Archive for June, 2020

“Whoever welcomes,” (Sermon, June 24th 2020)

Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’

Matthew 10:40-42

Over the last few weeks, despite all of the strangeness that the world has laid upon us (I saw one tweet the other day referring to the date as May 56th, and doesn’t that feel true), Hineni House has been advertising for the one spot that will be available this year.

Our applicants tend to find us through social media, although a few are recommended by contacts we have like fellow clergy, former residents, or other intentional communities. They fill in the online application, and I always set up a phone call after I read it – sometimes people are better talking in person than in writing. I also contact the reference they’ve provided for more information. If I like what I hear, we set up an in-person interview with me and members of Hineni Council, and we try to find ways to connect the person to residents to see how they interact with one another.

Hineni House, photo by Hannah Fonseca-Quezada

It’s always exciting to read these applications. We have people of all spiritual backgrounds and educational experiences, people united in a quest for something deeper than just a regular roommate experience. A few have told me that they considered applying for a long time before actually doing so.

I’m always happy when I hear that. It’s a big decision, and a big risk to take. Some folks have anxiety about conflict or meeting new people or talking about big concepts and ideas, conversations with higher stakes than what anyone could necessarily expect to have with ordinary roommates. What a lot of people are looking for is, in a sense, permission to talk about this stuff. You’d be surprised how many applicants and residents we’ve encountered who have never had these talks, because if you grow up without any religious background at all, there might honestly never be a point where these topics come up: How do you think the world came to be? What do you think we’re doing here? Where do you think we go when we die?

It’s not that they’ve never thought about these things, but that secular society hasn’t always figured out how to provide a safe and open space to address them with others.

So it’s a big risk to come and be with us. It’s a big risk to come into a house where you know, by its very nature, that none of these conversations are off the table. And a lot of them do decide to take the risk, and what happens as a result is all too often beautiful and a little awkward and definitely, certainly, Godly.

Today’s passage from Matthew, at the very end of Chapter 10, is a welcome bit of peace in a troubling set of warnings from Jesus. While there is excitement and apprehension at the new adventures awaiting the disciples in their new mission of being sent out by twos, Jesus has instructions. In verse 16 he says, “You’re not going out like soldiers. You’re going out like sheep. Don’t take anything with you. Don’t receive payment. You were healed and welcomed freely, you have to pass it on.

“Oh by the way they’re probably going to hate you.

“Parish council will drag you in to ask you to explain yourself. When the state finds out what you’re doing – going around and making a mockery of their rules – that same council will throw you to the wolves.”

Jesus says they risk being dragged in front of governors and kings. We children of the twenty-first century might wonder why the state would get involved.

Well, the last time something like this happened, things got really ugly.

Around the time Jesus was born, a messianic revolt brought down the wrath of the Roman general Varus, who had two thousand Jewish rebels crucified on the side of the road.

Jesus is telling them, “If it comes down to you and your unsanctioned community reintegration and the literal lives of their congregants, religious leaders will be happy to disavow you and hand you over.”

But don’t worry about it, Jesus says. I’m with you, and I’ll be with you, always. At verse 26 he says, in effect, “Leave the justice to me and to God. All of the secrets, all of the lies, all of the broken systems that hold up this unjust Empire, they’ll all be revealed. Stay strong. Have faith in God’s power to overturn injustice and oppression. It’s worth the risk.”

As oppressed people themselves, brown illiterate Jews, it was all his disciples had.

Going on, in verse 34 Jesus does his best to impress upon them the severity of the situation. He wants to be honest with them. He wants to be honest with us. Standing up for what’s right, what’s lifegiving, is risky business. Like the disciples we live in a world where leaders hold onto power by convincing us that poverty and violence and division are inevitable because the world is a terrible place, and the only thing that will save us is a firm and punishing hand. We can see this playing out right in front of us today, on our TV and computer screens. People across North America and around the world are asking tough questions about the way we administer so-called justice, and the response has been naked brutality and rage that they would even dare to ask those questions.

