Guest post!

We’re coming up on just a few short days before we say our final farewell to the great city of Toronto. I have too many feelings about that to process at the moment. As it happens, though, Leeman put together some thoughts on the subject, so after many years of this blog, I’ll pass my platform to him. Enjoy:

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For the better part of the last decade, I have been referring to myself as a Geographical Anglican as a tongue in cheek jab at how I’ve been attending Anglican churches that entire time but still have never completely drunk the metaphorical and sacramentally complex kool-aid. As I stand on the verge of moving from Ontario to Ohio as Rachel begins a new career as priest and chaplain at Harcourt Parish and Kenyon College where we both went to school and attended church, notions of geography and identity slosh about in my head.

Growing up a Baptist missionary kid had a profound effect on me to put it mildly and it’s no surprise that for a long time, I would jokingly refer to myself as a Baptist-In-Recovery. While the emphasis on scriptural literacy and drilling notions of personal salvation again and again certainly built up an ability to talk about faith in more than vague notions and have a grounding in the rich poetry and literary tradition of the Bible prior to puberty, it also set up some giant roadblocks that took a long time to maneuver around. Being a roiling teenager and having it communicated to you that you are personally responsible for any unsaved friends and acquaintances being tortured for an eternity by not sharing the Word with them will do that. While the church was my home and I certainly felt I belonged there, it was a rocky and discomforting place at times.

And so it was that by the time I left my parents’ church in Nashville and found myself walking towards Harcourt Parish with the young woman who would one day walk down the aisle of a different church with me, I was very much eager to see what else was out there. At Harcourt and at Kenyon, I was able to debate with Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and at least one Jehovah’s Witness and in that seething if collegial environment, some sort of notion of just how I experienced my faith began to form. On that pew that held half a dozen or more different faith backgrounds, I had found a new home.

When I eventually joined Rachel in Toronto where she had been going on her own spiritual journey until it led to the warm and hazy St Thomas’s, I was confronted with what would be my spiritual home for a number of years despite looking very different from any sort of church I would have chosen to walk into. This was far from the Baptist world where I had grown up and despite being of a similar tradition to Harcourt Parish, was stranger still. Robes, incense, sung confessions, and even a statue of Mary over on one side all spoke of an alien tradition and yet over time, that sense of home began to suffuse through me.

Home is a curious notion and a church home is an even harder thing to pin down. As distasteful a notion as Shopping For a Church is, in a world where we can choose where we pray if we choose to pray at all, it is a reality with which those on both sides of the altar have to contend and perhaps the hardest part of it is how to deal with that worry that we could have something more, that we are missing out on something better. While we don’t want to reduce spirituality to flipping through an Ikea catalogue, it can feel unavoidable even when a church theoretically checks all of our boxes and still leaves us cold. However and in spite of all this, home has a strange way of finding us even when we don’t know we are looking for it.

Now as I prepare to return to an old home, a place laden with memories but also with infinite possibilities of what may come, and as I prepare to hold my wife and daughter’s hands as we walk through the doors and into that warm church, I trust that we will find that sense of home. It is going to be very easy for us to compare it to what else might be out there and to where all we’ve been, indeed to what Harcourt was like when we sat there a dozen years ago. No doubt, we will occasionally wonder if we gave up something better, something more for this church but I am very hopeful that home will find us just as it has found me throughout the years wherever I’ve decided to sit and pray and regardless of what I have called myself.

May home find you where you are and where you are going.

-Leeman Kessler, Geographical Anglican

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Fear Itself

Today I want to talk about fear. But first I want to talk about Farscape, despite having just allowed myself a rather self-indulgent birthday post on the subject.

As an antidote to the mind-numbing stress of orchestrating an international move, I allowed myself a brief break Thanksgiving afternoon to watch a light-hearted first season episode of my all-time favourite series. Part of why I love Farscape is that (particularly if one happens to be an overly analytical type like myself) the show lends itself well to repeated viewing and obsessive attention to seemingly indifferent details. This is particularly true of protagonist John Crichton’s development over the course of the first season, as he gradually shifts from an optimistic all-American hero to a psychologically tormented wreck of a human being (good times!). And for all that Farscape features its share of battles and explosions, it’s worth noting that John does not touch a weapon for much of the first season. Not until the episode I watched Monday afternoon — an episode that comes about 3/4 of the way through the season. It’s the first time we see John with a pistol strapped to his thigh, and for the rest of the series he pretty much never takes it off (he even gives it a name at one point). So what changed?

