"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for October 2015

Harvest Thanksgiving

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Harvest Thanksgiving SJE Edmonton
Genesis 2:4-25, Ps 126, Matthew 6:25-33

“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? 6:31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, —What shall we eat?’ or —What shall we drink?’ or —What shall we wear?’”

Today is a day about gratitude, about being deliberate in order to give thanks for all that God has done for us.  It is maybe something that should form a part of our daily bread, as one of the callings of the Christian is to be thankful for God’s grace.  So let’s talk about this calling of those who follow Christ, and what it means to be thankful and to experience gratitude, and why it is so important that we live in that mode always.  This is one of the things that can allow some handle on the age of anxiety that we live within today…as anxiety is really the defining characteristic of our era.  I’m not suggesting a magic technique that will free you from anxiety, or that the right attitude will solve serious challenges with anxiety – that’s not it at all.  What I am speaking of is what the Gospels tell us about contentedness, and how that forms a challenge to our culture’s fixation with happiness at all costs.  There is also a question of suffering tied up in the question of thanksgiving, as in how can we give thanks in a world full of suffering.  Our reading from Genesis speaks of the cradle of humanity bounded by the four great rivers: Euphrates, Tigris.  This is the area current under the torment of ISIL, so there is a certain tension present.  Also, if I may quote Gandalf, there are those who died who should have lived, and those who lived who should have died.  The world is not a fair place.  How then to we give thanks when we’re walking with suffering?

I’ll start by telling you a story about my friend Herb.  Herb was a Manitoba farmer, one of those “salt of the earth” types of guys who is the image of the men and women that build, and continue to build this country.  I met him as the husband of one of my seminary classmates.  Herb, coming from mixed farming, understood in a way that this contact with the land teaches you, the cycles of life and death and our ultimate powerlessness to effect change in those circumstances.  Not long after we developed a friendship, Herb was diagnosed with cancer.  It was cancer that would ultimately result in his death a couple of years later.

I visited Herb in the hospital a number of times, including once in the ICU right after his second or third surgery.  I anointed him each time, and prayed over him, including a prayer I almost always include in healing prayer – thy will be done.  Ultimately, much of what we seek to have control over is far beyond our control, and only in the hands of the Lord.  So while we pray for healing, we know too well that healing might be something entirely unexpected from what we had in mind.

As a personal aside, this is very true in my own struggle with chronic pain arising out of a back injury with my military service.  Many have prayed for healing, and there has been a ton of healing, but the pain remains.  I’m thankful for all that the pain has taught me, and how it requires that I slow down to be more deliberate about life…to focus on the things it allows me to see, that I wouldn’t in a rush…and to understand what other people experience in their suffering.  My chronic pain has been kind of a post-graduate degree in suffering, and it makes me a better person.  Am I happy for the pain?  Not at all, but I am grateful that God has entrusted me with such a burden.  Even after 16 years of pain, I’m thankful and content.

Now Herb was an amazing believer, who spoke openly about his faith both in and out of season.  After one of his earlier hospital stays, we had them over for dinner, and Herb explained to me how grateful he was for hospital stays, and particularly hospital stays where he was in a semi-private or ward room.  I was a little surprised and asked him why.  He told me that his prayer each time he entered hospital was that God would place in his path people that he needed to speak with, to witness to them about God.  Sure enough, each hospital stay that Herb had, even when he was very ill, he would come back with stories of amazing discusses with other patients and with staff about faith.  Herb, even in the midst of his terminal condition, was always thankful for those opportunities.  Wow.

As I hold Herb up as an example, I’ll say clearly that I think Herb had a specific gift of evangelism, because his example is so far beyond what most of us would be able to do in that setting.  What I wanted to focus on was Herb’s thanksgiving for those opportunities, his conscious decision to not dwell in the disease or the coming loss, but rather in the opportunities he had to meet new people in need, and to tell them about God.  Herb was thankful, even as he knew he was approaching the end of his earthly walk.  Herb is a real role model for me, as I think about the challenges I face, and how I should see those challenges in the greater picture of my life as a servant of the Lord.  Now, from the perspective of the world, Herb would have been justified, and even expected, to become fully consumed with his lot in life, but he instead turned to consider God’s gifts to him, even on the journey of illness.

