Monday, November 02, 2015

Bonhoeffer on Freedom and Responsibility

Ever since reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics I've been thinking long and hard about his view of moral responsibility as something owed ultimately and daily to the command of Christ in complex, messy situations rather than to abstract principles or timeless duties.

In Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison we find a succinct and compelling expression of this in a paper-fragment titled 'Who Stands His Ground?' The following excerpt quotes roughly half of that paper:

'The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems. But for the Christian who frames his life on the Bible it simply confirms the radical evilness of evil.

[Before continuing, Bonhoeffer considers and finds wanting the 'ethical systems' of 'rationalism', 'moral fanaticism', reliance on one's 'conscience', and 'duty'.]

What then of the man of freedom? He is the man who aspires to stand his ground in the world, who values the necessary deed more highly than a clear conscience or the duties of his calling, who is ready to sacrifice a barren principle for a fruitful compromise or a barren mediocrity for a fruitful radicalism. What then of him? He must beware lest his freedom should become his own undoing. For in choosing the lesser of two evils he may fail to see that the greater evil he seeks to avoid may prove the lesser. Here we have the raw material of tragedy.

Some seek refuge from the rough-and-tumble of public life in the sanctuary of their own private virtue. Such men however are compelled to seal their lips and shut their eyes to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep themselves pure from the defilements incurred by responsible action. For all that they achieve, that which they leave undone will still torment their peace of mind. They will either go to pieces in face of disquiet, or develop into the most hypocritical of all Pharisees.

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God.'

- quoted from pages 135-7 of the 1960 Fontana publication
(bold print added, masculine language refers to all persons)

I'm sure there are plenty of others who are far ahead of me in their thinking on this, but I offer it here because--to quote Sheriff Ed Tom Bell from No Country for Old Men--'it has left quite an impression on me'. In fact, one might quote that character even further in responding to Bonhoeffer:

'I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world."'

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Theological Symposium at Trinity College on 15 October

I'll soon be part of a theological symposium hosted by Trinity College Bristol, in partnership with Bristol Baptist College, exploring:

A Christian Response to the Refugee Crisis

The event is from 2 – 4 pm on Thursday, 15 October 2015, in the chapel at Trinity College. The plan is to hear and discuss three papers, including:

Rev Dr Knut Heim, ‘Attitudes Toward Foreigners in the Bible’

Rev Dr Helen Paynter, ‘Reflections on Jubilee in the Light of the Refugee Crisis’

Rev Dr Jon Coutts, ‘Who is my Neighbour? Questions of Proximity, Awareness and Responsibility’

This is a free public event, with coffee/tea provided afterward. For more information see the college website.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Fortys

In my early thirties I compiled lists of the albums, books and movies which had to that point been favourites or left an impression. One for every year. I've been adding to it each birthday since.

This being my fortieth I guess it is a bit of a milestone. It was a good year for reading, especially.

Here they are then: the film, album, novel and book that left the greatest impression on me this year. Only one of them actually came out recently, but they were all new for me.

Together with the prior entries (in the tabs above) they round out a sort of life-top-40.


NOVEL #40:
The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy


(runners up: Marilynne Robinson, Gilead & Home)


FILM #40: 
Calvary - John Michael McDonagh


(runner up: Two Days, One Night)


ALBUM #40:
Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes


(runners up: Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands &  Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell)


BOOK #40:
Ethics - Dietrich Bonhoeffer


(runner up: Pope Francis, Laudato Si)

I highly recommend all of these. Especially those novels: wow. Click the pictures for links. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

An Open Question to City Council (about Chalk)

Hello,

We live on a street with a cul-de-sac in ___. We are getting complaints (twice, but they say others agree with them) about our kids writing on the street with chalk. The second complaint said kids shouldn't be out on the street "unsupervised". But this literally three doors down, in a cul de sac, in front of the kids' friends' houses.

Our children generally scoot or bike or play tag, stay off others' property, and only use a soft ball which wouldn't hurt anything even if it made contact.

Can someone contact me, please, to discuss the proper by-laws and unwritten rules about kids playing in neighbourhoods? Do children have rights as well as responsibilities? Rights to play on their block without harassment, as long as private property and noise levels are respected? (Neither of these are a problem, our kids are in by 7:30).

I would particularly be interested to know: if children are not to be on the street or cul de sac, can we demand that the side walks not be cluttered up with cars?

Thank you for any help you can give me. Wanting to be peaceable, but also to know what's right from what's people being grumpy and unreasonable.

 Jon Coutts

(Update: I'm informed that my letter has been forwarded to Highways and Traffic. And, for what it's worth, we are complying with neighbour requests).

Monday, September 07, 2015

Sufjan in Bristol

Sufjan Stevens, "Should Have Known Better" (Photo Chris Davies)
This is a shot from the Sufjan Stevens concert in Bristol, England, last night. It was aesthetically gorgeous and emotionally devastating all at once. Sufjan didn't say a word until very late in the show, but I've never seen anyone give so much of themselves to an audience. In Colston Hall, the clapping waited an extra beat until we were sure each song was over: there was just so much attention to detail and quiet moments of beauty, no one wanted to ruin anything. We were spellbound. Someone on twitter described it as if they'd been down to the river to pray.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Review of 'Your Fathers, Where Are They?' by Dave Eggers

Like I said on twitter, I would like to congratulate Dave Eggers not only for writing a brilliant novel but for giving it a title too long to be meaningfully tweetable. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is, as the blurbs on the front cover say, 'prescient and moving', 'angry and astute'.

I picked this book up at the library literally as a transition book. I closed the last page of Marilynne Robinson's Home and looked at the next book on my nightstand, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and just wasn't ready to move from the one to the other. I wanted a quick, less emotionally involving, read. That's when Eggers' bright green cover caught my eye, and the indications inside that it was mostly dialogue sealed the deal.

