Chalk Lines on the SideWalk: Homelessness, Shelters, and Doctor Who

“If someone explodes because you set a boundary, then that boundary was important to be set in the first place.”  

            I am a chaplain in one of our city’s homeless shelter. 

            We were in the 2nd month of our new location.  We were using a basement in a church for one of our shelters when we started seeing a crowd outside of our parking lot.  First, it was a group of people setting up in encampments on the other side of the train tracks.  Then, on one hot, spring day, we saw groups of two circling our building.   Finally, there would be a large group of folks staring at our front door, two blocks away, waiting for something to happen (although I’m not sure what).

            This crowd got me curious, so I started hanging out in the parking lotthat faced these crowds.   At first, I thought of myself as a spy: studying the comings and goings of these crowds.  However, I found out I couldn’t really lurk: our community members staying at the shelter would come find me and we’d start talking.  I had some great conversations; learned nothing. 

            The local police came and, along with talking to some of our neighbourhood experts, we learned that the people who lounged around our shelter were from a gang local.  They would wait for our people to leave for the day and try to sell them drugs.  Some of our folks refused, but others were really tempted and gave in.  One of our community members told me, “They are the devil!  I tell them that!  Devil!!!”   A few weeks afterwards, he stayed sober and was housed.  One of our community members purchased drugs and OD’ed in our parking lot, revived by our staff and his life was saved. 

            The tent encampments were a bit different.  Some were for those who wanted to use (we’re a drug free zone and so they couldn’t in our space) and others just wanted to camp, be independent, and then visit their friends who were utilizing our services. 

            We then existed with this firm line drawn.  We couldn’t do anything about the encampments or the wandering gang members because they were always off our property (they were firmly away of where we our authority ended and theirs began), but the moment folks crossed into our area, we could help: provide housing solutions, food, clothing, and so forth.

            As well, we created a team that wandered the neighbourhood, handing out water and food and providing other resources for our street people. 

            But the boundary was there, firm and felt if not invisible: this is our shelter and this is the neighbourhood. 

            One morning when I saw the crowd gathering on the other side of the tracks, I quoted a line from one of my favourite movies to a 20-something shift leader: “The Mission”.  

            “I see your working above the falls now,” I said to the group two blocks away.  They couldn’t hear me.  “We intend to make Christians of these people!” 

            The 20-something leader had no idea that I was quoting Jeremy Irons in an exchange with Robert De Niro.   In the film, Jesuit priests were forming missions in Latin America as havens for indigenous people from Portuguese slavers. 

            I tried explaining the quote, but it was lost on the fact that it was a 30-something year old movie. 

            Boundaries.  We run three to five shelters.  Most of them, anyone is welcomed inside as long as you follow certain rules (EX. No using while in the space, no violence, no gang colours, no threats, etc.).  However, the one with all of the crowds is the one that is different.  Our community members are promised a bed every night, they have their own space, and they are promised food and snacks and everything.  However, we work to help them set goals and plans- eventually leading towards getting some kind of housing. 

            The church’s basement is the one with the most boundaries than any other shelter.  Even the space looks different: rather than mats on the floor, there are small walls in a cubicle style for each space.  Many community members decorate the walls with sayings, art, quotes, and/or phone numbers.   The rule is we can talk to people outside of their space, but we don’t come in unless a life/death situation.  This space, when respected, actually allows people to be way chattier than if they were just on mat. 

            Why?  Boundaries.  

            And with this, there are those who remain on the outside.  Like a force field from a space opera, there is a wall that is more felt than seen.  Some have broken through this wall, only to be told one cannot come in for the safety of our guests.  Some have made threats, thrown insults, and fled.  Sometimes, we’ve had to call the police.  Rarely, though. 

            The boundaries are felt: if one wishes to get off the streets, you can come in and enter into the world of boundaries.  If you just want help, we’re do what we can. 

            Boundaries. 

“This is where I end and you begin.”

            “Boundaries define us.  They define what is me and what is not me.  A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.  Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom,” Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend writes in their book “Boundaries”.[1]

The simplest definition of boundaries is the image of a castle.

            What happens inside the castle is up to the kings and queens and knights and barons and dragons and all of those who live within the castle.  The walls are firm and empower those who are inside of the castle to respond to the forest and wilds outside of the walls. 

            They can respond to the outside world, but they are not responsible for the outside world.  They, instead, have the rules and culture and structure so the castle can be a castle. 

            Without walls, the castle is no longer a castle; instead, it’s a set of ruins. 

            The rules can be adjusted and changed and re-configured, but it is up to the residents within the castle rather than those who live in the forest.  Those in the forest can be helped by the castle and its good for the castle to help other people; but the castle is not ruled or governed by the forest. 

