In Jr. High, the first movie of “Back to the Future” came out. Yes, Huey Lewis and the News. The Delorean. Tab Cola. Phones that hung on walls with spiral chords. Acid Wash Jeans.
I loved Sci Fi, but the problem was-back then- none of the movies were very good. TV was worst. If you really wanted to mind-bending stuff, you had to read it. The librarian at John Steinbeck Middle School did a bold thing by pointing me to the direction of Ray Bradbury. “Just try,” she said and that was the hook in my mouth that drug me into the abyss of Science melted into Fiction.
The point was that if a Sci Fi movie came out, before Back to the Future, you had to suffer through it, with all of the laws broken and the characters not making much sense and the effects being awful. But here came along a right and proper blockbuster. It looked good, sounded good, and blew up on the screen. I saw it with my grandmother and I remember her calling her friend, the next day, telling her she had to see this “time machine movie”.
But Doc Brown hadn’t settled into my lexicon of heroes.
It was when the sequels came out in High School.
As a teenager, I struggled. I really, really like things. I had a locomotive surge of wonder popping through me. Don’t know why- could have been a chemical thing in my brain or an attitude or my personality type. I just ended up really, really liking things.
In the 1980’s, you shouldn’t be a teenager and like things. There was an unwritten rule that you had to slump and shuffle through life, unimpressed and strive to be more unimpressed than the schlubs in front and behind you. And if someone got excited, about anything, they were the great rule breaker, the miscreant wrecking the invisible stoicism of the world.
And I really, really liked things. I discovered my voice in the Drama Department, loving improv and memorising monologues and jumping through theatre sets. I really liked my green, army trench coat that I wore in 101 degree heat. I really liked to write, spinning stories on my Smith-Corona Typewriter. I really liked the youth group at my church, I really liked my friends, and I really liked God for the primary reason that someone told me that He really liked me first.
I worked hard to be secretly and privately enthused about things on planet Earth. It was hard to not break from a moan and a mumble. I had friends who were kind and patient, allowing me to really like things but they knew the cost of being found out having any passions in my school-so they were quick to police my outbursts. I tried to be below zero in my humours…sometimes, I was successful.
And then came Doc Brown.
In the 2nd and 3rd movie, Doc Brown shouted and squealed and smirked and sneered and shot through the plot of the movies. He was a science, ruled by logic…but really, really like things and people. His resting face, it seemed, was one of intense gaze and wide-eyed wonder.
He was everything I wanted to be as a teenager.
And don’t get me wrong: the movies were great too. It was the first set of films my friends and I could dissect, study time lines, and map out the plots. The science was consistent, which was almost the same as correct. The films looked really, really good too.
But Doc Brown was who stayed behind. Leaving for University where it was populated by Christians who were committed to “the peace that passes all understanding”, I could like the Doc Brown of me rip and roar.
He was and still is my hero.
I have a dream that on a night when I am alone in my house, I can go to my basement. In the darkness of my basement, insulated by the shelves and shelves of books, I can dialogue with all of the fictional characters that wander around at night, between the text and pages.
Standing next to Gurney Halleck and Mr. Riah is Doc Brown. Wearing a long coat from a version of the year 2015, he awaits instruction.
I simply say: “Thank you for liking things. Thank you for your passion towards science and time travel and wonder. Thank you for being Doc Brown.”
One year ago, lockdown began in Edmonton. On one weekend (the weekend of Friday the 13th, March), I got a call that my church would not meet in-person, that my kids’ school was shut down, and that my work at the drop-in centre for the vulnerable population of our city would be shutdown.
For one week, I was with my family as we tried to figure out this “New Normal”- a term we soon grew to despise.
Crestfallen, I began to send out message through social media. Basically, it was a simple, “How are things?” The replies were amazing, everyone on different spot on the map of emotions. Some wrote lengthy tales, other shot pictures.
But one was a true gift. He sent me a Youtube link with the words, “This is YOU…in twenty years.”
This was the video:
Who is this? Is he famous? Should I know him? And yes, I would like to be surrounded by books, a smouldering pip, dogs at my feet, and a half consumed consumed port in 20 years…everyone needs life goals.
A routine took place during lockdown. Every week, I would tune into a new video from Malcolm. He would read a poem from his library, display a well-loved book of old, and/or give a reflection. Sometimes his dogs came, to steal the show; sometimes, he would be outside; and sometimes his camera man would talk. All of these, in lockdown, became “a very special episode” with the videos.
The responses were kind, honest, open-ended, and brave. We learned to do things new. My congregation joined me on Zoom, as I led in Morning Prayer from my office. My ministry to the homeless turning into working with a day/night shelter, then as a chaplain. My girls learned how to go to school in their PJs. And the world rolled with the punches. I did this, accompanied by Malcolm’s “A Spell in the library.”
I read about him, purchasing some of his books. On the other side of world (in Canada), I found another Anglican Priest trying to encounter the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of his own soul.
Malcolm Guite was born in 1957 in Nigeria. He studying in England, he received a BA and MA from Cambridge mostly in literature and a Doctorate from Durham. He entered the world of the Priest, serving as chaplain Girton College and associate chaplain at St. Edward the King and Martyr. Teaching theology and literature, he has also penned various works of poetry and literature criticism. As well, he is a singer-song writer.
This is a handy, short biography on Malcolm. It mentions his literary scholarships of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Romantic Poets:
The effect of his work on me has been reminding me, during lockdown, of all of the friends I’ve had in my library: Tennyson, Keats, Shelley, Mallory, Tolkien, etc., etc..
One of the effects of friends is that they get you to read really great books. This was the effect. When my father passed away after a lengthy struggle with multiple strokes, his anthology of poems in “Love, Remember” took me through what many other people have thought, felt, and expressed.
C.S. Lewis argues that we read not always to learn, but “to know that we’re not alone”. Here, Guite talks of Lewis:
I do not know Guite personally. We have never met. I also am not paid to celebrate the man; this is for free. However, I am thankful for him and this is the wonder of our age of technology: I can watch him in his study from the comfort of my study. We can do a bit of time travel (to borrow from Stephen King), where he reads a poem from England, a few hours back and I, here in Edmonton, can experience that same poem without any distance in between.
