Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas Observations and a Couple of Questions

Growing up on the farm and going to the local one-room country school meant the Annual Christmas Programme. Solos, short plays, and heart-felt carol-singing in a packed little room with parents in parkas and screaming babies made it a wonderful time of the year.

Christmas Eve always meant the farm water-system breaking down after the church Sunday-School programme and then the men (and boys) going out in the -20C temperatures to pull out the long 100 ft. hose to the aquifer, unplug the jet filter, reseal the hose with boiling water, lower the hose back into the ground, prime the pump and then repeat whole the process again and again until the water system finally worked well again.

The peanut bags with Crackerjacks, WagonWheels, hard candy, a mandarin orange and some other nuts were always a highlight. I used to get 3 or 4 each Christmas.

My first Christmas married to Elaine was in Vancouver where we had a late supper with friends, went to Midnight Mass, and came back to open presents. Thus began our family tradition!

Christmas makes winter bearable.

Call me sentimental but Christmas isn't Christmas if the immediate family is not together at least part of the time.

Christmas trees are over-rated unless they are decorated with home-made ornaments.

The best conversations are spontaneous, not planned or calculated.

Food is a big part of the celebration but not necessarily the most important part. The crucial aspect of the table experience is the joint preparation in the kitchen. Making the meal is almost better than eating it.

The best meals include the right wine (not the most expensive).

Christmas music does not include Boney M.

The "Nine Lessons and Carols" service together with special music along traditional lines set in candlelight is an indispensable part of the Christmas celebration.

How many versions of Handel's Messiah deserve to be recorded?

Presents are over-rated unless they reflect the giver, not just the wishes of the recipient. The best presents come with love.

Gifts of money are always second-best but sometimes only the second-best will do.

A white Christmas is not welcome if it includes blizzards, -30C windchill, or ice-storms.

Welcoming and holding a newly-born infant at Christmas is almost more than the heart can take. It is truly a breath-taking experience.

Christmas is a poignant reminder of the people you miss.

If Christmas is so important, why have I forgotten most of them?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Watch and Wait" - A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

One of the very important aspects of the Church Calendar is to teach us as followers of Jesus how to measure our time. There is the sense among many of us (I know because I am like that myself) that from the first moments of our self-consciousness to the later years of our lives, we are carried along the tides of time with significant events or occasions (like marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a close friend or family member) occurring every so often to bring us to an awareness that perhaps there is more to life than just the passage of time. The Church Calendar places us in a context of faith, of history, of purpose and meaning, from a Christian perspective. The Church Calendar reminds us not to forget or neglect certain important aspects of what we have affirmed or, when we think of it, what we still affirm about our understanding of who we are in the light of God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ.

Advent marks the beginning of the Church year and anticipates the time of celebration of Christ’s Nativity, the birth of Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph and recognized as the The Coming One, God Incarnate. And while we look back and commemorate Christ’s birth more than 2000 years ago in very humble circumstances, we look forward to the return of Christ and the world is again set to rights. The word Advent means “coming” and so we remember and look forward at the same time. Our texts are meant to help us do that.

God’s intention for the world and the reality of the world are two different things. And yet God’s intention breaks through in surprising and extraordinary ways throughout our lives. C.S. Lewis called it “joy.” Christmas is a recognition of that “joy” which we recognize and celebrate once a year. Our texts this morning give us two different pictures in how to think of our Advent season and what it is intended to mean for us.

In the Old Testament text set for today, Isaiah 11:2-5, the prophet offers a vision of God’s intention where a nation so often the object of prey for the ravenous empire-building nations around it would live in peace and harmony.  The impulse for destruction would become the desire for construction. The determination to kill would give way to the instinct to nurture. The instruments of war would be melted down and made to be implements of peace. Pronouncements of judgments and justice would be given from one who made heaven and earth; teaching would go forth and people would learn what is right and what is true. From death to life itself.

From this picture in Isaiah, we are then confronted with the Gospel text found in Matthew 24: 36-44 that offers a much different picture. Jesus speaks to his disciples about events which are yet to happen and warns them accordingly. In Chapter 26 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks in what has been described as apocalyptic language. “Apocalyptic” has been notoriously difficult for our modern minds to comprehend and to interpret accurately. “Apocalypse” means revelation and this text has been variously interpreted by Christian scholars over the ages. Sometimes it helps to contextualize the words in order to understand them.