In terms of dealing with adversity, I’m reminded of Job’s response to his “friends” and his spouse when they suggest that he should just curse God and die.  Think about this image, Job sitting in an ash pile, scraping the painful sores that cover him from the bottoms of his feet to the top of his head.  Job replies to his wife:  “Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2)  We hear the exact same sort of thought from Matthew’s gospel “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt 5:44-46)

Is that thought a challenging one for you?  It would not surprise me if it was, because our first-world culture as a whole spends so much time focusing on happiness as the end goal of everything.  It is not right that the evil receive the same rain as the good in the world’s mind.    You do not need to be long exposed to media, or advertising signs, or even your workplace to find out how many things you are missing that are standing in the way of your happiness.  In fact, this too can become a burden on us, because the messaging is all very clear…if you’re not happy – it’s your fault, because happiness, ultimate, complete happiness is within your grasp.  So if you can’t find that ultimate happiness, it is double damnation because that too is a failure of yours.

It’s interesting to listen to St Paul’s thoughts on this.  “10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  This is an important idea, for Paul does not say that he is happy with being shipwrecked, or happy being hungry, or happy being in need…rather he says that he has learned how to be content in whatever situation faces him.

Against this backdrop of what we’re living today and the trend for our future, listen again to those words from Matthew, this time in an informal translation: “What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving.”  (The Message, E. Peterson).  This is the key in today’s Gospel, the move from getting to giving.

God’s giving.  The reading today eliminated the sentence just before the clip which tells us “24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”  The word translated as ‘money’ in that sentence is the word mammon, which is not just describing wealth, but rather tangible things that have the ability to seize control of a person’s life.  This sets up for us a contrast: are we seeking mammon-success in the world, or the contentedness of Paul?  If you choose the path of mammon-success, this is a certain way to obtain greater unhappiness, as the cycle of acquiring mammon only demands that your acquire more.  Jesus takes this a step further in the text we’re reading today…it’s not just obsession with mammon, with things, that we need to avoid…it is also obsession with the fundamental needs of life: clothes, food, drink. On all these front Jesus tells us simply to not worry about our life.  The word translated here as worry, or sometimes as anxious, is probably better translated as do not be preoccupied with these things.  We still need to acquire food to eat, but we are not to be preoccupied about that process, because God will provide.  This dynamic: a focus or grasping of mammon, versus a focus or grasping of God, is the point of today’s reading.

Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman wrote an article contrasting the Gospel’s liturgy of abundance with this world’s liturgy of scarcity.  In Genesis, and throughout the Gospels there is this image of overflowing abundance from God’s good creation.  In the feeding miracles, we read everyone is fed plus there is some left over.  This is the liturgy of abundance, enough for everyone.  The world follows the liturgy of scarcity, which says there isn’t enough to go around, and if you get something you have to grasp it tightly so that no one can take it away…or you won’t get your fair share.  This is a particular challenge in Alberta.

One commentator on this text noted that at one point in his work as a missionary in a poor country he felt he could not preach this text to the poor…because it was cruel to tell the poor not to be concerned with their fundamental needs.  He also thought the text should not be preached to the well-off, as it would only confirm a “comfortable prejudice that spiritual values must be place above material ones.” (F.D. Bruner, p. 329)

This is an expected western bias…we are conditioned to think like Maslow, that there is a hierarchy of needs that we need to fight to ascend.  We apply this same imagery to our relationship with God.  The thought of a person who is hungry being somehow closer to God than us as the wealthy, is a confusing idea.  This is a lie, and the message of the text is a more fundamental one…do not be troubled by the things of this world, but rather focus on God’s gift of life.  Even in the worst moments of this world are redeemed by God’s gift of grace.  This is the source of the strength from which we head of these extraordinary stories of strength in the face of adversity, and it is at least part of what was going on for my friend Herb.  His choice, in the face of his terminal diagnosis, was to focus not on the disease or the coming end, but rather to focus on God’s gift of life.

