The Noble House of James Clavell

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In 1992, I was in New York’s airport waiting to fly home from Germany.  I had spent about 5 months studying abroad and I was headed to my parents home in San Jose, California.

I had a 6 hour wait for my connecting flight.  I looked around and I counted 7 copies of “Gai Jin” written by James Clavell.  Mostly white men were reading this book, deep in the story and doing their best to drown out the world with this story.  Only one of them looked up and saw me spying on them.  An older business men, he shot me half a smile.

“Good book?” I asked.

“There is so much I don’t know,” he said and continued reading.  That was it.

In researching this piece, I looked up Wikipedia and they claim the book came out in 1993.  I beg to differ (plus my copy in my basement dungeon/library was printed in 1992).  The book was everywhere in December of 1992.

My dad read everyone one of Clavell’s books.  In the 1970s, you were cool and smart and thoughtful if you finished Clavell, who would crank out phone book size novels with the cover art only being a drawn sword or a broken I-Ching coin.

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It was only in University that I started to read him.  He was a welcomed changed from all of the assigned text I was given as an English Major or the theology I had to get through in my ultra-conservative Christian school.

Clavell knew how to tell a story.  In fact, he knew how to tell many of them all at the same time.  There’s a phrase Stephen King uses called “The Ticking Time Bomb” in forwarding a plot.  It’s the idea that there is always a problem in the story and story needs conflict.  This problem- the bomb- must always have a countdown, alway be ready to explode.  And the audience must never forget the clock or they’ll stop reading.  For Clavell’s books, they were a time bomb shop in the mall….all about to explode.

When I was reading his books, I couldn’t help but sound half-mad.  “Oh they’re great!  You’ve got to read the first 200 pages to get hooked.”   My friends-who I was shoving a 2,000 page novel in their face, would just grimace and shrink away.  Looking back…I think I lost a lot of friends trying to get them to read Clavell.

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But he was more than just a good storyteller.  He was a bridge-maker: from white men in the west to the world of the east.  And this bridge making was his legacy.

 

James Clavell was born in Australia in 1921 to British parents.  He then served in the Royal Navy during World War 2.  Trained in desert warfare, he quickly took to the east when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

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His first voyage was lost and he was lost to sea, only rescued by a Dutch boat fleeing to India.  He was dropped off near Singapore and joined a group of British soldiers to fight the war.  During one of his skirmishes, he was shot in the face.  Wounded, he was taken as a POW camp.  During that time, he lived in a camp where hundreds died and only a few dozen survived.

Throughout his life, he never talked about his PTSD.  Instead, he would talk about how a sardine can keeps popping up in his pocket or in his car.  Even as one of the wealthiest novelists, he still would find a can of sardines near him.  Whenever he experienced stress or would remember his war days, the can would magically appear.  Never remembering that he purchased it or stored it, the thing would pop up.

After the war, he married an actress and began to write for movies.  “The Fly”, “To Sir, With Love”, “The Great Escape”, and the “The Last Valley” all have his name on the screenplay.  However, it was during the 1970’s that his large tomes popped up as bestsellers in airports.

 

 

“King Rat” was his book about being a POW, a much more grim and realistic telling than the edited and modified version of his script we saw in “The Great Escape”.  However, as a POW, was not where he found his fame.

His blockbuster- “Shogun”- was about a British sailor taken in by a Feudal Japan Lord.  This book chronicled the episodic adventures as the sailor sought to escape, leave this ancient world to his 1660’s England.

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A side story- everyone watched the mini-series when it came out.  There’s a scene, in the third episode, where a ninja tries to kill Richard Chamberlain.  The day after that episode, my elementary school was a buzz because a ninja was on tv!  A ninja!  We had no idea what people were talking about or what was going on…we didn’t care!  A ninja!!

Back to this blockbuster- it was his break-out story.

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What was shocking about this story was that the main character wasn’t a white saviour, the “Connecticut Yankee” that outsmarts all of the ancient people of King Arthur’s court.  No, he’s an observer.  The plot of the story is too much for him, so he rides the wave and swims around the ticking time bombs.  He attempts to help, but he makes it worst and all of the Japanese characters shake their heads, grumbling, “Were you paying attention!?!”

It captured the imagination of a whole generation who had no clue about Feudal Japan.  Clavell taught culture, but it was always because the plot required one to do so.

This was his 2nd book.  His first, Taipan, was about the trading company, Nobel House, in China.  It did modestly well until “Shogun” became a blockbuster and businessman had something else to read in airports.

“Noble House” and “Whirlwind” came out, fleshing out the world of this company with thousands of pages of intrigue, culture, story, and characters.  Again, you learned about China and Iran while running through the plot.

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His last Noble House book was “Gai Jin”, the beginning of this British company’s business in Japan as it worked from his home base out of Hong Kong.

These novels coincided with the mania for mini-series, so they all got adapted (except “Gai Jin”).   A spouse would read the book and then the other spouse would watch the mini-series.

The company, Noble House, was all set in Hong Kong and was British run, slowly being turned over to those who lived and loved in China.  The great ticking time bomb was that Hong Kong would return to those native and Britain would lose control.  This, of course, was to take place in 1999.  However, Clavell died in 1994 and never wrote the conclusion to this story of when the company ceased being British.

 

 

In the 1970s, if you were white and a male, it was clear you would be the main hero and chief problem solver of any novel set in China, Hong Kong, Japan, or Iran.  And yet, this is the farthest thing from Clavell’s books.

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Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty moments of sexism, exceptionalism, imperialism, and other such blind vices to the mind of a mid-20th century man.  However, there was this aspiration in his novels to understand, cooperate, intersect with the surrounding culture.  None of his characters were ever experts of the place they lived; they kept learning as the plot drove them to do so.  As a result, the story was the best teacher for those learning where they lived.

I keep thinking about the changing world of Canada.  In Edmonton-my home- there are growing populations of different ethnicities and cultures.  We’re no longer experts, no longer able to say that one way is the way and the way of culture.  Instead, there’s a story going on- taking us through the variety of time bombs- that might be teaching.  Maybe.  And that depends on if we’re reading the story right.

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In the meantime, cheers to James Clavell.  Thank you for telling us so many good stories!

My 2 Minutes with Ray Bradbury

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In 2005, I left the United States to pastor a small church in Northern Alberta (this is in Canada).   The summer I left, a good friend of mine invited me to the Comic Con in San Diego to collect autographs.

This was my chance to meet my hero, Ray Bradbury.