We have often understood these words of Jesus to refer to events which Jesus never had in mind although some Christians think that Matthew was already looking further ahead. Some Christians see in our text a warning to be ready for the second coming of Jesus, reading the first part of the chapter as a picture of Jesus, not as his vindication and exaltation into heaven but as his return to earth. We have been promised in Acts 1 and in many other texts that one day, when God remakes the entire world, Jesus will reappear and, because no one knows when that is, we are to be ready at all times.

Other Christians read this passage as a warning to readers to be prepared for their own death. Whatever we think happens immediately after death, (and many Christians have disagreed over these details, we should be, in principle, prepared for that great step into the unknown. That is why we are encouraged to keep short accounts with God through regular worship, prayer, reading of Scripture and other of the spiritual disciplines.

But Matthew seems to have a different purpose. Jesus here tells his disciples that a great crisis was going to sweep over Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside at a date unknown to them but which we now know to be 70AD at the climax of the war between Rome and Judaea. Something was going to happen which was going to devastate the lives, families, communities and yet at the same time be seen as the coming of the Son of Man, the royal appearing of Jesus himself and which would end in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

There are three stages to the point this passage makes: No one knows exactly when this will be; only that it will occur within this generation; normal life will go on right up to the last minute; and, like Noah’s time, people will carry on with normal living before calamity carries everything away.This event will divide families and colleagues right down the middle. “One will be left and the other taken.” The picture here is not that it is good to be taken away but rather that the one remaining behind will be the one spared. Others will be killed or kidnapped or perhaps worse. Whatever the case, the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was a time of emergency and fraught with danger.

These words ring loudly in our time as well. We live in turbulent and dangerous times. Who knows what will happen next week, or next year? But we as the church are urged to remain vigilant, to remain alert, to wait in expectation. Advent is a time when we are taught to remember, to stay awake. Not to worry but to wait expectantly for the coming of God. How will you wait expectantly this Advent? Some of us are already attuned to do that in ways we might otherwise not recognize. Failing health, illness, fragility of parents, broken relationships, loneliness, and other difficult aspects of our current situation can help us to remain alert, to wait expectantly for God to come to us in our need. But they can also create barriers. Pain and suffering can drown out our best intentions. We seem always on the verge of belief and unbelief. In the Book of Common Prayer, the “Prayer for the Use of a Sick Person” seems perfectly to the point:

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. If I am to do nothing, help me to do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, we need to learn to live eschatologically, in the light of eternity, in the "time between the times.” Our time is changing. The time of Christendom may be coming to an end.  While the institutions may still be present, they no longer carry as much weight as they once did in the community. When you look into the future, are you filled with hope or do you have a sense of foreboding? One thing is certain; circumstances will become more difficult. For example, last night I heard some powerful words and voices speaking to the need for a change in the relationships between the indigenous peoples and the so-called “settlers”. The anger of the indigenous peoples at the treatment they have received at the hand of the colonial authorities is palpable. The fact that many of us immigrant peoples have been knowingly or unknowingly complicit in this injustice requires us to listen and hear the pain and anger. What this will mean I do not know but I know it is time we listen to one another with open ears and hearts. Living eschatologically means living transparently in the knowledge that at any time we will be called to account for who we are and what we have done. 

Let us listen again to St Paul writing to the church in Rome:

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon – Covenant Mennonite Church – November 17 2013

Text: Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 21: 5-19
Theme: “Be Not Afraid!” or “Choose Joy!”

On October 30, 1938, the day before Hallowe’en, Orson Welles performed on radio an adaptation of H. G. Welles’s novel The War of the Worlds. Presented mainly as a series of news bulletins, the play suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Adding to the realism was the fact that the program ran without commercial breaks. In the days following, however, there was widespread outrage in the media and panic by certain listeners, who had believed the events described in the program were real. Why not? The winds of war were beginning to blow. The stock market crash and the dirty thirties had challenged the world economy. Totalitarian governments were shaping world affairs by increasing territorial and political demands.Nations were re-arming. With their nerves already on edge, the smallest thing could set the American people off.