This is a hard thing to do, particularly when we are immersed in a culture that bombards us with contrary messages.  Even though I know this, I still find myself troubled…and particularly when I compare myself to others.  My life is richly blessed, and God has gifted me in incredible ways, beyond belief and far beyond what I deserve.  Still, I find myself from time to time looking enviously at others and wondering…why don’t I have what he (or she) has?  I should be in a bigger house, have a newer car, nicer clothes, more friends, more love, more money.  That worldly focus is exactly what the teaching is pointing us to today.  A focus on mammon, including other’s giftings or stuff, is a sure path to unhappiness.  A focus on God’s gift of life and grace to us, is instead a path to contentedness.  Another way to look at this: if everything you had, and I mean everything, was taken away from you…what would you have left?  What would you have left? (at this point a young man said “God”.  Amen).

What’s more, a right focus on God’s blessings on us and our lack of focus on the necessities of life, are what will ultimately free us to worry about other’s needs.  Once we cut the tie that binds us to a cultural vision of plenty, we are able to look outwards to see the needs in the world that we are able to answer out of a place of contentedness.  This is, in fact, the only way that we can truly minister to other’s needs, once we accept that God’s love for us is sufficient to address our needs, without us becoming preoccupied with the things we will eat, drink and wear

It is significant that this text comes right on the heels of Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray.  The Lord’s Prayer is one way that we can work ourselves to a position where we are inoculated against our cultural focus on mammon.  In its traditional form, the prayer contains petitions for all the things we need, and rightly places the responsibility for provision of those things in God’s hands, not ours.  It also focuses us on the truly important cycles of our lives as Christians – not the larger car or home, but rather mutual forgiveness, freedom from those who would do evil to us, and sufficient bread both the physical kind, and the spiritual kind.  Three petitions for God, three petitions about us.  It really is a capsule summary of right relationship, and right focus.

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name. (1)
10 Your kingdom come, (2)
your will be done, (3)
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread, (4)
12 and forgive us our debts, (5)
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, (6)
but deliver us from the evil one.  (Matt 5)

The idea is not that we don’t work, or don’t shop for groceries, or be concerned about the future, but rather that the primary focus of our lives is on God’s grace, and in trust that He will provide what it is we need.  That focus frees us from the things that the world insists should be the centre of our being: the pursuit of things, the pursuit of happiness, both of which can become all-consuming idolatries of themselves.

The reading today also snipped off the concluding sentence which is an important one in this idea of proper focus, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  There is no need that we are anxious for tomorrow, because there is already enough anxiety present around tomorrow.

This teaching is echoed throughout the Scriptures, that there is no need for our preoccupation with the things we need to survive, because God will provide.  Like the Israelites and manna in the desert, we do not need to gather more than we require, for it will only spoil.  Rather we are able to rest in the arms of the Lord, focused on His grace, certain that our needs will be met.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

(c) 2015

A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Craig S Keener
Matthew: A Commentary, Frederick Dale Bruner

Shoal Lake First Nations water troubles.

Alexis Sioux First Nation boil water advisory

Water issues on First Nation communities

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” -JRR Tolkien, TFOTR


Written by sameo416

October 10, 2015 at 7:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Remembrance Reflection

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A quick personal reflection on remembrance…now I just have to write the sermon.

Remembrance Reflection
Major (ret’d) the Rev, St John the Evangelist Edmonton, (served 20 years as an aerospace engineer in Canada’s fighter force)

In the middle of the night, “0-dark-30”, the howl of the base recall siren wakes me in time to answer my ringing cell phone. Crawling from my warm bed and kissing my wife and daughter, I don a uniform and head to the flight line to answer the call. My life in uniform, one of constant readiness for a leap into the unknown.  When the sun rises, where will I be?

It’s a life not so different from that of the Christian, always preparing, never certain when the call will come, and ready for the master to arrive in the dark of night.

As I reflect on lost colleagues and those who continue to bear the burden of service, I remember my call as a Christian to be on watch, to be ready, and to never forget – that sometimes those who stand on guard must give their all, so that others may know peace. “When you go home, tell them of us” is also the call of Christ.

