Winter Issue 6
REMEMBERING THE QUESTION:
BURDENSOME WORK AND PLAY ON READING WEEK
by Matthew Nelson
getting it over with, surviving—with God’s help, of course. Because his good purpose is obviously survival, no?
Before you correct this misunderstanding in any number of valid ways—including that fact that “thriving” is what God would have for us, not merely surviving—I’ll bring this down to earth (and further complicate potential answers to my question) with reference to one troubling event during my reading week.
I had been having a not-so-great Monday and Tuesday this past week, largely due to the feeling of those overwhelming stress-mountains I couldn’t seem to pray my way out of. Thus I also could not work very well, thus I felt the stress more intensely, thus I decided to distract myself with leisurely time-wasting while on an errand at UBC. I found myself in that imposing “Student Nest” building, in which I strolled over to an art exhibit on the bottom floor. At this exhibit I discovered a couple dozen paintings depicting the suffering and hope of Falun Gong practitioners, who have been persecuted and tortured in awful ways by the Chinese government.
The effect on me of this art was, initially, to feel further burdened with this knowledge of yet more evil occurring in the world—and to people who are followers of a syncretic religion borrowing from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. But then, paradoxically, the magnitude of the suffering depicted reminded me of Jesus and of Christian martyrs, reminded me that in Christ is both baptism into death and promise of resurrection. Though there was a deepening of questions here regarding the meaning of Falun Gong suffering and my relationship to them as someone desiring hope in Christ for them—nevertheless, in that deepening was a call to cast these burdensome questions upon the Lord, and the sense that in these depths is the God who left his comfy heavens to dwell in this world for which he gave his life.
At this art exhibit (that I encountered by "wasting" valuable time), I was reminded of crucial truth: Through intimacy with our heavenly Father, thriving is passage through suffering with Christ, in hope of certain joy. However, thriving is also “wasteful” play in midst of this passage, as we experience the partial “already” of kingdom joy while awaiting the “not yet” of total peace and justice on earth, God’s shalom.
Reading week was and is, for me and hopefully for all of us, a chance to “remember the question” (as John Ames from Gilead puts it) regarding how these tensions are held together: to be pilgrims journeying in, with, and towards Christ— that mystery and Love “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). As Paul prays for the Philippians, I pray too that our “love abounds more and more in knowledge” as we live painful questions, empowered by the “Spirit who intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” May we work restfully in Christ, remembering Christ's joy, so long as it is called Today—neither dwelling on withered reading weeks nor the stressful future.
I’m sure by now most of you have heard the news: reading week is over.
It is finished.
Unlike Jesus, this week will never return, ever. Unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger as well, it will not be back. As Isaiah says about transient things like reading week, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God will stand forever” (40:8).
If you're anxious about the remainder of your semester, my intention here is not to worry you further. Maybe read something like Trump’s tweets if worry is your goal. No, I’m just wanting to reflect upon how reading week really went for you. I do hope that you made the most of it? That you were efficient? Got things done? Rested to appropriate degree, in theologically valid and empirically verifiable terms? Yes? No?
There is something about reading weeks that challenge me and reveal my heart, regarding my overall approach to life. The nature of reading week as this luxurious, comfy-looking span of time, right smack dab in the middle of an always-busy term—it always holds out a promise of possible relief and rest as the result of getting work done; it offers the possibility of “getting on top of it,” of ruling the unruliness that has taken hold. Every time, my primary aim is to be efficient with my time—to finish stuff!—for finishing stuff thereby decreases the mountains of stress that have begun accumulating. If something fun or restful happens, that is a bonus which happens as I find myself inevitably unable to be a perfect work machine. Never would I plan on such unnecessary, frivolous “play” when the important thing is efficient work and stress-reduction. After all, life is primarily about finishing the work that we have begun, no?
If you are saying “hmmm…” right now, you and Jesus are on the same page.
Jesus says, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).
These are strange words! Beautiful words, but very very strange. These words speak of life, of what it means to live as a people abiding in the God who carries our burdens. Sometimes I think I have understood these words, on a daily basis have experienced their truth in prayerful giving-over of concerns and worries which otherwise would completely crush me—and yet the truth of what it means to rest in Christ remains mysterious as ever. After all, are we not the people called to do his will? Are we not doers, primarily, rather than resters?
Well...Paul says, “It is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).
That’s simple then: Resting in Christ, God works in us, that we may act. Now we can continue the mission of getting things done,
LOVE PROJECTED FORWARDS:
MARILYNNE ROBINSON AND THE THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES
by Liana Esau
be diminution,” we must see the profound intimacy of the creator in the creation. We must participate in beauty as the conversation between humankind and reality. The image of God on his people dilates our capacity for this conversation. We are shaped for reverence, wonder, praise and, surprisingly, longing. Akin to core themes in her novel Housekeeping, Robinson took great care to speak on hope as expectation; the strange efficacy of mankind. Hope is not subjective, however, for we hope in that which is already affirmed to us. This affirmation is the known character of God. “Hope,” she quipped (in one of the few quotes I managed to transcribe in full) “is caught up in the experience of love. Hope is love projected forwards.”