            This image of boundaries can be understood interpersonally (EX. “I am responsible for my actions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.   I am not responsible for your actions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.”).  It also can be something a parish or church can experience (EX. “We believe in God, the Father Almighty…”).   Families can be castles (EX. “We don’t yell in this house.”). 

            Boundaries is like chalk lines on the sidewalk.   Inside is me; outside is you.  

“Those who say ‘no’ can give the strongest ‘yes’.”  

            Boundaries is a way of aiding in identity and, I argue, establishing a “home”. 

            This is best described by the “TARDIS” in the great show “Doctor Who” (sorry, but for those who have read my blog enough know that all roads lead back to Doctor Who).  

            In this, the blue-now defunct-police box is bigger inside than on the outside.  One can enter and this police box will take them to any place, any time, and any dimension.   The TARDIS is more than just a time machine, it is the Doctor’s home.  The interior changes to match the Doctor’s personality and incarnation so it’s safe to say that as the pilot grows, so does the craft.  

            The Doctor has many, many companions.   They can live within the TARDIS with the Doctor, but they must obey certain rules.  

            Here are some rules:

 

      When one hears of “rules”, they think limits and yet the TARDIS, by all storytelling measurements, is limitless.  The boundaries of the TARDIS actually allow the Doctor and the companions to travel, get into adventures, help others, go places, and be safe.  By the “No” of refusing certain things within (IE. Daleks, Cybermen, supernovas, The Master, etc.), it is empowering for several moments of “yes” (IE. Saving planets, defending the weak, exposing exploitation, causing revolutions, etc.).  

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor – Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

            Plus, the TARDIS gives the show an identity.  Everyone who has seen the show, knows what the sound it makes.  What it looks like.  And even, it’s unique shade of blue. 

            Back to our friends on the street. 

            Christine Pohl asserts in her book “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition”:

“Hospitality is fundamentally connected to place- to as space bounded by commitments, values, meanings…Boundaries are an important part of making a place physically and psychologically safe.  Many needy strangers (e.g. refugees, homeless people abused women and children) come from living in chronic states of fear.  A safe place gives them a chance to relax, heal, and reconnect their lives.   If hospitality involves providing a safe place, where a person is protected and respected, then certain behaviours are precluded and certain pragmatic structures follow.”[2]

            I once heard a Christian leader bristle at the idea of hospitality.  “I don’t believe we should worry about hospitality in our church.  Now does that make me inhospitable?” 

            I really didn’t want to answer that question.

            But hospitality is linked to care, linked to the “love one another” lines that keeps popping up in a pesky way around the Scripture.  However, this care is rooted in the strength of identity.   Of convictions.  And of a firm sense of home. 

            When one has more and more of a home, then one has a shot at caring for their world.  This is why, I think, the Hebrew Scripture uses the idea of home to describe health, wellness, and growth. 

            When we make home through boundaries, we empower care.  


[1] Cloud, Dr. Henry.  Townsend, Dr. John.  Boundaries.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1992.  Pg. 29. 

[2] Pohl, Christine.  Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, Pgs. 134, 140.  

What We Lost in COVID-19: Grace

I wanted to buy a bottle of wine; so I did.

I wasn’t sure, at the moment, what the impulse was to come home with wine. I spent a lot of my career as as Baptist, Evangelical Tea Totaler. 2 of the churches I worked with had VERY strict rules that I should never, ever touch any alcohol; the next 2 didn’t have such a strict rule, but it was better that I didn’t.

As an Anglican Priest, I came home with a bottle of wine. It was in the thick of COVID quarantine, around July of 2020. I came home and my kids asked me why I bought the wine. I told them I didn’t know why. They then asked if I had designs of becoming an alcoholic. No, I said. I wasn’t planning on becoming an alcoholic.

I had wine with my dinner. My family stared at the water glass with a few snoot fulls. I sipped it and I didn’t enjoy it.

I knew of so many of my fellow priests who loved wine, who sipped it often. The drinking of wine was a celebration of life, enjoying the rich and robust taste of life. During our clergy retreats, the final night would be a table packed with alcoholic beverages; I went for the diet cola.

I never touched the stuff. Until that night. And I didn’t know why I was breaking the habit of abstinence.

Until my eldest asked, “Dad, do you miss the Eucharist?”

I turned sad. Didn’t cry, but thought about it. Yes, I thought. I miss the Eucharist. I liked the reminded of God’s love, God’s forgiveness. It wasn’t going to come back soon and it felt weird without it, with church being just and only “Morning Prayer” (even though we met at 2pm).

We went on-line as soon as the Pandemic started and I decided we would not partake of the Lord’s Table until we met in-person and it was safe. We had a brief break from our on-line worship in the Fall, but it wasn’t much and we went back to Zoom worship in the Advent Season.

I missed the bread and the wine: the simple reminder of God’s grace.

Back in the days when I was an Evangelical, I used to think grace was only about justification. If I prayed a prayer, asked the Lord to come inside of me…God did so because He was gracious and full of grace.