Written by sameo416

October 6, 2015 at 10:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My Metis Heritage and the Question of Reconciliation, a Talk at St Paul’s Edmonton, October 4

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I bring you greetings from St John’s and I’m delighted to be here worshiping with my brothers and sisters in the faith this day.  The message is not so delightful, as it’s still an intensely personal and somewhat uncertain topic — the past four years have been a time of considerable discovery and healing for me.  Michael and Lori asked if I could talk about this topic of reconciliation through the experience of my search for wholeness, so this is what I will shape with words today.  I’ll note up front that I’m highly indebted to Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf and his book, Exclusion and Embrace, for the developing structure of my understanding of what is a pretty complicated interplay between Canadian history, our highly impaired relationship with indigenous peoples, and my shame-filled family history of denial of self.

Why is my search for identity relevant to the question of reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters?  It’s relevant because I’m an indigenous person, my family comes from the historic Metis homeland in the Red River region of Manitoba and I’m a member of the Metis Nation of Alberta.  I could not have said that publically more than a few years ago, as it was something I only shared with close friends.  I’ve been able to keep that secret from the first time I learned about it, in my early 20’s, because I appear on the outside as one of the “privileged skin” (Andrea Menard, “Halfbreed Blues”).  The reason I kept my heritage secret was because of my very typical western Canadian up-bringing, that is, mildly racist and highly untrusting of “the other” and particularly when they’re aboriginal.  It turned out that I was continuing a family tradition of denial that started in about 1870.  A deep and abiding sense of shame is the result of such a fundamental denial of self, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now, we are told some very specific things in Scripture about our identities on the other side of our rebirth as children of Christ.  There is no Jew or Greek (Gal 3:28) but only one in Christ, and we regard no one according to the flesh (2 Cor 5:16).  Yet this does not mean that we become neuter beings with no other identity, or gender, but rather that our racial identity is reordered so that it no longer becomes the centre of our being, as that place is taken by Christ.  Christ brings completion and fulfillment to our identity and displaces it from a possible place of idolatry.  All this to say that while I’m speaking of identity, I’m aware that my total identity was subsumed at the time of my conversion, but that does not eliminate it from my being.

This question of “the other” is the core of Christ’s ministry.  We see lepers, blind, crippled, possessed, bleeders, the dead…all who through the Jewish purity regulations have become “the other”, unclean and dangerous to have near those who are the pure and blessed…we see Jesus restoring “the others” to right relationship.  The healing itself, the physical change, is not nearly as important as the alteration of this “other” status.  But, our broken humanity continues to seek to define us by exclusion of “the other”, like the Pharisee and the tax collector, “thank God I am not like that ‘other person’ over there” (Luke 18:9-14).  This is comfortable, because it allows us to preserve our holiness and our purity, to preserve a boundary around us, while we exclude and distort “the other”.  That is the reason why the modern era shows us a continual stream of church splits, manifestly to keep ourselves safe and holy by surrounding ourselves with people that think like us.  This is not the call of the Christian.

If you apply this in a historic Canadian context, the relationship between settlers and indigenous establishes the same sort of dynamic: Pure <-> Impure   Holy <-> “the other”   Settler <-> Indigenous.  The policies of government were manifestly intended to destroy “the other” by converting them to become like the settler through policies of destruction, death and assimilation.  The goal was to ensure that there was not one Indian left in the body politic.  This question of our relationship with “the other” is one that sits squarely in the middle of the question of reconciliation.  Until we resolve our relationship with “the other”, there can be no hope of reconciliation.  In reality, the path to reconciliation with “the other” follows the path of Christ, opening our arms to “the other” and receiving them in the self-giving love manifested by the Father (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 29).  This, of course, is the easiest thing to say, not so easy to do.

I didn’t really know any Indians as a child, using that word deliberately to reflect what I learned growing up.  What I did know had all to do with poverty and alcohol abuse, exceptionally racist jokes (so bad I can’t even repeat one today), all as a part of the normal fabric of growing up.  I can remember asking my mother one day as we drove past the Manitoba Hotel who those people were laying on the ground outside the door to the bar.  She replied, ‘They’re dirty Indians, stay away from them’.  What this created in my mind was a clear understanding that the aboriginal was “the other”, someone to be feared and to be avoided at all costs.  Now, what happens to my sense of identity when I find out one day that I am in fact at least partly “the other” myself?