I don’t want to delve too far into the details of a TV series most people reading this post have never seen. Suffice it to say that in the episode immediately preceding the one I watched, John undergoes some series trauma. He realizes not only that he is in physical danger (he has known that since the series premiere), but that he is in psychological danger as well. He cannot trust his own mind. He is not safe. You do not have to be a science fiction nerd to get where I am going with this: John’s attachment to his weapon is rooted in deep psychological fear and distrust of both himself and the world in which he has found himself. Admittedly, as a die-hard fan, I can say John has good reason to be afraid. All the same, in his attempt to preserve his life and his sanity, he leaves a lot of destruction in his wake. The series never presents him as a “hero” in the traditional sense. He is just a crazy man desperately trying to survive.

We have been talking a lot about guns in recent weeks (and months, and years…). I think of issues around gun control and gun safety on a daily basis as I prepare for a move to a college campus in the U.S.A. I think about Amanda having to go through drills for an active shooter situation when she goes to school in a few short years.

I am afraid. And I also know that I do not have as much to fear as other parents–parents of black children who are more likely to be killed by police officers than they are by a random mass shooter (who is almost certainly going to be a young white man).

But that recently re-watched episode of Farscape reminds me that fear cannot be the answer. Fear is what convinces so many people that they must old on to their military grade weapons. Fear compels us to protect ourselves and our own at the expense of others. Fear leads to more guns. More violence. Fear cannot be the answer.

What is the antidote to fear? Well, according to our own tradition “perfect love casts out fear.” That may sound a bit trite or overly simplistic, but it also happens to be true. Faith and hope call us to move forward in hope, not be held back in fear. Whether that is fear of violence to ourselves that makes us want to protect ourselves at any cost or fear of the unknown that causes us to view those unlike ourselves with suspicion–the answer must be to love others more than ourselves. Fear looks to our own interests. Love looks to our neighbour. I think I have a sense which is the Christian virtue…

Revisited Reflections

There are many things for which I am thankful lately. I am thankful for new opportunities. I am thankful for old friends and the promise of new friends. I am thankful to have loved a place so much that it will hurt to leave in a few short weeks when we finally leave Toronto.

I am also thankful that I have learned how to take care of myself — like when I am completely stressed out at the prospect of pulling off an international move! So, in that spirit, I offer you once again my reflections from this time last year. Because Bilbo is just as much Bilbo as ever — and I am still thankful that he will be joining us on our new adventure in Ohio. So, enjoy some revisited reflections:

For those of you who have never met him, I have a ridiculous dog named Bilbo. Bilbo wants to be friends with everyone he meets, but he chooses to express this by howling at them as if they were a violent intruder. He needs to work on his social skills. When I took Amanda over to meet Sam the self-assured cat, our intrepid baby intrepidly approached her potential feline friend with delight and determination. Fifty-five pound Bilbo, on the other hand, leapt into my lap in fear and did not stop trembling until we were well on our way back home. He looks at the gate we have half-heartedly leaned up against the doorway between the living room and the dining room as if it were an impenetrable fortress. I am not sure if his border collie genes failed to bestow proper intelligence upon him, or if he just is so obedient that he never tries to knock it over.

Bilbo is very stylish.

At any rate, as I sit here on a beautiful fall afternoon, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of Starbucks with a coffee and a pumpkin scone it occurs to me that we are almost exactly half-way between two not unrelated celebrations: St Francis Day and Thanksgiving. (Even if the American in me can’t quite bring myself to justify the legitimacy of Thanksgiving celebrated in October.)