This is a comfort. There is a deep, deep insecurity in me (as in with many, I think) that we’re afraid that somehow, for some reason we’ll wear out our welcome. That we’ll say something (or not say something), do something (or hold back), and/or reveal something about ourselves (that is or isn’t there) that will cause us to lose our place in our home/community/church/fellowship.

Pastors fear this, I think, most of all. Evangelical Pastors can fear their one sermon away, one visit away from having their congregation decide “NO MORE”. It’s a driving engine to justify one’s life, one’s actions, and one’s existence. You just need one elder or board member to decide you’re not good enough and it’s over. As an Anglican, the fear is still there but it wasn’t as pronounced as when I was an Evangelical.

But then we turned to God and he says there’s nothing we can say or do or be that will kick us out of His House. We are, forever, justified. Justified by Grace! So relax, be yourself, take a deep breadth, and get busy in helping out the world because your Father-forever-will say you are good enough and you don’t have to worry about losing your seat at your Father’s table.

By faith you are saved…

But what about the day-to-day grace? Is there grace in sanctification? The cross brings us grace, but does the Kingdom of God as well?

As an Anglican Priest, I would say, yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Sanctification is the minute by minute growth we experience on this world, as we seek to make ourselves and others better and better. It’s a process. I have a friend of mine who lives at our homeless shelter. He mows the lawn every other morning “just because”. I thanked him a few days ago and his answer he gave me, through his gnarled beard full of grey tones, “Saving the world, one lawn at a time!”

This is the work of sanctification: saving the world, one lawn at a time.

But is there a way of experiencing God’s grace in the work of sanctification? There’s grace by justification for sanctification (“If I screw this up and do it wrong, God still likes me…I think!”); but can we receive grace in the day to day?

Yes. We are saved by grace (justification) and we can receive grace from God well after we are saved by the stuff of God (sanctification).

And how do we receive grace daily?

During that brief time in Canada when we ended one lockdown and was soon to face another, I went to a river spot in a neighbouring town to Edmonton. I was visiting some of the families from my church. None of them speak English as their first language, but Kankanaey (the language of the Igorot people from the Northern Philippines) and Taglog (the main dialect of the Philippines).

The word for grace in Kankanaey is “Gawiss”. I was learning this word and trying to figure out how it worked in a sentence. I shared this struggle in our church service earlier that day. While at the river, a young father came out and was talking about all of the fun he was having fishing during this weekend. My kids were running around the beach, panning for gold with the rest of the families. He heard about me sounding out the word “Gawiss”.

He pointed all around: the trees, the kids playing in the water, the river, the fish he caught. “Padi,” he said. “This is Gawiss.” Everything he pointed out was under that word.

When God shows up in our life, to remind us He loves us and we’re good enough and we won’t ever be kicked out of the Kingdom: this is when we experience sanctifying grace.

What makes sanctification grace different from other kinds of grace is you have to do something (and do the right kind of things) to experience it. The sweet taste of an apple fresh from a tree is a free sensation, the joy is unearned…but you still have to pick it from the tree.

My friends still had to drive out of the city, pitch a tent, and put a worm on a fishing pole in order to receive “gawiss”.

Grace was a lot more easy to get before the pandemic. For many in Canada, you could live a perfectly normal life throughout the week and then come to an in-person gathering, full of guitars and drums and dramatic preaching…BAM! Grace. For many, churches became a place where you would weekly (or monthly, if the statistics are true) check-ins with grace.

For others, God’s grace was found spending a week serving at a summer camp. Or volunteering at a foodbank, serving the homeless. Or tutoring New Canadians on how to speak English at a monthly conversation group. Or any other amazing, moments of grace where one worked to experience the love of God.

Eric Liddel once described, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” He was an Olympian turned missionary and the hero of the movie “Chariots of Fire”.

This is remarkable in it that what one finds God’s pleasure, another can find God’s judgment or the absence of God. For some, running is a delight; others, it is a fate worst than death.

Sanctifying grace is personal and unique to everyone following Christ. Sure, there are some rites and moments that can be shared by everyone. Receiving the Eucharist is something we are told “do this in remembrance of Me”, for it is something all of us-in Christ-must receive and receive often.

Gathering together is another sanctifying grace. Service is another. Generosity. Communal prayer…the list is wide and big. But then, there are those sanctifying grace moments that are just for Eric and only Eric; just like there are those for you and only you. Do these things save you? No. But they, instead, help us to enjoy our salvation.

I used to volunteer at our city’s “Fringe” Festival. The director of volunteers met with me once and told me he was a Christian. And he loved, loved, loved the Fringe: people get to know each other, no one was left alone, art was explored, barriers broken down. And then, in a loud trumpet of a voice, he proclaimed, “This. This is the Kingdom of God!”

I love that and loved it when he made such a proclamation.