The first day I publically declared my aboriginal identity, the day I “came out of the closet” as one woman described the experience, was a fearful day.  In reflecting on this afterwards I realized that by self-identifying as a member of that group, I was picking sides in a piece of Canadian history that has involved horrific wounding going back hundreds of years.  We have heard many accounts from those who relate the physical and emotional impacts of things like the residential school system…but we know too well that the story goes beyond only the physical and the emotional, for those experiences have left deep spiritual wounds that will continue to dog us until we find some healing.  That healing will not come without reconciliation.

What I realized in considering the question of reconciliation, is that this path had to start with my own acceptance of who I am, which included uncovering and acknowledging a family history that had been deliberately erased.  This story required me to look at my history and myself using what Mi’kmaq elder Albert Marshall calls ‘two-eye seeing’, seeing things with an Indigenous eye, and with a western or settler eye.  As a product of the intermarriage between a Hudson’s Bay worker and a Saulteaux woman, I’m coming to realize that this ‘two-eye’ seeing is actually the story of my life.

The first time I was told that I was Metis was in my early 20’s – my father and I were walking down a street in my hometown, Selkirk, Manitoba, just a block off the Red River.  He was explaining to me how our family dentist, Dr Slogan, told my dad about the roots of my cousin’s wisdom teeth: “They were hooked,” Dr Slogan said somewhat scandalously, “the only place I’ve seen hooked roots is with Indians.”  My dad told our dentist that our family was Metis, which explained the hooked roots.  Now when people say “You don’t look Metis” I usually just smile and answer, it’s just my teeth.

As I started to piece together the family story, it became clear that my Métis heritage had fallen into a black hole between 1870 and 1985.  This was a double whammy – not only was I soundly one of those “others” I had grown up fearing, but I didn’t even have a family narrative passed on in which to place that newly found identity.  When a family exists by ignoring its own creation narrative, what kind of disassociation does that create for people downstream?  In my search for some family history I came across an article written by my great-grandfather, Archdeacon Jacob Anderson and Archdeacon Fairies, concerning a Métis churchman, Thomas Vincent in Leaders of the Canadian Church c. 1920.

Thomas Vincent was a Metis Anglican priest in northern Manitoba who had done simply amazing work ministering and evangelizing – with the usual stories of incredible feats like walking on snowshoes from Fort Albany on James Bay to Selkirk in February 1863, a distance of some 1,300 miles, so that Vincent could be ordained.  In researching Vincent and my family tree, I was shocked to discover that my great-grandfather and Vincent were related, something that was not mentioned in the article.  As I researched Vincent, I uncovered an article that spoke about how Vincent had been passed over to be the new bishop in the north, in favour of an English priest with no experience in the north.  That exclusion came about because Vincent was Metis.  The later researcher included a quotation from Vincent’s bishop, Bishop Horden:

Horden revealed his racism most clearly in his theories of hybrid vigor and rigor mortis. The “[loss] of the European intellect in the second or third generation” resulted from a Native’s choice of mate. If he married a European woman… Horden predicted children of “fair intellect” – hybrid vigor. Otherwise mental rigor mortis would set in as with Vincent, whose sons were “all stupid”…”

What is striking about that text is that these are words from the mouth of an Anglican Bishop, speaking from a culture that at least looked like it was fully Christian.  When you hear those words, the how and why of our involvement in the residential schools mess becomes a bit clearer.  Given this attitude, my great-grandfather’s failure to mention he was related to Vincent and Metis himself, suddenly makes sense.  As a priest in the church, it wasn’t safe to admit that (and maybe still isn’t).  If you think about the time my family identity disappeared, around 1870, we’re in the aftermath of the first rebellion of the Metis nation in Red River.  The first rebellion ended with the creation of the Province of Manitoba (July 15, 1870).  This period between 1870 and 1885 was a time of great unrest.  The Canadian government’s response to the Metis agitation was to send 1,000 armed men into the Red River area – the Red River Expeditionary Force (RREF).  This was not a good time to be Metis in Red River.  Around 1870 my family made a conscious or unconscious choice to move fully into the mode of being European.  The 1901 census lists them still as Scotch-Breeds, with red skin colour, but after that point they’re only shown as Scotch or English.  Through the tricks of genetics my family became white up until the point I stepped out and re-claimed my heritage.