This is the 1 year anniversary of “Spells in the Library”. He made a special visit for us:
On behalf of the invisible fans and community of “Recovering English Majors turned Priests”, we thank you. Please, wherever you are Dr. Guite, keep being yourself. Read poems. Smoke your pipes. And keep sharing your spells with us.
Irving Braxietel was born on Gallifrey. He may/may not have been the brother of The Doctor. While rising through the Time Lord Ranks, he applied the teachings he received from Danna at the Time Lord Academy to serve in a variety of public offices. And then, his identity got scattered and there was more than one of him.
This is where his story gets interesting.
Depending on which Braxietel you run into, it could be the diplomat or the Lord Burner or the Head of the Braxietel Collection or a murdering psychopath or a banker or a bar owner or…all of the above. The thing is, you never know what is going on with Braxietel; this is why he is one of my favourite Big Finish characters.
Everyone loves Braxietel.
In Douglas Adams’ “The City of Death” episode, Romana refers to the Braxietel Collection as an art institution far away in another galaxy, far grander than the Louvre on Earth. This was all that was needed-this aside comment- for Irving to be born.
We see him first in the “Captivity” years of Doctor Who- in the middle of the cancellation of Classic Who and the start of NuWHo. He is found in three novelisations: “Legacy”, “Theatre of War”, and “Happy Endings”. He’s a suave, side character that implies he might be a baddie or a goodie, it doesn’t really matter to him. This tension, the “Am-I-Being-Played” is the core of the character.
Big Finish, in the 2000’s, comes along and then puts him in two parallel ranges:
“Gallifrey”- a “West Wing” meets “Doctor Who”, with President Romana and Leela fighting corruption, aided by Braxietel. Both Romana and Leela were from the show, the original actresses reprising their roles.
“Bernice Summerfield”- A former companion of the Doctor, she is an archeologist in the far future who works for the “Braxietel Collection” as a professor and adventuress. There is a stark, dramatic falling out due to Braxietel being evil, murderous, and horrible but then she joins another Braxietel on the planet Legion as he runs a bar, “The White Rabbit”.
2 Irvings? Yes, possibly more. Why? It’s never really explained. And there is a link between the “Gallifrey” Braxietel and the “Bernice Summerfield” Braxietel- but it’s not really explained fully. It doesn’t matter.
Or there could be one Braxietel all a long because, as we learn, Irving sometimes lies.
It’s all clear on this timeline that may/may not have any gaps or inaccuracies:
The thing is…you don’t know what you are getting or why Irving is helping you or what will happen when he does help you. Calling him a “Devil” figure would be too easy because he, many times, helps the heroes/heroines along and does the right thing…until he doesn’t.
For a complete description of all he does, here’s a link:
When Irving does something horrible-which happens often- he makes a chime with his voice to dismiss, to move the blame away from himself in almost a song. We have the great voice actor Miles Richardson to thank for this. Richardson has been playing Irving in all of the Big Finish Audio Adventures for around 20 years. I tried, at times, to replicate Richardson’s Braxiatel dismissal, a kind of, “Well…” I can’t. I would like to because it would get be out of a lot of jams, but no one but Richardson is Irving.
There’s an old axiom: “Charming people get away with murder.” This is true for Irving, as he has often used his charms, his dismissals, his intelligence, and his deals to…well, get away with murder. As a charming person, he is able to commit murder after murder because it can always be dismissed by charm. This makes him (or at least, some of the versions of him) to most potent kind of sociopath because he can escape, reduce, displace blame and seems to have done so for most of his life/lives.
I have friends like Irving, where I’m asking myself, “If I get his help, will this cost me later?” The truth is I don’t know the answer and neither does the audience. Until the masterful writing of Big Finish and the delivery of the grand Miles Richardson, we don’t know either. If we lose Braxiatel, he will just return when he wants to and needs something. Mostly, he is a good character until he isn’t…
“You have to watch a lot of television in order to become a discerning, selective viewer,” a friend of mine once told me. I laughed at this.
“So you have to watch a lot of television in order to know how to watch less?” I asked and he nodded.
This type of logic is behind what has been bothering me lately about pop culture, specifically about anything/everything Disney owns. And, if the new joke is true, life imitates art- this idea is now a chief influence in how we do church, what goes into a sermon, how we reply to someone’s nasty social media comment, and our general brain in 2021.
Once upon a time, there was an artist who told stories through cartoons. Those cartoons became movies and those movies begat more movies. These were original stories, even if they were retellings of European myths and legends- they gave us all something new to look at it. Other artists, at this time, told new stories about spaceships blowing up planets that could blow up other planets or men with women fighting crime in tights or princesses falling in love. The audience was happy and the movies were happy.
Then the artist ran a company that bought most of these happy stories. In order to capture the same excitement for a new generation, they told the same stories while changing one or two details. And then these changes begat other stories, but still they were the old story. These changes begat other changes and other stories, requiring the audience to know the original and the improved upon stories in order to appreciate the latest version of the old stories. Soon, in order to watch one story and find it kind of interesting, you needed 20 stories under your belt in order to “get” what was happening-let alone, maybe, liking it.
It’s the web of intertextuality.
Like a spiderweb, it begins with one idea and then other strands spin off from the original idea and then those strands beget other strands and the web grows and grows, all pointing back to the first web.
Here’s a video describing this in Disney:
Intertextuality is not a bad thing and it is not a good thing either. “Avengers: End Game” was a wonderfully satisfying movie because it resolves problems (IE. Thor’s grief, Tony Stark’s father hunger, etc.) by going back to key moments and reliving them. This could only be done through intertextuality.
Simply defined, intertextuality is when a moment is meaningful only because it is linked to a prior moment found in another, older text. When Doug Mckenzie skates up to his brother, Bob, clad in black hockey equipment, he says, “Luke, I am your father!”- that joke only is meaningful because of the previous text of Star Wars. It’s now, for a brief moment, ignites the meaning of the past through the comedy of re-interpretation.
The strands of the spider-web goes back to the original idea/moment.
