A Dangerously Radical Christmas

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:

In this Oct. 1, 2011 photo, police arrest a protester on New York's Brooklyn Bridge during Saturday's march by Occupy Wall Street. Protesters speaking out against corporate greed and other grievances attempted to walk over the bridge from Manhattan, resulting in the arrest of more than 700 during a tense confrontation with police. The majority of those arrested were given citations for disorderly conduct and were released, police said. (AP Photo/Stephanie Keith)

(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.

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.

Autism and God

I am on the autism spectrum.  I am also a committed Christian.

This makes me a bit of an anomaly.  According to Catherine Chaldwell-Harris at the Boston University Department of Psychology, people with autism spectrum disorder are far more likely than their peers to reject religious belief and identify as atheist or agnostic.  The chair of a national autism organization has gone as far as to say that autistic children will automatically be atheist because they “lack a section for faith in their brains.”

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.

To understand the challenges that the church has when engaging with autism, let’s talk briefly about what autism is.  Autism is fundamentally characterized by difficulties in understand the mental and emotional state of other people, and a tendency towards systemizing behaviour.  In my case, this means that I struggle to know what other people are thinking and feeling; indeed I sometimes struggle to know what I am feeling.

And there we have a problem. Because faith is often talked about in terms of emotions, and specifically in terms of God’s emotions.   I’ve frequently heard people say “I really felt that God was telling me to change jobs”, or “I feel that God wants me to tell you something”, or “I felt a leading to go on a missions trip.”  

trinityIn the evangelical world this is a very normal way of speaking.  Historically, we have placed a deep emphasis on the personal nature of faith, on the idea that a relationship with God is something that is open to everyone, without the need for mediation through an institution or a priesthood.  And we have taught that the individual believer can receive direction and instruction from God.

And here is where I struggle.  Because when people say “I really feel that God wants…”, they’re telling me that they are intuiting the wants and desires and emotional state of a divine being.

But  I have difficulty intuiting the wants, desires, and emotional states of everyday people.  I have difficulty figuring out the emotional states of my friends and family.  I have difficulty sensing the emotional states of my wife.  Frankly, I have difficulty seeing my own emotional states.

So if active participation in my faith requires being able to sense how some Other is feeling, then I have a problem.  It’s almost like telling someone with club foot that running a marathon is a necessary entry requirement to this club that we call the church.

Before I started writing this article, I did some research to see what had already been written on the subject of autism and religion.  Unfortunately, there’s very little.  There is the study I referenced above that saw the correlation between autism and atheism.  There are a few articles that talk about how to bring your children to church without triggering a meltdown.  And there are a few resources that note that the churchgoing experience has the possibility to trigger some of the sensory processing issues that are so common in people on the spectrum.  Loud noises, large crowds, a requirement to sit still for an hour, strange sounds, smells and tastes; all of these can trigger sensory overload.  Going to church can become an exercise in crisis management, not an opportunity to engage in a faith community in a profound, transformative way.

But I believe that autism is a theological issue.  How we talk about it, how we describe it and how we think about it will affect how we treat people on the spectrum.  And it will affect how we learn from people on the spectrum.  Fundamentally, we will have to decide whether we see autism as a disease to be cured, or a difference to be cherished.

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 http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/05/22/pope_at_mass:_culture_of_encounter_is_the_foundation_of_peace/en1-694445
of the Vatican Radio website

Courts Martial for Christians?

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.

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!

Church 35 – Barrie Kingdom Hall

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.

In general, the folks there were very friendly, and I was taken aback by how many knew my name. I would also guess that this was the most demographically diverse congregation I’ve visited so far; a wide range of ages and ethnicities were represented.

In many ways the service felt like a conservative Baptist or Brethren church. There was an opening song, a prayer, and then a talky bit of around 45 minutes.  Because this service was one of the highlights of the JW year, the talk was designed to give an overview of their theological distinctives.  To me, it felt like the first two thirds of the sermon would not be out of place in a church in the Reformed tradition.  We needed to have our Bibles on hair-trigger responses, as the speaker jumped from reference to reference.  I’d say at least once every minute I heard ‘friends, let’s open our Bibles to…

I’m beginning to think of this approach as ‘Lego Hermeneutics’ – dip into a big bucket of bible verses, pull out a selection,  stick them together end to end, and call the resulting contraption a formal theology.  I sometimes wonder what would happen if we took this approach to other forms of literature.  What would the underlying message of, say, War and Peace, be if we took 10 random sentences from it and strung it together?

Be that as it may, the first two thirds of the sermon would be familiar territory for anyone in a Reformed6a00e54fd89cec88340147e155b94d970b-800wi tradition, with lots of talk about sin, sacrifice and ransom.  But around the 30-minute mark, we got the JW theological distinctives.   In this system, ‘heaven’ is a reward for only 144000 specially chosen individuals, and is seen as very distinct from an ‘earthly paradise’ available to a greater number.

What fascinated me most about this unique reading of Revelation 7 was how it affected the manner in which the congregation took Communion.  When it came time, a plate with bread on it was passed solemnly along the pews, and then returned to the front.  Likewise, glasses of wine were passed around the congregation and then returned.


Seriously, four glasses went out, and four glasses came back, without a sip having been taken.

This is the only time that I have ever been invited to a meal, had the food laid out in front of me, and then watched as the host and all the guests carefully refused to eat.

Also, this is one of the few places I’ve attended that didn’t have coffee available after the service, too.

I’m a passionate believer in the value of eating together.  Tonight, 40 of my friends will be invading my kitchen to eat and to to talk and to remember the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.  And I can assure you that when bread or wine arrives at my table, I’ll enjoy it, not pass it back silently to the kitchen.



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?