But then the pandemic came. Things closed down. Churches went on-line. Eucharist was postponed. We entered into our cocoons and waited and waited…for the vaccine from our governments.

And grace went away…

One day, a bunch of snakes were biting all of the Israelites (there’s more context to the story I’m giving, but I won’t give it: I just like the sound of that simple, almost broken sentence). They were dying. Moses then fashioned a bronze snake and, with the direction from God, told all of the Israelites to look upon the bronze snake and they’d be saved. And they were.

Generations passed and people still looked at the bronze snake. Not because it saved them (they were already saved from the snakes), but it reminded them that God did save them and could again. Then they stopped being reminded of this and just, well, fell into the habit of staring at a bronze statue. To borrow a line from Mervyn Peake, they stared at the snake like a wall stares at a fellow instead of how a fellow peers at a wall.

In 2 Kings 18, King Hezekiah demanded that this statue be broken. Why? For there was no longer any grace in the thing. The people worshipped the thing itself and not what it was to remind them of, the God of grace.

With the pandemic, our reminders of God’s grace have been put on hold. No rest, no time to reflect on God’s love for us. Sure, church is on-line but it is, at it’s best, only a reminder of what it’s like to be gathered together, to be in one building, and to be…the church in one assembly. Camps have been cancelled; foodbanks can’t take in volunteers; and the English language groups have been put off for another year.

What we did to remind us of God’s love for us is now put into storage in our future.

The bronze snake statue in our lives have been taken from us.

How then do we experience the sanctifying grace of God?

King Hezekiah wasn’t against people being reminded of God’s salvation; instead, he wanted them to find it in new places. So the hunt begins for God’s grace.

A friend of mine missed the days of watching the local cricket games when he lived in England. He came to Canada as a younger adult and has lived most of his life here, as a New Canadian.

When the lockdowns were set, he struggled like the rest of us with the joys and adventures we relied on to gain the rest he needed. Like all of us, when the 2nd lockdown hit, it hit hard.

But, God’s serendipity, found a way. He discovered, quite by accident, that all of the Cricket Clubs in his neighbourhood started videoing their games live and he, in Edmonton, now could join in and watch.

He now watched cricket games and, suddenly, is surprised by grace. His wife will catch him watching and she feels the same joy.

He shared this with me and it sparked something I just picked up.

I don’t worship with my Igorot congregation on Sunday morning, but at 2pm. We’re an ethnic congregation and the original, main congregation of the parish uses the hall for the morning. When we went on-line, we just kept the time the same.

My mornings are free. I counted that I went to Home Depot for 5 Sundays in a row. Leaving Home Depot two weeks ago, I drove by the elementary school where my kids attended. On that morning, the field was taken over by a bunch of men playing cricket. They were all wearing pads and uniforms, in the middle of a rousing game. While Edmonton was at church or shopping, they played. Hanging near the parking lot was the Kenyon flag, matching the colours of the uniforms.

Both times I’ve seen this, I’ve wanted to pull over and watch. I still might. What holds me back is that most North Americans aren’t so forward.

Both cases of cricket were graces began with the pandemic and they were graces. But they were new graces, emerging not from the tried or the comfortable: but as surprises.

The pandemic has taken away what we used to use for rest, for grace, for recreation and yet God’s sanctifying grace still finds a way.

I know of families that have learned to listen better, play more, and slow down. I know of churches that have learned to value the presence of God through the simplicity of Zoom.

The sadness is when one can only experience grace the old ways, the comfortable ways and so when the bronze snake was broken, all was lost. This is why some are fighting to gather for crowded, de-regulated worship: it is all that is known. But others have found grace elsewhere.

It has been lost. And now found.

My prayer would be when the lockdowns in Canada cease, we can continue to search, look, and find the variety ways God is around us. We can point to the trees, the streams, and everyone around us and proclaim, “Gawiss.”

Is the Pandemic Crushing the Church???

There’s an old trick in journalism which is you say what you feel-without any reference or proof or facts- by hiding it behind a question mark.

Is the pandemic crushing the church? Isn’t Doctor Who the greatest show ever? Isn’t Canadian Anglicanism what the original church had in mind for proper and orderly worship?

See, I got to inject something un-factual and pretty well self-serving thoughts by just making it end with a question mark.

Right now, I live in the beautiful Canadian province of Alberta. As of May 5th, our numbers are the highest in our country and rival many US States in COVID-19 deaths and hospitalisations.

These are our numbers compared to the US.

We in the north have been followed many, many restrictions (although not as many as my friends/family in California) and the numbers have still been rising. Last night, Premiere Jason Kenny announced even more restrictions for our province.

The restrictions were given out of a palpable frustration. Alberta has been, for over a year, under restrictions with varying degrees of consent.