However, as the video suggests, what if all you have to be interesting is intertextuality? Meaning that you have no meaning other than the meaning borrowed from a previous moment of meaning?
Through time travel or remakes or retellings, you relive all old moments and your strands do not go out, but reverse?
Worst, the only way to appreciate your newest telling is to understand the original source material, knowing that you are either reliving it or rejecting it or reducing it for something else?
And the spider-web spins and spins, thicker and thicker.
Here’s a story that might have happened to me. Maybe.
I once stated on a social media posting that I had COVID-19 and was in my basement for 10 days, isolating from everyone I knew. A friend of mine from the US sent me a link to his pastor’s sermon. I watched it and really, really didn’t understand the message. The pastor seemed really, really angry. But at who? Me? Why me? I’m in Canada, what did I ever do to this guy? He used the Bible, but barely. But I know the Bible- why then didn’t I understand what he was saying?
I wrote my friend back a list of questions and I tried, my hardest, not to sound combative. I genuinely was confused.
His answers were grouped in three categories:
You don’t understand any of this being in Canada. Your media filters all of the real news.
My Pastor was referring to Tucker Carlson. He’s really good. You should watch his show.
He was owning the Libs.
So, I mused, in order to understand a man’s preaching of the Bible on a specific message from Sunday, I had to watch hundreds of hours of Tucker Carlson, dislike liberal people, and move out of Canada?
I stopped interacting with my friend because, although I didn’t see it at the time, he was sticky with the web of intertextuality.
“We are distracted from our distractions by distractions,” T.S. Eliot wrote in his epic poem “Four Quartets.”
Philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that we cannot escape culture, that we will always be within a certain web of meaning and we cannot escape. “We are all mediators, translators,” he states. Although I agree that stories beget stories, culture begets culture…is this always the case? Or can one say something new? Can there be a message that does not require 100s of hours of television to measure those words against?
Can we deliver a message that steps outside of the spider-web? Can we hear a story with a surprise? And if so, then it is possible to be surprised and shocked in the middle of a new story without the need of reliving old moments of meaning.
New stories can exist. Why? Because we still are surprised when we read certain books and shocked when there are new twists that don’t borrow from previous threads. That’s the argument. Intertextuality is not the only literary device; there is also surprise and suspense.
Back to the spiderweb. What if the spiderweb is used not to create more circles of weave for the existing one, but to use it to create a whole new structure?
This works for good storytelling. Star Wars is a good story about good vs. evil, but what if one can tell a new story based upon the lessons from the prior? What if Star Wars can tell a new story, within their universe, that surprises fans because the directions/ choices are new? Or, the very least, they don’t return ONCE AGAIN to the Deathstar?
This is a loop that our culture needs to spin out from: we need new stories. This is a risk, it’s scary, and it requires faith beyond marketing. The comfort of Intertextuality is that you can relive the past moments and gain just the same (or lesser) impact by revisiting the earlier points of greatness. We loved it, as kids, when Cinderella’s torn dress became a new ball gown. However, rewording the spell into “Biddy-Body-Boopy” can only be done so many times until everyone realises they’ve seen this movie before.
Worst, chasing after meaningful moments to relive in a new story no longer requires a plot: you just are trying to steer the story to retread past moments. Like a driver failing his/her test because they tried to hit as many pylons as possible, this is a renewed, nostalgia induced chaos that ends up nowhere.
If life imitates art, then can’t we make new, moral decisions without the need of an enemy, hours of political television, and/or the present culture of our current country.
Churches who requires everything to be so American in order to understand their truth preached could re-imagine itself out from their spider-webs. This requires talking to outsiders, reading books by different people, and seeing how the Bible’s message is applied outside of their borders.
Spiderwebs spin and spin. But do they spin out or circle inward?
A friend of mine-who lives at our emergency shelter for the homeless-set up a bust of Barbie. It was a girl’s toy, probably a child’s version of a make-up tutorial. Barbie was smiling, shoulders up, as a centrepiece to his otherwise industrial strength plastic table.
Our shelter, up until March, is an empty warehouse. There’s a million dollar crane overhead, an air compressor in the back closet worth more than a performance sports car, and it’s located in the old train yard of our city, Edmonton. The Mustard Seed, the organisation to help house the homeless to which I am a chaplain of, was approached by the city to do emergency sheltering this year. With the COVID-19 restrictions, most of our traditional shelters were impossible to keep social distancing protocols. And we needed sheltering: our city can get as cold as -44c on some nights.
We moved into the warehouse (Cessco) in October and will be there until April 1st.
The floor is concrete. The lights are bright, but for doing detailed welding work and labour. We put down mats at night to sleep; in the daytime, we’ll roll out round tables for meals, visiting, and to give our friends a place to call their own.
I wished by friend good-morning and Barbie good-morning. “Yeah,” he said with a proud smile. “It’s a bit of home.”
For a man in his forties, this was enough to make his table his home. He also had a power-strip for his computer with some cursing on it for anyone who plugged in without his permission. But Barbie was the star, a toy he probably found on the streets or in a dumpster.
A bit of home. This got me thinking. Housing is different than homecoming. Housing is central for survival, but I am convinced we can’t make long-term decisions about our lives without having something of a home near us. A shelter can be a bus stop, a dark corner of a parkade, or a tarp in the river valley made into a tent. Sure, these allow us to live. But homecoming is different, a place made different because you are there. You belong to the setting and the setting belongs to you.
As a priest, I am very keen on the idea of worship. If you asked Jack Lalanne if fitness mattered much he would scream yes and I have the same kind of bias for the idea of worship. Worship makes us most human, we connect with our real selves when we take our attention off ourselves and worship God, worship is the space where we can find enough peace to be able to make all sorts of other decisions.
But can worship take place when there is no home in sight?
This question hits home (pun unapologetic) during this season of isolation we’re coming out from, where worshipping at home is what most of us have experienced. We have tuned onto the live stream of our church with our kids running in front of the screen, the smell of laundry and the washing of our dishes taking the place of incense and “church building smell”. In this era of our lives, perhaps there is too much home in our worship as we tune in wearing PJs and eating our breakfast.
But let’s swing the painfully opposite direction: how does one worship without a home? And how does one create a homecoming while sheltering? How is home and worship connected?
The term “Hebrew” means traveller, one who passes over one land to the next. It’s an interesting word for a people who have always had a deep connection to the land of Israel. Israelite is one who is the one who cries, “I am home!” Hebrews cry, “Not yet! I still wander.”
During one of the eras of the Hebrews, God moved His children out from Egypt and to the Promised Land. He took them the long way around.
Like any car trip, he sat down his children and gave them the rules: “Don’t pick a fight with your sister. Don’t stick your hand out the window. You can read only when you finish eating and clean your hands. Go to the washroom at every stop we make. Don’t eat something that looks like food on the floor. Don’t ask Mom when we’re there yet; if we are still driving, we’re not there yet.” This was the 5 Books of Moses.
Robert Alter describes that the law is to keep the Hebrew travelling, but doesn’t do it by just commands. The writer(s) of the Book of Moses also use stories, poetry, and other mediums to instruct on the road trip.
“The biblical writers were, it’s safe to assume, focused on religious doctrine, but they were also powerful writers. They chose to cast most of their religious vision either in artful prose narrative or in poetry, and the magnetic appeal of these texts as works of literature surely has something to do with the way they were treasured and preserved through time. For this reason, I like to speak of a “double canonicity” of the Hebrew Bible—doctrinal and literary. But the two can’t be absolutely separated. If you learn to follow the minute workings of the poetry and the deployment of narrative techniques and conventions, you come away with a much more nuanced picture of what the Hebrew writers wanted to say about God, Israel, creation, history, and human nature. The idea, for example, of man created in the image of God is complex, elusive, and perhaps even ambiguous, and I would suggest that the subtle and profound representation of individual character in biblical narrative is a way of seeing what this means.” (See: https://believermag.com/an-interview-with-robert-alter/)
In this “Rules for the Road-trip”, God is really clear about how to worship Him: The Book of Leviticus. There are instructions for the use of the Ark and the Covenant, how a priest should dress, what a sacrifice should/should not be, how to sacrifice, what one can eat for worship, how the tabernacle that travels with you should be like, etc..
Today, if God gave a handbook this specific to the Canadian Church, we would wince. Where is our unique edge? Where is there our personal “flair”? And yet, we would be like the Hebrews and impressed with how specific, how intentional worship must be. And then we would catch how important worship is to God because He loves us and knows how essential worship is for us.
But the Hebrews were homeless. And yet, God called them to go through the extra work of worship. Why? To force them out of their tents when they were tired and hot and bothered to gather at the Tabernacle, to lift their hands in song and prayer…to worship. Why? For in the midst of the dessert, worship can create-in a limited sense- a homecoming.
Bits of home come out wherever/whenever we worship.
Years ago, when my eldest daughter was too young for school and we lived in a northern, Albertan town, we went on a walk. We were walking around on a Saturday, killing time. We came by a house with a chain link fence and a little boy ran out, calling out my daughter’s name.
His mom came out along with her husband. They recognised me from the town’s toddler playgroup. The boy took my daughter’s hand and led her into his house. The adults all followed. The mom offered me juice and the husband asked me what I did for a living. When he heard I was a minister, he said, “Well, welcome to our church.” And suddenly, I made sense of his living room. Surrounding us were hundred of tiny statues.
“We are Hindu,” he said. “And we must worship in our home because there is no where, in Northern Alberta, we can go to worship. Every place is too far. So we pray, eat, worship, and live here.”
“This is beautiful,” I said. For here they invited me, a stranger, into their home. And not just their home, their place of worship. They did so without shame, without apology: it was just their faith, as is, and they were comfortable with me, a Christian Minister, drinking juice with them. And kids were on the floor, playing with toy dinosaurs.
On the mornings I come to the warehouse, I try to stop everything and have a minute of silence. It’s weird, it’s intrusive, visitors are weirded out by it, and I get nervous every morning I do it. However, we try to keep it open to everyone: you don’t have to be a Christian and you can be of another faith and it’s there, if anything, for mental health.
In the Shelter, the temptation is to fuss over the blankets and mats and food and heating…which are all extremely important and are precious commodities when outside is -40c. However, this helps with the housing/sheltering but not the homecoming.
But when our Frontline Staff listens to our friends and hear their stories, when there is a prayer offered, a cup of coffee shared, or an activity done for the sake of “just for fun”…housing starts with introducing bits of home. And when we sense bits of home, we can fall into the peace that allows us to figure out such things as overcoming addictions, long term housing, employment, surviving trauma, and other such key issues that otherwise become invisible when the stress of finding shelter becomes the dominant concern.
It takes a whole team to bring about bits of home to our friends. It also has to voluntary, for we can never force bits of home on people (and if this seems too passive, remember all of the times God has offered the Kingdom of God to us in a voluntary way).
We’ve been doing prayer services, smudges, church on stream, and anything else we can think of during this season of COVID restrictions.
I’ve been leading in Bingo lately. It’s exhausting! I can only last 45 minutes. I have no idea how, in Canada, you’ll hear of Catholic Priests lead a 4 hour Bingo Game! These are extreme athletes! But in our home, we make a home by playing games. We figured it must be the same with our friends.
My last game, we had a woman come up, knock over our little ball roller, take a candy bar, and walk away. At first, I was hot to try to call security but then some of the other staff connected with her, brought her down. Really, she just wanted a candy bar and wanted to play, but was weighed down by her own issues.
Bits of home. When homecoming takes place, then worship is possible; when worship takes place, home slowly shows up. What comes first? I don’t know: ask a chicken and then the egg. The point is that we exists, as human beings, for the boundaries of worship and home to spill into each other and that’s a good thing.
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, he saw a figure approach him. When the figure came close, it was that of his older brother.
21 “The son said to his brother, ‘Tell Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called his son.’
22 “’You are right, you have sinned. But I cannot tell our Father this because he has been dead for a year. I am now in charge and have managed my portion of the inherits shrewdly. 23 I will allow you to return, but that as a slave. 24 Every day, I will remind you of your foolishness. You will work the land and toil under the sun, but the spoils will belong to me.
25 “’I have told the story to our servants of your prodigal greed. It has motivated the servants to never leave the farm and to hate the city and love our farm. 26 I will keep you as an example so I might always be ruler of this land. 27 ‘You were lost and will always be reminded as one who was lost. You shall live your days forever as an alien.’
28 “The older brother kept his word and this was the way until the younger son’s death.”
Is this how the story goes? No, we are quick to point that this story has never ended this way. “The Prodigal Son” is about forgiveness, not a further extension of awfulness and entitlement and judgment.
We know this story too well, so much that, at times, we forget how much of a scandal it would have been when Jesus first spoke it. We know this story too well where we expect God to forgive and feel, almost, that the Father must forgive.
But does God HAVE TO forgive? In some ways, yes because it is His character. God is grace, not like us who decides-sometimes with great reluctance- to be gracious for a certain moment in a given circumstance and with great hesitation. God faithfully loves everyone because He cannot be anything else other than a loving, forgiving Father (2 Timothy 2:13).
But then, we fall into the trap predictability brings by entitlement.
Are we entitled to be forgiven by God? Is grace a right?
Or let’s take another perspective on the fracturing I did of this parable. I first heard this take from a group of church consultants who said it as a passing comment. The comment went something close to this: “We’re used to coming into churches that were gracious, loving, and caring places. And some folks went away, got crazy at college, and then came back to find not the loving parent but the older brother in charge. The love was gone. The Prodigal Son was now chief #1. And that new church needed all of the enemies it could get.”
That has always stuck with me. I heard this in the beginning of my church ministry and I have carried it with me, a mental category of a church that is either one that belongs to the Father or to the Older Brother.
An Older Brother Church reminds each other of people’s failures, how they have been let down, and what has gone wrong. I attended a church once that I hadn’t a clue about the church’s history or their story. Instead, I attended because I was on vacation and the building was the closest to my hotel. When I came, an older gentlemen greeted me and than sat with me, talking my ear off. He told me the problem of every priest that had led the church, everything they had done wrong in a sentence or two. At the end of the service, I knew more about what wasn’t happening then about what God wanted to say that day.
An Older Brother Church is always a victim of something or someone else. In the real Bible passage, we only see the Older Brother outside, sulking. Those who sulk often times do so to clear their mind, only to focus on how much of a victim they feel they are. The party was distracting the Older Brother of how horribly things were stacked against him.
This kind of church has a reason why everything hasn’t happened right and it’s always about forces bigger than their own. If only culture wasn’t against them or the young people quit going to “cool churches” or if they could get more snappy music or the pastor’s sermons weren’t so painfully bad or…
An Older Brother Church needs enemies. God, the Father, doesn’t need enemies. In fact, God would rather that no one rebelled against Him. Churches stoked by the flaming ideology of the Older Brother requires someone bad, someone beyond saving, and someone to compare his hard work against. An Older Brother Church must have enemies beyond redemption; a church of the Father promises everyone gets a new life.
I bring this up for self-reflection because all of us, I think, has a bit of Older Brother in them. It’s our Factory Setting, the default when we lose sight of God’s lavish, wild, and abundant love for us. We are not to decide who is the Older Brother unless we, of course, have a mirror handy.
Why is it that we, as humans, know how to remember coming home as a place of quiet, settled grace? Even if the actual homes of our youth were not places of grace, we still know what it’s like to want to go home, be forgiven, and start over. Why is that?
Carl Jung would have a field day with this musing, but let’s not entirely dismiss the idea that homecoming has shaped our thinking.
My home was always in the south side of San Jose, California. The house was in the centre of 1970’s suburbia, with the backdrop of large, rolling caramel coloured hills that stood as an ancient giant, an echo of Silicon Valley’s farming past.
Why do we long for the homecoming of our youth, our childhood? I ask this not as an application, but just as an echo from what it means to be human. Deep inside of us is the Prodigal Son, a wanting for a familiar place to find us when we feel lost.
Smells trigger this or a startling sound or a word or a song. The triggers a scattered, all reminding us that there’s a Father who is willing to run across the fields to find us when we collapse on our way home.
This is why my twist feels so wrong.
It also brings an interesting place those who are members of God’s family find themselves in. Homecoming is no longer something in our past, but locked into our future. Our home is in front of us in time, a fixed point that our roads lead to and we will arrive at…someday. And there is the Father, running towards us to come home.
But we long for this and remember it. Or as the song by Bobby Bare titled “Homestead on the Farm”:
“I wonder how the old folks are at home
I wonder if they miss me while I’ve gone I wonder if they pray for their boy who went away And left his mom and papa all alone You could see the catlle lowin’ in the lane You could see the fields of blue grass where I’ve grown You could almost hear them cry as they kissed their boy goodbye I wonder how the old folks are at home
Just the village and the homestead on the farm” And the mother’s love there to keep you from all harm There’s the mother’s love so true and the sweetheart who loves you too I wonder how the old folks are at home You could hear the catlle lowin’… I wonder how the old folks are at home”
Once upon a time, there was a very religious man who sought out Christ.
He was trusted by his friends, considered a pillar in his community, and respected for his political beliefs. He was often blogging and posting links on social media, confirming his correct response to politics. No one ever doubted his Christian faith, confirmed by his correct politics and how he could “own” the other side with his arguments.
On that day, he came to Christ on confident footing. “Teacher,” he asked. “How does one enter the Kingdom of Heaven?”
“How does ‘one’ enter the Kingdom?” Jesus asked with a playful smirk. “Or how do you?”
“Well, I’m good. I am very Biblical. The Bible is the instruction manual for my life! I’m always using it in my political arguments. Certainly, I love God and love others.”
“Yeah,” Jesus said without emotion. “That. Your use of my Father’s words.” He looked down at his shoes. “Well, keep doing those things but if you want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you’ve got to do one more thing.”
“What?’ he asked, almost sounding like a dog barking.
“There are those who disagree with you politically. If you wish to enter into the Kingdom, you must get to know them. Listen to them. Serve them. Put their success over your own. Spend time with them. Don’t judge them and don’t use your time to trip them up in their arguments. Instead, love them like you would love me. Do this and you will enter into my Kingdom.”
And the man went away sad, for he did not know what to do with his faith without enemies.
“The most important thing is to get together…It’s this word ‘share’ I keep coming back to in my concerts all the time; I think it’s more important than ‘love’. Love has been so misused and so misunderstood-but ‘share’ is a much more simple and direct word. And right now it’s very easy to point out to anybody that the resources of the world are not being shared.” Pete Seeger
When I was a young man, the world being overtaken by nature terrified me. It was the wort kind of armageddon I could think of. Gone would would be the fast food for easy food, wrecked were the comfortable cement roads, lost was the lifespan beyond our 30’s, and washed away were all of the TV shows and movies.
The musical group “Talking Heads” put this anxiety into music by the song “Nothing but Flowers”:
“There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
You got it, you got it
We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
We got it, we got it
There was a shopping mall
Now it’s all covered with flowers
You’ve got it, you’ve got it
If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
You’ve got it, you’ve got it”
As a young man, to get to this reality of armageddon, something horrible had to happen. Some nuclear war or economic collapse or the dead rising from the grave. As a child of the 1980s, everything ending violently was almost a given.
I remember seeing the film “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” with my father during this time. Yes, there is an end of the world and a mutation and the sky becoming poison. But then it ends with the dream of mankind returning to balanced living, being in harmony with the world and nature. My dad, after seeing this film with me, decried this simple living: “We need Doctors and cement! Can’t have one without the other unless you want to die of the plague.”
As a 17 year old kid, I didn’t feel I had enough words to fight with him. So I was quiet. And endured.
Now I am the old man (or, at least, the older man) and I found a new friendship with Wendell Berry’s character the Mad Farmer.
“The Mad Farmer Poems” is a collection of sayings, prayers, and ramblings from poet that, more than likely, is from Port Williams. The poet, the Mad Farmer, is not Berry himself but a character that fits within his world. Berry might disagree and have a spat with the Mad Farmer, but you can’t have one without the other.
The Mad Farmer declares himself a contrarian.
“I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it.”
The Mad Farmer brings up one of my favourite social contradictions:
“When they said, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’
I told them, “He’s dead,” And when they told me,
‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day
In the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’”
The Mad Farmer believes and works with God, but rejects all of the constructs and easy metaphors our modern civilisation has made to domesticate Him. And this is the main grievance with our modern world: for the sake of profit, ease, control, and economic gain, one has forfeited everything else. As Christ asked, “What profits a man if he gains the entire world, but sells his soul?”
It is not just the loss of trees and farms and rivers for the sake of malls and highways that the Mad Farmer fights. It is that the soul was lost in the process, that we are disconnected from the land we stand atop and lost to the reasons why we work in the first place.
This book is the context, the literary landscape of Berry’s famous poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front.”
The poem begins with the worry that there are many who will surround you, try to figure you out, box you in, and label you for the purpose of selling a life to you full of junk and products. The Mad Farmer’s answer to this problem: live a life good for the soul that confuses commerce:
“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.”
The Mad Farmer ends with one of my favourite endings in all of literature:
It is this life that assumes that good farming makes good farms-certainly- but is most manifest in the lives of producing good farmers. Produce has nothing to do with the equation. By not letting our worst be defined by what we sell is the Mad Farmer’s powerful and quiet revolution.
You see, in literature a return to nature was always dependent upon armageddon. It had to be a violent overthrow, with lives loss, clear losers and winners, and flowers growing over the graves of those who opposed the revolution.
But if one buries into their heart St. Paul’s words: “We fight not against flesh and blood, about against the principalities of this present darkness,” then the Mad Farmer’s words find a home. Why? We reject that the good of the world is what is bought/sold, but what is harmonised and what one joins with/in.
In our age of revolution, what if the power is not found with the violent or the entitled or the angry, but in those who share in the goodness of God and the Earth?
That our swords might be turned into plowshares?
The Mad Farmer Poems end with a poem not from Berry but William Kloefkorn. We find our new friend in a grain silo, singing. Like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, he has made his argument and disappears with the satisfaction that you can either accept or refuse the gift of his words.
In his song, we hear:
“O la and la and earth and water and wind,
Sunlight and shadow,
La and la and hands deep into the soil,
And work and love,
And the greatest of these is work
And love and hands, lan and la and
The immaculate equation of knowledge
The book ends with an invitation into harmony and integration. It’s not just love, but work and love. It’s not just the farmer, but the farm and the God of the Land and the farmer. In commerce, there is isolation; in good farming, there is solidarity.
What if revolutions looked like this? Where there wasn’t a clear villain, “us”, or unbelievers to the cause? Rather, there is joy in the land and in the people and there is a sharing that comes to mind? Revolutions-particularly ones that require angry people to storm a capital building- are dependant upon unhappiness and enemies. And they never last, mainly because one trades places with their enemies and suddenly become the problem people that sets off the next revolution.
No, the Made Farmer offers that revolution is found in hard work, care of the land, loving our neighbours, sharing, and loving our God.
As I write this, my home country-USA- suddenly as a President that has been twice impeached. In a few days, he will be replaced by another President and another party.
The terrorist attack on the Capitol Building has left many angry and I am one of those who are angry. Angry and raw and upset and walking around, looking for a fight. It doesn’t help that we have friends who are right wingers that have taken this attack to make an identical comparison to BLM (Which was a protest. Protests don’t seek to dismantle democracy, destroy a system. Rather, protests require a system in order for it to be reformed). “False equivalency!”, I’ll yell at my computer’s screen and will be surprised no one yells back.
As always, I do share my hippy/Pete Seeger/left wing opinions during this time, but when the attack happened-I got a lot of thoughts and feelings from my right wing friends. Some un-friends. Some outright attacks. Some very thoughtful comments. Some love.
I made a comment that we should resist the urge to believe Antifa dressed up like Trump supporters and tried to take the Capitol building. This got a lot of digital vinegar. I remarked to my wife, “There are people I haven’t spoken to in 20 years, but they’re now trying to correct my politics! They don’t like that I’m defending Antifa!” Then it struck me: “Wait a minute, I might be the closest thing to Antifa that most of these right wingers have as a Facebook friend!” I guess I’m a member of Antifa. I never remember signing anything, learning a secret handshake, signing up on a potluck schedule, or getting a pin…oh well. But then again, Antifa isn’t really like that, is it?
