It’s a couple of days until Christmas, and this morning it struck me that there’s a bit of a glaring absence in most of our Christmas pageants. I’m used to seeing kids dressed up in bedsheets and bathrobes and tinsel, portraying shepherds watching their sheep or angels singing hosannah or kings bringing gifts. And we’ll be reminded, once again, that Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem at the whim of a far-off ruler, that wise men came following a star, that there was no room in the inn, and that a baby who would change the world was born in the humblest of surroundings.
But there’s one passage that strangely doesn’t seem to get recited by our kids, although it’s a regular part of the daily evening prayer in the Anglican tradition. Perhaps it makes us a little uncomfortable.
It’s the bit where Mary’s cousin Elizabeth has just prophesied over her, and she’s contemplating how the world is about to change.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold.
It’s at this point where she seems less ‘gentle Mary, meek and mild’ and more ‘Mary, radical anti-capitalist, Occupy Wall Street protesting, rabble-rousing activist.’ For some reason, in our art we usually portray Mary like this: a quiet, obedient girl calmly accepting the fate she has been given.
But frankly, in this passage she feels more like this to me:
(AP Photo/Stephanie Keith)
A fierce-eyed protestor, calling out the corruption of power and the injustice of poverty, willing to risk everything to bring about a better world.
I’m not surprised we tend to choose the former imagery. As a comfortable member of the middle class, I’m not sure I’m that keen on messages of social upheaval. But if we’re going to tell ourselves the Christmas story, then I think we should let this bit back in, and I can’t escape the politically subversive content of Mary’s words. What would a pageant look like that dramatized this scene? I have a sneaky suspicion that it would look more Banksy than Botticelli.
As a teenager, I grew up listening to the music of celtic rock band Iona. One song in particular has stuck in my head ever since.
Here I stand, looking out to sea
Where a thousand souls have prayed
And a thousand lives were laid on the sand
Were laid on the sand
Years have passed, since they have died
And The Word shall last
And the Wild Goose shall fly
Here I stand, looking out to sea
And I say a prayer
That the Wild Goose will come to me
That the Wild Goose will come to me
Jutting out into the cold, stormy waters of the Northern Atlantic ocean off the coast of Scotland lies the tiny, rocky island of Iona. To get there even today requires many hours of travel by train and ferry. It was here, 15 centuries ago, that Saint Columba founded a tiny monastery. And over the years, that tiny monastery became a center of gravity for the spread of the budding Christian faith. It had none of the pomp, wealth, or power of Rome, and yet monks from Iona travelled in tiny boats over tumultuous seas to carry the message of the cross throughout Northern Europe.
When I was 19 I met a Christian girl from Finland who proudly told me how the gospel had been brought to her country from Iona more than a thousand years previously. These early navigators chose to see the treacherous waters of the Atlantic and the North Sea not as insurmountable barriers, but as highways.
More than once, Viking raiding parties attacked the island, and on one occasion, as the song lyrics above note, the monastic population of the island was massacred on the beach at Martyrs bay. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to make my own pilgrimage to the island, and stand on the same beach that the martyrs died on, and that I heard sung about as a teenager.
It was a profound and holy moment. But even more powerful, perhaps, is the fact that even today, more than a millennium later, there is still a Christian community on Iona. The impact of those ancient saints is still being felt across Europe. And I can still count myself as connected to the same family of faith.
One fascinating aspect of Celtic christianity is that they chose, it is said, to represent the holy spirit in their art not as a dove, but as a wild goose. It intrigues me that they chose to symbolize the third member of the Trinity in this way.
I know that sometimes we have a desire to tame faith. To organize it, put boundaries around it, make it safe and predictable. But faith, I have found, is often unpredictable.
I wonder if those Celtic monks chose to imagine the Holy Spirit as a wild goose as a result of their experiences on navigating the restless northern seas? A missionary in Antioch, or Rome, or Constantinople, may have decided to walk to another city, and have a fair idea of the journey ahead of him, and the time it would take to arrive. But a monk pushing a small, oil-soaked leather coracle off from the beach in Iona may have had little idea where the winds would take him; whether he would find safe harbour at the end of his voyage or whether he would be swept up in a terrible storm. Perhaps he was forced to learn to trust in the unexpected guidance of the Holy Spirit?
Before he put out into uncharted waters, the renowned navigator Saint Brendan is said to have prayed these words:
Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?
Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honor?
Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on?
Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?
Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks?
Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?
Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict?
Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean?
O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?
