Epiphanies, or Lack Thereof

fonds 1266, Globe and Mail fondsI recently got around to finishing my good friend Alice’s first novel: From All False Doctrine. To say the book is aimed at a niche market would be something of an understatement. How many novels can tell the love story of an aspiring classics scholar and an Anglo-Catholic cleric, set in 1920s Toronto with a healthy dose of Satanic cults thrown into the mix? It’s fair to say, though, that I am certainly part of this niche demographic. I found the story and the characters absolutely delightful and the central mystery compelling. To quote Leeman’s altar ego, the book is a perfect blend of whimsey and macabre. I highly recommend checking it out!

If excessively likeable characters and obscure liturgical references aren’t enough for you, it’s worth noting that the story also serves as a particularly compelling exploration of the process of conversion. Through the course of the novel, Elsa Norqvist, our scholarly protagonist, finds herself drawn from her comfortable agnosticism into the complex and unsettling world of personal faith. I do not want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say Elsa’s journey offers a necessary challenge to the persistent notion that conversions (especially spiritual conversions) happen in a dramatic moment of epiphany or revelation. Instead, Elsa finds her spiritual growth happens almost imperceptibly. It’s not clear at what point she shifts from “skeptic” to “believer” on the Christian spectrum. What is clear, however, is her conversion does not happen in a vacuum. It is relational — born out of her experience of the church and her relationship with those in it, most especially her love interest the Reverend Kit Underhill.

Perhaps Elsa’s journey resonated with me at this particularly moment because current events have me pondering the conversions I have experienced in my own life and faith. Obviously, my most profound conversion occurred in my movement towards a sacramental expression of Christianity from my Evangelical upbringing, a journey which itself took nearly a decade to occur. But I have also been pondering other, more specific “conversions” I have experienced and noting that what connects them all is that they are birthed not wholly in reason or arguments or debate–but in relationship and community.

Take for example the current explosion of media attention calling for the removal of the confederate flag from southern state flags and statehouse grounds in the wake of the Charleston massacre. I can remember winning a number of speech competitions in high school advocating for the presence of that rebel flag on government buildings in my home state of South Carolina. And yet now I join with those crying out for southern legislatures to make this one powerful (if still largely symbolic) gesture to oppose systemic racism. It may not seem like a huge shift in perspective, at least to those not born south of the Mason-Dixon line. In reality, though, changing my views on the use of that flag reflects a long journey, and a journey that was not only about intellectual or rational arguments. Trust me, high school Rachel was fully aware that modern use of the flag dated back to the KKK and pro-segregationists. And while those arguments are true and compelling, it was ultimately learning to listen to others, primarily those for whom the Stars and Bars can only be a sign of terrorism and oppression, that got me to realize “southern pride” is a pretty hollow reason to keep that piece of cloth flying today.

Coming to support the removal a pretty much universally acknowledged racist symbol might seem like a relatively small matter, and one which any person in their right mind should accept. Yet it is indicative of how so many conversions have happened in my life. I don’t know exactly when I became an Anglican, or for that matter when I became a Christian. I don’t know when I finally became convinced that LGBT Christians must have full inclusion in the life of the church. But I do know these changes took place gradually and as a result of theological reflection and, perhaps more importantly, lived relationships with my fellow Christians.

Growing up as I did in a church that valued “born again” experiences, I often had tremendous anxiety over never having moments of conversion to point to as assurance of my “salvation.” I appreciate a story like From All False Doctrine for reminding me that, with notable exceptions like St Paul on the road to Damascus or St Augustine in the garden, most of us do not experience epiphanies that radically change our worldviews in a single moment. Instead, we fumble along, seeing to best comprehend the mystery of God nourished by our own experience of Christ’s presence in our lives. We grow, and we change. By God’s grace we may end up far from where we started. But the journey often happens in many imperceptible steps, rarely in dramatic leaps and bounds. The Holy Spirit is very sneaky like that.

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Creation and Conversion

Celebrant: Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?  People: I will, with God’s help    

These words have recently been added to the Anglican baptismal liturgy, effectively placing care of God’s creation as one of the fundamental disciplines of the Christian life. I had this new liturgical exchange in the back of my mind as I read Pope Francis’ recent encyclical: Laudato Si’, which explores the goodness of creation itself as well as our human role in preserving it.

There is much to be said about the Pope’s words, and not just from political punditsLaudato si’ is a both an astounding piece of theology and (I would argue) a call to radical discipleship in the church. It touches on everything from our rampant consumerism to the impact of human behaviour on global climate change to the sacramentality of all creation. I cannot possibly do justice to all Francis explores in the document. But perhaps Francis’s observations can at the very least give us some insight as to why our own Anglican church has seen fit to place the stewardship of creation at the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Francis’s words are at once meditative and provocative — convicting and condemning for all of us who are guilty of exploiting the gift of God’s creation for our own ends. The pope challenges us to see nature as having value in itself, apart from any utility to poses to human consumption. Though humanity enjoys a special relationship with God that sets us apart from the rest of the created order, we do a grave injustice to our Creator by failing to mark the inherent worth of all creation. Francis asserts: “Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (par. 84).