Robinson is not one to hide her love for the beauties and capacities of the human soul. The glory of man is the image of God, and Robinson urges us “not to lose sight of God: of the brilliance that made our human brilliance attain its sacredness.” This reality certainly ought to change the scope of Christian action: redirecting us to the dual love of God and neighbor. And to the question of “who is my neighbor?”, Robinson pulls from Calvin’s Institutes, charging us to love our enemies and “look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, should by its beauty and dignity allure us to love and embrace them.” She ends her appeal in gentle but wrenching simplicity: God’s divine generosity became material in the incarnation. As the proof of loving God is in loving his people, we can often best love our neighbor in the radical but simple act of material generosity.
“Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never what really matters” (Gilead)
I first encountered Marilynne Robinson and her writings at the Regent Bonhoeffer conference of 2014. In hindsight, I consider it divine providence. She stood up before an audience packed with academics and expounded on the profound grandeur of the commonplace. I tried to write notes, but since she spoke in a consistent onslaught of eloquent aphorisms I kept missing the ending of one phrase for the sake of the next. My journal is full of great cliff-hangers like “The frontier between human understanding and divine reality is a participation in....” I didn't want to miss any more of her great endings, so I picked up my first copy of Gilead in the days following. In those pages her brave and generous mind created a landscape of immanence and transcendence, power and vulnerability. She re-delivered back to the reader the empathy of embodied memory. We all may know the “peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday,” but it is a gracious gift to be reminded of it as “standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain… [wherein] you can feel the silent and invisible life.”Robinson’s gift to us during the Laing lectures was no less gracious than her novels and essays. In discussing faith as a way of seeing, she displayed a fierce loyalty to the “over-plus of meaning in reality”. There is no place, she argues, for a dichotomy of “faith-vs.-science,” or for reductionist paradigms that flatten our understandings of the world and each other. Even though “one of the great projects of our time appears to
HOW TO HANDLE ART WITHOUT MESSING IT UP:
TAKING CUES FROM THE TREE OF LIFE AND THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
by Carson Leith
And others to please it too. …To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining all around it. …”
So the story begins. The viewer starts to pick up visual, dialogical clues that the mother represents Grace and the Father, Nature. As Jack grows up, he experiences the tension between the two ways: “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me…always you will.” From the prologue, we can understand this to be true not only literally, but allegorically. The Father and Mother do, in fact, fight over how to raise their children. But since they represent Nature and Grace, the boy’s statement is also: “Nature, Grace, always you wrestle inside me. One part of me wants to please myself, and the other wants to love others unconditionally. Half of me wants to see the beauty and glory in the world, but the other half just sees unhappiness.” Clearly, much more is going on than the surface story of a 1950s family going through crisis. This family is a microcosm of opposing creational forces.
In the same way, readers of John’s gospel would do well to pay attention to John’s Prologue as an aid in reading the whole work. In John 1:1-18, the main themes for the entire work can be found. We observe the repetition of key words like “life,” “light,” “darkness,” and “grace.” These are terms that the discerning reader should keep in mind as she makes her way through John.
Sure enough, they show up everywhere, transforming deceptively simple stories into elaborate poetry, deep allusion, and beautiful music that transcends reason. Much more is going on than the surface story we read of Jesus of Nazareth having private conversations with a few individuals. He is reinterpreting the whole Jewish narrative and centering it on himself.
3. Let the text breathe
So much of the way we read our Bible can be like putting it in a straightjacket, tying it to a chair, and commanding it to say what we want it to say. People who hate The Tree of Life hate it because they have previously made up their minds about how films should behave. They have put it in the straightjacket before it has a chance to speak. But The Tree of Life is a film that trains you to watch films differently. During those 139 minutes, we need to let Malick call the shots. Our name is not on the director’s chair. Similarly, we need to give the 21 chapters of John’s Gospel back to John. He’s the one with the pen. And he’s got something to say.
The Tree of Life is an abstract, reflective film by Terrence Malick, whose basic story line follows a boy (Jack) throughout his growing-up years as he deals with a mother who exemplifies Grace and a father who exemplifies Nature.
Many people walk away confused by The Tree of Life. People either love it or walk out. The same happens with Jesus in John’s Gospel. People either love him, or they walk away. Much of these responses have to do with misunderstanding. People misunderstand The Tree of Life; people misunderstand Jesus. So, in light of the difficulties of understanding these great works of art, what are some principles of interpretation that they encourage?
1. Take off your glasses
Sometimes we have to remove our glasses in order to see. This is perhaps the most important step to reading a great work of art well. All of us come wearing theological, ideological and cultural lenses. But wearing these glasses is not the error. Rather, the error occurs when we are unwilling to take them off—when we are stubborn in our own ways. We can so easily judge a work before it starts. But if we are never open to someone else’s ideas, we’ll never grow. If we never truly listen to another person, we will never change.