If you think about it, thanksgiving and the Feast of St. Francis do have rather a lot in common. It is rather unfortunate that we all too easily fall into the practice of treating Thanksgiving as if the spiritual impetus for the holiday were merely sitting down and enumerating the various things we are thankful for: I am thankful for a happy, healthy daughter, for a husband who’s willing to be an awesome stay at home dad, and for Farscape. Never forget Farscape. But lets be honest. We can never really, fully articulate all those things that we are (or ought to be) thankful for. For many of us, the scope of God’s blessing is just too vast for our comprehension. Not only that, but that attitude of treating thanksgiving as a time merely to “count our blessings” is also troublingly self-focused. Thanksgiving becomes a celebration about what God has done for ME, not what God has done for the whole world. Perhaps we are better off if our sense of Thanksgiving is less about trying to count all the specific things God we believe that God has given US and more about the goodness and bounty in all of God’s creation.

Thus the connection between this autumnal celebration of gratitude and the Feast of St. Francis. What more do we celebrate when we commemorate St Francis than the goodness of God which is made manifest in the whole of creation? Francis reminds us, in a way, that God’s creation is something glorious and wonderful in its own right, not just in terms of what it bestows upon us. We hold services of blessing for our pets because we recognize that God loves all his creation—including our fuzzy, furry, scaly, or slimy critters. And we are reminded that in caring for them, we care for one of God’s believed creatures.

And so we return to my peculiar pup. I am thankful for Bilbo. Some days, I’m not sure why. He doesn’t really do anything for me. He barks at all the wrong times, and he has a tendency to lick the baby far more often than I’d like. When I want to get something done, he insists on getting all up in my personal space. But when I’m home alone and just want to cuddle on the couch, he will have nothing to do with me. He is, in other words, weird and wonderful, just like God’s delightful creation. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Angels, Archangels and the Mystery of God

When the young Lucy Pevensie first learns about the great lion Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she hesitantly enquires as to whether Aslan is “safe.” Her host, Mr. Beaver replies: “Safe … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

That has always been one of my favourite exchanges in the Chronicles of Narnia. It evokes such a powerful image of God as so far surpassing human categories like “safe.” Aslan is a lion–an untamed lion. He is not safe. We cannot control him. We cannot pretend to understand everything about him. And yet he is good.

michaelI wonder if the absolute incomprehensibility of God lies at the heart of the feast of St. Michael and All Angles, which we celebrated in the church earlier this week (September 29). I love Michaelmas (as the feast is traditionally called), but I have to admit that it can be harder and harder to find a place for celebration in a religious context that places more and more emphasis on relevance and accessibility of our traditions. What are we supposed to do with that a Christian festival where we read about Jacob wrestling with an angle or the story of the Archangel Michael defeating the great dragon in the book of Revelation.

Admittedly, I am a fantasy and science fiction geek. So the part of my spirit that is drawn to fantastical stories of mystical beings loves Michaelmas. Is is a Christian celebration that delights the imagination. How do you not love reading about the great dragon Satan and all his Angels fighting back against the armies of heaven before finally being defeated and cast down into the sea? (Admittedly, this blog post is being written by someone who once dressed up as Jesus from the book of Revelation for Halloween. I may have issues). But the question remains — what is the point of such a reading. What relevance does it have? What is its usefulness to life in a busy, complicated modern world to anyone other than a church nerd and a fantasy geek?

I wonder if maybe the “point” of Michaelmas is that it has no obvious point for us. The readings hang there — confronting us and confounding us with their seemingly inaccessible strangeness. We confess faith in God who is the maker of all things visible … and invisible. There is more to God and there is more to our world than we can ever possible hope to imagine, even in our wildest fantasy stories. Michaelmas challenges our desire to make God “safe.” Our tendency to assume that we can somehow claim to fully comprehend God’s divine nature or the spiritual world around us.

We (rightly) seek to make our faith more relevant in addressing the complicated issues of the world around us and we (rightly) seek to remove any barriers to entry for those who might be hungry to explore deeper spiritual questions. But I cannot help but feel we do a disservice both to our traditions and to the world if we are wary (or perhaps even embarrassed) of letting God be mysterious. God is not safe, as the great war of Michael and all the angels in heaven reminds us.

And yet God is still good. As we wrestle with the ineffable nature of God and the mysterious spiritual world around us, maybe there is a practical point for us in the celebration of Michael and all the Angels. One day the evil powers of this world — the systemic oppression of marginalized people, the rampant inequality that privileges the powerful over the powerless, the innocent suffering — will be defeated. Even if we do not understand how that can be.