Up until my registration with Metis Nation in 2012, no one in my direct family line had self-identified and my research supports most of them did not know they were aboriginal.  The loss of real identity replaced with a hybrid lie that we were somehow pure European stock, at least officially, is a pattern that mirrors the larger narrative of a systemic attempt to destroy the Indigenous.  While my loss was not due to a residential school, it was due to the same climate that permitted the concepts of assimilation, termination and enfranchisement to exist as government policy. My path of re-building that family identity involved the healing of that sense of shame, and the authentic claiming of who were are.  My personal journey presents an image of what the path to reconciliation looks like writ large.

I started by speaking about our human instinct to preserve our selves by excluding “the other”, and so we sinfully seek to protect ourselves through separation.  This is not God’s way, who instead asks that we define ourselves by inclusion by considering “the other”.  Our self, in Christ, is only complete when we are able to define ourselves in relation to others.  We see this clearly in the account of the creation narrative in Genesis.  God creates different things and separates them, but those things are bound together and defined in the context of each other.  So light and dark are created, separated, but bound together.  Light has little meaning without the existence of dark.  So too the land and the water, man and woman are created as different, but are also bound together.  So too our categories of settler and indigenous only find true meaning in the completeness of embracing “the other”.

Embracing “the other” (and here I’m turning entirely to Volf’s analysis) requires that we are willing to create within ourselves space for the other.  This does not ask that we destroy our existing identity in Christ, but rather that we become willing to understand how it is that “the other”, in this case our indigenous brothers and sisters, are essential to us being able to be healed from this legacy of genocide, and how in turn the indigenous need us in order to achieve their healing from that same legacy.  Paul tells us quite clearly that there are no innocents for all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and what this means is that you cannot avoid the task of healing by claiming victimhood as your identity.  Oppressor and victim are bound together in the same episode of sin.  A victim can only heal by making space within themselves for “the other”, in this case “the other” who was the source of the suffering.  Both oppressor and the oppressed need each other in mutuality of embrace in order to truly heal memory.

I could not achieve any sense of healing in myself until two things happened: the first required that my settler-self acknowledged and made room for my indigenous-self.  That the things I had feared from “the other”, was a part of me needing embrace.  Likewise, my indigenous-self needed to acknowledge that my settler-self was the source of my suffering, and needed to make room for that “other” within my indigenous identity.  Each part of my being, through the great embrace of Christ, needed to open arms to “the other” as Christ had opened his arms to us as hostile and sinful humanity.  True healing of memory can only occur in the context of mutual embrace of “the other” with “the other”.  Do you see?

Miroslav Volf uses the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate this process (Luke 15:11-32) through four stages.  The first is the (1) opening of arms, mirroring Christ’s arms of welcome to humanity on the cross.  We open our arms to demonstrate our willingness to embrace “the other”.  But, because we respect the integrity of “the other” we do not rush at them in order to force our embrace on them, rather we wait (2) with open arms until “the other” is ready to approach us.  There is still considerable anger and distrust in indigenous people toward the settler, and until they arrive at a place where they can embrace “the other”, we wait.  Our act of opening of arms, it must be said, is the first step in the ability of “the other” to even consider healing for themselves.  Next, once “the other” approaches us comes (3) the embrace.  This is not a tight embrace, but a gentle embrace that acknowledges the coming together of two independent “others” who are now seeking to complete their identity not by excluding “the other”, but by welcoming and acknowledging that they are only able to become complete in that embrace.  Finally comes (4) the opening of arms.  Once the embrace has occurred, we open arms to permit separation of the two “others”, but now in an acknowledged mutuality of being, in a preservation of self, but also in the transformation and completing of each “other” into a new reality.  It is only through the mutuality of this sequence that we can hope to arrive at a place where we may once again achieve some aspect of the vision of the initial meeting of indigenous and settler, of two sovereign nations dwelling together in mutual respect on the land.  A reality where we and they realize mutually that we are only able to be complete once we have acknowledged that our identity comes to fruition in the recognition of “the other’s” identity.