This notion of change happens to be what John is so adamant about in his Gospel. For example, Nicodemus went head to head with eternal life—“the light of mankind”—but he was unwilling to change his ways, and so was left in the metaphorical and literal darkness. Once we have our glasses off, we are ready to begin watching (or begin reading). And at the outset we come to a critical place: the beginning.
2. Pay attention to the beginning
Viewers of Tree of Life would do well to pay attention to the opening monologue if they want the movie to be intelligible:
"The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. … Nature only wants to please itself.
FEAST AND FAMINE
by Andrew Headley
Breathe life into these bones!
I stood on those misty plains, sowing seeds into the dark soil, drinking the humid air, and knowing there was more. John Donne once lay on his deathbed, writhing in wet sheets and feverish dreams, and thanked God for the sins he had not committed. He thanked God for the things he could not see. I wonder about Angels, and what they have spared me from.
Because it's easy to see what I left behind. It's easy to feel the pain in my hips, the ache behind my eyes, and shake my fist into the heavens. It's not easy to believe that what joy is, I have only smelled, like the vaguest hint on the back of the wind.
Behold, he comes,
leaping over the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Behold, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
I confess, I almost gave myself to the land. To the prince of the power of the air. I saw the kingdoms of the earth and wondered if I could rule them all. But you, you crushed me with this love, I am broken here. Bind me up. Kneel again, at my feet. I'll allow it, Lord. Please wash my feet. Teach me what feast and famine really mean.
Your boy, Andrew
And at the end of the seven years [famine], when the woman returned from the land of the Philistines, she went to appeal to the king for her house and her land. 2 Kings 8:3
We can often see what God has taken from us. We can count the cans in the pantry; the cars in the driveway; the children in their beds; and compare them with the neighbours, or with that season of plenty. This isn’t about cans or cars. It's about how my heart used to be full of excitement about life; how my body used to spring out of bed to harvest the day. My mouth was filled with laughter. I believed everything was ahead, that I could go wherever I desired, that my heart wasn’t anything to shy away from. And I used to run. I ran. When I saw something beautiful beginning to shine on the furthest edge of the horizon like a golden ball of flame, I ran for it. Not only that, I flew. I spanned the globe and watched the sun rise over the equator and set over the North Pole. The curvature of the earth was under my seat, and my right hand on the throttle brought me closer to the end. It wasn’t a dream. I went where I desired. I didn’t pinch myself to break the reverie. The world was mine for the taking. I breathed out joy with each breath instead of carbon dioxide.
Where's all that joy now?
Restore my fortunes, Lord!
Like streams in the Negev.
When the chirp of the wheels kissed the runway and the engines spooled down, when the piece of us—the sticky patch of rubber we left behind on the pavement—was finally dry, I do remember another feeling. I remember the famine. I remember the pantry being full, but my heart feeling empty. Was it truly joy I had felt? Did I ever know it? My company credit card told me to satisfy. Drink deep, my thirsty well. The more I ate, and drank, and pushed, and climbed—ever higher, ever clawing for more altitude, ever straining to breathe the cleanest air, the finest wine, the richest caviar—the more I felt it.I drove alongside the inky morass of petrified lava fields in Kona, salt from the ocean still drying on my face, and I wept because I was alone. One feels the most alone in paradise. I pulled the car over and found a few black stones to stack with the thousands of other little totems people had left, evidently trying to say something. “We were here,” perhaps. I stacked them like they were my own bones.
by Joel Strecker
- 2 cups coconut basmati rice, cooked
- 3T lemon juice
- sour cream/yogurt
In a large stock pot, saute onion in a splash of oil. Once brown: add spices, garlic, celery, lentils, and apple; cook until aromatic. Deglaze with stock; simmer for 1 hour, stirring regularly. Puree soup in a blender; return to pot and continue to simmer. Add carrots and chicken/cauliflower; simmer for 20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste; adjust curry and cayenne as desired. Add rice and lemon juice; serve immediately. Garnish with parsley and sour cream. Goes well with naan.
NB To make coconut basmati, cook 1 measure of basmati in two measures of liquid, with one third of the liquid measure comprised of coconut milk, e.g. 1 can coconut milk + 2 cans water:1.5 cans rice.
Ingredients for 6-8 servings
- 1 onion, diced
- 1/2t tumeric
- 1/2t curry powder
- 1/4t ground cloves
- 1/4t cayenne
- 1/4t cumin
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 stalks celery, diced
- 2 cups red lentils
- 1 gala apple, peeled and diced
- 2L chicken stock (or veg)
- 3 carrots, peeled and diced
- 1lb cooked chicken (or one head roast cauliflower)
POEM OF THE WEEK:
AN APRIL MISSED
by Chris Campanelli
The sun would shine its
mid-morning rays across me,
nine years old, eyes closed,
while stretched out on the
plush blue carpet floor.
I used to lay long in that spot,
look up, and in the dust mites drifting,
recognize the very pulp of heaven--
angels’ fast descending--
and stay until warm light on skin
welled up within my youthful heart.
The same light comes each year, although
that window and its house were razed.
That sun today shines on a door
I keep shut while constructing praise.