Turns out this book is entirely dialogue. There is not one word about setting or action or even emotion. Not even a 'he said' or a 'she retorted'. This is a remarkable feat when one considers the fact that it nonetheless, by the end, actually does give the reader a profound impression of the setting and the emotion involved, and that not one sentence feels forced or strained. For this reason alone it is a remarkable piece of fiction.

But the thing that hits home about this book is its social commentary, which is conveyed, again, without ever stepping out of character to straightforwardly say anything. One detects from the first few pages (and the ostentatious title) that the book might prompt some questions, but it is only as the conversations unfold that the opportunity for reflection slowly snowballs. By the end it is bigger than you'd realized. You're thinking back through the story and finding all kinds of perception and nuance you may not have overthought at the time.

It is almost a shame to take that and then just straight-up summarize and analyze it. So here's a spoiler alert if you're compelled to go pick the book up and have the experience yourself: It will take you a bit of effort to go get the book, and maybe an afternoon or a few days to go read it, but maybe you want to go do that before you come back and read what I want to pull out of it next.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is a frank look into the mind and experience of one of those mystifying social outcasts who make the news for doing something either inexplicably daft or downright evil. The school shooters. The people shouting on the street outside of the drugstore. The misfits who, well, just never fit. The people you can ignore until they refuse to be ignored anymore. This novel takes you inside.

What's so good about the way Dave Eggers does this is that it is all so modestly driven by the main character's agenda that you sometimes almost forget he is doing something horrible. You see what he's doing and you understand. On its own this would be nothing new in modern fiction. We're used to being asked to simply empathize with a criminal, even sometimes to take the side of the 'bad guy'. This novel is smarter than that. It manages empathy without for a second offering an excuse. The character is at the same time objectionable and understandable, but the most arresting thing about the narrative is that it is all so normal.

There are no really big words. Apart from being so candid and frank, it is all just normal conversation. The only thing artificial about it is the way that the character is making these irksome conversations happen. It is almost like his number one goal is just to get people to be honest. It reminds me of Marilyn Manson's comment (in Bowling for Columbine) where he said that if he had had the chance to talk to those school shooters, he would have just listened to them.

Eggers gives us a likely view into such a person's manner of thinking. There are no excuses. Part of you wants to label the guy 'normal', another part of you still wants to says 'nuts'. But by the end of the book at least you know him.

But there are other characters worth thinking about too. The astronaut, the lady on the beach, the cop, the congressman, the school teacher, the mom, the social-outcast friend with the knife who got shot in the head. Eggers has a purpose for each of these, which I only really picked up on in retrospect. Each of them in their own way has experienced what the main character has experienced, but has responded in different ways. Some more admirably, some just as objectionably, even if more acceptably (socially-speaking).

The one page in the book which I think comes closest to straightforward social commentary is right near the end, and it comes from the one I'd consider the 'hero' of the book, the congressman. He is the one who makes the most earnest attempt to understand, or at least appear to understand, the main character's angst. He calls him 'son', and in a way is the father he needed all along. He gets it. He was in Vietnam, lost limbs, saw things that scarred him for life and, with all of that as his motivation to do better, entered politics.

One review of the book pointed out that sometimes the conversations lack veracity because one of the dialogue partners is trying to appease the other. This may be so, but I think it adds to rather than subtracts from the realism and nuance of the story. (And in the case of the New York Times objection about the congressman's views on war veterans, it begs to be pointed out that the congressman himself disproves the statements the reviewer finds problematic). Surely the views expressed are caricatures, but that's the point. That's why it is realistic: Because like it or not that's how the angst-riddled social-outcast is perceiving these things. At the very least the book calls for more attentive explanations.

In the case of the excerpt I'm going to pull out below, however, it doesn't really matter whether the congressman actually believes what he's saying. The comments have an insight to them I'll be carrying with me for a while.

Our main character has just confessed to him: 'For some reason the hospital woman makes me madder than the cops who shot him. I mean, why is that? Two years later I still don't understand it.' And the congressman replies:

---Killing feels more natural in some way. Killing is some kind of connection. It's a convoluted connection, but it is one.... But what happened at the hospital is something else. It's not human. It's not primal. So we don't understand it. It's a more recent mutation. The things we all have, love and hate and passion, and the need to eat and yell and screw, these are things every human has. But there's this new mutation, this ability to stand between a human being and some small measure of justice and blame it on some regulation. To say that the form was filled out incorrectly.
---Yeah, yeah, what is that? That's the doom of us all.
---This is a new thing, son, and it's a frightening thing. It's something I saw every day in the VA. And if you think it's bad in some hospital, Christ, you wouldn't last a minute in Washington. 

Rather than edit that last bit of 'language', I'll take it as more of faithless lamentation. Obviously we ought to respond to this social 'mutation' more like the congressman than the criminal, but it doesn't hurt to say we understand. Even to admit that not everyone can pull it together like the congressman does. Although he lashes out in unfortunate ways, all our main character is asking for is a vision. Something better to be a part of. It is foolish to let that be an excuse for his actions, but it is a pretty accurate encapsulation of the question the disturbed individual might be trying to ask. The question is too big to answer, perhaps, but the point is to hear it, not to answer it. 

What's intriguing is that the title for Eggers novel is actually a 'word of the Lord' through the biblical prophet Zechariah, who was led to say:
“The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?" (Zech 1:2-5 ESV)
Putting down Eggers' novel it feels like the congressman was the father the main character never had. In fact I can't help but feel like the book is a call to fathers and mothers and sons to 'return' and to 'hear' and to 'pay attention' once again.

If you are inclined to go read this book I encourage you to do so. I hope I haven't spoiled it. As is usually the case, it must be said that the book is better (and almost shorter!) than the review. The discussion we could have would probably also be better than any one interpretation alone, so if you've read it and want to talk about it, do drop me a comment.

One last thing merits an accolade: This novel has the most em-dashes of any book I've ever read. Nice work Dave Eggers.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Two Days, One Night

In ten years blogging only twenty-one other movies have compelled me to give them a ten out of ten. This is the twenty-second. Somehow sparing and direct at once, it's just a profound, perfect little film.


Friday, July 31, 2015

On the Church and Planned Parenthood

I am not American but the current Planned Parenthood scandal certainly strikes a nerve. I haven't watched any videos but have read some transcripts and a variety of solicited and unsolicited opinions on the matter. I'm not through thinking about this, but having failed to keep quiet on social media I now find myself feeling compelled to try to articulate a concern. It's about a temptation which always crops up in churches when we get talking against abortions. It's the temptation toward sanctimonious outrage which tends to be the go-to response from people who, like me, have been pro-life in name but not so much in action. We can offer up all the legitimate excuses in the book, but not many of us have really pushed ourselves against our felt-limitations all that much.

Let's face it: Abortion is tough because for many of us the act itself a cut-and-dry ethical no-no, and yet the context in which it occurs makes opposition to it very complicated. Like it or not, ours is a society which protects sexual liberty while simultaneously heightening pervasive sexual temptation to inhumane levels, and then puts most of the responsibility for dealing with the consequences on individuals themselves. Female individuals, mostly. When it comes down to it, most of the responsibility is on women--particularly less-privileged women. That means sexual liberty is significantly more 'liberating' for men than for women. We could wish this fact away but it is still there.

Thus in the current scenario there are a number of related issues which make a straight-up de-funding of Planned Parenthood problematic. One is the (apparently) inadequate level of preparedness to replace the non-abortive services which Planned Parenthood offers, were it to disappear. This is more than a merely pragmatic issue. It is a real and recurring moral problem for pro-lifers like me. So much so that it stings: Without such readiness our anti-abortionism really does put us on the wrong side of a woman's rights issue. We cannot hide behind the dictum that 'these women should simply not get pregnant in the first place.' The statement only proves the point and exposes our own complicity in the social politic (of inconsistent individualism). Anti-abortion legislation which leaves unchallenged the exploitatively male-biased sexual-culture on one side, and offers inadequate help to pregnant women (especially of lesser means) on the other, is simply not prepared to be pro-life in the fullest sense of the term.

I say this as a long-term 'pro-lifer' who has done next-to-nothing about it other than to throw votes away to conservative parties who, in the end, were simply dangling anti-abortion sentiment like a carrot on a stick. This is a legal and political issue but it should never have been left to legislators and politicians. To be honest I'm not sure what exactly I personally should have done, but that probably just tells you I let it slip from my mind most the time because I was too daunted or alone. And yet we all know people who have done things (worked for crisis pregnancy centres, fostered and adopted children, fought against sexual exploitation, etc), and we can all say to what degree we've been helpful to them. Me not so much. Part of it, I confess, has been paralysis. Seeing the forest for the trees has been overwhelming, and I have caved to hopelessness rather than living in hope, faith, and love.

John 8:1-11
This is not a guilt-parade. It is just to say that our anti-abortionism, where it exists, needs to be penitent rather than sanctimonious. Not all Christians are in fact opposed to abortion, but those who are do need to try to be consistent. A church opposed to abortion has to be a church which thoroughly supports women before and after pregnancy. It also needs to be a church which is prepared to lean into and offer if not a completely alternative social politic at least a credibly viable one. Else it ends up offering mostly words. Words which on this issue feel like more for the pile of inequity against women. Words which starkly contrast to Jesus' silent solidarity with the woman about to be stoned for adultery.

Jesus had things to say on other occasions of course. Words which established a powerful alternative of life in self-giving community, where sex finds its rightful place in covenant health. Words which established grace-communities of daily confession and forgiveness, mutual support and accountability. Powerful words--as long as they don't end in the futility of resurrection-less inactivity. By the grace of God I hope I might at least be found among those who follow where those words take them. I don't have much to offer at the moment, I'm afraid, except maybe these few unpolished words about our words. I guess it is just that I have heard how I sound in moments like these, when words spouted in black and white, without attention to the greater web of implicated actions required, were exposed for their emptiness--if not their outright pharisaism. I say this in the penitence of political and personal paralysis. Christ have mercy.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The view from Gilead: 'That's the strangest thing about being in the ministry'

'That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. 

There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect to find it, either....

My reputation is largely the creature of the kindly imaginings of my flock, whom I chose not to disillusion, in part because the truth had the kind of pathos in it that would bring on sympathy in its least bearable forms. 

Well, my life was known to them all, every significant aspect of it, and they were tactful. 

I've spent a good share of my life comforting the afflicted, but I could never endure the thought that anyone should try to comfort me, except Boughton, who always knew better than to talk much.'

- John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (pages 6 & 46)

(What's she's able to capture here--I'm not sure it could be said better)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The view from Gilead: 'confusion where theology is concerned'

'Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.'

- Rev. John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, page 237

(A prophecy of facebook memes and blogs)

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Tanizaki's Praise of Shadows

'The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty's ends.'

'I wonder if my readers know the color of that "darkness seen by candlelight". It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night. It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.'

Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, p. 29, 52

(a lovely, illuminating, at times I daresay wise, little book)

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (and a word about our response)

Seven years ago I posted an excerpt from a paper written to give a theological response to the legacy of residential schools in Canada and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that had recently been initiated. Click through if you want to read that post, entitled The Prince of Peace Smokes a Peace Pipe.

Today after several years the TRC produced its report, including a document called What we have learned: Principles of truth and reconciliation. This document is well worth reading. It includes a brief review of the history and an assessment of the legacy still felt by Aboriginals. It also includes a number of very insightful and challenging statements such as these:

"Reconciliation requires constructive action on addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism that have had destructive impacts on Aboriginal peoples’ education, cultures and languages, health, child welfare, the administration of justice, and economic opportunities and prosperity" (p. 3).
"To some people, 'reconciliation' is the re-establishment of a conciliatory state. However, this is a state that many Aboriginal people assert never has existed between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. To others, 'reconciliation,' in the context of Indian residential schools, is similar to dealing with a situation of family violence. It is about coming to terms with events of the past in a manner that overcomes conflict and establishes a respectful and healthy relationship among people, going forward. It is in the latter context that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has approached the question of reconciliation" (p. 113).

The report also includes 94 recommendations for everything from justice to education to sports and recreation in a document called Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Calls for Action. This is worth reading as well. I have skimmed it this evening myself, and highlight just a few items here:

HEALTH

"18. We call upon the federal, provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal governments to acknowledge that the current state of Aboriginal health in Canada is a direct result of previous Canadian government policies, including residential schools, and to recognize and implement the health-care rights of Aboriginal people as identified in international law, constitutional law, and under the Treaties."

JUSTICE

"41. We call upon the federal government, in consultation with Aboriginal organizations, to appoint a public inquiry into the causes of, and remedies for, the disproportionate victimization of Aboriginal women and girls. The inquiry’s mandate would include:
i. Investigation into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls."

ROYAL PROCLAMATION...

"45. We call upon the Government of Canada, on behalf of all Canadians, to jointly develop with Aboriginal peoples a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown. The proclamation would build on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara of 1764, and reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown. The proclamation would include, but not be limited to, the following commitments:
i. Repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius [nobody's land]."

SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT PARTIES...

"48. We call upon the church parties to the Settlement Agreement, and all other faith groups and interfaith social justice groups in Canada who have not already done so, to formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for reconciliation. This would include, but not be limited to, the following commitments: ...
iv. Issuing a statement no later than March 31, 2016, from all religious denominations and faith groups, as to how they will implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

CHURCH APOLOGIES AND RECONCILIATION

"59. We call upon church parties to the Settlement Agreement to develop ongoing education strategies to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families, and communities were necessary."

EDUCATION...

"62. We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to:
i. Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students."

It is interesting that when the second commandment says not to "make for yourself an idol" -- i.e., european civilization -- or to "serve" it, the commandment then gives us that rather famous line that the "iniquity of the fathers" will be visited "on the third and the fourth generation".

Whatever this means (and I acknowledge this requires further exegetical and theological reflection), we should at the very least recognize in this story a pretty compelling example of how Christians might bear responsibility for that which we've inherited, and give humble testimony to the hope that "love will be shown to a thousand generations".

Click here to read and/or watch "Residential school
survivor and Anglican couple forge 'unlikely' friendship"

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Readings in Disability Theology

From Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, pages 20, 27, 13, and 28:

On church experience:  
'For many disabled persons the church has been a “city on a hill”--physically inaccessible and socially inhospitable.'

On using the phrase 'persons with disabilities': 
'This usage underscores the conviction that an individual's disability is just one of many personal characteristics, rather than being synonymous or coextensive with that person's self.'

On 'dealing with' disability:  
'Ignoring disability means ignoring life... Another option … is to focus on the pain.... But [in either case] the telescoping of our lives into simplistic categories of good and bad, pain and pleasure, denies that the lives of people with disabilities, like all ordinary lives, are shot through with unexpected grace, overwhelming joy, and love returned.'

On 'accessibility':  
'Accessibility then means the availability of the same choices accorded to able-bodied people. It also means opening the meaning “normal” to the ordinary lives of people with disabilities.'

And on that note, from Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, page 314:

'Any therapy is directed towards health. But health is a norm which changes with history and is conditioned by society. If in today's society health means "the capability to work and the capability for enjoyment" … the Christian interpretation of the human situation must nevertheless also question the compulsive idolatry which the concepts of production and consumption introduce into this definition, and develop another form of humanity. Suffering in a superficial, activist, apathetic and therefore dehumanized society can be a sign of spiritual health.'

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bonhoeffer on the 'sinless-guilt' of Jesus

What follows is one of many thought-provoking passages in Bonhoeffer's Ethics. For a bit more biblical backdrop to this one might look at 2 Cor. 5:21. One should also note that when Bonhoeffer says 'becomes guilty' the word is Schuldübernahme, which can mean both 'becoming guilty oneself' and 'taking on the guilt of others'. Obviously Bonhoeffer thinks the latter has real significance:

"Jesus' concern is not the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals, and thus also not his own goodness (Matt. 19:17!), but solely love for real human beings. This is why he is able to enter into the community of human beings' guilt, willing to be burdened with their guilt. 

Jesus does not want to be considered the only perfect one at the expense of human beings, nor, as the only guiltless one, to look down on a humanity perishing under its guilt. He does not want some idea of a new human being to triumph over the wreckage of a humanity defeated by its guilt. He does not want to acquit himself of the guilt by which human beings die. A love that would abandon human beings to their guilt would not be a love for real human beings. 

As one who acts responsibly within the historical existence of human beings, Jesus becomes guilty. It is his love alone, mind you, that leads him to become guilty. Out of his selfless love, out of his sinlessness, Jesus enters into human guilt, taking it upon himself. In him, sinlessness and bearing guilt are inextricably linked. As the sinless one, Jesus takes the guilt of his brothers and sisters upon himself, and in carrying the burden of this guilt he proves himself the sinless one....

Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty divorce themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence; but in so doing they also divorce themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless bearing of guilt by Jesus Christ, and have no part in the divine justification that attends this event. They place their personal innocence above their responsibility for other human beings and are blind to the fact that precisely in so doing they become even more egregiously guilty. They are also blind to the fact that genuine guiltlessness is demonstrated precisely by entering into community with the guilt of other human beings for their sake. Because of Jesus Christ, the essence of responsible action intrinsically involves the sinless, those who act out of selfless love, becoming guilty."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 'History and Good 2,' DBWorks 6: Ethics, p 275-6
(paragraph breaks and bold added)

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Introduction to Piketty's 'Capital'

'In a way, we are in the same position at the beginning of the twenty-first century as our forebears were in the early nineteenth century: we are witnessing impressive changes in economies around the world, and it is very difficult to know how extensive they will turn out to be or what the global distribution of wealth, both within and between countries, will look like several decades from now.... There is no fundamental reason why we should believe that growth is automatically balanced. It is long since past the time when we should have put the questions of inequality back at the centre of economic analysis and begun asking questions first raised in the nineteenth century' (16).

I don't know how long it'll take me to read this 600+ page tome,
but when I do I'll probably share some choice excerpts here.
'Social scientific research is and always will be tentative and imperfect. It does not claim to transform economics, sociology, and history into exact sciences. But by patiently searching for facts and patterns and calmly analyzing the economic, social, and political mechanisms that might explain them, it can inform democratic debate and focus attention on the right questions. It can help to redefine the terms of debate, unmask certain preconceived or fraudulent notions, and subject all positions to constant critical scrutiny. In my view, this is the role that intellectuals, including social scientists, should play, as citizens like any other but with the good fortune to have more time than others to devote themselves to study (and even to be paid for it--a signal privilege)' (3).

'What are the major conclusions to which these novel historical sources have led me? The first is that one should be wary of any economic determinism in regard to inequalities of wealth and income. The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms... The second conclusion, which is at the heart of this book, is that the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence [that is, the reduction of inequalities] and divergence [that is, the exacerbation of them]. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently' (20-21).


Saturday, May 02, 2015

How Great (and how Fearsome?) Thou Art

We sang this song in chapel after having prayed all week for the people of Nepal. I thought to myself: How do we sing this song after an earthquake?

After the earthquake in Nepal - Joe Sieder/AP Photo
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder 
Consider all the worlds* thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling* thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed:

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze:

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: 
How great thou art! How great thou art! 


I suppose it is not necessarily out of line: A reminder and a song of faith amidst the rubble. Perhaps the first verse could even be sung in a more somber mood (see * below). But the general tenor of this (and of other songs of its nature) is pretty much all in the direction of birds singing sweetly rather than taking flight for survival. This can give the ascription of 'greatness' a kind of self-serving tone.

We do this with nature all the time (and not just in church): For our purposes nature can mean whatever we want it to mean. Fresh off some recent reading (namely Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing and Ronald Osborne's Death Before the Fall), I found myself wondering:

What if, instead of being about the pleasures of nature, one of these first two verses sung about its horrors? How would that change the complexion of the chorus? Of the verses that follow? The hymn continues:

And when I think that God, his Son not sparing, 
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in, 
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, 
He bled and died to take away my sin. 

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation 
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! 
Then shall I bow in humble adoration, 
And there proclaim, My God, how great thou art!

I'm no song-writer, but I'd love to see a verse (not to mention a theology) which gave a more well-rounded reflection on nature. (If you're so inclined to give it a try, drop me a line). All in all I suspect it might be less comfortable, but more profound.



* The original words are actually 'works' and 'mighty'

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Good Friday (according to Moltmann): Where Theism and Atheism Go to Die

'The question of the existence of God is, in itself, a minor issue in the face of the question of his righteousness in the world. And this question of suffering and revolt is not answered by any cosmological argument for the existence of God or any theism, but is rather provoked by both of these. If one argues back from the state of the world and the fact of its existence to cause, ground and principle, one can just as well speak of "God" as of the devil, of being as of nothingness, of the meaning of the world as of absurdity...

Here atheism demonstrates itself to be the brother of theism. It too makes a logical inference. It too sees the world as the mirror of another, higher being. With just as much justification as that with which theism speaks of God, the highest, best, righteous being, it speaks of the nothingness which manifests itself in all the annihilating experiences of suffering and evil....

A radical theology of the cross cannot give any theistic answer to the question of the dying Christ. Were it to do so it would evacuate the cross. Nor can it give an atheistic answer. Were it to do so it would no longer be taking Jesus' dying cry to God seriously. The God of theism cannot have abandoned him, and in his forsakenness he cannot have cried out to a non-existent God....

But did Christ really solve the "problems"?... That was not Camus' view.... He saw God vanish on the cross, but he did not see Christ's death on the cross taken up into God. Yet only this change of perspective indicates why the night of Golgotha gained so much significance for mankind. Crude atheism for which this world is everything is as superficial as the theism which claims to prove the existence of God from the reality of this world....

[A] trinitarian theology of the cross no longer interprets the event of the cross in the framework or in the name of a metaphysical or moral concept of God which has already been presupposed ... but develops from this history [of Jesus Christ] what is to be understood by "God".'

- Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 221, 225-6, 247

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

College Event: Gender, Sexuality, and the Church

Here's a glimpse at the college event I'm running next week. On day one I'll be lecturing toward a theology of gender and sexuality, on day two we've got a lecture from our Principal, a film and a couple of panels who will lead us into discussion about gender roles and norms; on day three and four we've got presenters from both sides of the Church of England's same-sex marriage debate, and on day five we finish off with a film to help us reflect on the kind of people and community we want to be as we carry forward in love.


Monday, February 09, 2015

Marriage and Family as 'Covenant and Calling' (according to Robert Song)

As its subtitle says, the argument of Robert Song's 2014 Covenant and Calling is oriented Toward a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships. I won't be talking about that here right now, but I do want to highlight one of the running threads throughout this book which--regardless of whether I'm persuaded by the book's overall argument or not--I find to be rather evocative and enlightening. 

In the excerpts below I've tried to pull out and arrange the quotes that highlight this thread most clearly. It has to do with our understanding of marriage and family (or not-family) as particularly-discerned callings, the content of which is filled in by our primary covenant with Christ.  I think you'll see there are all sorts of things one could talk about here (so let me know if you'd like to do just that).

'For the sake of clarity, in this book I will regularly refer to faithfulness, permanence and procreation as the [created] goods of marriage. 

By faithfulness, I mean not just the commitment of the partners to forsake all others and stay faithful to the marriage bed, but also to provide mutual support, protection and love. By permanence is meant not an indissoluble, sacramental bond which makes divorce ontologically impossible, as found in Roman Catholic teaching, but the moral bond created by the promise of faithfulness so long as both partners shall live. By procreation I mean an openness to having children as the result of the couple's sexual relationship, mindful of the fact that not all marriages will in fact be fertile' (7).

Today's evangelical Christian typically views only the first two of these as essential to Christian marriage, but on Robert Song's observation still tends to construe 'childless marriages' according to a 'deficit model, defined by what they lack.' This leads him to ask: 'Might we not be able to imagine an alternative response to the place of deliberately childless marriages that hints at something altogether more constructive and hopeful?' (33).

'[I]f marriage is in part constituted by its procreativity and yet procreation is not possible, it is not clear what feature of marriage will ensure that such couples will be oriented to the good beyond themselves that is ordinarily embodied in children.Children symbolize, and in their demands on their parents they actualize, an openness to hospitality that prevents marriage collapsing into an egoistic and complacent coupledom' (34-35).

'Could [childless couples] also bear eschatological witness to the goods of faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness, and thus participate in the corporate ecclesial discernment of vocation, in which some are called to bear witness to the goods of creation [via procreation], and others to creation's fulfilment in the coming Kingdom [via other kinds of fruitful hospitality]? (36).

'Might it be that after the birth of Christ covenant partnership is the deeper and more embracing category, with procreative marriage now being the special case?... All covenant partnerships would be characterized by faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness, but in some cases that fruitfulness would take the specific form of children from within the couple's sexual relationship, in other cases it would take the form of any number of kinds of works of charity...

This would bring out the theological truth, and not just the moral exhortation, in Gregory of Nyssa's counsel that once children have left home and a couple's immediate responsibilities to them have died down, the couple themselves to works for the poor...

It would revivify the Christian understanding that marriages are always for something beyond themselves, not just for the personal fulfilment of the couple. Just as we saw that covenant partnerships must always be characterized by fruitfulness in doing the works of the Lord so as to avoid the dangers of an égoïsme à deux, so we would understand that procreative marriages are also always oriented to procreation as a species of fruitfulness and therefore oriented beyond themselves.

Marriages too carry the danger of forming introverted happy families, and need to be reminded that children are a good in themselves while also pointing beyond themselves, inasmuch as they are tokens of the hospitality and openness to the other that all marriages are called to. 

The witness of the Christian Church in marriage would then clearly be demarcated not as a paeon to the nuclear family, let alone to patriarchal models of marriage, but rather to the avoidance of self-centred and consumerist models of marriage and family. Marriage enriches society and strengthens community, yet it does so not by raising new generations of consumers, but by nurturing people who are capable of love' (89-90).

Thursday, February 05, 2015

'Death before the Fall': Creation perfected through suffering?

I've been thinking about the creaturely expanse of God's creative and redemptive plans, including the (possible) place of animal suffering within those plans (not least because I'm preaching on 'Knowing God in suffering' this Sunday). If you find yourself wondering about things alluded to here, I do recommend Osborn's Death Before the Fall and David Clough's On Animals.

'As unsettling as it may be for some readers to discover, nowhere in Genesis is the creation described as "perfect." God declares his work to be "good" or tob at each stage and finally "very good"--tob me'od--at its end.... 

In Deuteronomy 32:4, we read that God's "work is tamim" or "perfect" ... [but when we read it] in its full literary context, for example, we find that God's tamim work of creation--his "fashioning" of the children of Israel--is revealed precisely in the long, perilous and conflictive process ...

If the reading I have offered so far is at all correct and God recruits the creation at each stage to play an active, participatory role in what follows, with Adam being charged with an especially vital task of "subduing" other parts of the earth, then there is a very good theological reason why God declares the creation to be "very good" rather than "perfect" ...

There is ... a strong sense that while creation is in one sense "complete" at the end of the narrative, it is not yet finished. God "ended his work which he had made" (Gen 2:2)--that is, he completed what he had completed. But the story of God's creative purposes for his world has in fact just begun....

The fact that God "rested" or "ceased" from his work on the seventh day may therefore represent not a termination point but a deeply pregnant pause. There is more to come, and we must wait to hear God say the words "it is finished."'

- Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall, pages 28-32
(paragraph spacing altered for blog-readability)


Osborn spends far more of this book contesting young earth creationism than I cared to read, but he does offer a compelling reading of the Bible along the lines indicated above. That said, there are aspects of this which don't quite 'sit right' with me--so you're not alone if this causes you some consternation!---but I think this needs thinking about, and I'm happy to carry thoughts and discussions forward rather than close them off in pre-emptive conclusions. 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Intro to Ronald Osborn's 'Death Before the Fall'

Fresh off of reading David Clough's On Animals: Part One, Systematic Theology -- which got me thinking about the creaturely expanse of God's creative and redemptive plans -- I've turned to Ronald Osborn's Death Before the Fall in an effort to think further about some of the pressing concerns implicit in confessing Jesus Christ as the 'Word made flesh' and Reconciler of all things. Thus far I have only read the Introduction, but I do find myself resonating with the tensions raised in these lines:

'Like millions of Christians, I was raised to believe that God created all of earth's creatures in six literal days in the relatively recent past. In the beginning, there was no mortality and no predation of any kind. The natural world -- my parents, pastors and elementary school teachers all sincerely believed and taught me -- was radically altered as a result of Adam and Eve's decision to eat the forbidden fruit. The blame for all death and all suffering in nature thus fell squarely upon rebellious humans. This was why lions now killed Cape buffalo in Mana Pools and why there were crocodiles and bilharzia parasites in the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. 

But of course no human action could have produced such an instantaneous change, not simply in instincts but also in the anatomical structures of countless creatures. The idea that the lions in Eden were docile vegetarians with dagger-sharp claws originally designed by God for tearing the bark off trees appeared downright silly. Somehow those massive canine teeth and retractable claws for taking down living pray had got there

This seemingly left only one possibility: God himself was responsible for the transformation of all nature in what amounted to a hostile second creation after Adam and Eve's fall. All mortality and all predation in the animal kingdom were the result of a divine punishment or "curse." 

The vexing question of the justice of such an act -- of why God would inflict death and suffering on innocent creatures to punish sinful humans -- did not enter my mind as a child. I simply assumed that older and wiser people whom I loved and trusted had done the hard theological work, and that there were no deeper questions about the creation left to be asked. The task of believers was not to raise difficult problems but to provide confident answers.'


- Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall, page 16

(paragraph spacing altered for blog-readability)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

'Discipleship' according to Bonhoeffer

When I first read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Discipleship some twenty years ago its impact was mainly personal and vocational. It was the abridged paperback entitled Cost of Discipleship and it had a huge hand in compelling me to take the Christian faith seriously, indeed even to give my life to the service of Christ. You can see why based on just a few quotes from the first chapter, 'Costly Grace':

'Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways' (43).

'[Such] grace takes care of everything by itself.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ' (44).

'[O]nly those who are obedient can believe' (47).

It is pretty easy to see how this chapter can serve as a call to wake from slumber and cross the line from religion to active faith.

Reading it again at Trinity College this week -- this time in the unabridged fresh translation provided in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works --  I am struck again not only at its personal impact but also at how resistant Bonhoeffer is to letting it be merely so. Indeed, this is a book that is profoundly social and political -- so much so that one can hardly conceive of Christianity any other way.

Consider excerpts such as these, not only for their timely call to public, protestant Christianity, but also their polemic against the dutifully secular relegation of faith to the privacy of the inner life:

'The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost. The world was Christianized; grace became common property of a Christian world. It could be had cheaply' (47).

'Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. But because the church tolerated this protest and did not permit it to build up to a final explosion, the church relativized it... For now monastic life became the extraordinary achievement of individuals, to which the majority of church members need not be obligated' (47).

from the movie 'Luther'
'For Luther, on the contrary, a Christian's secular vocation is justified only in that one's protest against the world is thereby most sharply expressed' (49).

'Luther's path out of the monastery back to the world meant the sharpest attack that had been launched on the world since early Christianity. The rejection which the monk had given the world was child's play compared to the rejection that the world endured through his returning to it. This time the attack was a frontal assault. Following Jesus now had to be lived out in the midst of the world. What had been practiced in the special, easier circumstances of monastic life as a special accomplishment now had become what was necessary and commanded for every Christian in the world' (48).

'Grasping at forgiveness was the final radical rejection of self-willed life; the acknowledgment of grace itself was his [Luther's] first really serious call to discipleship' (50).

Keep in mind that Bonhoeffer is writing these things before the Nazi threat had become obvious to the world; when the church was a well-meaning frog slowly boiling in the kettle of lordless powers. Before the imprisonment and hanging that made Bonhoeffer a Christian hero, he was exiled by his country and church. By elevating him as a hero rather than hearing his insistence on normalcy, do we distance ourselves from his call to discipleship?

(quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4,
translated by Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss
and published by Fortress Press in 2003).


Saturday, January 10, 2015

'Men do not turn from God so easily you see' (from McCarthy's 'The Crossing')

Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing is a naturalistic masterpiece. I haven't read enough of his books to repeat this with certainty, but Petra Mundik calls the ex-priest's tale in the middle of this novel the 'Rosetta Stone' of McCarthy's work.

There are dozens of lines one could pull out of that tale, but here are some that struck me as I was reading it for the first time today. The ex-priest is telling the story of a hermit (a Job-like figure) who has returned to the place where he lost his parents at a young age, after having lost his own children as well.

 'Easy to see that naught save sorrow could bring a man to such a view of things. And yet a sorrow for which there can be no help is no sorrow. It is some dark sister traveling in sorrow's clothing. Men do not turn from God so easily you see. Not so easily. Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from. To imagine otherwise is to imagine the unspeakable. It was never that this man ceased to believe in God. No. It was rather that he came to believe terrible things of Him.'

- Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing, page 148

Friday, January 09, 2015

Reason and 'Holiness' (by John Webster)

It has only been eleven years since John Webster's Holiness hit the shelves, but on second-read this week I am compelled to suggest that it deserves to be considered a classic. I have even heard it called a 'magesterial' work on the topic, which is not bad for 116 pages.

Here's an excerpt from chapter one, explaining how 'theology is an aspect of the sanctification of reason':

'Once reason is thought of as "natural" rather than as "created" ... then reason's contingency is set aside, and its sufficiency is exalted in detachment from the divine gift of truth. Or again, when reason is expounded as a natural competency, then it is no longer understood as fallen and in need of reconciliation to God....

A holy theology is responsible to revelation. That is to say, Christian theology is possible only because of the self-communicative character of the holy God of the Christian confession....

Revelation is not to be thought of as the communication of hidden truths, as if in revelation God were lifting the veil on something other than his own self and indicating it to us. Revelation is divine self-presentation; its content is identical with God....

As the holy God's self-presentation in free mercy, revelation is the establishment of saving fellowship. Revelation is purposive. Its end is not simply divine self-display, but the overcoming of human opposition, alienation and pride, and their replacement by knowledge, love and fear of God. In short: revelation is reconciliation.'

- John Webster, Holiness, pages 10-13
(italics are original, bold has been added)

Friday, January 02, 2015

Grandma Lois

When I was young I remember coming to that bit at the back of the New Testament where Paul is telling Timothy to live into his grandmother’s legacy of sincere and living faith. There was nothing lost in translation for me. I needed no more than her name. My Grandma is Lois too.