Jesus speaks directly to us in this time. He grew up during the years surrounding the death of King Herod, installed as a puppet king to keep that upstart Judea in check. When Herod died, the people revolted, but they were no match for the Roman state, an Empire accustomed to revolt, an Empire that truly believed peace was only won through bloodshed, just like our nations believe that peace and justice can only be won through violence, prisons, and police.

Proposing a new system of unity and peace which flows out of treating everyone as though they are worthy of love and dignity probably seemed ridiculous then and still does now. We hear that often from political leaders: “It’s just not practical. And it’s too dangerous to even try.”

Knowing this, the disciples probably felt hopeless. We can sympathize, can’t we?

And that is when we get to today’s passage.

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’

Things seem hopeless, but they’re not. And we’re not alone.

The Kingdom is forged in the work of building communities of love.

In a time like this, we need to be creative about our allies. The good news is that the more open we are, the more likely we are to find them. It’s like when you commit to living with gratitude. When you decide to do it, you see things sprouting up all around you that are opportunities for gratitude. It’s the same with friends. The greatest tool of those who oppress is fear of the other. Jesus was killed because he encouraged people to come together. He brought together people from all social classes and genders, and he healed outcasts and forgave sinners, bringing them back into community. And his resurrection, the ultimate Sign, was a sign that even death cannot separate us from a community of love.

In welcoming people to Hineni House, St. Margaret’s takes up that work in its own utterly unique way. Having welcomed dear Shalet and Gail from India, we can now truly say it’s a worldwide ministry! With your support, you welcome people without judging their theology or their past. You live out Jesus’ wisdom that whoever is not against us is for us. You take the risk and invite in hope that those who come will become our friends. You welcome them, because in welcoming them, whatever their colour or creed, you welcome Christ, and you make our family a little bigger. And the bigger our family is, the more hope and love the world will receive through us, and the more beautiful it will become.

I ask your prayers as we continue in our work, and I give you my deeply heartfelt thanks. The work we are all doing is Kingdom work, and the Kingdom is forged in building communities of love.

Never forget it.

The Wound and the Mirror (Radical Love Journal #11)

Hi everyone! Sorry the numbering is out of whack – I’m obviously behind on my entries. This one, on today’s lesson, came to me before the others. I promise they will be updated ASAP! Next week will be the last entry. <3

In today’s lesson we contemplated several lovely stories, but the one I liked best was the story of Joseph (son of Jacob, patriarch in Judaism and Christianity and prophet in Islam) and the friend who comes to him as guest.

Omid-jaan explained that in the Muslim tradition Joseph has a reputation as being the most beautiful person that God made. It is this glorious beauty, then, that the friend wishes to celebrate. When he arrives at Joseph’s house, Joseph, speaking gleefully in my own imagination of him, cries, “What gift have you brought me?”

The friend is so embarrassed he starts to cry. He explains that he searched all over the world but could find nothing for this beloved who has everything. The only gift worth anything, he has decided, is a mirror. In this mirror, Joseph can contemplate his own beauty, but also remember the friend each time he does.

“What greater gift,” Omid-jaan says, “could you bring to God than a mirror of God within your own heart?” Again, we remember earlier reflections (heh) on the Muslim concept that creation was made for God’s own contemplation of God’s self. We are sent out from the house (as it were) to be contemplated by God, and therefore the greatest gift can be our own understanding of God’s desire and our meeting of it. We return with the mirror in our own hearts, our own selves. It’s all the more precious a gift when we admit to ourselves how difficult this is. We rarely see our own beauty. “Remember,” Omid-jaan says, “that in the old days, a mirror wasn’t made of glass, but of metal. It needed polishing to work. So we must polish our own hearts if they are to be mirrors.”

How do we do this? How could we polish the heart? What mirror do we bring?

The rust that must be polished off is the ego. We have to disavow any sense of being on our own, any sense of being the sum total of existence, and bring that humility to God.

Omid-jaan expands on this with another lovely story of Shams, Rumi’s most dearly beloved friend. On the Day of Judgement, the story goes, Shams arrives and is caught up the crowd. He’s at the back and can’t see, so he starts kicking up a fuss, which the angels finally notice.

I love the way Omid-jaan tells the next part: “The angels look over and say to God, ‘Who is that?!’ God says, ‘Oh, that’s Shams. He’s…different.’”

Shams cries, “I have to come up front! I am the only one who has brought a gift God doesn’t have!”

The angels are perplexed and a bit offended, but God says, “He’s telling the truth, let him forward.”

Shams comes forward, prostrates before God, and says, “I have brought the one thing you do not have, O Lord. I have brought my need.”

God, being perfect, has no concept of need or dependence. Shams therefore brings it as a gift.

It’s interesting to read this through Christian eyes. While God may not have need, our story is of a God that came to walk among us and feel need in a new way, feel dependence and powerlessness. But I don’t see it as a contradiction. God having walked among us surely understands how hard it is to let go of that sense of alone-ness, the sense we inherited from being expelled from Eden, the sense of the necessity of depending only on ourselves. While some may understand this story in terms of disobedience (and that’s clearly Scriptural, of course, so I don’t disagree) I tend to focus more on the sense of mistrust that’s present in the story when I contemplate it. The storyteller insists that the serpent tricks Eve, surely not a difficult thing when she is so naïve and childlike. I’m far more struck by Adam’s hiding from God once the deed is done. It’s one of the more humourous parts of the story, probably because it feels so familiar to us as well as being absurd (I always imagine God asking Adam where he is in the sing-song tone that parents use when their child is playing hide-and-seek with them). The theme of nakedness as well gives me pause. Why does it matter that the two are naked? Literally no-one and nothing are wearing clothes in this garden. No norms have been set, and yet the two of them immediately want to cover themselves rather than stay “naked and unashamed.” What’s to be ashamed about? How does this connect to knowledge and wisdom?

For me, living in the 21st century West, I see this as a rejection of dependence and vulnerability, as well as a rejection of intimacy. A child has no problem being naked (and delighting in it!) because she has not been shaped by these norms. She has no problem with being naked in front of her parents because, when she is very young, she doesn’t yet have a fully developed sense of self outside her caregiver. This sense of being at one with things extends to other people. Babies and little children will do and say things that are not “appropriate” not only because they don’t understand social norms but because there is no drive to appear “okay” in front of other people. While it’s a source of great anxiety for many adults to police the behaviour of their children, it’s sort of amazing to contemplate a place where we were utterly free of such worry. We can see the change quite clearly when we compare a child who has just been introduced to clothes (and parents will know that all too often the first thing that happens once the kid is old enough is that the clothes come flying off!) and a teenager, who finds themselves suddenly deeply self-conscious and trying to assert independence around parents who are by now used to the earlier child who had no sense of shame. (Parents will hear the telltale, “MOOOMMMM DON’T YOU EVER KNOCK?!” ringing in their ears).

We laugh about these memories and experiences now, but I really think it’s an important lens through which to view the story of the Fall. God would rightly wonder what had changed, and suspect the worst. The response to this is punishment in the storyteller’s eyes, but when I explore this story through a more psychoanalytic or mythical perspective, I see the response as wholly necessary in the sense that this is the logical endpoint to a declaration of one’s independence. We would of course argue that the development of the self as a being apart from one’s parent is a net good, but we cannot deny that something precious and irreplaceable is lost in the declaration of single-ness, and apart-ness. We just accept it as part of the world, and for human beings, it is.

But clearly it was never God’s intent for our relationship with Her to mirror an earthly relationship with our parents. It was never supposed to end and become strained.

The way, then, to offer God our greatest gift, is to do our best to return to that state, to say that we are part of God. Imagine an adult returning to their loving parents after many years of wandering, desiring love and closeness again, and thanking the parents for all they have done to support and care for her – not because this is a transactional relationship, but because when we love each other, we tell each other.

So we bring our need. We bring our wounds – for, as Rumi and Leonard Cohen say, the wound is where the light enters us.

On Abolition

This morning I woke up to read my email and found a message from my Archbishop encouraging us to take a pledge put out by our governor general. The pledge is called #DifferentTogether, and details can be found here.

It’s a very nice sentiment. Pretty much no one would have a problem with signing this.

Which is kind of the problem.

