habit-defying labour — thinking with the art of daisy tsai

Daisy Tsai describes her work, presently on display at Luz Gallery, Montreal, with these words:

Painting is habit-defying labour… As our world dazzles, rushes, and burns, i peek-a-boo through forms and colours to contend for an alternative coherence, stillness verging on celebration and distress.

The notion of habit is a powerful one, speaking as it does to those areas of our lives where we have perhaps stopped paying attention or ceased living intentionally – where we have allowed lethargy to withhold us from the possibility of the new. Of course habit is not always a negative dimension of human life, since the formation of positive and constructive habits is a necessary resource for living well. But our habits of sight, and habits of thought, and habits of behaviour can also be, and invariably are, a way that we close ourselves off to precisely that possibility – the possibility of living well, or faithfully. The possibility of encountering something new and enlivening (from Christ? who makes all things new?).

The artistic vocation is multi-faceted, but a significant feature of this vocation has always been to undermine our habits of thought and life – to invite the receiver to see the world within a different frame of reference – to refuse to let neighbour or stranger be seen in the same way she or he has always been seen. Vocation: contending for an alternative coherence. Continue reading

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examination for life – a visit from Jesus

Image you know someone who has always dreamed of visiting the Great Wall of China. It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that someone would want to visit the Great Wall. Parts of that wall were built as long as eighteen hundred years ago by the first emperor of China – most of it was built about 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. It’s an historic, long and winding wall that was first built for the purposes of security and defense, and later was used as a means of regulating trade along the Silk Road. The oldest parts of the wall were made of earth and stone and wood – while the majority was constructed from brick and stone. The Great Wall of China now measures 9,000 kilometers or more in length and of course is a UNESCO world heritage site. There are tens of thousands of people who dream of seeing the Wall – this amazing feat of human engineering – tens of thousands who dream of having those ancient bricks and steps beneath their own feet.

So imagine this person you know, who has dreamed of visiting the Great Wall of China – and imagine they are finally able to make the trip. They save up enough money to pay for the airfare. They put together an itinerary; they make reservations at hotels; they book a seat on a tour bus. And the day arrives when they finally get to the wall – they step out of the bus and walk up to the wall. Oh it is glorious. They see it stretch of endlessly in one directly and in the other – they walk up the few steps onto the wall, and for a few minutes they look this way and that.

And then they turn around, go back and get on the bus, and take their seat. “Okay, I’ve seen it, I’m ready to head back to the hotel whenever you are.”

Now that would be a very strange ending to the story, wouldn’t it? That great dream; that hope of seeing the Wall; those months of saving and planning. Only to get there, have a quick look, and turn around to leave. Continue reading

what you see – it’s who you are

What we see says a whole lot about who we are.

In fact: What we see makes us who we are.

In our daily lives, every situation and every person and every landscape can be seen differently. And what you see in a given situation or what you see in a specific person or what you see in a landscape before you – what you see, says a great deal about who you are. Going even further again: What we see in all of this makes us who we are. You just are a person who sees this, rather than that – or that, rather than this.

Perhaps we can get a little bit more specific. When you look out into the night’s sky and you see all those stars visible to the naked eye – when you see all those stars, which are just a fraction of the 300 billion stars that make up our galaxy – when you see all those do you see a universe that came from nowhere and is going nowhere? Do you see a universe that is accidental and meaningless? Or in seeing those stars do you see the mysterious and wonderful work of a God who gives the world as gift and grace. A universe within which we may find our own lives as gift and grace. What you see in those stars says a lot about who you are – it says a lot about the hope and peace that defines you.

We can bring this down to another level altogether, of course. When you see a dad dragging a screaming 7 year old through the parking lot at the grocery store, do you see a dad who has lost his temper; do you see a dad who is impatient; do you see child who is spoiled? Or do you see someone struggling to be a parent in the way that every parent struggles. Someone who knows how to love and is almost certainly learning daily how to love more faithfully? Continue reading

Law and Love – Don’t mess me ’round

This week I was listening to CBC radio one the afternoon, and the program was Shift with Tom Allen. Tom was at his witty and conversational best that afternoon. As you may know, Shift is the CBC program that makes the transition from classical music in the first part of the day to rock or independent pop music late in the afternoon. So at the beginning of the program you are likely to hear movements from a Beethoven symphony or violin concerto by Bartok. But by the end of the program you are likely to hear R.E.M. or Arcade Fire or Sarah Harmer.

And when I was listening to Shift toward the end of the program, Tom Allen introduced a song by telling a story about about visiting friends of his who own a guesthouse in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. These friends had a problem with bears in the spring, when the bears would come out of hibernation and would be hungry and on the prowl for food. The bears would show up around the guesthouse, trying to get into the garbage, scrounging for food. And so his friends had to chase away the bears – scare them off on a regular basis. One morning that he was there, and there was a bear out near the garbage area, they asked Tom if he wanted to give a try at scaring the bear away. And so he agreed – he went out on the porch and started shouting at the bear, yelling at that bear to get away. The bear didn’t even look up – this screaming city boy wasn’t going to startle a bear enough to send it running. Sort of like us with our raccoons, I suppose – you yell at them, and they just kind of look up at you like, “What’s your problem?”

But at that point, the woman who owned the guesthouse with her husband took over. She took a can of tomatoes with her, threw it at the bear, and shouted at the bear with an intensity and volume that Tom Allen just could not muster. And when the bear saw the tomatoes fly, and heard this woman deploying her vocal cords, it took off running. Continue reading

are you bored yet?

IMG_1362This piece was recently on exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as part of the exhibit “From Van Gogh to Kandinsky.” I was struck by how thoroughly modern and contemporary this image feels – it could have been painted yesterday, but was in fact created in 1910 by Ernest Ludwig Kirchner. The curator of the exhibit suggested that the figure is daydreaming, but the notion that comes to my mind in looking at this piece is the notion of boredom. Boredom is a word that comes into its own, with something approximating its present meaning, in the 1840’s. It is a thoroughly modern concept and reality. This painting got me thinking and reading about boredom.

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Does boredom express a deeply modern despondency about the lack of meaning in the universe? What is there left to do, after all, when the end result is and will be sheer emptiness and meaninglessness?

Is boredom an expression of the frenetic pace of our particularly modern lives, where we have lost the capacity to sit still for even a moment; in which we have lost the ability to live without distraction and entertainment and titillation?

Are you bored yet?

Would the figure in this painting be any less bored, or any less a representative of our boredom, if she had a smartphone in her hand? Or would that, perhaps, make her the perfect emblem of our boredom? Is our only answer to boredom, more boredom? Continue reading

Christ the King – Politics and Palliative Care

This morning we come to the end of the church year. Over the past twelve months we have celebrated God’s self-revelation in Advent and Christmas and Epiphany. We have recalled the suffering patience of Jesus in the season of Lent. We have walked through the darkness of Good Friday into the glory of Easter morning. We have faced the mystery and glory of Pentecost – the life of the Spirit given to create and equip the church. We have journeyed through ordinary time, listening to the stories of Jesus and God’s people.

And today we come to the last Sunday of the year, which the church celebrates under the banner of Christ the King.

We end the year with a statement of faith.

We end the year with a statement of hope.

We end the year with a statement of Christ’s glory.

We end the year with a decidedly political statement – Christ is King.

This declaration that Christ is King raises all kinds of important questions, of course, What kind of a king is he? What kind of kingdom is he bringing to our world? And the truth is that when we talk about that wandering rabbi, the language of kingship and sovereignty might not be the first thing to come to mind. In many cases kings have been absolute sovereigns – they have exercised power at will – they have commanded vast armies – they have gone to war without just cause – they have been wealthy tyrants – they have only too rarely served their people with integrity and grace. Continue reading

this table – the shape of community

Over the next weeks and leading all the way up to Advent, we are going to be exploring Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians on Sunday mornings. It’s a remarkable letter in so many ways – it explores a huge swath of questions about what it means that we are followers of the risen Jesus. As you can see, I’ve entitled the series faith and body – I think the appropriateness of that title will become pretty clear over the coming weeks.