That process cannot happen without the presence of Christ on the cross, because the opening of arms has little meaning without there first being God’s welcoming of hostile and sinful humanity into Himself.  Our process of healing is now possible because Christ first walked that Red Road opening the path to all of us such that a new future is possible, where none was previously available.

This process of mutual embrace is the only path to justice, as much as we may prefer to find that place through destruction of the other, we can only find a place of true justice through that mutual embrace.  This is the same way that I could only find true healing of myself through the mutual embrace of my two “others” under the cross of Christ.  This only comes with an acknowledgement of my own state of sin, and my need for healing through God’s grace.  So while my identity is firmly fixed in Christ, the reconciliation of myself through the love of Christ is necessary if I hope to find complete healing.

This brings me to the end of what is still very much an ongoing journey of discovery as I try to make sense of my reality as a person who lives the Canadian experience of “two-eyed” seeing.  We, and by “we” I mean the Body of Christ manifest in our Christian communities, have a critical role to play in this process.  The Government of Canada in bringing the TRC process to a conclusion is hoping for an end to the apologies, to the pay-out of compensation, to the continual process of blaming and recrimination.  But, reconciliation cannot be achieved in that environment, because reconciliation as I’ve described is a process of mutual recognition and embrace.  That language is foreign to government.  In reality, the only group of people in our society that understand reconciliation are those gathered in church buildings like us today.  Our role in the years ahead is to manifest that opening of arms on behalf of Canada, not because we need to do it for them, but because we need to do it for ourselves.  This is our unique call as Christians, to be both reconciled and reconcilers.

This is our part in being the solution, to be the people that Christ calls us to be, by welcoming our indigenous brothers and sisters into the first step of mutual healing of the past.


Drew heavily from Volf’s work, most of which I’ve not directly cited by page #:

LIVING WITH THE “OTHER”. Volf, Miroslav, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter/Spring 2002, Vol. 39, Issue 1/2

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of IdentityOtherness and Reconciliation, Abingdon Press, November 15, 1996.


Written by sameo416

October 3, 2015 at 7:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Miroslav Volf on Embracing “The Other”

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I recall a brief discussion at seminary. Two of my classmates were discussing the importance of welcoming those of other sexual orientations. These sorts of discussions have always troubled me, not because I have any issue with those who chose lifestyles different than my own, but rather because I think it sets the bar for a Christian far too low. I tended to bluntness more at that time, and asked them the question, “So, if you believe that welcoming ‘the other’ is core to our Christian faith, will you be inviting Paul Bernardo over for dinner when he is released from prison?” One of them responded that she would never do that, with a look of dismay.

This is what I see as one of the real challenges facing the liberal western church. We have no difficulty arguing and advocating for those we can imagine spending time with…but I’ve not heard a solitary voice talking about our welcome to those we despise. Jesus, as far as I can tell, never told us to welcome those we like to spend time with. Rather, the call of Christ is to welcome “the other”, where “the other” is that we find most threatening, most unsettling, most fear-inducing. That we do not do so well (and I’m the first to admit that I too fail at this constantly).

[As an aside here, I was reminded of this danger when I recently visited the Communist museum in Prague, CZ.  Communism, in the abstract, seems like a pretty reasonable idea.  It’s in the implementation that the good idea becomes grotesque and destructive.]

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf takes this issue head-on in his book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. I don’t have a lot of time for authors who propose theological frameworks that sound attractive in theory, but impossible to enact in a broken world. There’s a tension here, as we of the faith are called to live in the world, but not to be a part of the world. I think this drives us to a position of Christ-centric pragmatism, where we are infinitely hopeful of the glorious tomorrow but also acutely aware that we live in a gritty reality that demands action within that reality.

Volf writes from the perspective of a Croat who lived through the ethnic cleansing and violence of the Serbo-Croatian warfare of the early 1990’s. From that cauldron Volf, as a Christian, asks himself, “Can I forgive a cetnik?” From the first part of the introduction:

After I finished my lecture, Professor Moltmann stood up and asked on of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: “But can you embrace a cetnik?” It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “cetnik” had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we out to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a cetnik–the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot — but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” In a sense this book is the product of the struggle between the truth of my argument and the force of Moltmann’s objection.