While this pledge does at least address racism in the last line, it’s, for lack of a better word, completely toothless. It doesn’t provide us with a way forward or prescribe any action on how to actually stand against racism. I recognize that if it did, it would be a much longer image that’s difficult to read on your phone and so their social media campaign wouldn’t work as well. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe solving racism is a little more complicated than posting a picture on your Facebook profile (and don’t even get me started on the racism and hate that Facebook deliberately propagates and encourages to flourish).

Pretty words are just that: pretty words.

But that’s not even my biggest problem.

My biggest problem is that the worldwide protests and uprisings in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people at the hands of the police, are not *just* about racism. Quite specifically they are about police violence. And this pledge in no way addresses that.

Storytime: My white skin and my generally anxious and cautious disposition has meant that I have had little to no interactions with police over the course of my life. I therefore didn’t have to form much of an opinion about them or their role in society. It’s a great privilege when your identity isn’t politicized or suspect.

My attitude started to change slowly after the rise of Black Lives Matter, but I still didn’t really see policing as anything other than in need of a tremendous amount of reform.

Then, about six years ago, I read The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America by Mark Lewis Taylor. I thought it would be about the death penalty specifically, and the hypocrisy of nominally pro-life evangelicals who supported it. I have always been anti-capital punishment, and I looked to this book to help me formulate a more coherent Christian stance on that position.

While I did find that, what I also discovered was that the book was actually a book about prison abolition.

I hadn’t encountered this notion before, and was deeply intrigued, but very skeptical at the beginning.

By the time I closed the book, I was a believer.

It didn’t take long for me to encounter thinkers who advocated for abolition of the police either, and since I’d been primed, I began to consider that as well.

What changed me the most there was not a particular book or resource, but marginalized voices. I shut my mouth and started listening. I started watching the interactions between land and water protectors and police, especially at Standing Rock and more recently at Wet’suwet’en.

I also learned about the history of policing in North America, and how they were built not to help, but to control. Control slaves and Black bodies. Control property and Indigenous bodies. To protect property and order, not lives.

I’m also a bit of a true crime buff, and over the years have done a lot of reading and podcast listening about serial killers. Almost every serial killer with a high body count that I’ve learned about has only managed that high body count because they preyed on a population that the police didn’t really care about. Robert Pickton. Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. Jeffrey Dahmer. Bruce MacArthur. Ted Bundy – him less so, but if you want to pop a blood vessel try listening to the way the judge in his trial spoke to him after he was convicted of multiple murders.

What I saw confirmed everything that I had heard about the true purpose of police and prisons. They are not institutions that desire community wholeness and flourishing, though individual members within the groups may do. They are institutions that were built to exert control and order at all costs. Those who challenge that order – consciously through direct action or unconsciously through the way they look or their economic status or orientation or gender identity – will be suppressed, and with violence if they could get away with it.

On a smaller scale, I also saw how the police were actively harmful in situations having to do with persons who were marginalized not just because of the colour of their skin, but because of mental illness. I heard firsthand accounts of terrible abuse and apathy, of horrible tragedies that occurred because armed police went barrelling in without adequate training. Conversations with friends about times they’ve called police and times they would generally call the police but don’t have led me to realize that they haven’t really been helpful to the people I’ve spoken to. I’m sure some people have had good experiences with them, but the majority that I’ve heard about could at the very least have been better solved with someone else – a mental health worker, for example.

Finally, during protests against the pipeline with the Tsleil-Waututh nation and other Indigenous groups and allies, again I saw problematic behaviour by police, and even had my own deeply odd encounter with them. I won’t get into that here because it was pretty unremarkable, but if you’d like details I can give them to you. Suffice to say that it proved to me that police should not be trusted, and that my collar and even my skin colour could not save me if I decided to stand against their attempts to maintain their understanding of order.

I am still new in this position. I haven’t done much formal research, although I have seen a few studies. Quite frankly I’m more interested in what marginalized voices have to say on matters like these, so I’ve just been listening on the sidelines, and I follow a lot of abolitionist accounts on Twitter, most of them headed by racialized people. Because the vast majority of abolitionists are from marginalized communities. Go figure. In Canada, the highest percentage of incarcerated people are Indigenous people. It took me far too long to understand that that is not an accident, and it is not because Indigenous people are more prone to crime or violence. The RCMP in particular was literally created to control those populations (funny, as I type this I can hear my husband explaining this very fact to my father-in-law on their weekly phone call in the next room).

