Seeking the Wild Goose

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
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.
TrevorIonaMore 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.
We take inspiration from this concept, as well as many events such as GreenbeltBurning Manthe Iona Community and SXSW.
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.

Different Stories

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, even the atheists”

From the Pope’s address this morning:


“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.”

Text from page
of the Vatican Radio website

An Unfortunate Poem

I was shown this poem earlier today, and disliked it immediately.

In part, because it stands in such stark contrast to the grace-filled message of welcome in the Easter sermon of John Chrysotom that I just posted.

Chrysotom reassures all that there is a place at the table.  A place for those who are committed in their religious devotions, and a place for those who are negligent.  A place for those who a rich, and those who are poor.  A place for those who are weary of doing good, and a place for those who are weary of failing again and again.

poemIn contrast, ‘Odd Thomas’ begins his poem by attacking those who don’t share his beliefs.  The only reasons someone might not agree with him, he says, is because they are a ‘rationalist, a relativist, a religious, or a reservationist.’

I see this too often.  Christians find it hard to believe that others might have deep reasons for their own religious convictions, and so assume that they must be rejecting Christianity out of stupidity or spite.

But how would it feel to be on the receiving end of this? How would I feel if, say, a member of the Jainist faith started threatening me with punishment and death because I didn’t believe the same things that he did?  What if he accused me of being stupid, of being inconsistent, of deliberately choosing to ignore the plain truths revealed in their doctrines?

The frustrating thing about this is that it’s not even hard to find out why some folks reject Christianity in North America.  Thanks to books like ‘unChristian‘, we know that a majority of young people consider the church to be homophobic, judgemental, hypocritical, overly political and exclusionary.

Poems like this one that accuse sceptics of Christianity of being ignorant and stubborn do not help at all.

Rich or poor, observant or negligent, first or last, rejoice today!

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

The Clergy and the Laity

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.

I’d be very interested in seeing what these figures look like on a global basis, whether this is a uniquely North American phenomenon, or whether there is genuinely a huge rift between the official teaching of the hierarchy and the Sensus Fidelium, the understanding of the faithful, of the church as a whole.

This raises questions for those outside the Catholic church, too.  What happens when  the official key holders of doctrine state one thing but the general population holds a different position?

From inside the system, it’s easy to say ‘we have the Truth on matters of ethics and behaviour, and those who disagree with us do so because they wish to behave immorally.’

But on matters such as the ordination of women priests, this is seen as an issue of justice and equality.  The laity has considered the position of the hierarchy and said ‘No.  We believe that you are in the wrong here.  The right, honourable and just thing to do is to stop discriminating on grounds of gender.’

What happens when a long-held claim to divine authority encounters a groundswell sense that the hierarchy is actually in the wrong?



139 Pages

Just read through the complete text of the EFC report Hemorrhaging Faith.  


Although it is somewhat skewed by its biases, it’s a valuable document.  A solid research effort went into interviewing several thousand participants and analysing their responses.

All of the participants were between 18 and 34, and all had some kind of church background.  The study examines the extent to which they are currently engaged with the institutional church, and their reasons for their level of engagement.

It’s a welcome document, not least because it is firmly rooted in the Canadian context.  For once, we don’t have to rely on American materials to understand our culture.  The unique religious environment in Quebec is examined, as are the churchgoing trends of first-generation immigrants.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t go far enough.  It recognises the large number of young people who have rejected the church, and carefully notes their reasons, but doesn’t really allow that their criticisms might be valid.  The report sometimes feels as if it has been written by a group that used to enjoy a position of influence and prestige in society, and is frustrated that now it needs to compete on a level playing field with other sources of information and ideas.

Despite that, I’d recommend the report to any church leader, and I’d recommend thinking long and hard about the implications of the report’s findings.


Hemorrhaging Faith

At Vox Alliance church (the new name for Redwood Park Church) this morning, we were treated to a review of the report Hemorrhaging Faith, a publication of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.  This report looked at the reasons why people, and especially those in the 18-34 year old age group, are leaving the institutional church in Canada.

In some respects it addresses the same ground that has already been covered in the excellent book unChristian, but does so in a Canadian context.

I have yet to read the entire report, but several points caught my attention from the overview we were given.

Firstly, people’s attitudes towards the church are shaped by a variety of sources.  The primary influence on young people, perhaps surprisingly, is still their parents.  Whether positive or negative, our family experiences have a huge influence on the choices we make in life.  After parents, respondents said that their attitude towards church was shaped by their experiences or lack thereof of God, whether their church communities had felt authentic or hypocritical, and the nature of their churches’ formal teaching.