So this morning we start into this series, but this morning we aren’t going to begin at the beginning. We aren’t going to begin with chapter 1 verse 1. And we’re also not going to begin with an historical sketch of the city of Corinth or even with a sketch of Paul’s life up to the time of writing.

Rather than beginning at the beginning – and rather than beginning with the history and context of the letter – we are going to dive right into the middle of Paul’s letter. We’re going to start in the middle of chapter 11, which is where our New Testament lesson comes from this morning. Continue reading

travelling together – creativity through difficult days

down to the sea 2Several weeks before she passed away this summer, Shuling Chen gave her friends an opportunity to travel with her on the path of suffering and dying and living and loving. She did so by hosting a time of worship and reflection with us at the Jewish General Hospital where she was receiving palliative care. It was a deeply meaningful service of song and testimony and reflection and prayer, held in a beautiful solarium looking out on St. Joseph’s oratory. It was as human and honest an event as anything I have experienced in my life.

To be human is to travel in company with others. Some of those others are family members and close friends, with whom our truer selves may be revealed. Other fellow-travellers are women and men who walk alongside us more at arms length. Whoever our travelling companions, however, and whatever the degree of openness and disclosure between us, being together on the way defines us as human. In fact, we betray our humanity when we try to walk in isolation. Shuling’s invitation to celebrate and pray and worship with her represented an insistence that even the path toward death is one that we can and must share with others, in faith.

Shuling’s death came at the end of a very difficult year-and-a-half struggle with cancer. And one of the questions I wrestled with through that time was how to remain in company with her – how to remain a friend during her hospital stays, her days at home, and her return trips to the emergency room. I wouldn’t characterize Shuling as an intimate or close friend, but would describe her as a dear friend – someone with whom I shared in work and laughter and friendship over a number of years. So for me it was a question of how to accompany Shuling without my presence being a burden to her; how to speak with her and learn from her on this path while also respecting the nature of our relationship. Continue reading

faith: what’s evidence got to do with it?

A sermon, whose basic themes are informed by a short essay by the philosopher/theologian Jean-Luc Marion on the question of faith and evidence.

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What is faith?

What does it mean to have faith?

How would we describe the experience of faith?

In our culture a very common way of thinking about religious faith is in terms of evidence – or, more specifically, in terms of a lack of evidence. From this point of view, if you believe something is true even without any evidence for it – that’s faith. If you believe something is true even though it can’t be proven and can’t be demonstrated, then that’s faith. In our culture it is very common to think this way – to think that faith just means believing something when there’s no evidence for what you believe. Since there’s no evidence, you’ve got to take it on faith.

So, simple examples:

There’s no scientific evidence that God exists but you believe it – that’s faith.

There’s no evidence prayer works, but you believe it does – that’s faith.

There’s no evidence Jesus rose from the dead, but you think he did – that’s faith.

There are other ways of thinking about faith in our culture, but this is quite a common way. And not only is faith commonly thought of in this way, but in our culture, we should perhaps add, a negative judgment is often attached to this kind of faith. In many corners of our culture, if you believe something without evidence; if you believe something to be true that can’t proven by observation and testing, then you’re considered naïve and foolish – even irresponsible. You shouldn’t take anything on faith. Continue reading

Wrestling with Jesus – on Palm Sunday

This morning we are looking at a passage from the New Testament – from the twenty-first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Of course it’s the familiar story of the triumphal entry – it’s the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on the way to his death.

But before we look at this text, I’d like to take us way back in the biblical narrative for a moment – all the way back to the narrative of Genesis – all the way back to a story about Jacob. In Genesis 32, Jacob is on his way back to meet his brother Esau – a brother he is convinced is murderously angry with him. And when Jacob gets nearer to the territory where his brother lives, closer to the moment of encounter, he sends his whole entourage on ahead. He sends all of his family and livestock and servants on ahead. And he spends the night alone in the main camp. We read these words in Genesis:

The same night, Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he could not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then the man said: “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So the man said to Jacob: “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” And there he blessed him. The sun rose upon Jacob as he passed the town of Penuel, limping because of his hip. Continue reading