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A home for things I write

golden galleryMy first mystery novel, The Book of Answers, has made the short-list for The Unhanged Arthur Ellis, an award for unpublished crime fiction. The annual competition is sponsored by Dundurn Press and CrimeWriters of Canada. On May 23, at the banquet at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, I will learn which of the five authors will take home the prize.

The fact that my manuscript has made it this far, and is even being considered for such an honour, has inspired me to improve my online presence. This site is a re-tooling of my old “Sharing Bread Along The Way” blog, along with old material from “The Fifth Page”, which is where I used to post what didn’t make it into my sermons, which are always just 4 pages.

I am a minister in The United Church of Canada, currently serving the congregation and wider community of Harrow, in beautiful Essex County, Ontario. In the words of Max Marshall, a singer-songwriter from Harrow, it’s a “bread-basket town” in “fruit-stand land”.

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Blessing the Fleet

On Saturday, at the request of a past commodore of Kingsville’s Cedar Island Yacht Club, I took part in their annual Sail Past and Blessing of the Fleet.

The last time I went sailing, it was to watch the Canada Day fireworks at Bronte Harbour in Oakville. The captain who hosted us had to have his boat towed back to the dock at the end of the night, because his motor failed. That event was more humorous than dangerous (although Captain John wasn’t laughing!) but it did give us a taste of the vulnerability inherent any time we venture out on open water.

There is a famous vbreton fisherman's prayer plaqueerse, known as the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer:

Oh God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.

This little prayer was engraved on a brass plaque presented to President John F. Kennedy by US Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover. The admiral made it a practice to give the same gift to all new commanders of Polaris submarines.

Even the largest vessel can feel not quite enough, in a storm, or when any of the many things that can go wrong, do.

When we go out on the water there are opportunities to glory in creation, to witness sights and sounds, and smells, and sensations in real life, in real time. This is iedit of Darrow blessing the fleetncredibly important, in our age of electronic screens that provide, and mediate so much of our daily experience of the world.

The tradition of blessing the fleet is traced back to European fishing villages, in which the local priest would lead ritual prayers in a communal effort to ensure a bountiful season, safety for those who braved the waters, and peace of mind for those waiting at home. These prayers would have notes of gratitude and awe for the power of God and the beauty of the created world, as well as a chilling acknowledgment of the precariousness of life.

Awareness of both the sweetness, and possible shortness of our lives is at the heart of most prayers, I think. We stand in awe, and we stand with trepidation. Look what there is! Look what could happen!

The sailors I met on Saturday do not depend on their boats, or their time on the water to make a living. They do not brave dangerous wind and waves to catch fish, or transport cargo. They do not pilot ferry boats or operate patrol or rescue vessels. Even so, I have the sense their sailing adds much to their lives, and helps them stay in touch with the beauty, and the precious fragility of life itself.

After the formal ceremony, I was asked by members of the club to bless their boats individually. This is the prayer I used:

God of Creation, God of Love, God of Wind and Waters, bless this boat. Guide the captain at her helm. Watch over all passengers and crew and bring them to a safe return. We pray with gratitude and trust. Amen

At more than one of these moments of blessing, I could see this simple action of asking God to be with them, was important and meaningful to those with whom I stood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Holy Whispers

Thirty years ago, I was a student minister, in rural Manitoba. One cold January night, around 9 pm, I was home alone in the manse, the minister’s house beside the church. I had been out earlier for a supper visit, that turned into staying for cards, and a second dessert. As a young, single minister in farm country, I rarely ate at home. The good part about that was I ate well. The challenging part was it meant I spent a lot of time with people. For an introvert like me, it could leave me weary at the end of the day, and ready to just be in my own space.

And that was my plan for the rest of that chilly winter evening, except that I got this odd urge to go out again into the cold without actually knowing where. I started up my little silver-grey Chevy Chevette, backed it out of the garage, to let it warm up (It was about 25 below that night, and then I headed out.

The village I lived in was very small, more like a place where two country roads crossed near a grain elevator. There were maybe 60 houses, one church, and a post office. It was only a short drive up the main street before it met the provincial highway.