The future can be scary to contemplate. A day doesn’t go by without hearing a word of warning or calamity about something or other. Moral decay, environmental destruction, secularization, earthquakes, sunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, wars and the list goes on. Not only that but the older one gets, the worse, things seem to be getting. And if you probe a little deeper, you will notice that normal rank and file people like you and me are fairly fatalistic about it. “Not much to be done about it.” “I guess it was meant to be.” “What can one person do?” If it is a death, one may hear that “I guess it was their time” or “It was meant to be anyway.” And so we live our lives, expecting the worst, hoping for the best, and wondering what’s going to happen. Some claim to know what’s going to happen. Climate scientists talk about tipping points and “points of no return” when the world will become hostile toward much of existing life. Fundamentalists talk about “the end of the world” and “the rapture of the saints” who will be lifted from the earth before it is consumed by fire. For both groups there is a sense of inevitability about the future. But for many of us there is a sense of futility about doing anything. And so we grow in fear.

Some Scripture passages have functioned the same way over the years. There are some passages in Scripture which are notoriously hard to read, much less, understand. They are called apocalyptic. Apocalypse means revelation and refers usually to future-oriented Bible passages. Our text this morning is taken from a longer text, one in which Jesus speaks to his disciples about what was to happen. The present temple, a wonder of the world, beautiful now, the sign of God’s presence in Jerusalem and among his people, would be so utterly destroyed that not even one stone would be left on top of another. Jesus spoke of Israel moving toward a point of the destruction of the nation. Extraordinary events were about to happen. People would say all kinds of things about the meaning of events. But rather than offer them a blueprint about how this was to happen or what the sequence was to be, Jesus told his disciples: “Do not be terrified.” “Do not be terrified! When these wars and struggles arise, when these earthquakes, famines and plagues come, when everything seems to be falling apart, do not be afraid."

These are words for our time. Are you afraid? What are you afraid of?

Samuel Wells writes that fear isn’t itself good or bad. It’s an emotion that identifies what we love. He explains that “The quickest way to discover what or whom someone loves is to find out what they are afraid of. We fear because we don’t want to lose what we love. We fear for our children. We fear for our planet. We fear for our friends. But we also fear death. Stanley Hauerwas stated in a lecture in Winnipeg that North Americans are afraid to die. Why else are we spending so much money on health care at the end of life? He went on to say that we have changed the medical community’s emphasis from “care” to “cure.” Why? Because not only do we love life but we are afraid of losing our lives.
The disciples were not to worry about the future. When things started to happen around them, they were warned not to be led astray. They were not to make preparations. They were to expect trials and torture and perhaps death, but God would give them all they needed at the time they needed it. In other words, the disciples were to continue with their mission of sharing the good news of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into the world and calling people to become part of this good news. God would take care of the rest.
Jesus’ words hit us right where we live. We are concerned with security. Western countries have spent trillions of dollars on issues of national security. We are concerned with having enough. We look daily at the stock market quotations, the job market, prices for commodities, weather reports, and so on. We are told we have to prepare for the future, otherwise we may not be ready.
Again, Jesus’ message is very simple: “Don’t be terrified.”
And the reason we are not to be terrified is because in the end Jesus is not interested in telling us precisely what the future holds but rather Who holds the future.  And when you know Who holds the future, then you know Who holds your every moment in this present time as well.  It is this confidence that allows us to rest easy when Jesus tells us that he will be with us and will even provide us with words to say if and when the world presses in on us and persecutes us for his sake.
For those of you who could not attend and as others of you have may have read in the bulletin over the last few weeks or heard announced in church on Sunday mornings, yesterday we held our Strategic Planning Session for the Covenant Mennonite Church. We looked into the future and tried to discern where God was leading us as a congregation. We had planned for this last February at our annual meeting and over a series of different sessions, activities and time, we looked to see how we could do some forward visioning and strategizing. We found out later that our National Conference, MC Canada, and our Area Conferences, like MC Manitoba, have formed a Futures Task Force to look at the future shape and mission of Mennonite Church Canada. Circumstances have changed. The ways we have done things in the past are not sufficient to our resources or our needs. What will the missional church of the 21st century look like in Canada? What is God calling us to here in Winkler?