The best adults in the world of Middle Schools are librarians: quiet insurgents who know how to rescue bored teenagers by sly suggestions or gentle nods in the right direction.  When I was in 8th grade, I broke my arm and couldn’t participate in PE for two months.  I was told to study in the library during that month of healing and I was bored.  The kind librarian, seeing my listlessness and restlessness, teased, “How can you be bored?  You’re in a library.”

“I’m in a library!   Books are boring.”

“You haven’t found the right one,” she said.  She walked over to the shelf.  “Do you like being frightened?” she asked and that was, in my mind, the best lead question she could ask.  She didn’t ask what genre I would enjoy or tried to sell me something that could be exciting.  Her question was laced with a dare.   How could my 14 year bravado turn down this challenge?

She brought out a stack and then asked a series of questions, until it was narrowed down to “R is for Rocket” by Ray Bradbury.  “Read it until it gets boring.  Then stop.  And whatever you do, don’t write a book report about it.  Pay attention only to the things that are interesting.”   I read it and then she gave me “S is for Space”.   Then the stack continued.  “Don’t worry about running out,” she said with a grin.  “Mr. Bradbury has written a lot.”

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Every season in my life, I return to Ray Bradbury.  His voice was a constant whisper in my writings, my storytelling.  Sometimes, I’ll drop a reference and see who’s truly listening.  Some will see Bradbury in my comment, others might just guess I’m being clumsy with my expressions.

When Comic Con came onto the scene, I was ready to meet the Dean of Sci-Fi.

This was 15 years ago and Comic Con wasn’t the monolithic giant that it has become today.  In fact, it was a mess in 2005.  No one knew where things were, the venue was over-booked, and the Cosplay mania was just beginning.   “It’s as if,” I said to my friend who took me.  “It’s been organized by comic book store owners and artists who have no love for forms, lines, or engineering!”

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But I found Ray Bradbury.  He was with his friend, Harry Harryhousen, on a panel.  I joined the room to hear him reply to the Q and A and learned, in the middle, he wouldn’t be signing autographs at this venue but at another.

I ran across the expo and joined the back of a line spanning 3 hours.

The convention organizers let us know, every five minutes, that those in the front of the line were promised a signature but us, at the back of the line, would probably be turned away.   Yes, we were told to leave every five minutes.  Every five minutes.  For three hours.

I decided to stay in line because this was, really, my only shot meeting Mr. Bradbury.  If I was turned away then I would be just as close to him as I would be in Northern Canada: I had nothing to lose.

I made friends with those in line: a software engineer from Texas, a fellow cosplaying one of the killers from the movie “The Devil’s Rejects”, and a woman who had never read Ray Bradbury in her life but was getting a gift for her brother.

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For 3 hours, we waited and were told we were wasting our time: Ray Bradbury would never sign extra books.  About 2 hours in, my friend with the killer clown makeup got a call this his toddler, somewhere else in the expo grounds, needed her dad to calm her down.  He ran off and, three minutes later, we were allowed to come into the promised section that Ray would sign our stuff.

We were elated!  We beat the system!

And then out friend with the clown make-up and blood came running to us.  The organizers stopped him, demanding that he couldn’t cut the line and had to turn around.  We then created a small riot: “He’s with us!!  He’s with us!!!  Let the clown see Ray Bradbury!!!!”

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We made so much of a noise that the organizers relented, he joined us and we went wild.

I got to see Mr. Bradbury and have my 2 minutes with him.  I gave him a card basically thanked him for being Ray Bradbury and without him being Ray Bradbury, I would have had a harder time being Eric J. Kregel.  For you see, he was a wild storyteller and uncompromising in all of his robots, spores, rocket ships, martians, and dandeline wine.

And if he could be Ray Bradbury, then I could be Eric J. Kregel.

He took the card and said with a voice full of anointing, “Why, thank you!  Thank you, young man!  Thank you!”

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That was all I needed.  I left the US fully satisfied, ready to plunge deep into Canada.

Sadly, a few years ago, Ray Bradbury passed away.  But I hear his voice and see him around every literary corner.  And I keep thinking about him, especially in regards to a poem he wrote a while back.  Here is a link, where I perform this poem.  For with our joy with Bradbury, somewhere a band is playing.  Somewhere, a band is playing (It’s a reference to this poem):

Mr. Trump, Please Put Down the Bible

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On June 1, reportedly tear gas was deployed on a group of peaceful protestors (there is now a controversy on whether tear gas was used, however it is clear there was violence on behalf of the police) in Lafayette Park near St. John’s Episcopal Church. By inflicting pain upon a group of US citizens, the crowd fled. He then stopped in front of this historic church- a historic site as the “President’s church”- and held up a Bible. He spoke little, posing mostly for the press.

When he did this, I wish there was an aid, a friend, or a voice who could have whispered, “Mr. Trump, please put the Bible down. Don’t go near the Bible. Today is about you; it has nothing to do with you following God’s Word.”

These words could have been received, especially the part about “today is about you”. However, no one spoke up. Instead, I’m an American living in Canada and I’m wishing the Bible had nothing to do with that day. In fact, here’s my question: Why hold up a Bible at all?

What does a Bible mean to Donald Trump especially after his words, actions, and posture towards the peaceful protests and riots concerning the murder of George Floyd?

This is a fair question. The D.C. Bishop has denounced this action (https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/d-c-bishop-i-am-outraged-by-trump-church-visit-amid-protests-1.4964883). His photo opportunity was seen by many in the church’s leadership as trespassing (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/6/1/1949565/-Trespassing-St-John-s-Bishop-says-Trump-was-on-church-property-without-permission). This was all done so there was a picture with a Bible (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/peaceful-protesters-gassed-so-trump-can-do-bible-photo-op.html).

Why is the Bible so important to Donald Trump? Is it something that needs to be read, followed, and embodied? Or is it a symbol to cozy up to, with no real meaning and is a device to gain support from those who also see is as only a token, a totem from days ago?

If the Bible is to be read, followed, and embodied…what does it say? Jesus describes following Him by the Sermon on the Mount. To “get” Christianity, you need to look into Matthew 5. It begins:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Poor in spirit” is a pretty good description of people who see there is something wrong both with themselves and/or their world. This is the very message the peaceful protestors were communicating before they were tear gassed.  What is wrong?  The system works in favour of the few and the most are exploited, killed, and/or silenced.

Had the President listened to this message, he might have seen the Kingdom of Heaven. He did not. He gassed them (or had his people gas them, which is the same thing). When we ignore our engine warning lights, we cannot claim that the “car just broke!”