What changed my mind on these things most deeply were not scientific facts, although they abound if you can find them. Luminaries like Angela Davis have been proposing abolition of both prisons and police for forty years, with a large amount of research to back them up. If you’d like to learn more, you can read The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale, which is free on Verso here.

For some people, this is an incredibly radical and ridiculous position, but the fact is that it’s actually not that radical. What brought me to this position and keeps me there is a much longer conversation that would happen much better face-to-face over lunch than it would on Facebook. But in the last few weeks, it’s become clear to me that I need to be much more up front about it to be the change I want to see in the world. Police and prisons are, at best, a relic, and we need something new. As the world lurches toward more widespread fascism, we can see clearly that these institutions will always be, at their heart, inherently fascist, pitting marginalized peoples against one another and dividing them in order to better exert control.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have watched countless videos of blatant police violence.

I have watched journalists and street medics tear-gassed and cuffed and thrown down. Omar Jimenez, a CNN reporter working in Minneapolis, was literally cuffed and dragged off in the middle of giving a live broadcast, along with two or three members of his crew.

I saw Martin Gugino, a seventy-five year old activist in Buffalo, shoved to the ground by police, hitting his head. As blood poured from his ear (clearly visible on the video), a cop tries to break formation to help him, and is roughly yanked back into line by another officer. Later, the police lied about how the injury was sustained. They claimed he fell. They changed their tune when the video came out and rage followed.

I saw a man stopped at a traffic light in his car exit to yell at the cops for shooting pepper balls and tear gas at cars on the road so close to his pregnant wife, riding with him, and then have to duck as his car was deliberately pummeled with six or seven fresh rounds.

Most horrible of all, the thing that led me to write this post in fact, were photos and video footage of a ten-year-old Black girl maced in the face by a cop in Seattle. Protestors pour milk on her eyes as she screams in pain. Commenters on Twitter snarled, “Who brings a child to a protest?!”

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that it’s become clear that she and her parent were actually just walking to the store.

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that I’ve been to many, many demonstrations that had children and I never saw any of them maced in the face by a cop.

Maybe if you’re a police officer, you shouldn’t mace a child in the face.

Police officers are people, not wild dogs. Not tornadoes or earthquakes. They can make decisions about what they do, and they can choose not to mace a little girl in the fucking face.

Maybe if you’re his superior officers, you shouldn’t then send SEVEN POLICE CARS and multiple officers to the home of Evan Hreha, the man who posted that video on Facebook, to arrest him. They claim they went to arrest him because he was suspected of using a laser pointer at the protest. Of course there’s no evidence to support that suspicion, and even if there were, really? Seven police cars?

But it shouldn’t have taken that video to make me “come out” as an abolitionist. I should have done it a long time ago.

I’m not sure how to end this, other than to say I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry in my life as I’ve been in the last couple of weeks. Police across the continent and beyond have responded to charges of violence by being as violent and vicious as possible. By proving protestors 100% correct.

You’ll notice they did not respond this way when crushed against state legislator buildings by armed and screaming anti-lockdown CHUDs wanting haircuts.

As one podcaster I follow mentioned, it’s not that these cities are rioting.

It’s the police that are rioting.

My only hope is that they are being this way because they know they’re going to lose. They know people are talking. I am watching people shift their entire belief structures in real time.

The road to complete abolition is very long and arduous. But the uprisings are teaching us that sustained public pressure is a necessity for lasting change.

I stand with these protestors, and I stand with abolitionists. I have a duty to do so. My great-grandfather was a British abolitionist during the days of chattel slavery. As many, many Black activists see the carceral state as the living ancestor of chattel slavery, then I’m merely following in his footsteps. I pledge to do more to support that position with the toolkits I’ve found.

I pray you will hold me to that pledge, and I invite you to check out the resources on prison and police abolition.

Christianity must be antifascist or risk its soul

I’m not asking that you change your mind. I’m just asking that you look into the facts, so you can make an informed opinion.

Stay strong, everyone.