Lois Coutts died this week, a picture of grace. Her funeral was today. I was on the wrong side of the ocean to take much part, but was glad to know my brother was giving a great tribute from us grandchildren. When he asked for some input I found I had more to say than time would allow, so for what its worth, here are my reflections in full.

This September: Last photo with both my Coutts grandparents.
Grandpa and Grandma’s house on Oxford Street was the best place on earth. The anticipation of that drive up 16th Avenue was almost unbearable. It seemed to stretch on and on, and the heart would race when we saw the tell-tale skyline of White Rock appear on the hill ahead. Our cousins would meet us there. Grandpa would be sure to give us each a quarter. We’d shoot pool and horseshoes, watch the fireworks from the balcony, put on plays for the adults, and holiday under the blessing of Grandma’s smile.

Grandma was always encouraging—which is all the more impressive when you remember that she managed to be encouraging even when she was letting you know she didn’t approve of something. If I suggested throwing a brother’s toy off the balcony, for example, she’d toss her head back in a short burst of laughter as if she truly didn’t believe I was capable of such atrocity. It was as if she was truly shocked by my gall, and was dressing her gut-reaction in a smile. It was convincing. I can’t recall ever being guilted by her.

She was so kind and encouraging you just wanted desperately not to disappoint her. She probably didn’t realize how much her kindness motivated us to be good. I can imagine her losing sleep praying over us. I would feel bad about that, except she gave no reason to think she was fearful or sad.

Grandma was poised. One time she was taking care of the five of us kids for a few days while my folks were away, back when we lived in Sardis, BC. Given that Grandpa did most of the driving for the two of them, I imagine she was hoping not to have to drive us anywhere--especially because our family's stick-shift grand caravan was not easy to master. But we kids would have balked at the thought of missing a ball hockey practice, so, she drove us. No complaints. It was the slowest, most cautious drive any of us can recall--apart from our own first days with a learner’s license later on, when in that same mini-van we came to realize how calm and even courageous our Grandma had been.

Grandma and Grandpa frequently included us in their anniversaries. I remember cakes and sandcastles in their honour—one depicting them kissing—and I can think of a couple pretty cool weekends where the only reason for our gathering was to celebrate their everlengthening marriage. Sixteen years into my own marriage now, I appreciate where they set the bar.

Grandma wasn’t shy about kissing Grandpa. I’m glad for that. She would chide him too. Lovingly of course. I can still hear her lilting ‘Mel!’ if he had taken the joking a touch too far. She had a knack for preserving the joy of the fun. More than once her gracious intervention saved me from death of laughter at Grandpa’s tickling.

I can still see Grandma poking her head around the corner to see what Grandpa is yelling at on Hockey Night in Canada. Usually a marvellous play commentated by Bob Cole, or an obnoxious comment from Don Cherry. Whether we played hockey in the basement, on the street or on the ice, each of us grandsons found joy in making beautiful plays. How much of that was for our grandparents? For all the times we played baseball or football in the backyard at my cousin’s house, I know it was most fun when Grandma was up on the balcony giggling at us.

This isn’t about rosy nostalgia, these memories were somehow formative for us. Grandma made a safe space for us to find our way in this world, and gifted us with a sense of being loved and appreciated.

As an adult there was a sense of pride each time I could introduce first my wife and then each of our four sons to Grandma. There was never any doubt of their acceptance by her, but it was nonetheless a sacred moment to find oneself playing cards with the grandparents, just like old times except this time with new family members in the fold—each of them added as if they’d always belonged.

In adulthood there’s been a foretaste of this grief as we’ve darted this way and that and seen Grandma and Grandpa less and less over the years. What’s remarkable is that we’d be with them again for no more than a minute and would feel as if we’d never left. They’d prayed for us as faithfully that morning as they’d done each day since we saw them last.

I’m a doctor of theology now, but I’ve never quite figured out prayer. I’d probably give up, except Grandma’s life holds it out like an unsolved mystery. More than once I’ve wondered if something went well or some disaster was averted as a direct result of my Grandma’s prayers. I don’t know what that says about god—would he sit there aloof if not for the earnest promptings of an eighty-year-old on her knees?—but I do know what it says about Grandma’s faithfulness and love. And what it says about Grandma in that regard it says about God.

Throughout life there were scattered occasions—one quite recently—where we sat in church with Grandma and Grandpa and could hear them belting out the hymns, could see them dropping their money in the offering, could feel the cloud of witnesses impressing itself upon our lives.

It will be hard to live without Grandma; without the comforting knowledge that she’s living and breathing on this earth somewhere. It does help to imagine her ‘in a better place’, but for me this is not the time for that. We look forward to the reconciliation of all things—but there’s a blessing for those who mourn.

This is the time to grieve; to stop with Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb and express indignance that Grandma is gone. We didn’t deserve her, but now that we’ve had her we’ll not pretend to be glad to be letting her go.

There’s been an accompanying sadness as we’ve watched her health diminish; watched her grow frailer. We’re grateful she had her wits about her to the end. She was bright in every sense of the word. The world is surely a shade darker today.

This September when my family said goodbye to Grandma before our move to England, it occurred to us it could be farewell. I feel robbed that we didn’t know for sure, because I’d have said a proper goodbye. I’d have told her I feel honoured to be returning to the part of my heritage that is hers.

Sometime in the upcoming months we will venture over to East England and visit the villas of Tonbridge Kent and Enfield, where Grandma’s mother and father were born. We had meant to do this while she was alive so we could send her pictures of the homeland to which a part of her line had returned. Now we’ll do so with a tinge of sadness, as our memorial this side of the sea, as a pilgrimage under a dreary gray English sky. But there will be a profound sense of happiness too, because we know that through Grandma the Creator turned his face toward us and gave us peace.