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Not only are we called to affirm the worth and goodness of creation, but we must also acknowledge our own deeply entwined relationship with the realm of nature. God may have made men and women the stewards of creation, but we are creatures ourselves, dependent on our Creator and on our relationship with one another. It is not going to far to grasp that for Francis our attitude towards creation mirrors our attitude towards God. Do we see God as the loving creator of all in which we live and move and having our being? What does it say of our attitude towards God if we reduce the bounty of creation to raw materials to be merely exploited for our use? How do we see ourselves as creatures depended on our creator and the rest of creation? Not only this, but what does out impulse to plunder the earth in a consumeristic quest for a satisfaction we will never find suggest about our relationship to our human brothers and sisters? If we are indeed all connected to and dependent on one another, how we use our shared creation has an undeniable bearing on our compassion (or lack thereof) for other people. Indeed, we simply cannot affirm the promises of our baptism — vowing to seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbours as ourselves, if we do not approach the created world with a sense of reverence and value.

Throughout his document, Francis speaks of the impulses of greed and self-gratification which drive our consumer economy. We believe that we are free if we have the capacity to define ourselves and our lives however we wish. Certainly the lie of consumerism is the promise that with the right resources we can craft our own perfected, individualized lifestyle. But perhaps the greater freedom is saying “no” to such empty consumption. Choosing to limit our own resources to better value God’s creation in its own right and to think of others’ needs,  not of our own desires. Such an attitude is not merely a system of beliefs but it involves actively making choices, living our lives in a disciplined way with respect to the stewardship of creation. In so doing, “we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change” (par. 218).

This is the heart of Francis’s argument. Concern for and care of God’s creation marks the moment of conversion to which we are all called in our baptismal covenant. Perhaps if there is one inescapable truth in Francis’s words it is the neccessary embodiment of the Christian life. The act of baptism itself defies the notion that our faith can ever in any meaningful sense be a purely a rational, intellectual attitude towards the world. In baptism we are born of the material elements of water and marked with the substance of oil. The Christian faith is subsequently lived not just in belief, but in action. Care for the environment cannot just be a matter of thinking nice thoughts about how beautiful God’s world is. It means making active, concrete changes to how we live our lives–how we eat, how we consume resources. In so doing, we not only honour the wondrous gift of the natural world that God has created, but we also honour our connection to the whole human race throughout the world. We recognize that our actions of irresponsible consumption have real consequences for real people.

Like all calls to conversion, Francis’s words can be hard for us to receive. Our own baptismal covenant, however, makes it clear that heeding his call to action is not a pleasant idea we might make part of our lives. Rather it is a mandatory element of Christian discipleship. Let us strive to undertake it, with God as our helper.

#BlackLivesMatter

Words fail me as I contemplate the news of the tragic shooting of 9 black men and women at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

It has been many years since I have been to Charleston — many more since I have have lived there. Yet in some sense I still claim it as a “home”, insofar as I have any “hometown” other than Toronto these days. I hurt to think of the pain and the grief sweeping over that city this morning in light of this senseless act of violence.

At the same time, I must admit much of that grief is not mine to share. It is the grief of the black community in Charleston — indeed, the black community across the United States — seeing yet one more example of the violence enacted against their lives and their bodies. In a statement reprinted in the New York Times, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said, “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” The truth is … we do know what motivated this man, especially when he is quoted as declaring to his victims: “You rape our women. You’re taking over our country. You have to go.” Even without his own condemning words, we know what motivated this white man to enter one of the most historically prominent black churches in South Carolina and take nine lives. We do nothing less than perpetuate the ongoing violence against black Americans if we refuse to see and name this racist act for what it is.

For a white Christian such as myself, that means taking a long hard look at at the incredibly self-segregated North Charleston high school I attended, where every lunch period the cafeteria divided neatly along racial lines. It means taking a long hard look at all the honours and AP classes I was able to take — and realizing there were very few non-white faces present in them. It means recognizing that there are so many subtle, hardly perceptible ways the culture around me shapes the idea that non-white persons are of less value than my white person. That is not ok. And we need to name it.

The Gospel of Mark (5:1-17) records a story of Jesus casting out a host of demons, sending them into a herd of pigs. Before he does so, he asks the demon its name, and it is only then that he eradicates their presence from the man they possessed. Names are important. Labels are important. Knowing the sins of this world is important if we are to confront them in the name of the Gospel.

