The God of Silence – reflections on Endo’s novel, Scorsese’s film

My latest column for the Christian Courier, can be found here, or below.


How is it possible for the ocean to be silent? Can the sea lose its voice? On the face of it this seems impossible. The waves come rolling in with rhythmic constancy – breaking and pounding against the shoreline. Even on those days when the wind is perfectly still the water slaps gently against the rocks and our ears will pick up the sound of the water’s gurgle and swirl. So how can the sea lose its voice, be silent?

Of course, the ocean cannot finally be silent. Yet it is the nature of human language, of our attempt to understand and communicate ourselves, that we often hold seemingly disparate realities together in speech or written word. To stay with the idea of silence, we sometimes describe it as palpable or heavy, as if we can feel its pressure against our bodies, as if silence were subject to gravity, as we are. But in the strictest sense, silence is simply the absence of soundwaves striking our ears – silence is absence, rather than presence. It is not some thing, but the absence of something.

The capacity of human language to hold contradictory realities together, however, is a kind of gift, since it enables us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of life. Shusaku Endo deploys such a lexical disjunction in his novel Silence when he describes the ocean precisely as silent. The central character of the novel is a 17th century Portuguese, Jesuit missionary named Sebastien Rodrigues who wrestles with the desperate poverty and violent persecution of Japanese Christians, many of whom are tortured and killed in the sea itself. In the face of their suffering and persecution, Rodrigues encounters what he refers to as the depressing silence of the sea. When he prayed for his sisters and brothers, “the sea remained cold, and the darkness maintained its stubborn silence.” Continue reading

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scars – a poem

A poem referencing the Gospel lectionary passage for this coming Sunday. John 20:19-31.

Scars

Running blind ‘round a corner,
Robber to a cop in hot pursuit,
Forehead meets half-opened door;
Pain, dizziness, trickle of blood.

Childhood memory is borne in the body,
Fibrous tissues heralding past pain,
Scar as locus of life’s hurt and healing.

Boyhood hands whittle a branch,
Releasing bark, sharpening to a point.
“Always away from you,” momentarily forgotten,
Jackknife jumps, slices skin, hits bone.  Continue reading

Self love? Meh. (Really?)

It’s safe to say that Christianity has often been indifferent toward self-love. In fact, when I imagine the typically response to the possibility of self-love, I would describe it like this:

Self love? Meh.

Our own Reformed and Presbyterian tradition has often been downright negative about self-love. Within our tradition great emphasis has been placed on our brokenness and our sinfulness and our need of forgiveness – and great emphasis have been placed on the tremendous love of God toward us in Jesus. Our tradition has emphasized grace – everything we receive is through the grace of God – the undeserved love of God.

But in that kind of framework there often hasn’t been a lot of room for self-love. In fact self-love has often been seen negatively. In sermons and in books on Christian faith you will often hear that we are too preoccupied with ourselves, too focused on ourselves – this is an expression of our sinful self-absorption. We are too focused on ourselves and on what we need and what want – so focused on ourselves that we fail to love God and fail to love our neighbour. Continue reading

jesus and snap decisions

Casting nets – let’s try our luck over there.

Sorting fish – too small; wrong kind; wow, nice big one.

Delivering fish – let’s get these out of the sun before they go off.

Repairing nets – agh, that hole we fixed has opened up again.

Simon and Andrew and James and John are fishermen. They work hard, and they work long hours, and they have strong calloused hands, and they know their way around on the water. They are fishermen, which is also to say that they have little power or prestige in their culture. One New Testament scholar describes the status of first century fishermen in these terms:

While the fishermen have some economic resources, their social ranking is very low. In Cicero’s ranking of occupations, owners of cultivated land appear first and fishermen last. Athenaeus indicates that fishermen and fishmongers are on a par with moneylenders and are socially despised as greedy thieves. Fishermen and fishmongers have a socially inferior and economically precarious existence under Roman control.

The work of fishermen is in some ways vital to their society, for without fish a significant part of the local diet and a source of nourishment is lost. But perhaps it will come as no surprise to us that those who did such vital work were not valued in themselves. In our own time and culture we outsource a great deal of basic and vital work overseas – and those workers or labourers receive levels of pay we would never consider acceptable for our own family members or friends. Continue reading

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

poem for palm sunday

PALM SUNDAY

     hymn

Time-pressed sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic rocks
Burst with anticipation that, human voices stayed,
Their moment of unlocked eloquence and
Soaring speech might finally arrive.

But vocal chords reverberate with ancient choruses,
Embodying praise for earth divinely imagined, given,
Gathering sentiments of quartz, kingfisher and crocodile:
Hosanna! King! Saviour!

     recoil

Impossible words, these,
An unlikely thing, this,
For ears untrained, minds unprepared,
Hearts hardened and unremitting in (un)generous doubt.

We would muzzle rocks,
And mock too-easy faith and hope,
Unless our own in human ingenuity unleashed,
In mean and method, device and digital tomorrow.

     walk

Whisper of fabric, cloaks lifted again across shoulders,
Palms tossed aside, withering echo of a song.
He silently surveys ancient bricked courtyards,
Seeking in crack and crevice, faithfulness and mercy.

Disappointment and departure,
Reculant in sad reversal of pomp and procession,
Bethany re-christened ‘disappointment,’
Thud of stone over Lazarus’ grave.

     persist

Resistance is ours only,
ultimacy not granted to our ‘no’,
flintlike, his face,
‘yes’. 

     three days

Seeing Jesus, with Simeon (4/5)

There is a kind of purpose in his steps as he walks into the temple. There is a kind of alertness in this old man’s body, as he strides across the courtyard. It’s almost as if he is looking for something, looking for someone. His body speaks of his confidence that he will in fact find what he’s looking for.

Anyone who has spent much time in the temple will know who this man is. His name is Simeon. And even those who don’t know him could quickly find out about him. He has a reputation.

Simeon is described using words that no one would use lightly – he is described as a righteous man. Do we even believe, today, that such a person is possible? A righteous person? In our culture we are deeply cynical about any claim to righteousness – we think it both naïve and arrogant to describe anyone as righteous. But that’s just how Simeon is described – a righteous man. He is someone who knows the law of God and follows it. Continue reading

Let’s not cheat ourselves. Encountering Jesus. 3/5

The gates of Jerusalem are busy places. There are so many people coming and going – whether for religious festivals, or for trade and commerce, or for administrative purposes. The flow of people is almost nonstop at these gates – through these portals into the city.

There is a pool near one particular gate of the city – and that pool near the sheep gate – is also a busy place. But this pool is busy not so much on account of the religious festivals, or on account of those traveling for trade and commerce, or on account or the administrative needs of the city or of that Roman colony more widely.

The area around that pool is busy because there is a tradition of healing associated with it. There is a tradition that when the waters are stirred – when there is some movement in the waters, as if stirred by an angel – the waters have healing or medicinal properties.

And so the area around that pool – the five porticos or porches that encircle the pool – they are filled with those looking for healing. This space is a kind of ancient hospice or hospital. By definition this is a group of those who are broken in some way; their bodies in need of healing in some respect. According to John’s gospel, those gathered around the pool are the blind and the lame and the paralyzed. And of course we know that in that culture, on top of their particular physical challenges, each of these individuals would also have faced a high degree of social isolation. So they seek healing in this pool – they seek healing in the stirred waters – they seek healing of their bodies and souls – a healing in their physical being and in their social identity. Continue reading

seeing jesus – a beautiful collusion (2/5)

Weddings are very often a feast for the senses.

Our ears are filled with so many sounds. Guests raise a cacophony of conversation over dinner tables. There is always music – whether a mariachi band or electronic dance music or the latest pop hits. Into the night, there are shouts and animated conversation – and then very late the sounds of dishes piled, tables pushed aside.

Weddings are very often a feast for the senses.

Not only sounds, but our sense of smell is engaged. The fragrance of flowers. The tantalizing smells of dinner wafting from the kitchen – crab soup at a typical Vietnamese wedding – the smell of sautéed mushrooms and gravy at your typical Canadian wedding – the savour of herbed gnocchi at a typical Italian wedding. The aroma of a full-bodied red wine.

Weddings are very often a feast for the senses.

Not to mention our eyes. There are beautiful dresses. Have you seen the glorious prints on the women at a Cameroonian wedding? And then there are beautiful flowers adoring hats and lapels and tables and even desserts. There are women and men looking their best – beards trimmed – hair up – earrings dangling – shirts pressed – shoes shined. Continue reading

convenient pieties — holding Christ at arm’s length

King Ahaz of Judah has a problem.

Actually, King Ahaz of Judah has a number of problems. But the most pressing problem is that two neighbouring nations are threatening war against him. The northern kingdom of Israel, under King Pekah, and the neighbouring nation of Syria under King Rezin have made an alliance and are threatening to attack. It is no idle threat. We read in Isaiah chapter 7 that when they heard about this military threat, “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

King Ahaz and the people of Judah are afraid. King Ahaz is not confident in the strength of his own forces. He’s not confident in the capacity of his soldiers to repel this military assault. He is deeply fearful that this will mean death and destruction and defeat for himself and for Judah. “The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

Into the middle of all of this comes Isaiah the prophet. And he comes with a word of challenge and a word of warning. His message from God to Ahaz is this: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” Continue reading