By the time I reached the stop sign, I knew I should turn left. That took me south on highway 59, but I did not stay on the highway long. I turned right on the road towards the ski hill, which led up into rolling hills along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. You could stand at the top of the highest of those hills and be in two provinces at once.

fal2007_barnyard_at_nightMy little Chevy Chevette seemed to know where it was supposed to go. I slowed and turned right, and up the long driveway to Eric’s house. He was a man in his forties who was very involved in the church. His lights were on, so I was hopeful it wasn’t too late to drop in.

At harvest time a late night visit would have made more sense, because the odds would be good that Eric would have just been getting in from driving combine. But in the middle of the winter this was all very unusual.

Eric saw me coming up his drive, and light spilled out as he opened his mudroom door. I’d learned while living in Manitoba farm country that the mudroom is the way you enter if you’re not company. Company would use the front porch door. The mudroom is where you knock the mud or snow off your boots, hang up your outer wear, and come in the back of the house to the kitchen.

Eric welcomed me, and had me sit at the table while he put on the kettle for tea. Seriously, two guys sitting down in a farmhouse kitchen to chat over tea! He ran water into the kettle, but before he could plug it in, the phone on the kitchen wall rang. This was when people still had those phones on the wall, with the long receiver cord that allowed you to walk around the whole kitchen. But Eric did not move. He recognized the voice on the other end, said hello, and then just held the receiver against his head, and stood, mouth open.

When I saw his face, I knew why I was at there, at his house, why I had left my house so late at night, in the January cold, to show up unannounced at Eric’s door. There had been a tragic, unexpected death in his family, just around the time I climbed into my car. His brother-in-law was making the calls to let all the family know.

I sat with Eric for a few minutes, and went with him to the next farm over, where his mom and dad had also had their phone call. Eric’s older sister had died. The family, from different parts of the province, would all be coming home.

Have you ever been surprised by the urge to do something out of the ordinary? Some might call it a whisper from God. If you have had such a moment, did you follow the urge, and do the strange thing?

If we are open to being led by God’s spirit, then God’s spirit will lead us. I told you my dramatic example, because I will never forget that night. But little nudges, and good ideas, intuitions, and inspirations happen all the time.

 

 

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A Night at Hogwarts: The Arthur Ellis Awards Gala

arts and letters societyThe dining room at St. George’s Hall, home since 1908 to Toronto’s Arts and Letters Society, has an ancient grandeur to it. Dark paneled walls, heavy wooden furniture, and leaded glass windows set high above us. It would make a great setting for an Agatha Christie novel, or a Sherlock Holmes story.

My wife Lexie (the one in the bottom corner of the photo, with the beautiful smile) joined me for the Crime Writers of Canada gala banquet, at which the winners of the 2019 Arthur Ellis Awards were anno20190523_192551unced. I was one of five authors whose unpublished crime novels made the short list for an award sponsored by Dundurn Press. The nominations in our category included:

cropped-finalist-sticker-a-1.pngJim Bottomley, Hypnotizing Lions
Don Macdonald, Omand’s Creek
Liv McFarlane, The Scarlet Cross
Heather McLeod, One for the Raven
Darrow Woods, The Book of Answers
I had the opportunity to meet and to congratulate Jim, Liv and Heather. Don Macdonald was the sole nominee not present for the announcement of the winning manuscript, which was The Scarlet Cross, by Liv McFarlane. Liv went home with the trophy, and a cheque for $500.00. She made a great impromptu acceptance speech. I was impressed with her eloquence, and her passion for this work.
20190523_215737 (1)The photo next to this paragraph is of me with Heather McLeod, who travelled with her mother (a librarian!) all the way from B.C. for the awards banquet.
I was happy for Heather, and for all the nominees, to get this far! Each of our manuscripts will be read by the acquisitions department at Dundurn Press. They are distinguished from other submissions received by publishers, as “Finalists” for an Arthur Ellis Award.
I am eager to read each of works nominated in our category, as well as some of the other award winners announced at the ceremony.
My writing teacher and friend, Melodie Campbell, was the emcee for the evening’s melodie campbellprogram. She also found time to introduce me to a number of her fellow authors, as well as other prominent people in the Canadian publishing scene.
Melodie is a former executive director of Crime Writers of Canada, an award winning novelist, and an inspiring teacher. You can learn more at her website:
At Melodie’s urging, I entered this competition in the fall of 2018, with the submission of 5000 words from my first attempt at writing a mystery novel. I was thrilled when the judges asked for the rest of the manuscript, and it was added to the “long list” of 10 books to be given further consideration. It was so much more exciting, and affirming, to learn in April that I’d made the short list of 5 nominees.
I consider each of us who completed a manuscript, and have had our work read and critiqued by a panel of readers, to be winners! Our efforts are receiving positive attention, and we are being encouraged by family members, friends, and now people in the industry.
We were not really at Hogwarts, but it was an evening of mystery, and magic.
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Mindfulness, and the secret lovely toad