I figured I should drop some friends as well. If we haven’t spoken for 20 years until, all of a sudden, they’re mad about Antifa and figure yelling at an Anglican Priest in Canada would make them feel vindicated, they may not be my friend. “They’re like in MLM, but for Trump,” was our thoughts.
It was a short list and I felt a sad death after changing their status.
Now I have friends and some of them love Trump. And those friends could probably share some stories about their Left Winger friends attacking them, out-of-the-blue for no apparent reason. It seems to be something goin’ around.
There has been a call by-mostly Republicans- for unity and coming together. As well, they have been resistant and angry for anything that would damage the frail ties the country has with itself. In Canada, I see this from over our border wall made mostly of snow.
Is unity possible? Likely?
Can one recover from the trust broken by the last four years? Well, it depends who you talk to and how in the wrong they feel there are in.
Is unity possible? Likely?
People died in last week’s attack. Murdered or they died by accident.
This crowd had to come from somewhere. It didn’t magically appear, out from ex nihilo to fill the void with red MAGA hats, zip ties, and guns. Where did that hatred come from and will it give us any more? That’s important because none of us want what took place to happen ever again. How can we bounce back and get to normal when a murderous crowd could return, any moment, and try to stop us from having a government. No one who associates with the colour red seems to know anything, have seen anything, and has said anything to encourage an angry mob. Can we trust them?
Is unity possible? Likely?
Even though I’m the one repeating this question, I’m going to shoot it down right now and say that’s the wrong question. Unity must be tried, again and again, even if it’s not possible and even unlikely.
Why? Because it’s what we need. Just like we’ll do anything for one more gulp of air, America needs unity. So does Canada, by the way.
What this season needs is the virtue of “Stubborn Grace”.
If we want unity, we must be stubborn in our grace. The words “stubborn” and “grace” is almost like a kryptonite right now to many. “Grace?” is the rebuttal. “That’s the loving, soft stuff that you sing about in church. It’s about forgiveness and being nice. I can’t do any of that right now! I’ll get to that when I’m no longer angry!”
And then let’s marry it to the images of being stubborn: grandpa, who hates to take his medicine and might die but refuses to show any sign of weakness by obeying anything doctors tell him…stubborn. Or the spouse who is never wrong and always right and will never lose and is usually left alone whenever there’s real hardship in the family…stubborn.
How can unity be brought about by a stubborn grace.
Stubborn grace is the virtue where we engage in dialogue and discussion and listen that is so tough, so full of emotion that it gets rough and tumble and awful…but we don’t give up on each other. We agree to disagree and struggle, but also agree to see the best in each other just because. We make changes but those changes are not seen as losing ground or surrender: no, in grace the treasure is the relationship and not being right. We are gracious in the end because we are stubbornly committed to this thing called community and civilization.
Stubborn grace. Grace is rarely seen as something corrective and rather its a way to escape correction altogether. If I crash my car and get a new one the next day, I can call that grace. If those who crash America can get a new country the next day…no. But if grace is corrective, it’s to say, “You are not being cancelled, chased out, destroyed, or kicked in the pants until you leave. But we’re going to sit here and talk about systematic racism. And do so because of grace.” To be stubborn in this respect is what our country needs.
Stubborn grace. In grace, we have boundaries because they are the best for that person and for everyone else. Without grace, there’s just revenge. For Trump, being impeached is the best for him and for the country. It’s hard because those will want a soft grace, to fold and agree with those who disagree with you…hence the stubborn. Sometimes, drawing up healthy boundaries is what makes grace stubborn.
It’s more work that a quick or cheap grace. It makes one look less like the super-hero of the hour than just being mad or angry or trying to “own a Lib” or blasting someone who was wrong. It’s genuine. It’s hard work. It’s tough. And it might not even be possible or likely.
Stubborn grace also looks foolish because you’re caught hanging out with the enemies, making friends with the crazies. And worst, when those in your camp try to bring you back to the light, you point at those on the wrong wing and say, “But they’re my friends.” And you dig in your heels and raise cain.
Stubborn grace is needed not just for those we disagree with but for the world to have for us. How do I know that my hippy/Pete Seeger/left wing world view is complete? Truth cannot be possessed, but it must be discovered: how do I know I’m always right? And how can I know I’m wrong about things? For those around me, from differing views and backgrounds, to have stubborn grace for me when they challenge my demands on reality.
Stubborn grace, if it was a martial arts move, would be based on a donkey: hard working, tough, and won’t give up on a task until it’s done right.
This is what needs to happen if we get what we really need: unity.
On Dec. 16th, I received the call from Alberta Health Services that I had tested positive for COVID-19.
A very kind woman on the phone instructed me to isolate for 10 days, the day I could see my family again was on Boxing Day. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and everything else would be done at a distance. I could see my family, but it would have to be 2 meters away (the length of a moose) and I would have to wear a mask. But it would only be for short spits of time: I was to live in my basement.
I like my basement. It’s where I work as an on-line Priest during Alberta’s shutdown. It’s where I write and where I keep all of my books.
When my wife found out, she wanted to know where I got the virus. The easiest answer would be: “ANYWHERE.” This is the luxury of an airborne virus is that it isn’t like some plant, some Triffid from outer space that laid it spores in you after a knife fight in the poison jungle. No, COVID-19 is the air we walk through.
But to give a more satisfying answer, it was at the homeless shelter I work at as a chaplain. We follow very strict protocols, we mask, we socially distance, and we have two custodians whose job, the whole day, is to wipe everything down. We had someone who came, briefly, and they were flagged as a positive case. I was encouraged to get myself tested, just to be on the safe side. So-with the swab up the nose- I got myself checked out.
And at that moment, when I was given the news, I suddenly got angry. Here’s the thought:
If I got COVID-19 from someone coming into our warehouse and talking loudly for five minutes, why does the test REQUIRE a swab shoved through my nose and into my brain…only to be twist to get as much brain juice as possible?