It was a difficult book to write. My thought was pulled in two different directions by the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s Lamb offered for the guilty. How does one remain loyal both to the demand of the oppressed for justice and to the gift of forgiveness that the Crucified offered to the perpetrators?

This is, at last, a book about violence and faith and reconciliation that comes from the perspective of someone who has lived that struggle personally. As he says later in the introduction,

No free-floating and unaffected mind is trying here to resolve an intriguing intellectual puzzle! … My people were being brutalized, and I needed to think through the response appropriate for me, a follower of the crucified Messiah.

This brings to voice my dissatisfaction with much of the writing about this point, and particularly about violence and the attitude of the Christian community toward that violence. It is easy to talk about being an absolute pacifist, but (in my mind) far less easier to consider an appropriate response when you are about to watch your neighbours raped and murdered, and you have at hand the means to stop that. What does the Christian do? Volf does not answer that question, but he does give a perspective on our response to “the other” after the neighbour has been brutalized. (a good, if challenging summary of Volf’s work is contained in this article by a former student.)

This forms the core of my sermon for tomorrow, with brothers and sisters in Christ at St Paul’s. They are finishing a month of reflection on the question of what reconciliation means in the context of Canada’s brutal history with First Nations and other indigenous peoples. The thought was that my own struggle with identity after finding out about my indigenous heritage could form a model for the call on the greater community.  As I’ve worked through the idea, there is a direct parallel.

This is a hard topic, and even less easy for me to speak about publicly. But, I can see through Volf’s lens, that my coming to a place of accepting my “other” reflects the pattern of what our communities need to do to reconcile ourselves with the violence that we, our church and our culture have brought on our indigenous “other”.

I’ll post my sermon notes when done (at 2 am probably). The pattern starts with the New Testament narrative about “the other”, those isolated and rejected from their communities because of illness, possession and continuing ritual impurity. Christ comes to resolve “the other” by permitting them to enter back into right relationship. The healing is what allows that, but the point is not the healing (which we often focus on), but the reconciliation and return to right relationship.

Now in Canada we have the same situation historically. “The other” are those who are different, dangerous, and unacceptable. When the settlers first asserted themselves, the indigenous became “the other”, illustrated in the language of the time: killing the Indian in the child, educating savages, prohibiting pagan ceremonies, and imposing Christian faith. Now we are faced with the question of how do we reconcile ourselves with these aboriginal “other”?

Volf sets this out in fine detail in the book. It’s really a mind-blowing opus that contains almost infinite challenge to a Christian. It also presents us with an indirect commentary on the modern practice of church splits to preserve theological “integrity”. I’m particularly focusing on Volf’s use of the prodigal son parable as a model for what the motion of exclusion to embrace looks like practically.

The sermon outline:

2 Cor 5:20, “…be reconciled to God.”
Reconciliation = changed relationship after sin, repentance and forgiveness are offered and received. (Rev Don Aellen)

Call to be reconciled to “the other”, yet we fear for ourselves.
Our personal purity/holiness at risk, we exclude “the other”.

Pure <-> Impure / Holy <-> “the other” / Settler <-> Indigenous

Yet Christ came to heal “the other”: leper, bleeder, possessed are all made pure and restored to right relation.

Now, what if “the other” is a part of you long denied?

*My family story of denial, shame and loss -> healing

Need a willingness to embrace “the other”, with the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. (Volf)

The willingness requires we make space within for “the other”, and to allow mutual healing of memory. (Volf)

The prodigal son models this (Luke 15:11-32), also after Volf:

1. Opening of arms (willingness to embrace)
2. Waiting (respecting the other)
3. Closing of arms (in embrace)
4. Opening of arms (self preserved and transformed)

There is no justice without mutual embrace. (Volf)

All have sinned (Rom 3:23) and need God’s grace.  This includes the oppressor and the oppressed.

The unique call to be reconciled and reconcilers.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 1996

Written by sameo416

October 3, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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