Plus, as the Bible says, when we listen to the voices warning us something is wrong, we have a chance to see Heaven on the other side.  But he gassed them thinking they were looters. Looters are looters; protest might be a poverty of spirit.

Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.

Mourning is not just sadness, but it can be anger (especially if there is injustice). Adding violence to grief is robbing the moment of comfort. The Bible is clear: “Laugh with those who laugh, cry with those who cry.” Trump did neither.

Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.

The meek are those who share power, who hold just enough so that others may be empowered.

If a white woman with a dog in central park has more power than any other race, there is an imbalance of power. If armed white people can shut down a local government without any consequence, there is an imbalance of power.

Meekness is the opposite of these situations. This is what meekness looks like:

Does the story of the Sheriff match any of President Trump’s tweets concerning the protests?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Looters are looters and should be prosecuted. Those who demonstrate, however, are doing so to change the world for the better. When one punishes protest, the implied message is simple: “everything is fine, just sit up and shut up”.

But those who fight to make things better, who REALLY want it…they, as the Bible promises, will gain the apple of their eye. In this case, justice.

The Bible says, Mr. Trump, you’re on the losing side. Why didn’t you put down that Bible?

Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.

Ah, mercy.

Christianity, at it’s heart, is a story about forgiveness. Forgiveness is the greatest weapon (not dogs or other devices you used to protect yourself in the bunker) against violence. Violence is all about a spin. To keep the wheel moving, you’ve got to be more violent than the violent person that did violence to you. Mercy- forgiveness embodied- are those who “get” Christianity.

When we are merciful, we knock the spin of violence off it’s track.  How do you pay back forgiveness?  Where do you go when the debt as been paid, when the trespass has been erased?   

For those who walk in violence, this seems unrealistic and frightening.  However, we must contend that this is the core of who Jesus was and how He changed the world.  If it didn’t work for Him, than the Bible should not be read, followed, or embodied: it’s just a pretty book.  But if the claims are right, then you have the church trusting in these teachings.

This is why St. John’s Church was very angry for Trump to stand there with the Bible in his hand.

Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.

Those who are plain spoken, simple in their words, and clear with their intention get to see God. Those who seek to please special interest groups (IE. white supremacists, billionaires, foreign governments) will be confusing, unstable, and miss God as they journey from the Oval Office to St. John’s.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
A peacemaker leaps into the centre of the problem and seeks to restore all of those who have been injured. It also requires that rare talent of finding those who have been wronged most and allow them to be part of the redemptive solution.

Peacemaking is being a thermostat for justice, mercy, and compassion. When it is too hot, it cools the atmosphere; too cool, it adds heat. When the room is just right, those in the room can get to greater issues.

And how did President Trump accomplish this peacemaking job of a President?:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/trump-politics-protests-1.5591527

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

If I may, I’d like to lump 10-13 together. A question is being asked of me, again and again, in Canada: “How can American Evangelicals still support President Trump?”

My answer has been simple, with the simple understanding that Donald Trump seems to be on their side. If the President is on your side- so they believe- then nothing bad can happen to Christians or the church. In fact, it soon might become socially advantageous to be a Christian if the President likes you.

Being liked by President is believed to be a give/take relationship: he likes Christians and, therefore, Christians must like him back no matter what. Even if that includes-and not exclusive to- tear gassing a group of peaceful protestors.

And yet, this last passage has no promise that if you like your President good things will come to you. The opposite is true: those who get hurt doing what is right will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. So in order to be liked by a President, one must avoid doing what is right? Or calling what is wrong right?  What about those hurt for doing what is right?  In this case, those peacefully protesting?

Evangelical Americans, might I propose another model (from the safety of Canada)? What if President Trump liked you not because you agreed with him, but because he secretly was afraid of you? What if Evangelical Christians were so scary and so willing to call out the President that when he held the Bible it was with the shaken, wide eyed promise, “I’ll promise to read this thing!!!! Just leave me alone!! I promise I’ll be a better President!!!” I know this is a weird image, but it’s one that matches Democracy a bit better than what we presently have.

Until this happens, we are left with the President holding the Bible- the very book he has stood against. This matters only if the Bible is to be read, followed, and embodied. If it’s just a pretty trinket, than there isn’t an issue. As the world decides, the President should just put it down.

The Day I Became the Jabberwock

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My older brother had finished one year at an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Christian school for Jr. High.   My parents thought it was a good idea for me to go, along with him, to their Summer School (By the way, when is Summer School ever fun?).

I enrolled in a drama class.  Our assignment was to memorize a poem and perform it.  Most of the poems were religious, moral, and/or opinionated.  Snuck in between these reams of poems was Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”.

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I picked it because I thought it was weird, campy, goofy, and absurd.  But here’s the trap: the moment I committed it to memory, I actually fell into the world.  My hands held the vorpal blade, I smelled the Tumtum tree, and I felt very beamish in the arms of my father’s approval.

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On the day of my performance, I delivered the poem as a true believer.  The classroom erupted with laughter, thinking I was “weird” and being silly.  I had a hard time to communicate to them, “No, it gets better.  I promise!”   The teacher cut me off and I didn’t finish the last stanza with a “that’s enough, Eric.”

The school, a rigid place then, I had learned years later became a kinder institution- so I’m happy with that.  But that the moment of reciting the poem, it still sticks like the memory of a bad date or discussion ruined by an ill-placed word.

The poem was written by Lewis Carroll who, my guess, was fatigued by scholars around him delighting in Old English and the great gap of the epic in British, Ancient Literature.  To lampoon such scholarly yearnings, he wrote this poem as parody to such works as Beowulf or Wulf & Eadwacer.

This, I imagine, was the longings of professors back then: let’s return to Ancient England!   This, I imagine, is why Dr. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings” to fill this ancient gap.

So Carroll wrote a poem that sounds ancient with words so archaic they’re a sing-song parody.  However, Dr. Carroll insisted through the scholar Humpty-Dumpty, that the poem actually makes sense.  Here:

Perfect sense, eh?

The poem was a parody and as a young boy I believed in the parody, entering into the emotion of the story and could not pull myself out of it.  Did that make me gullible?

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Decades later, I took a group of Jr. Highers to an ice rink.  We were standing around, waiting for the ice to be ready and the rink owner offered the microphone to me.  Suddenly, I remembered every line from the Jabberwocky.

When I spoke it, at first the group giggled and laughed.  I mean, this was so random: their youth pastor, rather than giving instructions, performs a poem.   And a weird poem!  But it was a sacrosanct moment: they quieted, the crowd hushed, and they wanted to hear on whether or not the Jubjub bird could be slain!