I have been blessed, over the years, to encounter communities that have taught me a little bit about this Wild Goose, the Holy Spirit. As a teenager, I attended a Pentecostal summer camp, where profound, emotional encounters with the Holy Spirit were as commonplace as worship services that lasted until the early hours of the morning. In my twenties, I was fortunate to be part of the Emerging church movement, as a loose-knit group of people tried to figure out new and creative ways of being Christ followers. During trips to England, as well as visiting the island of Iona, we also managed to attend Greenbelt Festival, a fascinatingly diverse celebration of art, justice, and faith. And a couple of years ago I heard of a similarly-intentioned festival here in North America, the appropriately named Wild Goose Festival.
On their website, they explain their name like this:
“Wild Goose” is a Celtic spirituality metaphor that evokes unpredictability, beauty, and grace.
This year I’m going to make a pilgrimage to Hot Springs, North Carolina, to attend this festival for the first time. And I’m looking forward to meeting passionate, different, disruptive, innovative, diverse people. And maybe, maybe, I’ll hear the call of the Wild Goose once more.
A quick survey of people I know on the spectrum found this statement deeply offensive. It is frustrating at two levels – it demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of religious faith and it demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of autism.
I realized on my run this morning, in a moment of it’s-probably-obvious-to-everyone-else-but-a-revelation-to-me clarity, just how many different stories there are in the Bible. I have at the back of my mind this idea that the Christian experience should be more-or-less the same for everyone, but a cursory glance at the Bible with open eyes should really disabuse me of that notion.
Jacob, for example, experienced God as the opponent in a wrestling match. Moses experienced God as a burning bush, or a pillar of fire. Job experienced God as a courtroom adversary, (and then both counsel for the defence and judge.) David experienced God as all-knowing, all-seeing. Habakkuk experienced God as frustratingly obtuse, Jonah experienced God as frustratingly merciful.
When Jesus turned up on the scene, the Bible continues in this vein. The Pharisees encountered him as a dangerous challenge. Mary experienced tender compassion. Peter experienced bold challenge. Paul experienced dramatic life reversal. John experienced profound philosophical satisfaction.
Why on earth, then, do I have this story in my head of the Christian experience being one of ‘convert, join a church, meander along in a reasonably satisfactorily middle class life, don’t get into trouble?’
If everyone who encounters God in the Bible had a unique story to tell about the experience, surely the only thing I can expect for sure about my spiritual narrative is that it will, also, be unique?
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
So my facebook feed this morning had a couple of folks worried about ‘the last days’ and ‘the decay of western society’
The cause? A breathless report worrying that soldiers in the US military may be court martialed for sharing their Christian faith.
At this point I did a daring, radical thing. I actually looked up the policy in question. It took me all of about 30 seconds to find it: it’s freely available at http://www.180fw.ang.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-120820-005.pdf. Despite being reported in some circles as being ‘unreal’ or ‘a slap in the face to the military,’ it’s actually a completely unsurprising piece of HR policy that would not be out of place in any large government agency or private enterprise. The articles in question are as follows:
2.11. Government Neutrality Regarding Religion. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion… 2.12.1. All Airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.
A document exhorting individuals to ‘confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from you own’ is hardly indicative of the downfall of western civilisation. Unless, of course, you don’t want to respect others. Perhaps you genuinely feel that you should be allowed to use a position of authority to extend preferential treatment to adherents of one particular sect. Perhaps you feel that the government should be in the business of picking and choosing creeds. Perhaps you want your government be the official arbiter of acceptable belief, practice and religous affiliation in your country. After all, we already have examples of how well that works.
But if you are such a person, frankly you concern me far more than a well-written HR document outlining the principles of freedom of conscience and respectfulness towards others.
Another first for me; I’ve never visited a Kingdom Hall before. I received a flyer through my door for a special service to be held on Tuesday night, so I jumped at the chance to add another checkmark to my church crawl.
It’s probably impossible for me to be truly objective about my visit, given the lectures that I’ve sat through on ‘Debating with Jehovah’s Witnesses’, and the strong antagonism between Evangelicals and JWs that I’ve observed. But I’ll do my best.
First, my initial impressions. Like most Kingdom Halls, this one was a squat, windowless building, definitely built for function rather than for decoration. It was full to capacity, but I got the feeling that this was the JW equivalent of the ‘Christmas and Easter’ crowd. I estimated around 150 to 200 people present, but we were informed at the end of the service that there were 181 in attendance.
So, lesson one about Jehovah’s Witnesses: they really like accurate headcounts.
Now this is interesting. A survey at the New York Times shows a significant difference of opinion between the average person in the pew and the Catholic church hierarchy. 66% favour allowing priests to marry. 79% favour the use of birth control, and my understanding is that a higher percentage of Catholics than that will actually use birth control at some point. Continue reading →