Down the road is Grace Life Church, where large, crowded gatherings were encouraged by their pastor and masks were discouraged. There has been a long history of warnings and citations, ending with an arrest.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nESt32eKlno

Last week, there was a rodeo which combined a love of being a cowboy with the hatred of any COVID-19 precautions.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-rodeo-covid-1.6011347?fbclid=IwAR3o4bUG1k8swspZ99XEr6iJD9sPF_GLH8vie2z3yInvWL3RYntI2fTV134

Vaccinations are slow to roll out in Canada (at least compared to Biden’s America). Instead, we’re getting more restrictions. For the next few weeks, all students will be on-line learning; churches will gather only on-line; non-essential businesses are temporarily closed; and we cannot meet-even outside- with friends in our backyard.

This feels like an over-reaction and I should know because I’m a master at over-reacting. It feels like a parent giving freedom to their teenage kids only to have the kids pick the most dangerous of options, do them repeatedly, and then demand greater freedom; then parent the over-reacts (IE. “Fine! Christmas, this year, is cancelled!!!!”).

This feels like an over-reaction. Is it? And can the church survive such an over-reaction, losing it’s in-person gathering? Or is the church made of stronger stuff? Can we fulfil the Great Commission and the Great Commandments during the pandemic? And am I doing what I began to describe earlier, make statements I haven’t proved yet by dressing them up with a question mark?

Years ago, a friend of mine invited me to his Episcopalian Church. I loved the liturgy, the preaching was great, and it was an interesting sign for things to come in my life.

The only thing I couldn’t track was the hymns. The music had little-to-no tempo. The notes would change, fast or slow, without any warning. The entire knave struggled to follow along with the organist. Sometimes, without reason, the singing would linger on a random note for 5-7 measures.

A dear saint

At the end of the service, I told my friend how much I liked the service and added, “I wasn’t used to singing your hymns the way you guys do.”

He whirled around protectively and put a finger over his mouth. Later, in the car, he shared, “Yeah, our singing is weird. Our church organist had a stroke. She lives alone and the one bright spot in her life is leading singing, but she can no longer read music. We sing the songs from her memory, which is fading fast, and she misses a lot of the notes. But we sing to support her. We want her to stick around and so we let her lead. By singing it her way, it’s actually brought us closer together as a church.”

Suddenly, what seemed an embarrassment turned into something really beautiful. They could have had a really “kickin'” rock band for their worship, but they gave up that right to worship with their friend and use worship-not for themselves- to build someone else up. They had the right to sing however they wanted to, but they chose to “not consider their needs more important than the needs of others” (Phil. 2:3).

The present restrictions, or any COVID-19 restrictions, have NOT stopped the church to do what it was created to do. All the restrictions have done, at best, is have the church sacrifice the way it would like to worship in order to help with the health and safety of other people.

In Canada, we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (for my American friends, it’s sort of like the first bit of the Bill of Rights). There is an interpretation (it’s pretty vague) that the government cannot, in any way, tell a church how it can worship. There are other interpretations, on specifically stating that the government can make laws when one’s religion will cause harm to oneself or others (EX. child sacrifice, volcano dancing, crowded church services during a pandemic, etc.).

Here is a movement of Canadian Christians who are fighting, exclusively, for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

But what about the Word of God? Does the Bible command in-person, crowded gatherings? Surprisingly, there’s a lot of freedom concerning what is worship and how the church can do it.

The Great Commandments is something, as an Anglican, are something we pray often as our liturgy. We do so now on-line:

“Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord in one. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength. This is the first and the great commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

Then there is the Great Commission:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28: 18-20

The question should not be how we fight for our rights, but how do we follow the Great Commandments and the Great Commission in our present setting? Where are we in God’s Story?

Fighting only for the way we like to worship and not consider the Great Commandments is a rejection of how God would like us to serve him and other people. The result is it creates a discontinuity between our content (“God cares about all people”) and process (“I have the right to make other people sick and die for my style of worship”).

What is the church’s text? The Bible? Or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as one uniquely interprets it?

I have been on-line for months. It’s hard. It’s less than ideal. It sucks.

A priest celebrates mass live-streamed on Facebook following the suspension of mass gatherings due to the coronavirus outbreak, at an almost-empty chapel in Manila Cathedral in Manila, Philippines, March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez – RC2BKF9J7D46

And I have been absolutely touched by those in my Igorot (Northern Filipino) congregation who have sacrificed an awful lot for us to continue to worship God. We cannot do the Eucharist, we don’t feel the songs as in-person singing allows, we don’t chat as much, and the kids don’t run around a building like we love. Potlucks are gone. Many have had to learn on-line giving, which is a precisely opposite experience than bringing cash in an envelope and passing the plate (the #1 way offerings are accomplished in their culture).

Yet they continue to come to our church on-line. They do so out of sacrifice. This sacrifice is because we want to follow our leaders and do our part to lower the numbers of deaths and hospitalisations.

