturbation, birth-control methods, teen pregnancy and the nature of a healthy relationship. That isn’t good enough, however, for those parents who want their children’s understanding of their sexuality to be governed by the conviction that abstinence is the best choice, the right choice—dare we say, the only choice—for their sexual health.

Beyond the explicit nature of the New Brunswick’s Human Growth and Development curriculum, there is also a concern that it gives abstinence short-shrift. While abstinence certainly isn’t ignored, a number of parents in New Brunswick want to see advocacy for it given a place of prominence in the curriculum. Continue reading