I ended the poem and they were silent.  Then there was applause.  “Okay?” the rink owner asked, not sure how to transition from that moment to Broom Hockey.

A young volunteer that night paid me the highest compliment: “You became that poem, Eric!”   Thank you, I said.  Thank you.   And I meant that thanks.

Our world, we are confronted with people and events and stories that come at us like parodies, like comedies.  For Jabberwocky’s case, it was originally designed as a parody.  And then it became something else.

When reading myths and stories and legends from other cultures, a knee-jerk reaction is to encounter something odd and giggle it away into the label of “camp”.

There’s a Norwegian myth of two daughters:

  • one golden haired girl who every time she spoke, butterflies flew out from her mouth.
  • a ratty haired girl who every time she spoke, puked dead rats and foxtails

Now, there was a young prince who had to pick one of these girls as his bride.  WHO DO YOU THINK HE PICKED?!?!!?

At first, this seems campy and simple and odd, doesn’t it?  This is how the tale begins and we laugh, roll our eyes, and remark how quaint ancient people were way back when.

But then you read on this story and start to believe it.  The monsters become real, the deaths tragic….the story takes hold.  At an uncertain moment, you understand why this story was saved and retold and believed for you now want to save it, retell it, and now believe it.

This is the mark of empathy of those who listen to stories told.

Empathy is not foolish, gullible, or the sign of a simpleton.  And empathy is what happens for those who collect stories and ultimately become the stories they tell.

It’s easy for us, today, to see other people as parodies or as camp.

As I write this, I am in self-isolation for the purpose of slowing down the spread of COVID-19.  I do this to support those on the frontline, the hospitals of Canada, and that we can buy time so that our system is not overwhelmed.

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As I write this, there are many who oppose social distance rules and have taken the streets to protest.   I admit it: I don’t understand their side.

When I don’t understand something, it’s easy for me to turn them into a parody, a camp that’s silly and goofy and deserving a good eye roll.  And the moment I do, I miss out on the empathy that could be in the moment.

What are their virtues?  What is the Jabberwocky in their tale that needs to be slain?  Who is the father who looks upon them as a beamish child?  And what is the chorus that commands their lay?

And do they know my poem?  Would they even understand it?

This, my friends, is one of the reasons why we tell stories.

Here I am, performing this tale:

http://www.youtube.com/watchv=fXRUokcPku4&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR3oFr1UAn4eJoRZSYNVMT3otubcbtd1xDi65OYR1DICWxFUjADBNfSJxjI

 

Eric’s Storytelling Mixed Bag Vol. 2

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Retelling these stories have felt like catching up with old friends.  I’ve really enjoyed recording this and sharing them with you.  Please, enjoy!

 

A Passion Play

This story is a favourite of mine because I actually see myself being a part of this mess.  It’s a comedy about a rural church putting on a passion play that goes horribly wrong.  I think anyone who “does church” professionally can fall into the trap of going through the motions, worrying about the production of worship and forgetting the reasons behind worship.

There are aspects of this story that really happened, while parts were lifted from a story a friend of mine heard from the International Storytelling Festival, back in 1996 from the town of Jonesborough, Tennessee.   In good conscience, I can’t tell you which is true and which was lifted: I swore secrecy to my friend who told me the true bits.

Anywho, when I was a young pastor, I would often do storytelling in schools for Language Arts classes.  This was always a crowd favourite:

 

A Poem  

Ah, T. S. Eliot!  I’ve often recommended him to people and then, after they checked him out, would experience social distancing pre-COVID19.   He’s weird, wacky, way too smart, and wonderful.

I was working at a fundamentalist church when I stumbled upon this poem and it fell into my lap right when I was beginning to sound out grace.  It’s an upsetting piece with an O. Henry twist at the end.   Enjoy!

 

A Ghost Story 

This last story has kind of a long and complicated history to it.   Back in 1999, I was on staff at Wolf Mountain Christian Camp.  It was, then, a sprawling, multi-site camp.  The camps would all gather together, on Sunday nights, to be one, large gathering for skits, singing, and a message,  They trusted me with the story.  For 9 weeks, I told the stories of camp.

I always came back to this one, although I would tell sequels and prequels to this story for the benefit of my fellow staff, so they didn’t hear this story 9 times.

I’ll tell no lies: the lizard people really freaked out the younger campers.  And I could not, try as I might, water down the horror of the invisible lizard people.  For the camps filled with younger kids, the directors would plead with me to skip out on the lizards altogether.  However, I had the support of our head director, “Sometimes, evil is scary.  They need to learn that.”

After camp, it came back around whenever I was invited to speak at camps.   I delivered this once at an ultra conservative, fundamentalist Bible camp.  The campers loved it, but there was a staff member who felt I was being of the occult and an ambassador of the New Age with the image of invisible lizard people.

I couldn’t satisfy him until, the next morning, I said to the campers, “Last night, it sounded like I talked about magic.  It wasn’t magic, but high science that looks like magic.  Consult Asimov’s Law of Magic and Science.”  The kids were confused; my critic was satisfied.

And here it is, the last story:

Bicycling the Magic of Kiddom

(For those who are little more literal than most, please take this as a work of imagination.)

It was a cool, Saturday morning when the Green Hornet stood tall and proud, waiting for me to discover him.  Like a dark palladium warrior protecting the tools, lawn mower, and tires from the shadows, the Green Hornet almost beamed with too much potential energy.

There were other birthday gifts to open; I didn’t care.  I knew, immediately, the Green Hornet needed flight.  A fast bicycle in the hands of a ten year old boy was a thing of ancient, pure magic.

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Taller than my black Huffy road bike, it’s monkey bar handlebars waited for my hand’s weight to be placed upon it, as if I could summon Ammon-Ra into the world of kiddom.  Sleek, elegant, green: this 12-speed needed to be out in the neighbourhood.

There’s a childhood joy that some find in riding their bikes.  I’m a child of the 1980’s, where kids roamed the streets feral and only had one rule: make it home in time for dinner or before the sun set.

A boy’s bike was his horse, his noble steed.  I can imagine, this was true for girls too.  The problem was that I never saw this because I was terrified of girls until College.  But back in my days, you named your horse, took care of it, always locked it up, rode it fast, and it went with you everywhere.

It was a 12-speed, not a 10-speed.  I can remember correcting adults who offered olive branches of interest, asking, “Is that a fast 10-speed? It’s a dark black machine!”

“Sorry,” I would say politely.  “But it’s a 12-speed.  And the colour is forest green.”