These are daunting questions. For some of us they are difficult to answer. Looking back we see how God has blessed and sustained us. But looking into the future is less certain. Can we trust God with the future?

In several weeks we will begin Advent. I’m sorry to bring that up two weeks early. But I was reminded of that when I saw the Isaiah text for this Sunday. Into a world in which international tension was as ratcheted as tightly as anyone could imagine in this little nation of Judah, God chose to send Jesus, not as a fully formed divinity, or a super warrior or even royalty but as an anonymous baby born to ordinary folk. God has chosen to work with weakness because in the end, it is not our strength or preparedness which will determine the success of God’s purposes but God alone who will accomplish them. Our text refers to a future much different from that of Luke’s Gospel. This text, most likely written in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem and the return from exile, shows what God ultimately will bring about.

This passage is about Jerusalem being a city of joy, its people a delight; no more sorrow, or pain; a baby will live to grow old; a hundred years of age will be a normal lifespan; one will live to enjoy the fruits of his or her own labour – houses, gardens, descendants; natural enemies will be together in peace, pain and suffering will be a things of the past. 

There are many faithful Christians who practice the faith, know the truth, keep the commandments, pursue mission in many different ways, pray for the coming of the kingdom but never display the joy. In other words, good blameless people trying to do the right thing. But some of us are so worried about being right, about doing good, that we forget about joy. We forget about living. Do we trust God with our future? Wendell Berry once stated that we should "be joyful though we've considered all the facts." We tend to think in terms of success. But that is not how God thinks. We are called to trust in the God of the future and invited to live lives which reflect joy in the face of all that appears to be otherwise. Don't be terrified? I suggest that another way of saying “Be not afraid” is “Choose joy!”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day - Reflections from a Conflicted Mennonite

Every year the observance of Remembrance Day becomes a time of conflicted thoughts for me. At different times in my life I have changed my views about what constitutes a Christian response to war. What is the relationship between one's country and one's faith. Having studied in the area of Christian ethics and read many books supporting one view or another over the taking up of arms for God and country, I still struggle to know and support fully what a truly definitive Christian response would be. It is easy to sit in one's armchair like I do and, in the light of historical research, pronounce past wars to be "just' or "unjust."However, I have had members of my extended family involved in the armed forces and do so because of their conviction over the rightness of their cause. Furthermore, hindsight is unhelpful and often misleading. Every war is new and exceptional and introduces evolving new circumstances to the decision.  Even then, the decision is frequently lost in the fervour and excitement of finally "doing something."

The issue gets more complicated for me as a Mennonite and especially as a Mennonite pastor. I am officially to teach and support the historical peace position of the Mennonite churches. I feel the need to ask wider questions because many questions are deemed as pertinent. To what extent should we  disavow the use of force in the course of daily life? Is the force used by the police the same as the force used by the army? Should Mennonites even become police enforcement officers? Is the decision to protect my family from a violent intruder the same as going to war? Does my country of citizenship have the right to call on me or a member of my family to protect its (our) interests, no matter what they are? If someone disagrees with the official church position on peace and joins the armed forces, what then should the church do? Does it have the right to judge? How does the church respond to those who challenge its peace position? What does it mean to be in the world but not of the world? 

Over the past several weeks, the issues of pacifism and the Mennonite peace tradition have been raised in the local media. The October 28 2013 edition of the Canadian Mennonite had as its feature article one written by Ross Muir entitled "Let Nobody Judge Them." It chronicled the ambivalent and less than forthright response of Mennonite church leaders to the thousands of Mennonites who signed up for active service in the Second World War. Closer to home, the November 9, 2013 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press ran a feature article entitled "A Soldier Shunned" written by Randy Turner which describes Winkler and some other southern Manitoba communities with significant Mennonite populations as still living with unresolved tensions between the officially pacifist churches and those of their native sons who joined the armed services in World War 2. I knew some of the men who served in WW2 and found them to be humble and self-effacing in the memory of their service. I found myself compelled to thank them for their willingness to serve and to place themselves in harm's way for their country. I saw their commitment to a cause which they saw as just and good as equally commendable and worthy of our respect.

The other side of my thoughts goes to what our place in this country represented in earlier wars and what it has become. As a Mennonite I feel compelled to be grateful to a country which opened its doors to my ancestors and allowed them to settle with many privileges and freedoms. But at what cost to our souls? Many times Mennonites have looked the other way in the face of injustice. Sometimes we were willing or unwitting accomplices. We were given land to farm but did not consider that it was taken away from others. We looked away. Treaties were broken. We looked away. Many left to serve their country in battle and we, who did not, became wealthy. The history of our country, its treatment of First Nations people and other immigrant nationalities, and its participation in the unequal distribution of resources and wealth around the world continue as a lingering legacy of our national identity. What do we remember? What are we thankful for? What are our values?

Personally, I look at Remembrance Day with sadness. To my mind, war represents the failure of humankind. To go to war with another country is the failure of politics, common sense and a common desire to live together. The recognition that we have finally come to the point where where we must kill each other represents a victory for greed, hatred and the will to power. While we may consider our cause just (or more just than those who become our 'enemies'), our history leads us to realize that one war only leads to the next. And for what? What does war achieve? In the end, nothing. Only more war. In war everyone has failed, even the churches.

In our peace churches, we have long avoided war because we said we did not want to kill. My suspicion is that, more to the point, we have not wanted to die. It is my belief that if the peace churches argue against war, they bear the greatest responsibility to work positively for peace. Just as soldiers must go into the thick of the battle where the danger is highest, we ought not to shirk from danger or difficulty. We have much to contribute. From God's call to tear down the walls of hostility between nations, cultures, the sexes, the weak, the helpless, the disenfranchised and all who are marginalized, we need to take deliberate steps encouraging justice and reconciliation between all groups. First of all, I believe that peace begins at home. And so, reconciliation should also begin at home as we seek to be reconciled to those in our churches who have chosen the military as a way of serving their country. We may not agree with each other but we should be reconciled one with another. Secondly, we must reconcile with our aboriginal brothers and sisters who still bear the scars and open wounds of discrimination and mistreatment from decades of Canadian "justice." We have taken so much and shared so little. To practice respect and to seek true justice would be a good response from all of our churches. Finally, we should be willing to put our lives on the line for peaceable solutions. While not deliberately courting danger, we must not hide from dangerous places. Peacemaking can be a dangerous business.

We should engage in truth-telling in our churches and demand it from the leaders of our country. In a world where jingoistic responses often masquerade as patriotism or reasoned thinking, I wonder whether we would recognize the truth. As has been so often the case in war and in politics, the first casualty is the truth. Our commitment to follow Jesus should include a commitment to speak and seek the truth. Pacifism should never be confused with 'passivism.'

My own experience in seeking peace has been sadly lacking. But I am reminded every year at this time that to honour our dead and to give hope to our children we must be people of peace. I cannot disparage those who go to war to protect the innocent. But it should not stop there. In a conversation with a family member over the Mennonite peace stance, I was asked whether I would refuse to go to war for my country. I said yes but I said I also hoped I would be willing to die for my country and my Master in the service of peace. I still want to believe that.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Reading of Serendipity IV

For Capek, gardening is an  activity oriented to the future. Cultivating a garden takes time and patience. In fact, one may never see the fruits of his or her or garden; it may take centuries to mature. But there are no shortcuts. Time and unceasing vigilance are indispensable. Capek describes it this way:

"Take, for example, a little grass plant; if you want to sow the seed well and sparrows don't pick it up, it pricks through in a fortnight, and in six weeks it needs cutting, but it is not an English lawn yet. I know an excellent recipe for an English lawn - like the recipe for Worcester Sauce - it comes from an 'English country gentleman.' An American millionaire said to that gentleman: 'Sir, I will pay you anything you like if you will reveal to me by what method such a perfect, even, level, fresh, everlasting, in short, such an English lawn as yours is made.' - 'That's quite simple,' said the English squire. 'The soil must be well and deeply dug, it must be fertile and porous, not sour or sticky, not heavy or thin; then it must be well levelled so that it is like a table; after that you sow the seed and roll the ground well; then you water it daily, and when the grass has grown you mow it week after week; you collect the cut grass with sweepers and roll the lawn; you must water, sprinkle, wet, and spray it daily; and if you do this for three hundred years you will have as good a lawn as mine."

He goes on to say:

"We gardeners live somehow for the future; if roses are in flower, we think that next year they will flower better; and in some few years this little spruce will become a tree - if only those few years were behind me! I should like to see what these birches will be like in fifty years. The right, the best is in front of us. The right, the best is in front of us. Each successive year will add growth and beauty. Thank God that we shall be one year farther on!"

Karel Capek died in 1938, just after his beloved country of Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to the demands of Hitler's Germany. His brother Josef, the illustrator of this little book, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the war.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On Hope and Preparation - The Reading of Serendipity Part III

From being a Gardener to becoming the Garden:

"We say that spring is the time for germination; really the time for germination is autumn. While we only look at Nature it is fairly true to say that autumn is the end of the year; but still more true it is that autumn is the beginning of the year. It is a popular opinion that in autumn leaves fall off, and I really cannot deny it; I assert only that in a deeper sense autumn is the time when in fact the leaves bud. Leaves wither because winter begins; but they also wither because new buds are being made, as tiny percussion caps out of which the spring will crack. It is an optical illusion that trees and bushes are naked in autumn; they are, in fact, sprinkled over with everything that will unpack and unroll in spring. It is only an  optical illusion that my flowers die in autumn ; for in reality they are born. We say that Nature rests, yet she is working like mad. She has only shut up shop and pulled the shutters down; but behind them she is unpacking new goods, and the shelves are becoming so full that they bend under the load. This is the real spring; what is not done now will not be done in April. The future is not in front of us, for it is here already in the shape of a germ; already it is with us; and what is not with us will not be even in the future. We don't see germs because they are under the earth; we don't know the future because it is within us. Sometimes we seem to smell of decay, encumbered by the faded remains of the past; but if only we could see how many fat and white shoots are pushing forward in the old tilled soil, which is called the present day; how many seeds germinate in secret; how many old plants draw themselves together and concentrate into a living bud, which one day will burst into flowering life - if we could only see that secret swarming of the future within us, we should say that our melancholy and distrust is silly and absurd, and that the best thing of all is to be a living man - that is, a man who grows."

The Reading of Serendipity Part II

Karel Capek's The Gardener's Year is a deceptively simple little book which contains within it many observations eerily relevant to the religious and political climates of our day. In many respects the religious and intellectual leaders of the last century have failed adequately to nourish the soil of common human existence, choosing instead to exalt the fleeting pleasures of consumption, power and wealth. In his three page chapter on the soil, Capek compares the dead and sterile primeval clay with the rich soil of life and notes what it takes to change the one into the other.

"And then you will know that you must give more to the soil than you take away; you must make it friable and fertile with lime, and temper it with warm manure, lighten it with ashes, and saturate it with air and sunshine. Then the baked clay disintegrates and crumbles as it it breathed in silence; it breaks down under the spade with surprising readiness; it is warm and malleable in the hand; it is tamed. I tell you, to tame a couple of rods of soil is a great victory. Now it lies there, workable, crumbly, and humid; you would like to take it and rub it all between your thumb and finger, to assure yourself of your victory; you think no more of what you will sow in it. Is it not beautiful enough, this dark and airy soil? Is it not more beautiful than a bed of pansies or carrots? You are almost jealous of the vegetation which will take hold of this noble and humane work which is called the soil."

At the risk of making too many literal connections to such an allusive piece, my own thoughts turn to the pastoral task of Christian or spiritual formation. To hear Capek from that vantage point is perhaps to hear a call to the church to return to its primary vocation of formation. Vegetation is important but it can only live and indeed, thrive, in a healthy, fertile soil. Have we been so focussed on the vegetation that we have ignored the need to replenish and restore the soil?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Reading of Serendipity

When much of your reading is purpose-driven, other reading tends to be more for pure pleasure. In my case, I frequently find myself engrossed in a book which surprises me by its lack of connection to what I normally would choose. In this case, my son had given me a book entitled Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison. This in turn led me to a book I saw mentioned by Harrison called The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek. Capek, a Czech intellectual and statesman, was a strong dissident voice during the rise of National Socialism in Europe in years leading up to World War II. He died in 1938.