Or as St. Paul writes, “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.” Galatians 5:13.

We serve because it glorifies God. We can continue because, in full conscience, we have a shot at fulfilling the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

I was newly married and I heard of an amazing, matrimonial feat accomplished by a man who was enjoying his 52nd year of wedded solidarity to his life partner.

I wait…for her.

The feat was pretty simple. They lived in the country, they drove to the big city (a 4 hour hike), and he sat in the car for two hours while he waited for his wife to shop.

“What?” I asked. “Didn’t you get sick of waiting?”

“Sure,” he said. “I mean, who shops in a single store for 2 hours!?!” But, nevertheless, he waited. He did not go inside and tell her to hurry it up. He wasn’t angry later, when she returned. He didn’t use his wait time against her in a later argument.

“Why?” I asked. It was clear I didn’t understand the 52 years of grace in their marriage.

“If I waited for 2 hours and, in a fit of impatience, marched in and told her she had 5 minutes, that would wipe out all of the 2 hours I gave her. I’d be starting from scratch. No, she had to know that if she went into a store, she had the full freedom to spend as much time in that store as she felt she needed.

“Now, there’s exceptions. Let’s say I told her that she had fifteen minutes and she agreed to that plan, then I could go in at 20 because she broke her promise. Or let’s say we have to make an appointment and we might be running late, I could come in. But in this particular case, the only time table was the one I made up and she needed me to be there, not rushing her, and giving her the space to make the decisions she needed make.”

This old, married man was painting a picture of grace embodied in his marriage.

Are pandemic restrictions crushing the church? It depends: how much grace can the Christian church embody?

The main muscle of the Christian Church, right now in Alberta, is its ability to embody God’s grace. If the Christian Church cannot act graciously, it will drive itself crazy fighting the system. Or it will ruin its witness.

As in this case from Calgary:

https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/neighbours-of-street-church-terrorized-by-anti-mask-preacher-and-followers?fbclid=IwAR2y2lEHBFNvw1JXrjQrkoW_nR9OsjIARH2c_vZ10-tgP-MkI4wcEZEHlxk

Leaders need grace (unearned approval and support) from their followers. Leaders can, at times, earn their support and love, but sometimes it has to be given and/assumed. When there isn’t grace, two things happen:

  1. The rules/message/restrictions are deemed untrue (Science is questioned, other studies are held up as equal or greater so long as they contradict the first set of studies, facts are challenged or ignored, and/or statements are countered with questions that hide contrary assumptions).
  2. The leader’s intention is invalidated (Conspiracy theories arise, “but-what-about-ism” springs forth, exceptions are made into rules to counter the former rules, and/or rules are followed half-heartedly).

This is a grace deficit. It is built upon the assumption: “I will only follow a leader if they are without flaw.” It’s practice is the assertion: “The leader has been proven to be flawed, so I must rebel.”

Stop the spike! And my Edmonton friends are scratching their heads. “Is Eric really supporting Jason Kenny?”

However, what if those in government aren’t perfect? What if they need the grace of God and the grace of the people in order to be followed because they are so goofy? And worst, what if they’re mandates are perfect? What if grad students, decades from now, will research how little knew about virology because of our stupid restrictions? And what if, just maybe, I’m expressing my frustrations of my kids’ at-home learning that was decided yesterday by hiding them behind question marks!?!?

The Christian Church is called, by God, not be only easy going and flexible. We were easy going, we were flexible last year in the pandemic. When we first shut things down, we all sang from “High School: The Musical” to the tune “We’re All in this Together.” We all cried at the “OK Go” video “All Together Now”. That was last year. We all banged pots at 9pm because we were all so flexible and so easy going.

Now it’s going to cost us to continue.

Grace is different. Grace requires sacrifice. For God to be gracious to humanity, it required the sacrifice of His Son. Grace, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is costly.

The church is asked to be gracious and follow restrictions by imperfect leaders; this now will be a sacrifice after a year of already doing so. It’s going to be tough. I feel it already. But can we be God’s grace to our communities in order to love and serve one another? We can, in Christ.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. In Acts 5, Rome demanded that the church stop sharing the good news. St. Peter’s answer was simple: “We follow Christ, not man (5:29).” This was a case where they were forbidden to follow the Great Commandments and the Great Commission.

Presently, I see the church able to follow both while meeting on-line and following health restrictions from AHS.

On-line church.

But what about Christian activism? I had many friends who participated in Black Lives Matter protests. For them, their Christian faith commanded them to demonstrate through peaceful agitation. They used the state of Democracy to communicate to the authorities (IE. the police) that how they do what they do should be improved. Can a Christian protest? Sure, but protest is different than disobedience.

Protesting requires obedience as people seek to make the government be better than it is or once was; rebellion rejects the role of a government on the grounds that those who govern are not perfect enough. Protest leaves room for grace; rebellion extinguishes grace from taking place.

Back to my friend who waited 2 hours for his wife in the car. All of us are in the car, waiting for 2 hours. We can wait further and give the gracious gift of our service…or we can go in and say, “Hurry it up!” Or worst, drive away in our car and abandon everything.

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Know this: these are the final months. We can’t blow our witness by following the rules and laws and restrictions for a whole year, only to give up in the 11th hour. As the church-with Christ’s help- we got this! Wear masks. Get vaccinated. Pray for those who are in the government. Forgive often. Be generous. Time things by patience. Share grace.

And what if, by some strange chance, the restrictions work? What if the laws that are put into effect actually save lives and keep down the death count? Isn’t that worth it? Shouldn’t the Christian Church be up for saving lives?

Or, as I will convey my feelings in the form of a question, can the Christian church be gracious in the remaining time of our pandemic?

Nordswaggersmornjaag: There Needs to Be a Word for Being the Dad of a Teenager

All of a sudden, one of my kids became a teenager.

It’s wonderful. They’re making good on life’s promise that every day they will grow, every moment we prepare them for adulthood will be a step closer to that goal, and that every spell a parent casts makes, creates an adult child.

It’s wonderful. We raise, they grow, the world conspires to make an adult. Things changes, colours emerge. The voice changes along with new words, expressions. Everything shifts and changes within this once-child.

It’s wonderful because it is filled with wonder, watching this kid become a “more” version of her/himself.

It’s wonderful. And horrific. And pain enveloping. And awful. It’s both.

The kid is gone and the adult slowly fades into the space. I am no longer a parent of a kid, a child. Toy stores now look different. Stories are told differently. The car becomes something different as one taxis a teenager. The backyard takes another shape.

A death takes place. With the journey of adulthood, I also think of growing older myself with a lot less delight.

Can something be wonderful and joyful while still carrying with it the guttural sadness of existential doubt?

I wish there was a word for being a parent of a teenager. You know, you hear of the Inuits who have over a dozen different words for snow. Germans have several words for being comfortably warm while it’s cold outside.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic is there was a word for the wonderful/awful state of being a dad of a teenager?

You know, it would be something in Norwegian, maybe. Nordswaggersmornjaag would be the name of the word explaining the celebration and distress of this season.

There would be a man who asked for two months of paid leave from his job as a cultural attache. When asked why, he was simply say, “I am in the throws of Nordswaggersmornjaag.

His employers would all nod sadly and allow him to go ice fishing in the north, until he adjusted to his new life.

Or say there’s a man running around the streets of Narvik. He is shirtless, chasing invisible nyssas. He’s lighting bonfires randomly in Norwegian communal book bins. The police are called. Suddenly, before the police use force in arresting him, an old fisherman stops them and warns, “Go light, go easy. He is in the middle of Nordswaggersmornjaag.” They would be kinder as they arrested him.

There could be a Norwegian Death Metal band named “Nordswaggersmornjaag”. It would be made up of men in their forties, balding, and-in their younger days- played punk in the streets of Halden…and none of their family members ever believed they ever did anything ever so interesting as that before they had kids.

It’s important to name things and I’d like to think that some, Northern European country has a handle on this. If not, we could come up with a Canadian name. Maybe? Or just feel the joy and pain of our kids growing older every day.

My 200th Blog: Keep the Ocean to Your Right

Not my bike, but a distant cousin.

Years ago, I rode my bike from Long Beach to Santa Barbara, California. This was many pounds ago with a waist size far, far away.

I was in a strange “in-between zone” of my life. Single, renting, and recently found myself out of work as a youth pastor, I was eagerly awaiting my new gig- directing a camp up in California’s gold country. With no deadlines to make or promises to keep, I thought I would take the trek up north.

I had a childhood friend who recently became a mother. She graciously offered her couch to me to crash on in the middle of my loop. It would take 2 days to get up the coast, 1 day to enjoy Santa Barbara, and 2 days to return. I had a friend who would pick me up and take me back to La Mirada.

There was a fabled bike path that ran along the beach. You would take it north and, if you got turned around, your job would always “keep the ocean to your left”. If you were going south, it was “keep the ocean to your right.”

Keep the ocean to your right.

I met all sorts of characters on the road. Some were intending to go all the way up to San Francisco. Others wanted to make their way to Alaska. You would cycle along, see another traveller, and then visit with them until either stopped or went faster than the other.

My first friend on the road was an elderly man who had the voice of Peter Falk. Strapped on the back of his cycle was a large bag full of blue popcorn. He heard where I was going and remarked, “Well, isn’t that a big bowl of cherries! You can go anywhere, I guess, as long as you know where the ocean can be found. Keep travelling.” He pulled off on the side of the road to take a nap. “Keep the ocean to your left,” he said as a parting blessing.