Your bike was your calling card.  If you rode to a friend’s house, you’d see other kids’ bikes out front and knew who was over.  When you went to school, if there was an empty spot in the bike cage- you knew someone was sick with the flu.  And if you bike was stolen, everyone knew this was probably the worst thing to happen.

I rode Green Hornet for a few years until, as I mentioned, he was stolen.  A thief used a pair of bolt cutters to break through my chain lock.  It was terrible.  My parents, when first heard, had all of those things parents feel they needed to say: “You should have locked it better”, “Why did you park it in that neighbourhood?”, or, “It was asking to be stolen.”

My parents went through their litany and I took it.  After they exhausted it, I waited for them to realize that sometimes bad things happen, there is a reality of gratuitous evil, and that nothing is tragedy proof….including bikes.

My dad gave me another bike when I was in High School.  It was neon red with a design of hot lava (again, this was 1988).   A mountain bike, with handle bars stretched out like an eagle’s wings.  Secretly, I named him “Patchy”.  I whispered the bike’s name.  It whispered, “No, I’m Green Hornet.  Shhhh…”

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Throughout High School and University, Patchy took me everywhere.  I didn’t have a car, but I had a bike.  In University, I rode Patchy around everywhere.  He slept by my dorm bed, rode with me when I left my school, and got me everywhere I needed to be.

I attended an ultra-conservative Christian University and there were rumours that the security guards would throw batons at you if you rode your bike on campus.  They were graduate students studying either theology or psychology, so depending who ran into would whether you’d be entering a high level of existential angst or not.  My bike, therefore, was the only an escape from the University.

Patchy was stolen.  I kept it at a church where I volunteered to work with their youth.  It, this time, didn’t feel like a death; more like a murder.  It was kept in a locked room, hidden from any windows.  Gone like a really good, early morning dream.

When the bike was stolen, I asked one of the parents of our Jr. Highers that Patchy rode like my childhood bike, despite being a 12 speed rode bike.  I then blurted out, “Do you think bikes can be reincarnated?”

This was probably the wrong question to ask a conservative, southern California Christian.  He was kind.  He said a quick negative and never spread any gossip that the youth director might be turning Buddhist.

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I saved up my money and purchased, while in Seminary, a Gary Fisher Mountain Bike.  I rode it on a four day ride along the southern Californian coast line.

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I took in around the fire trails and pathways of Grass Valley, California in the central valley gold country.  I met my wife while journeying around with that bike.

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It saw the back, wooded paths of Escondido and the streets of Long Beach.  I shopped for groceries on that back, took it to work, and fought monsters with it on weekend rides.

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One night, when I was riding it through the streets of Whittier, I asked, “Are you Green Hornet?”

“Shhhh…” the gears whispered.

And again, it was stolen straight out of our backyard when I was moving into a new apartment.  Gone.

A had a couple more bikes, but they never talked to me.

I lived for about 9 years in a small town located in northern Alberta, Canada.  It was a town of three thousand people, an island surrounded by an ocean of prairie.  Every month on our local radio station there would be reported a death of a cyclist who was run over by an truck carrying oil.  I got the message during that first year: don’t bicycle.

Instead, I ran.  I loved running.  Through the canola fields and the dugouts and the rivers and the poplar trees, I ran.  I heard Green Hornet whisper, but only vaguely.

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I left the small town to live in Alberta’s capital, Edmonton.  Arthritis took my left hip and I couldn’t run anymore.

A friend of mine had prayed for me to have a bike and she saw the colour red.  Sure enough, luck would have it: a red bike miraculously ended up in my life.  And then it got a little more rough to ride and more.  I needed to replace my hip.

After a hip replacement surgery, I wanted to do something, anything active.  Bicycling came back into view.    I couldn’t ride my red mountain bike for it broke all of my new rules for living with an even newer hip.  So I went to a bike store for a new bike.

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I would call the cruiser “Greta”.   Inspired by the teenage activist for a better world, I figured the more travel I did without a gas engine, the better.  I joked with my daughters that I wanted a bike horn that tooted, “How dare you!?!!?”

I tried my first cruiser and my body fit.  I rode.  And suddenly, a whisper came, “I’m Green Hornet.  Don’t tell anyone.”

“But how?”

“I can’t explain the science.  Just ride.”

Now I ride Greta, my new steed.  I ride her with my daughters, to work, and around my neighbourhood.  As a grown man, I feel the speed and wonder and magic of a good bike ride.  With my girls, I tell them how to lock up your bikes, how to care for your ride, and how to ride really fast.

I believe in Heaven.  I also believe our pets will be there.  And, to push the envelope, I expect all of my former bikes to be there.  Don’t ask me to defend this believe. I won’t because I can’t explain the science.  Just ride.

Our Need For an Easter Moment: Isolation, Wendell Berry, and Holy Week

“To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival. I am not bound for any public place, but for ground of my own where I have planted vines and orchard trees, and in the heat of the day climbed up into the healing shadow of the woods.”  Wendell Berry

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During our season of COVID19, I work part time with an organization called “The Mustard Seed”.  We take care of the homeless and vulnerable of our city in Edmonton.  During self isolation and our city’s lockdown, we’re still working hard to take care of our neighbours who don’t have a home to stay in and do not have a community to check in, see if they are healthy.

This Wednesday, I did a morning shift in our shelter.  Now, I like my job; don’t get me wrong.  But there are mornings, moments where it feels like we’re trying to stop a monsoon tidal wave by wading water with a coffee spoon.

Our friends in the shelter were angry and I couldn’t blame them.  The set-up was fine, but there was an angst in the air that no amount of organization or friendship or anything could help.  When we closed the shelter to be cleaned we felt like we had lost one, big argument.

Most days don’t feel this way and, in fact, this is usually hopeful work.  But not that morning.

I drove home to wake up my family and I heard a song from the late Tom Petty: “We’re overdue for a dream come true.”

If a genie met me on the side of the road, what would be my wish?  If my dream came true?  That morning, my answer would have been simple: I wish everything and everyone wasn’t so broken.  COVID19 and everything seemed to play against everything and everyone that was broken.

I was in Holy Week and I wanted Easter to come.  I was sick of the lessons of Good Friday.  And it wasn’t even Maundy Thursday yet.

I wanted my Easter Moment.

I am borrowing from the story that many enter into during this season, the moment after Jesus dies and then comes back from the grave.  It’s the Great “Dream Come True” of literature.  Here’s the text:

John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

John uses one of his famous literary devices by setting the stage: “While it was still dark.”   When Judas left Jesus, it was dark; when Jesus prayed in the Garden right before he was arrested, it was dark; and in his epistle, darkness is used poetically to describe any attitude where you refuse, no matter what, to do what is right and good and healthy and Godly.

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Mary was in the dark.  She went to care for the body of the greatest man she ever knew.  Her world had ended, all the hope sucked up.  The house had won (like in Vegas, only it’s the Roman Empire) and the house seems to always win.  Corruption was more powerful than justice, the rich just got richer, the world was ruined…once again, the good were killed, and change was just out of reach.  May did the due diligence (which is all she had left) to clean a body of the person who invited her to “Follow Me”.

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She was in the dark.

And now his body was stolen.  Who does such a thing?  Who steals bodies?  Does someone think this is funny?

Standing before her are Angels trying to explain that the moment is not dark.  So does Jesus, but she doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying to her.  She doesn’t even recognize him.

I used to think this was a bit of supernatural trickery of perception.  I mean, I can claim that because the WHOLE THING about the Easter story is supernatural.   However, in recent times, I have seen people who are usually sensible, reasonable, and rational miss out on basic perception facts.

Our brains, when everything is normal, can access a part that is where we store memories of when did something smart or clever or successful.  It influences our critical thinking and perceptions of reality.  However, this walnut size part of our brain shuts down whenever we are in grief, stress, or anger[1].

During our season of COVID19, scientists are saying that because we are all in so much grief, fear, and/or anger, our brains are operating 25%-50% less than their normal function.  We forget things.  We skip steps without knowing it.  We are unable to figure certain, basic facts.

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We’re in the dark and we cannot see our hand in front of our face.

(By the way, if there’s one take away in any of this it’s this: go easy on the people in your world.  Forgive lots.  Don’t use this as a time to attack the grocer or make any statements you might regret!  Just be kind.).

We’re like Mary, surrounded by darkness and we cannot see a way out.

But…this is all happening on Easter morning.  Within seconds, she will have her Easter moment.

Within seconds, Jesus will reveal to her that He is here, that everything evil has been taken care of, and that goodness is in charge.

She just has to wait for her perception of things to catch up with her reality.

She, in this story, lingers for her Easter Moment.

What is an “Easter Moment”, you might ask.  Simply put, it’s when good triumphs over evil, when the House does not win, where the land is restored, where justice works better than cruelty, and that everything in that moment screams that the right people are in charge.  In the Easter story, it is when Christ is king.

When I was fresh out of High School, I went backpacking in Germany (this was around 1990-1992).   In Berlin, parts of the wall were still around but it had successfully fallen, collapsed, and was being dismantled.

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I ran into a group of young people my age and I chatted with a German girl.  Foolishly, as an American, I asked the big, open ended question: “What was it like when the wall fell down?”

She explained that in her apartment, one of her windows could see the wall.  As a West Berliner, the wall was a constant symbol that- in her words- really stupid people were in charge.  And that those stupid people would always be stupid and they would make more stupid decisions and more and more things wouldn’t work because they were made by stupid, stupid people.

“Then,” she said.  “The wall came down.  And for a moment, stupid men were no longer in charge.  Someone else was in charge.  Good could happen.”  She started to cry and then smiled.  She collected herself.  “In Berlin, we now need the symbol of a broken wall.”

This German girl had an Easter Moment.

Mary has hers the moment she understands she isn’t talking to a gardener, but her Rabbi.  She runs (which, by the way, there is a lot of running in this text) to tell her friends that today is Easter, that good things can happen, and that evil isn’t the only thing in charge.

In this season of isolation, flattening a curve, caring for our community…we find ourselves dreaming of our Easter Moment.  And it will come.  The facts of Easter are slowly building, replacing the darkness that lingers from the past days.

We cry out for our Easter Moment.

It’s times like these I turn to my friend Wendell Berry[2].

Here is one of his poems that is about his Easter Moment or, as he calls it, “Hope”:

A Poem on Hope

It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old, 
for hope must not depend on feeling good 
and there’s the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight. 
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality 
of the future, which surely will surprise us, 
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction 
anymore than by wishing. But stop dithering. 
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them? 
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.

Because we have not made our lives to fit 
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields, eroded, 
the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope 
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge 
of what it is that no other place is, and by 
your caring for it, as you care for no other place, this 
knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth. 
It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask 
for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land
and your work.  Be still and listen to the voices that belong 
to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields.

Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet. 
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot. 
The world is no better than its places. Its places at last 
are no better than their people while their people 
continue in them. When the people make 
dark the light within them, the world darkens.[3]

–Wendell Berry

Happy Easter!

[1] Example of this: ever get into a really heated argument and in the middle of the scrap, someone recalls something you said in that fight and you cannot remember it?

[2] I don’t know him personally.  I’ve read lots by him and based my Doctoral Thesis on his works.  But no, we don’t garden together.

[3] Please, if you ever have a chance, find any video or recording of Mr. Berry reading this poem.

It’s Not What it Should Be: Good Friday, Wendell Berry, and Our Season of Isolation

A year before I moved to Canada, I smoked a 14-pound turkey for Thanksgiving.  It was bright, red, and perfect.  I served it to my new wife and her father, along with all of the proper sides.  It took 10 hours, with my BBQ in the Californian sun to a mild 20c degrees.  A perfect meal, it was as Thanksgiving…should be.

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The next year, I was in a small farm town for the American Thanksgiving.  I invited some friends over to do a big Thanksgiving feast.  Some friends donated wild turkey for me to smoke, some other friends brought some sides, and my wife cooked the dessert.

The BBQ, that night, wouldn’t stay lit, perhaps because it was -25c outside without any sight of the sun.  The meat was a new term I learned that night “Gamey”- it was too wild, with the fat and muscle ratio so out of whack that the meat tasted funny.  And it took an extra hour to cook.

I tasted the meat and figured it wasn’t safe enough to serve.  Dried out in some places, raw in the middle- a mess.  I came inside from the snow and cold, sat down at the table, and announced, “I’m not very good at this.”

Dorothy L. Sayers describes, “Truth is what is and what ought to be.”   We know what is; we also pine for what ought to be, what should be.

When we discover that what is misses out completely on what should be, we must sit around the table and announce, “We’re not very good at this.”

Our meal continued, a feast of sides and dessert.  It didn’t match my dreams of Thanksgiving but it was what it was.

Right now, we are in a time when what is misses out completely on what should happen.