 Capek's passion in this book is soil, the medium with which gardener's work. As Verlyn Klinkenborg who writes the introduction to the Modern Library Gardening Edition writes, "The question of garden soil is ultimately a moral one for him. Some soils are beautiful in richness and consistency while others are 'ugly as the coldness, callousness, and malice of human souls.'" In The Gardener's Year, Capek undertakes to use the motif of gardening as providing commentary on the world around him. Gardening is essentially a moral exercise and the true gardener, although frequently appearing as a slightly ridiculous figure, is involved in deadly serious work. It becomes a metaphor for the role of the intellectual. His image of the true gardener is expressed in terms of the one who tends the soil. Here's Capek:

"While I was only a remote and distracted onlooker of the accomplished work of gardens, I considered gardeners to be beings of a peculiarly poetic and gentle mind, who cultivate perfumes of flowers listening to the birds singing. Now when I look at the affair more closely, I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. He is a creature who digs himself into the earth, and leaves the sight of what is on it to us gaping good-for-nothings. He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost. If he came into the Garden of Eden he would sniff excitedly and say: 'Good Lord, what humus!' I think that he would forget to eat fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; he would rather look round to see how he could manage to take away from the Lord some barrow loads of of the paradisiac soil. Or he would discover that the tree of knowledge of good and evil has not round it a nice dishlike bed, and he would begin to mess about with the soil, innocent of what is hanging over his head. 'Where are you, Adam?' the Lord would say. 'In a moment,' the gardener would shout over his shoulder; 'I am busy now.' And he would go on making his little bed." Or, as he says a little farther on: "...The gardener is not a man who smells a rose, but who is persecuted by the idea that 'the soil would like some lime,' or that it is heavy (as lead the gardener says), and 'would like some sand.'"

In the next few posts, I'll highlight some of Capek's other insights gleaned from this little treasure.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community

Book Review - Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community by Leah Kostamo
Published by Cascade Books: Eugene, Ore., 2013

I'm back! It has been awhile since I last contributed to this blog. Rather than try to make up excuses why this might be so, I'll just get back to it.

Over the past number of years I have been somewhat involved with A Rocha Prairie Canada here in southern Manitoba. It has been an interesting and rewarding experience and I have learned much about conservation and environmental care from those I have met through A Rocha Canada. The initial A Rocha Environmental Center was founded by Peter and Miranda Harris in 1983 while in Portugal where Peter was serving as an Anglican priest. Some twenty national organizations spanning five continents later, A Rocha has become a significant Christian presence in the conservation and environmental care movement. "A Rocha" means "the Rock" and reflects not only the geographic origins of the first Center in Portugal located in Quinta da A Rocha - farm on the rock - but also its grounding in a Christian worldview. 

Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling and Community is the story of the founding and early growth of A Rocha Canada. The book is written by Leah Kostamo who, with her husband Markku, ended up in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Here they started inauspiciously, first at the mouth of the Little Campbell River and then further up along the watershed, developing a study centre which would function both as a place to model and also then to mentor others in environmental care from a Christian perspective. From modest beginnings, the Center has become an important Christian resource in the Lower Mainland and has expanded to help start another Canadian site in southern Manitoba down in the beautiful Pembina Valley south of Winnipeg. An added feature of the book is a short description of the events and main characters involved in the start of A Rocha Prairie Canada.

The book is an encouraging yet honest account of the very real issues in building something out of only a vision, a vision which at first is more a conviction then something well-defined. Leah writes with verve and humour, never shy about describing the foibles of living in community with very real 'characters' and on a shoestring, often wondering where the resources would come from to keep them going. She also does her own illustrations which add humour and make pointed observations about different aspects of life at the Center. 

Creation care is a work of faith in progress, sometimes hidden and sometimes open but, as Leah has reminded us, always worthwhile. Wendell Berry once stated that we should "be joyful though we've considered all the facts." I am grateful to organizations like A Rocha and people like Leah and Markku Kostamo for having "chosen joy."