My wife delivered me my clothes and my youngest daughter, without prompting, left me a really good book from her collection “Scooby Doo: The Summer Camp Cyclops”.
Anger subsided, fear came instead.
What if I die from COVID-19?, I thought. I had no symptoms when I got tested, but what if they came that day…and were really, really bad?
I must admit, I do put up with those who deny the science behind COVID-19. Either I will quietly shake my head, wait for their ranting to end, and dream of better topics as they rail that COVID-19 is “just the flu” or “made in China” or “people die of everything else but the COVID”. If I see them rant on social media, sometimes I will politely leave a link to a real scientist with the hope that maybe they haven’t researched this yet or they just need one more link to bring them back to planet Earth.
But at that moment of fear, all of those who have denied the reality of COVID-19 became invisible. It wasn’t that I was angry or wanted to fight them, I just simply clicked and deleted all of their faces and voices and names. They were useless to me. I was sick and they wouldn’t want to help because they had to be right about a virus. This reality, later, made me feel really sad because many of them are Christians and, at that moment, their witness and words were next to dead to me.
I was scared. Would I make it through this? Would I die in my basement, surrounded by my books? It was a poetic way to go, but still not what I chose.
Luckily, I didn’t die. Many do. The thousands that had died began the same way I did, with a phone call. And many of them didn’t have to die if there was proper medical equipment and care available to them if the system wasn’t flooded with cases out of control.
I, mostly, had an asymptomatic experience. On the second day, I would feel warm for about 5 minutes. Then I would feel normal again.
“Strangely warmed” was the feeling and it reminded me of Charles Wesley’s conversion. However, I didn’t begin Methodism from these warming feelings. Instead, they would come mostly during my gobbling up of Samurai movies.
This was my first binge. My family would hate samurai movies and I had no time to watch them when they were around. An odd bit of trivia: my dad took me and my brother to watch “Kagemusha” when it came out. The way he sold us on it was that Akira Kurosawa inspired George Lucas to make “Star Wars”. So I watched, at age 10, this movie in Japanese with English subtitles, hoping to see a spaceship or a robot anywhere in the movie. Those Sci Fi elements never came.
I knew that wouldn’t work with my girls. So I stayed in my basement, feeling strangely warmed.
The fear and the warming passed. So did the samurai movies. I was left to pray, read, and wait for 10 days.
In the middle of my stay, my daughters and I figured out that I could go on Zoom and eat with them for meal times. Very quickly, we picked backgrounds and I had a different background every meal time.
Other than seeing my family on Zoom and hearing them, this was it for “being around them”. The day I got the news, they got tested too and came back negative. Not wanting to miss Christmas, I got tested again with my “strangely warming” symptom with the hope of a false diagnosis. Nope. Still positive. But with my family being negative, it gave my isolation all the more meaning.
I was missing Christmas because I loved my family. It made the whole thing a bit upside-down. In my home country (California), child actor Kirk Cameron was rallying hundreds of people to cozy up next to each other, without masks, and sing Christmas carols in protest of the lockdown.
I had this to say on social media: “If you are to gather without a mask, crowding in the streets, and spend time singing, please do not mention Christ in your songs. Sing “Jingle Bells” or “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Don’t mention Christ, please. For publicly gathering like this, you are not singing in love or peace or joy. Rather, it is to make a demonstration that what you will do what you want to and it will be at the expense of other people’s health, safety, and survival. This is the exact opposite of the way of Christ.”
This got me mad, more of a “naturally hot” than a “strangely warm”. My Filipino Congregation couldn’t do “Misa de Gallo” which was a 9 day gathering in people’s homes, sharing food, doing the Eucharist, and singing carols to their neighbours BECAUSE we were trying to the right thing for our city. And to see someone do the exact opposite in the name of Christ…it got me mad.
And I had COVID-19. I couldn’t see my family. AND I WAS ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES.
So for church, we met on Zoom every night. It was the highlight of my day, next to meal times. A family would host a night, do the readings, give a reflection, and lead in the carol singing. If the family had a young musician, they would sing to the congregation. For 9 days, we got ready for Christmas; and I got ready to see my family again.
And we were able to worship Christ just fine.
I wasn’t entirely alone. My dog stayed with me during my period of isolation.
Dogs, I guess, can smell COVID-19 on people. In London, they’re experimenting with dogs so that diagnosis can quicken. My dog, I feel, knew I had it and wanted to stick with me until I was back to good health. Her nursing was, basically, sleeping next to my desk and hiding under my bed.
The day before the last night, I installed a cuckoo clock I inherited from my grandmother. It took a nail, a simple assembly, and I hung it near my desk.
My dog heard the clicking, saw the movements of the pendulum, and barked four times at it. And then threw one bark at me, over her shoulder. I knew the meaning of the last bark: “Why are you changing everything!?! Did you ask me if you could hang a cuckoo clock in OUR basement?”
She has gotten used to it, but her expression is still full of indignation and hatred when she looks at the thing.
On Christmas Day, I came up wearing a mask. We unwrapped presents. I took my breakfast downstairs. And then my family would be working on our Christmas lego.
I came up during the building of “Diagon Alley” and sat in a chair, across the room. I was careful not to touch anything. Watching my wife and kids work on the Lego, I started to cry.
This is why we isolate: to keep others safe. Perhaps it’s our family we do this for; perhaps it’s someone else’s. It doesn’t matter, we share the same air and are responsible for what we breathe in and out because it will go to someone else.
And here they were, building Lego and keeping safe from my “strange warmings”. Yes, it could have been worst and wasn’t. But still, this is why we meet on-line, wear a mask, do without, keep a distance, and seek to love one another: so someone else can gather around their kitchen tables, building Lego on Christmas afternoon.
On Boxing Day, I came up and had a meal that couldn’t be beat. COVID-19 didn’t take my taste away and it was one more thing to be thankful for. And as we prayed for the Christmas 2020 before our meal, we thought of the world who needed to walk through this thing safely.
“And God bless us, everyone,” I expected someone to say. No one did. Maybe my dog, but we couldn’t hear her. Dogs, some believe, talk on Christmas Eve. She would have said something like this. Or: “Take down the stupid clock! It’s ruining my basement!”