Our kids should be in school, forming great friendships with their teachers and friends.  Our churches should be full, of young and old and of every race and culture “passing the peace”.  We should hug each other, talk to strangers.  Our farmers should be growing the food for our nation in a way that we can grow food next year.  I should be planning summer camp, a tradition we do every Summer where my kids are campers and my wife helps in the kitchen and I tell stories.  We should be able to go to operas and concerts and lectures.  We should be sharing leftovers with our neighbours, coming by their door with a pot and a shrug: “We made too much.  Would you like some of this?”   We should shake hands with our brethren.  And our elders should be safe.

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But in this present age, things are not as they should be.

It cuts deeper than COVID19.  We should be able to walk our streets at night, no matter what neighbourhood.  We should have enough food for everyone and everyone should have a house.  We should be able to leave our doors locked.  Our kids should respect our words and we should, always, be worthy of their respect.  Our spouses should be heard.  Our leaders should be honest and full of integrity, their words being life to a nation.   Our celebrities should be admired because of their virtue, their vision, and their propriety.  And we should sleep in our beds every night, knowing we spent the day doing what we’ve been made to do on our land.[1]

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Something broke that we need now, we hocked something at the pawn shop we require, a deal was made that ruined everything, someone sold us out, the path to the good Earth got paved over by a parking lot, the meaning of life was written in disappearing ink, and what is lost has not been found.  Something happened, something got wrecked.  Instead of harmony, we have exploitation.  Instead of honesty, we must fact check.   Instead of relationship, we have isolation.

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Wendell Berry writes:

“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

We wander around on desecrated places.

This is the tension we enter into of the story of Good Friday.

What should have happened was that Jesus of Nazareth entered into Jerusalem with his disciples who clearly “got” his message and mission.  The people of that city would have matched Christ’s teachings with that of the Law, finding a consistent harmony.  They would have adopt his teachings and led a quiet, peaceful revolution that Rome would have embraced.  The leadership of that land would see the teachings of Christ helping them and saving their Empire from being exploitative.  Everyone would have won and Rome would have turned to this new faith, centuries ahead of schedule.

And is that what happened in the story of Christ?

Good Friday is about the crucifixion of Jesus, the most glaring example that we live far apart from what is and what should be.
As Anglicans, we enter into this part of the story without rescue from Easter, without anyone whispered, “Oh, don’t worry.  It gets better.”

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No, tradition teaches us that on Good Friday, we are to make a home in the chasm between what is and what should be.

Back to COVID19.

We should be doing potlucks, visiting our friends, and embracing our relatives.  But we can’t.  What is and what should be with this season of isolation is a reflection of the story of Good Friday: we as people aren’t very good at being healthy, harmonious, and virtuous.  Like a smaller Russian doll that lives in a greater, similar doll- the chasm of COVID19 mirrors the state of our land.  One is a virus, one is based upon human frailty.

These are the facts.  What then should we do?

Know the facts for Good Friday, but know there are more facts to come with Easter.

Sit in the despair, don’t talk yourself out of it, and rest in Good Friday.   And then, when the day turns and the season change, welcome Easter.

We sit in Good Friday and still do what is right, do what is good not because we think it will fix everything but, plainly, it is just right.

“Be joyful,” Wendell Berry asserts.  “Even after considering all of the facts.”

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That line is from a poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”, a foretaste of what will come after Good Friday and COVID19.

Here I perform this poem from Wendell Berry:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JunuGZhUaYo&t=13s

 

Here’s the poem:

 

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

 

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

 

 

 

[1] If this sounds familiar, then maybe you’ve read Cornelius Plantinga’s book “Sin: It’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be.”   If you haven’t read this book, check it out: https://www.amazon.com/Not-Way-Its-Supposed-Be/dp/0802842186

 

The Thing About the Donkey: Palm Sunday, Wendell Berry, and the Coronavirus

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Years ago, I was a cabin leader to a bunch of 7th grade boys at Quaker Meadow Summer Camp.   We were given an “ice breaker” on the first afternoon of camp, a way for the boys to get to know each other.  The game was simple: there would be an animal assigned to the left side of the cabin or the right side, the campers would pick which one best matched their personality.

“Go to the left if you are a dog, go to the right if you are a bear,” I began.  All of the boys went to the right.

“Go to the left if you are a Koala Bear, go to the right if you are a tiger,” I seconded.  All of the boys remained.

“Go to the left if you are an eagle, go to the right if you are a turkey,” was my last question.  All of them, without fail, picked the eagle.

“Why?” I asked them.

The first boy launched into a speech: “The eagle is a leader, an individual, and stands out a part from the pack.  That’s me!  I am an eagle!”

The second boy: “The eagle is power and strength, only a few have such power!  I am an eagle because I am a leader.”

The last boy was a shy one, who hadn’t made any friends yet at camp.  His answer: “Well, the eagle is an individual and powerful and a leader…I guess I’m like those things…well, it’s kind of what everyone else says.”

This is always a fun game: which animal do you identify with?   What’s your spirit animal?  If you were a wizard at Hogwarts, what animal would be your patronus?

For me, it’s the donkey.

If I was ever hired at Hogwarts to teach, my patronus would be a donkey that back kicked every piece of furniture when feeling threatened.  I’d then smile and apologize for having such a messy patronus.

Donkeys are amazing creatures, yet they are often invisible beasts in the scope of the animal kingdom.   Quietly working in the background, they claim their territory and work hard on the land.  They are creatures of setting, of cultivating relationships with the earth and the people of the earth.

It reminds of a quote from Wendell Berry:

“A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure. But he is doing something else that is more important: he is making vital contact with the soil and the weather on which his life depends. He will no longer look upon rain as an impediment of traffic, or upon the sun as a holiday decoration. And his sense of man’s dependence on the world will have grown precise enough, one would hope, to be politically clarifying and useful.” (https://berrycenter.org/2017/03/26/think-little-wendell-berry/)

This Sunday is Palm Sunday.

In the Anglican world, we call it “The Celebration of the Palms”.  It’s when the church enters into the story at the part where Jesus enters into Jerusalem to fulfill His mission.  He has come to this city to die, to be murdered and pay the penalty for mankind’s sins.

Everything about his entrance was staged, was configured by Him.  It’s an odd irony because Jesus is not arranging the details for his clever escape or for revenge on all of the villains of the Gospel.  Rather, He is staging and directing His own tragedy.

We see Christ’s attention to details in the Gospel:

Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The donkey is a crucial part to this story: Christ MUST enter into Jerusalem on a donkey.

But why?