During this week of study leave, my “serious” reading has been Richard Rohr’s “The Universal Christ”. Each day I employed the discipline of taking notes from the chapter I read, and distilling them into a blog post, with the hope of integrating Rohr’s ideas into my conscious thinking, and way of seeing the world.

natalie goldbergMy more personal “reading” has actually been listening to Natalie Goldberg read a commemorative edition of her book “Writing Down the Bones”, which is about a Zen approach to writing. I love that at the end of each chapter, she sets down the script, and talks about how it felt to read that section.

One of the themes running through Goldberg’s work seems to be “noticing” the small details of moments, and writing them down, to bring exactness, precision, and life to your writing. I think this gentle encouragement to notice grows organically out of her Zen practice. Be mindful. Pay attention. Be where you are, and see what there is to see, right where you happen to be.

Goldberg’s theme is not a great departure from what Rohr writes of in The Universal Christ. He sees, and loves, the presence of the divine imbued in all things, in every aspect of Creation.writing down the bones other

I like to listen to audio books while I do chores. This may be something like the opposite of living in the moment. Even so, it fed my soul to have Natalie Goldberg’s voice in my ears this afternoon while I did yardwork.

One of my tasks was repairing the downspout fed by the eavestrough on the back of our house.  It is the only one that does not feed into the town sewer, and when it rains, water pools next to our foundation, and finds its way into our basement laundry room.

When I lifted the vinyl splash block that guides the flow of water out of the downspout, I noticed a little brown toad. The toad’s colouring provided such camouflage, I wonder if this species has t20190520_171117he chameleon-like capacity to shift its appearance. Because I was using my phone to listen to Natalie Goldberg’s book, I was able to take a photo before the toad scampered away, and disappeared under some brush.

 

 

 

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Creation is essentially Good!

20190427_121917This the Sleeping Giant, part of the Sibley Peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior. I snapped this shot a week after Easter, while I was back in Thunder Bay for a family gathering. It was a beautiful morning, a celebration of sun and sky, water and ice, and the slow arrival of spring.

Growing up in Thunder Bay, I knew the Ojibway story that the sleeping figure guarding the bay is that of Nanabijou. He is  descended from a human mother and a spirit father, and could appear in animal or human form. He was a powerful trickster, who laid down in the lake and was turned to stone during a violent thunderstorm, to block access to a secret tunnel that led to a rich lode of silver. Most cultures have stories about the direct involvement of the Divine with this world, and with us.

The themes of today’s chapter from Richard Rohr’s latest book “The Universal Christ” reminded me of the beauty of this world, and it’s essential goodness. Here are the lines I chose to share:

…once we become aware of the generous, creative Presence that exists in all things natural, we can receive it as the inner Source of all dignity and worthiness.

Don’t start by trying to love God, or even people; love rocks and elements first, move to trees, then animals, and then humans. Angels will soon seem like a real possibility, and God is then just a short leap away.

God did not just start talking to us with the Bible or the church or the prophets. Do we really think that God had nothing at all to say for 13.7 billion years, and started speaking only in the latest nanosecond of geological time?

…in the mid-nineteenth century, grasping for the certitude and authority the church was quickly losing in the face of rationalism and scientism, Catholics declared the Pope to be “infallible,” and Evangelicals decided the Bible was “inerrant,” despite the fact that we had gotten along for most of eighteen hundred years without either belief. In fact, these claims would have seemed idolatrous to most early Christians.