Just outside of Malibu, I had to use the bathroom. I found a lifeguard station and the fellow who let me in was kind, professional, and oddly familiar. I asked to use the can and he beamed, “Sure, man.” I walked past his office and saw a thousand posters from the TV show “Baywatch”. On the door of his office was a handmade sign which read “Mr. Baywatch”.

Mr. Baywatch.

Suddenly, I remembered! I never could watch a whole episode of the show, but I do remember studying some of the extras (a weird habit of my brain). There was a moustached individual who would do all of the lifeguard stunts behind all of the actors/actresses (IE. jump off piers, swim into the waves, dive deep under water). You could tell he was the real deal, not just a trained starlet.

This was Mr. Baywatch’s bathroom! I used the facility and thanked him.

“Going north?” he asked, pointing to my bike. I nodded. “Keep the ocean to your left.”

I continued. Just outside of Malibu, the road took me on Highway 101. It was a stressful on many levels. First of all, the cyclists road on the shoulder of a highway where cars would zoom by going 100k an hour. Secondly, there was nothing on the stretch of the road except signs warning cars that they were sharing the road with scary objects. Lastly, it snaked away from the ocean. At one point, it was nothing but hills and cars.

And then something wonderful happened: the road wrapped around a hill and, once again, the ocean came to my left.

The trail led through every town except one: Oxnard. Back in the last years of the 20th Century, the lane hadn’t been created. Perhaps now they go to it.

I had to ask for directions with the simplest being, “Where is the ocean?” When people pointed in the direction of the ocean, I then cycled to the left of it.

I got out of Oxnard and found the bike path again. A few hours later, I was in Santa Barbara. I visited my friend, spent the evening eating bratwurst near the old highway, and spent the next day reading at the now departed Earthling Bookstore. The next day, was back on the road.

Earthling Bookstore, Rest in Peace

Keep the ocean to the right.

I met a cyclist from New Zealand who stated, “When I get lost, follow your nose. Sometimes there’s place that just smell salty. You can’t see the ocean, but you know it’s there.”

At the end of my 5 days, I made it to Rocky Cola Cafe in Long Beach and waited for my friend.

Many poets describe God’s love as the ocean. It’s vast, deep, wide, and too big for the human eye to perceive from the shore. Its wave lap against the beach endlessly, never ceasing and never hesitating. The ocean shapes coastlines, changing ecologies. This is all the same with the love of God.

And it’s a way of travelling through time and space: always know where you are in relation to God’s love. We travel, we make decision, we have interactions, and we push ourselves forward…all with the knowledge of where we stand with God’s never-ending approval.

Right now, what would politics look like if people knew how much they were truly loved by God? Would Q’non take root? Would those hate others who voted differently? Would we need enemies if we knew God’s love for us? Would we be so angry?

How would our job interviews be shaped with us keeping God’s love to our right? Employment? Dreaming of the dream job? And for that matter, how would our dreams be shaped by God’s approval?

How would we end the pandemic knowing how fully we are loved by God? The times alone, the time we step out of our isolation…with the salty air of God’s love in our presence…the steps out all shaped by God’s love.

You can go anywhere…

Would our churches be any different if we knew how much God loved us? For that matter, would Christians behave different if their significance was to the left of the God’s ocean?

“You can go anywhere…” one could finish with “God’s love.”

Doc Brown: A Hero for a Teenager

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.

Cool people who just didn’t care.

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.

Doc Brown does not simply take a call…

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.”

Malcolm Guite: When the Internet Gives You a Gift

From my office and my collection of spells.

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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malcolm_Guite

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.

Everyone Loves Braxietel

Irving Braxiatel

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.

The Doctor has family issues

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”.

Irving, the bar owner

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:

This should clear things up…

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:

https://tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Irving_Braxiatel

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.

An example of Big Finish/Gallifrey’s Audio Adventures

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…

Either way, everyone loves Braxiatel.

Lord Braxiatel

The Web of More of More of the Same

The Web is spun and spun.

“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:

  1. You don’t understand any of this being in Canada. Your media filters all of the real news.
  2. My Pastor was referring to Tucker Carlson. He’s really good. You should watch his show.
  3. 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.

T. S. Eliot is not amused.

“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.

Couple people caught in a web

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?

A web from an existing web.

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.

We’ve done this 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?

Thoughts From the Shelter: Can Worship Exist Without a Home?

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.

Barbie

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.

Our Southside Shelter

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.

Hence Barbie.

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.

Jack Lallanne BELIEVES in fitness

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.

Home, Anglican, Cathedral Worship

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.

COVID roadtrip

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.

Alter asserts:

“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.

Where is YOUR Flair?

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.”

A God in a Living Room

“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.

I write about it here: https://ericjkregel.wordpress.com/2020/12/11/silent-at-the-southside-shelter/

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.

Catholic Bingo…Before COVID-19

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.