Another important point that was raised was that the biggest drop-off in church attendance is not at the end of teenagehood, but in tweenagehood.  The transition between Sunday School age and youth-group age, when kids start taking more responsibility for their own use of time, is one of the most critical life-transition events they will experience.

Unfortunately, however, the publication did not actually survey anyone in this age group, and so I feel missed out on one or two important reasons for kids choosing to leave church.

I attempted to correct this oversight this evening, with a couple of interviews with representatives of this age group, and learned that kids may choose to cease church attendance for the following reasons:

  • They do not feel they are able to ask questions, or engage in honest dialogue.
  • They are made to feel unwelcome.
  • Their time is constrained with growing responsibilities such as homework and jobs, and and there does not seem to be a clear sense of purpose in church attendance.
  • They have no age-group peers, and feel isolated.

But most importantly, I learned that kids also leave church not because they choose to, but because they are kicked out.  Kids who look wrong, dress wrong, talk wrong, or ask difficult questions are made to feel unwelcome or even asked directly to leave.

I appreciate the insight of the EVF report, but I feel that it is incomplete if it does not address the way that as well as failing to retain young people, at times the church directly drives them away.








The Unpleasant Story of Samson.

A Bible study group I attended last night touched on some emotional nerves, as we talked through the end of Samson’s life.

I think that I react to what I perceive as glibness in the face of human suffering. If we’re talking about the story of Samson, we cannot ignore the fact that it ends with an act of terrorism, with profoundly disturbing similarities to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Here is a guy whose last act is one of religious vengeance: he knocks down two towers, killing himself and 3,000 other people.

I do not believe, I cannot believe, that Samson is to be in anyway respected or emulated.

And I guess I do find it worrying when we happily sit around splitting theological hairs about predestination and ignoring the horror of the passage that we are encountering. Maybe it’s because familiarity has dulled the human tragedy of the story? Maybe we say ‘it’s in the Bible, so it must be OK?’ Maybe we think that the point of the story is to give us a nice cozy life application for the week?

Or maybe we realise that if we looked too deeply, we’d have to acknowledge that the author of this story portrays God as being complicit in this massacre? And that’s not something that any of us are comfortable with, least of all me.

Some of our theologians deal with this by saying ‘yes, sure God can kill anyone he wants whenever he wants, and that’s fine.’

The first part of that sentence makes sense – if God is omnipotent, then of course he can.

The second implication in the sentence horrifies me. Because it tends to include the implication that we shouldn’t let this bother us. That to react emotionally to human death and suffering is somehow a sign of a weak faith.

If this is truly the case, then I don’t want that faith. I’d rather hold on to my humanity.

There are parallels with this and the unfortunate responses to grief that we’ve experienced occasionally. Some people think that if we can explain suffering, then we don’t need to console the grieving. That what the person suffering bereavement most needs is a helpful book explaining how their loss is all part of some bigger picture that they are unable to see.

This is, of course, callous in the extreme. A mourner doesn’t need an explanation. They need compassion. And they need someone to share their burden, not someone to tell them that it doesn’t exist.

Likewise on a larger scale. Faced with the horrors of genocide, of war, of sickness, of death, I don’t actually need or want someone to come along and say ‘yes, well, this is all perfectly OK because it fits neatly into my theological schema.’ I want someone to acknowledge the horror of what we are witnessing. I want a mourner, not a theologian.

I guess this is an easy trap to fall into. Preachers are taught that their job is to explain the passage. Here is a story of a man called Samson. Here is what happened in his life. Here is the background. Here is what other theologians have said about it. Here is what we can learn from the passage. Now we can go and have coffee.

But maybe that’s not the point? Maybe that’s not needed from the preacher? Maybe that’s not even the point of the story?

The art that we remember that comes out of atrocities is not abstract, clinical and structured. We remember Dulce et Decorum Est not because it gives a high level view of the political causes of the First World War or military strategy, but because it viscerally reveals to us the real experience of one individual caught up in the terror of a gas attack.

At that point the author, Wilfred Owen,  is not telling us about the grand meaning of the conflict. He is telling us what it is like to see his companion fail to get his gas mask on before the poison chokes his lungs.

We rush to explanation too fast. We want to say that we have mastered the passage.  What would happen if we were willing to say “huh. This is tough. This represents an ugly side of humanity. And maybe it even represents an ugly side of humanity’s concept of God.”