Creation—be it planets, plants, or pandas—was not just a warm-up act for the human story or the Bible. The natural world is its own good and sufficient story, if we can only learn to see it with humility and love.

The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in everything.

…this picture was complicated when the concept of original sin entered the Christian mind. In this idea—first put forth by Augustine in the fifth century, but never mentioned in the Bible—we emphasized that human beings were born into “sin” because Adam and Eve “offended God” by eating from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

…after Augustine, most Christian theologies shifted from the positive vision of Genesis 1 to the darker vision of Genesis 3—the so-called fall, or what I am calling the “problem.” Instead of embracing God’s master plan for humanity and creation—what we Franciscans still call the “Primacy of Christ”—Christians shrunk our image of both Jesus and Christ, and our “Savior” became a mere Johnny-come-lately “answer” to the problem of sin, a problem that we had largely created ourselves.

The shift in what we valued often allowed us to avoid Jesus’s actual life and teaching because all we needed was the sacrificial event of his death.

…the teaching of original sin started us off on the wrong foot—with a no instead of a yes, with a mistrust instead of a trust.

We end up with a Jesus who was merciful while on earth, but who punishes in the next world. Who forgives here but not later. God in this picture seems whimsical and untrustworthy even to the casual observer. It may be scary for Christians to admit these outcomes to ourselves, but we must. I believe this is a key reason why people do not so much react against the Christian story line, like they used to; instead, they simply refuse to take it seriously.

The Christian story line must start with a positive and overarching vision for humanity and for history, or it will never get beyond the primitive, exclusionary, and fear-based stages of most early human development. We are ready for a major course correction.

Most of us know that we can’t afford to walk around fearing, hating, dismissing, and denying all possible threats and all otherness. But few of us were given practical teaching in how to avoid this. It is interesting that Jesus emphasized the absolute centrality of inner motivation and intention more than outer behavior, spending almost half of the Sermon on the Mount on this subject…

From the very beginning, faith, hope, and love are planted deep within our nature—indeed they are our very nature…

In every age and culture, we have seen regressions toward racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, lookism, and classism. This pattern tells me that unless we see dignity as being given universally, objectively, and from the beginning by God, humans will constantly think it is up to us to decide.

We must reclaim the Christian project, building from the true starting point of Original Goodness. We must reclaim Jesus as an inclusive Savior instead of an exclusionary Judge, as a Christ who holds history together as the cosmic Alpha and Omega.

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Meditation on wheels

ride of silenceThe Ride of Silence…

Tonight we number many but ride as one
In honor of those not with us,

friends, mothers, fathers, sisters, sons
With helmets on tight and heads down low,
We ride in silence, cautious and slow
The wheels start spinning in the lead pack
But tonight we ride and no one attacks
The dark sunglasses cover our tears
Remembering those we held so dear
Tonight’s ride is to make others aware
The road is there for all to share20190515_185448
To those not with us or by our side,
May God be your partner on your final ride.

http://www.rideofsilence.org

I took part in Kingsville’s first Ride of Silence last night.  The Ride is an annual event in many places, that had its start in Dallas, Texas in 2003. In the words from the official website, the ride happens to:

  • To HONOR those who have been injured or killed
  • To RAISE AWARENESS that we are here
  • To ask that we all SHARE THE ROAD

THE RIDE OF SILENCE WILL NOT BE QUIET

On May 15, 2019 at 7:00 PM, the Ride of Silence will traverse and unite the globe as nothing before it. Cyclists will take to the roads in a silent procession to honor cyclists who have been killed or injured while cycling on public roadways. Although cyclists have a legal right to share the road with motorists, the motoring public often isn’t aware of these rights, and sometimes not aware of the cyclists themselves.

out of serviceIt was a beautiful night to be out with 38 other cyclists, most of whom took the temporary vow of silence quite seriously. We formed up behind a Essex-Windsor EMS ambulance, whose flashing lights drew attention to us, and brought a sense of solemnity to what we were doing. One rider quipped (before we fell into silence) that it was comforting to see the “Out of Service” sign that hung from the back of the ambulance.