As a white Christian — particularly a white person of some socio-economic privilege — it is not just my responsibility but my duty to name and condemn the systemic racism that continues to perpetuate violence against black and brown individuals. And to acknowledge that I have benefitted from such systemic racism. It’s not about feeling guilty as a white person. It’s not about trying to make apologies on behalf of my race. But it is about looking with open and honest eyes at the reality of racial dynamics and white supremacy that mark our world.

Even more importantly, it is imperative that white Christians stand up and join our brothers and sister is affirming that #BlackLivesMatter. Because the fact is there are far too many people in this world who still fail to grasp that fundamental truth. And we are called to recognize that while there is a time for peace and reconciliation, there is also a time for lamentation and for anger from those communities who have faced a history of oppression.

I am mindful that I make these observations as we come to the end of the #22Days between the Aboriginal Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Aboriginal Day of Prayer here in Canada. Let us be mindful of the over 1,000 indigenous women missing or murdered just in my lifetime. And the thousands of aboriginal children cast into unmarked graves as a result of the residential school system.

I am mindful as well that just today Toronto Major John Tory to postpone his pledge to end the practice of “carding”–which disproportionately impacts non-white men–and remove all records collected from the police database. As we condemn the mounting instances of violence against black lives happening to our south, we must also be willing to name the systemic oppression that exists in our own communities. We are none of us immune.

Naming these systems of oppression for what they are is certainly not the end of story for combating racism. But it is a necessary first step, without which we can never hope to see the justice of God’s Heavenly Kingdom reflected here on earth.

How long, O Lord … How long …

My life is a mess, as it should be

Do you ever feel like you’re just being brutalized by a piece of media that for some reason you are watching for personal entertainment? Do you find yourself thinking — why am I subjecting myself to this?

That pretty much sums up my feelings about the CW’s series The 100 I’ve recently started watching on Netflix. Don’t get me wrong. It’s an objectively very good series. In the distant (or … not too distant?) future, the human survivors of a nuclear holocaust hover in orbit above the radiation-soaked Earth, waiting for a time when it will be safe for them to return. As resources become desperately scarce, however, desperation leads them to send 100 juvenile offenders to the ground in hopes that they might determine whether it is habitable. What results is a gruelling tale of survival and moral compromise. Including the brutal deaths of teenagers in pretty much every episode.

It is, admittedly, compelling television. I’ve blasted through the first season, and I am well on my way through season 2 (season 3 will begin later in the Fall, I assume). But as much as I feel myself compelled to keep watching the drama unfold, I can’t help but feel I am not actually enjoying myself. Maybe that’s because all the characters must make so many difficult choices for their survival that ultimately no one remains that likeable. Maybe it’s because of the aforementioned brutality. But, ultimately, I think my lack of pure enthusiastic love of the 100 stems from its absolute and total lack of humour. Sure, there are moments in the series where children aren’t being totally mutilated. I guess that’s a win? But there are literally no moments that are played for laughs. There’s no time to catch a break from the tension and let loose with some comic relief. And the series suffers from that.

This got me pondering why series need comic relief so crucially. I know my tastes veer towards the ridiculous, as we have previously established. If it were up to me, I’d just be watching episodes of Brooklyn-99 every night (confession: Brooklyn-99 makes an effective post-the 100 palate cleanser). Still, there are more stories to be told than whimsical comedies and those stories inevitably necessitate darker tones. Yet, looking just at the genre of TV series, even those with more dramatic storylines make the concerted effort to include moments of levity and outright comedy. Lost wisely gave Hurley time for his hijinks. At its best the show had you shouting in triumph as much as gasping in shock. I’ll confess, I’ve had a hard time getting into the much-praised Netflix series Daredevil due to its brutal violence. But I will say its creators know how to use the character of Foggy Nelson to offset the intensity. Also, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t sing the praises of my favourite cult-classic Farscape, which knew how to give characters permission to laugh even when staring death in the face.

Now, I suppose one could argue that “comic relief” as it were is just one more consumerist ploy to keep potential audiences entertained so that they keep watching and are not put off by an unrelentingly grim narrative. I can’t help but think there is another, more profound, reason writers and creators feel compelled to make room for a bit of laughter. We human beings are limited creatures. As grim and dark as life can be, we cannot bring ourselves to remain in that darkness. We laugh even in the midst of real, palpable grief. Perhaps it is a defence mechanism. Perhaps it is a bit of grace in the midst of suffering. But laughter always finds a way to break through. It’s why, in spite of some very strong characters and writing, a show like the 100, ultimately comes across as just slightly tonally off to me. No matter how grim the circumstances we are facing, I cannot believe the human race would get to such a place that we could not laugh at ourselves.

Look at these people. We are a crazy, chaotic mess!

Look at these people. We are a crazy, chaotic mess!

Now, this might sound like I am praising the idea of laughter and joy and frivolity in and of itself. I have indeed expressed such sentiments previously (and I stand by them). My thoughts this afternoon, however, are a bit more complicated. What I want to encourage us to reflect on this afternoon is not so much the gift of “comedy” in itself but the gift of that messiness and complexity that marks our lives. We are delightfully complicated, messy creatures. We are able to find laughter and joy in the memory of a lost loved one. And, it must also be said, we can be struck with a hint of bittersweet sadness in a moment of joy when we realize how fast time slips away.

This is the life that God gave us. I cannot help but feel we so often fall into a trap of trying to put ourselves and all the various aspects of our lives into strict boxes and categories. “This” is funny. “That” is sad. Or, perhaps more pointedly … “This” is where and when I pray. “That” has nothing to do with faith.

Think how much poorer our world and our lives would be if we kept to these orderly boxes, especially when it comes to the merging of our spirituality with the everyday business of our lives. God has a tendency to pop up where least expected. That can be surprising, challenging, and exciting. It’s also … messy. A fact for which I am incredibly grateful. I’m glad my life, my emotions, and my faith are all at times a big mess. It makes TV more interesting. And it certainly makes life more interesting.

You will be Assimilated

Why are the Borg the most terrifying villain in the Star Trek universe? Certainly they are not more powerful than the Romulans, or the Dominion Empire of later Deep Space 9 seasons. Any fictional antagonist can offer a physical threat to the Federation. The Bord, on the other hand, pose a existential threat, not to a government or a civilization, but to individuals in their very personhood and identity. What are those four horrifying words they utter — “You will be assimilated.” Even the great Jean-Luc Piccard was no match for the determination of the Borg to rob their opponents of their very selves. That is horrifying. And the Borg are not the only sci-fi villains to play upon this basic, almost primal fact that the loss of self is more to be feared than physical harm. I still get freaked out when I watch that scene in The Dark Crystal when the Skeksis drains the life force from the podlings, turning them into empty shells of the beings they once were.

It may seem a strange connection, but I have had these narrative moments in my mind over the last few days as the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission has come to and end and published its conclusions. Perhaps the most damning phrase that has come out of the commission is the unequivocal declaration that the Residential School system amounted to “cultural genocide” on the part of Canadians against the Aboriginal people. So, what does that term mean, and why should it so powerfully convict us of the profound wrongs committed at those Residential Schools.

The Anglican Church of Canada is currently promoting a social media movement #22days, referring to the 22 days between the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Aboriginal Day on June 21. During this time, we are challenged to hear the sacred stories of those who endured the abuse of the Residential Schools. Each day, the church is releasing another survivor’s story, which you can find here.

It goes without saying that any number of unspeakable horrors happened in those schools–one former teacher talks about beatings, and children contracting rare forms of tuberculosis in their bones. And by now, I’m sure we have all heard the shocking statistic that children were as likely to die in the Residential Schools as soldiers were to die in World War II. The difference being, the victims of residential schools were callously tossed in unmarked graves without their families having any idea of their fate. What was that I said last week about people not being things?

But when I listened particularly to the story of Eva Louttit describing her experience of entering the residential school system, it struck me there was a horror to these schools that went beyond the death rates and even the cruelty of ripping children away from their families — these schools robbed Aboriginal children of their fundamental identity and personhood. Louttit describes how the first thing that happened to her at the school was having her long black hair cut off. She sat in a chair surrounded by piles of hair shorn from the girls who had gone before her — “The first attempt of the residential school to cut me off from my Indianess.” Later, when Louttit was able to go home and rejoin her own community, she was called “White Man” because she had lost too much of her language, too much of herself to be fully accepted once again.

Louttit’s story is a powerful, personal illustration of that “cultural genocide” perpetrated by the residential school system. A kind of genocide which is perhaps more insidious and more evil even than the bloody massacres that took place in my own homeland. Robbing generations of children of their basic cultural identity is nothing less than a violation of their fundamental humanity.

I love Canada. By their point, I probably identify more as a Canadian than an American (after all, I’ve spent my whole adult life here). I am counting down the days until my citizenship application comes through. But it is fair to say we have a stain on our collective conscience. And let us not forget that guilt is born especially by those of us in the Anglican Church of Canada, which operated so many of those schools. I am not sure what the answer is, or how reconciliation can ever truly be achieved. I know one place to start is reading the 94 recommendations from the commission regarding issues of education, health care and fair access within the legal system for Canada’s Aboriginal people.

And I know that, personally, what we can each do is listen to those sacred stories being shared by survivors. To look into the reality of what happened for generations–and what was still happening even a few short decades ago–fully endorsed by our church and our government. Perhaps in allowing these survivors to speak their stories, and to receive them in a spirit of humility, we can somehow begin to restore at least some semblance to the humanity so disturbingly stolen from them.