The most popular answer is that this fulfills a prediction made in the Old Testament (Zechariah 9:9).   When I once ran in the Baptist circles, this was the go to answer: it had to prove OT prophesy!   Now…I’m a bit more dubious.   Is the Zechariah passage REALLY about Palm Sunday?  And if it isn’t, is there a greater good being taught to us by the Torah other than winning an argument about how true the Bible needs to be?

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A part from my irritating questions, Jesus was making a statement by riding in on a donkey and that statement can only be made by the wonder of this animal, my patronus.

1. Donkeys will give their lives for their farms. 

In Northern Alberta, if you wanted to keep your cattle or sheep safe from wolves, bears, boars, coyotes, cougars, and any other beast, you could do one of two things: Either invest in a million dollar security system with cameras, electric wires, and sensors…OR buy a donkey.

Predators know, instinctively, that if a farm has a donkey, you leave it well enough alone.  Why?  Donkeys are smaller than most other animals, there’s only one, and they only bite or kick.  But the predators know something that is common in street fights: crazy always wins over strong or talented.

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Donkeys will never back down from an intruder.

A horse will quickly run away; a dog will retreat if it makes sense to escape; cows and sheep will stay, to get consumed; and a donkey will fight until it’s killed.  A mule is stubborn and will fight, fight, fight until the predator gives up or loses.  A donkey will stand his/her ground on an impossible fight, will take on bears or packs of wolves because the farm must be safe.

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Knowing that donkeys do not back down, predators will leave farms alone and go to the other because, as most thieves reason, easy is always better than hard/impossible.   The beasts of the woods will march around the farm, while being stared down by the farm’s guardian.  The donkey will shake unsteadily with a cock-eyed expression, mumbling to no one and everyone: “Don’t come in!  Over my dead body.’

2. Donkeys love hard work.  

A few years ago, there was a running fad called “Burro Racing”.  It was pair human runners with donkeys.  Animal rights activists researched the claims that these animals were under stress an exploited.  So they measured their brains during these 42k races and found that donkeys experienced joy off the charts.  The donkeys loved the hard work of their human runners and they were part of something difficult.

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Donkeys, during this age of the combine and tractor, are sad because they are no longer working with their humans.   Life, for a donkey, isn’t just a gift already unwrapped and waiting to be consumed.  No, it’s joyful labor.  It’s a grace to work and they value the labouring companionship they can have with their human partners.

Or as Wendell Berry puts it:

“The old and honourable idea of ‘vocation’ is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted.”

3. Donkeys are the invisible workers.

In the times of Jesus, if you visited a farm you would be shown the horses and camels.  These were the prized animals, the symbols of power and affluence.  While on the tour, the donkeys would be working in the background, tilling the land or spinning the mill.

Donkeys hold the farm together with their hard work.

During this season of COVID19, we are witnessing that it is not the millionaires, the CEOs, or the board of directors that are holding things together.  No, it’s the front line workers of the hospitals, the custodians, those who work in the grocery stores, and those low paid “essential servers”.  Those who were once invisible are now life giving.

The invisible workers shall inherit the Earth.

Jesus picked a donkey because He wanted his Kingdom to be about sacrifice, hard work, and invisibility.

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When Christ road on a donkey into Jerusalem, the crowd had no idea what was going on and that simple fact didn’t stop them from shouting out lots and lots of labels.

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Jesus was called: “The Son of David!”, “The Prophet Jesus”, “The One Who Comes in the Name of the Lord”, and other really confusing labels.   To the crowd, Jesus was the conquering revolutionary who was going to kick out the Romans.   Which then upset him: where is his white horse?

No one knew, exactly, who Jesus was or why He was riding a donkey.  Instead, they just cheered.  And then their confusion became complete because on Friday, they cheered for Jesus’ execution.

Right now, there is so much data and opinions and beliefs about COVID19.   We can swim in opinions as we update our status on social media.

Should we go to work?  Should we stay at home?  Are masks safe?  When will social isolation end?  Should it have ended already?  Who is in charge?   Who is infected?  What do we do?

I compare this to the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918.  Back then, the Canadian government had two simple messages: 1) Wash your hands. 2) Stay home.

I feel like we, in 2020, have time travelled into the original Palm Sunday and we are confused.  I am confused.  What is going on?  And what am I supposed to do about it?

And in the midst of the opinion giving crowd full of blur and bluster, the donkey marches through as this beast carries the Saviour, the one who will solve the world’s biggest problems.

In our age of COVID19, my encouragement is simple: Be the donkey.

The donkey couldn’t explain to you the doctrine of propitiation or wax eloquently about the theology of grace.  The donkey didn’t understand what was being cheered or yelled or shared or posted on Palm Sunday.   Instead, the donkey simply was asked to be the vehicle for the Messiah without any previous experience to that task.

The donkey, nose down, performed an act of simple obedience.  By that act, the donkey became a symbol of what it looks like to follow Christ.

Be the donkey.

In this season of self isolation, be the donkey.  I don’t know when this season will end, if our efforts will work, will civilization go back to normal, or if we’ll have jobs when everything is “back to normal”.   Instead, I can know- minute by minute, inch by inch- what right and good thing I can do that helps others.  We can.

We can call someone I kind of know and see how they’re doing.  We can serve my kids, helping them with their lessons.  We can pray for a cure.  We can buy groceries for an elderly neighbour.  We can buy only what I need at the grocery market.  We can give to my church or other charities.  We can plant my garden when the snow clears.  We can do…simple acts of redemption.

We can.

To close, here is a link where I perform “The Donkey”, a short poem written by G.K. Chesterton.

I invite us all to manage the dirt on the trail right in front of our nose and not worry about the road ahead.  Be the donkey.

Eric’s Storytelling Bag #1

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I have been a storyteller since I was 17.   It’s something inside of me, something I will always have as a “thing”.

In our recent times of isolation, as we’ve been all trying to do our part to assist our world in fighting COVID19- interesting things have popped up from us.  Talents, skills, gifts- they’ve popped out from hiding as we ourselves have gone into hiding.

For me, stories have come out.

Here is my first attempt at it along with an introduction.   It’s where I perform Walt Wagnerin Jr.’s “Ragman” story:

 

This next tale is where it all began.   When I was 17, I first saw storytelling in all of it’s fiery glory.   I retell this story-not an original of mine- in this video, a favourite of mine as I have spoken in churches, camps, and schools.  (Warning:there’s a video glitch in the middle.  The sound is fine, just my face freezes) Here:

The last story is an original and it allowed me to dust off my banjo.  I get really nervous about playing it in front of people, but the story insisted.  It’s probably the most timely of the three stories:

More will be coming.  Stay tuned!