At 7 pm, the poem “The Ride of Silence” was read, and we started out. It was lovely to have this as a meditation practice, a literal spiritual exercise, that included a sense of ritual, community, purpose, and the holy. Also, after the ride, there was beer. Many of the riders parked their bikes behind the Outdoor Alley Patio behind the Banded Goose Tap Room at 15 Main Street.

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God seduces us- notes from The Universal Christ

wwoz screen shotWhile compliling these notes from today’s reading of The Universal Christ, I heard an unusual song, that repeated the line “we are living in the absence of the sacred” several times. I was listening to one of my favourite internet radio stations, which is the live feed from WWOZ in New Orleans. https://www.wwoz.org/

I went to the Stream Archive, so I could replay the song, and learn more about it. It was written and performed by Spencer Bohren, an American blues and folk artist who was born in Casper, Wyoming, and is now based in New Orleans.Spencer Bohren

Here is a link to it: https://youtu.be/Q6zStmRAGbc

Here is a link to his website:

https://www.spencerbohren.com/makin-it-home-to-you

It seemed such an apt song to reference, while I gathered quotes from a chapter in Rohr’s book in which he speaks with hope and practicality about the presence of God in our daily reality.

Here are the sentences that spoke to me today:

When you can honor and receive your own moment of sadness or fullness as a gracious participation in the eternal sadness or fullness of God, you are beginning to recognize yourself as a participating member of this one universal Body. You are moving from I to We.

…humanity has never been separate from God—unless and except by its own negative choice. All of us, without exception, are living inside of a cosmic identity, already in place, that is driving and guiding us forward. We are all ‘en Cristo’, willingly or unwillingly,

Every single creature—the teen mother nursing her child, every one of the twenty thousand species of butterflies, an immigrant living in fear, a blade of grass, you reading this book—all are “in Christ” and “chosen from the beginning” (Ephesians 1:3, 9). What else could they be?

I have never been separate from God, nor can I be, except in my mind.

Without a Shared and Big Story, we all retreat into private individualism for a bit of sanity and safety.

Every religion, each in its own way, is looking for the gateway, the conduit, the Sacrament, the Avatar, the finger that points to the moon. We need someone to model and exemplify the journey from physical incarnation, through a rather ordinary human existence, through trials and death, and into a Universal Presence unlimited by space and time (which we call “resurrection”). Most of us know about Jesus walking this journey, but far fewer know that Christ is the collective and eternal manifestation of the same—and that “the Christ” image includes all of us and every thing.

Jesus can hold together one group or religion. Christ can hold together everything. In fact, Christ already does this; it is we who resist such wholeness, as if we enjoy our arguments and our divisions into parts.

We would have helped history and individuals so much more if we had spent our time revealing how Christ is everywhere instead of proving that Jesus was God. But big ideas take time to settle in.

You might wonder how, exactly, primitive peoples and pre-Christian civilizations could’ve had access to God. I believe it was through the universal and normal transformative journeys of great love and great suffering, which all individuals have undergone from the beginnings of the human race. Only great love and great suffering are strong enough to take away our imperial ego’s protections and open us to authentic experiences of transcendence.

Just because you do not have the right word for God does not mean you are not having the right experience. From the beginning, YHWH let the Jewish people know that no right word would ever contain God’s infinite mystery.

God needs something to seduce you out and beyond yourself, so God uses three things in particular: goodness, truth, and beauty. All three have the capacity to draw us into an experience of union. You cannot think your way into this kind of radiant, expansive seeing. You must be caught in a relationship of love and awe now and then, and it often comes slowly, through osmosis, imitation, resonance, contemplation, and mirroring. The Christ is always given freely, tossed like a baton from the other side. Our only part in the process is to reach out and catch it every now and then.

…for ordinary mystics like you and me, the kind of seeing I’m describing is a relational and reciprocal experience, in which we find God simultaneously in ourselves and in the outer world beyond ourselves. I doubt if there is any other way.

Nothing to believe here at all. Just learn to trust and draw forth your own deepest experience, and you will know the Christ all day every day—before and after you ever go to any kind of religious service. Church, temple, and mosque will start to make sense on whole new levels—and at the same time, church, temple, and mosque will become totally boring and unnecessary. I promise you both will be true, because you are already fully accepted and fully accepting.

Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition