Monday, 8 May 2017

"You learn by killing things a lot."

I won't leave you wondering what field this was said in reference to - this was said about gardening by a woman who learned to garden in East Germany, in the years after Stalin died. I had been called out by trying to promote the things that our environmental organization would be doing in the future. Trying to prop us up with any form of legitimacy and justify my own presence there, I was telling someone that we would hopefully be holding some gardening workshops. What those workshops were, I had no clue. But we would be doing them.

In true East German fashion (I have a sample size of two - this lady, and my grandma), this lady called me out, not even pretending to mince words.

"You don't need workshops. You need to put something in the ground and see if it grows. If it doesn't grow, you try something else."

Thanks for casually changing how I view my career trajectory...!

You learn by failing. You learn by killing things.


I remember the first time I failed. And yes, I was old enough to have vivid, well-formed memories about it. Because it was the first time, and I had never failed at anything before that. I mean, there were the times I slept through my alarm (I wasn't even asleep, I just didn't get up) for my paper route, and my Dad did it for me. But that's not failing, because the papers got delivered!

The first time I failed at something was my attempt at becoming a lifeguard. It was the summer before grade 9, and I was an amazing swimmer (despite placing in literally nothing at all the swim meets) but I knew I was good. I was exceptional. I was anxious. Too afraid to be anything remotely close to myself.

The details of the course don't matter much, aside from the fact that I got to fake-rescue a guy who I would later re-meet in high school, and fall desperately in love with. My thoughts on first meeting him were - "I've never seen anyone with such pale white skin." Not in a neo-Nazi way, but in a do-you-ever-go-outside?? way. Love.

I failed the course, while others seem to pass with ease. I couldn't understand this. I don't know why I couldn't remember what to do exactly in the exam. And it never occurred to me that I could try again. Too much was at stake. How could I cope with this? I had never been judged to be bad at anything in my life. The only way to deal with this is shove the exam book in the very back of my cabinet, and feel intense dread and self-loathing any time I even looked at its closed doors. Oh, and if I had to - God forbid - get something from the cabinet... my day would be ruined. Remember the time that you failed a course? What does that mean for you as a person? It probably means [a host of horrible and defeatist thoughts I don't need to go into here].


Well I'm not quite sure how I ended up in "urban agriculture," or more simply, gardening. You can make simple mistakes that ruin weeks of trying to start a seedling. Or you can haphazardly toss seeds out and they will grow despite your lack of care. It is difficult for me to have to necessarily learn from failure, as I clearly did not have great coping mechanisms for it. I stare anxiously at the compost pile, willing it to decompose in time for me to use it in the fall (yes, months from now). Growing things can take a long time, and for a lot of that time, there is nothing you can do about it. You do your best, but ultimately it's not up to you.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Concussion Anniversary Reflections

It has been a year since I hit my head and got a concussion.

Focusing on daily tasks, managing my energy levels in deciding what I should do or what I should sit out on, has made the year go by fast in the sense that it hardly feels like I've done anything at all, even though daily, time is drawn out. The days are long, but months fly by. I've been tired for a year. Sometimes not too tired, but other times bone-weary exhausted and headached to the point where it feels like if I close my eyes for just a moment I might collapse.

I've learned a lot about placing boundaries on myself and saying no, in order to ensure I have the energy to do something later, or to make sure I'm not hiding nausea or confusion at a social event. Or just simply for taking care of myself.

When I first got my concussion, I stubbornly tried to ride my bike to doctor's appointments about my injury, trying to hide my helmet when they informed me of how much rest I needed. I was resting, wasn't I? Even the lowball number I gave them about how much screen time I was having was three times the amount I was allowed (I said 45 minutes, they said 15 max... and I had been online much longer than 45 minutes).

Finally, when I tried desperately to make myself watch Lilo and Stitch on Netflix, and just couldn't even though I had already been lying in bed all day, I started to realize the degree of rest I needed.

Stepping out of the busyness of daily life, where doing dishes became a major accomplishment, I felt as if I had stepped out of a rushing river. Suddenly others' lives swirled around me. They were making plans, doing things, working, they were busy that night, maybe another night, they had to work, they were out of town, and on and on. This is not said in judgement - I was doing the same thing. In fact, it was so hard for me not to do the same thing, that I was actively aggravating a brain injury.

Something as simple as hitting my head on a door frame had the power to shake my sense of self worth in a way that it hadn't before. Each action I did cost me dearly, or would have consequences even a week later if I had tried to get too many errands accomplished. The only choice I had was to make small, daily survival decisions, and to just be my limited self (which was what exactly, if I'm not doing anything, making anything, or working toward something?)

I've always valued free time and rest, and somehow this was still an incredible challenge for me. Conversations became awkward - what have I been up to? Almost literally nothing. "I can't" became a phrase I said often.

As I have been healing, I still have to say that quite frequently.

Balancing rest and work is always difficult. Both are good. Limitations, sometimes, are okay. I'm not sure we realize how busy we are, or what it means to slow down - actually slow down - and just make space for relationships. To know that we are not what we produce. Rest is difficult to achieve. Not guilty rest, anxious rest, or lonely rest. I'm not sure how to do that yet, after a year. I'm getting better, and I hope I don't forget how as I (hopefully) continue healing.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

My first cherry tomato.

Last summer I tasted a cherry tomato for the very first time. I had eaten many, in fact I used to claim they were a favourite snack – but I had no idea I had never actually eaten them the way they were. The first time I really ate cherry tomatoes was in an urban garden, next to some train tracks and ironically, behind a grocery store. They were straight off the plants we had been forming all season – and they cast a long shadow over every other cherry tomato I had ever eaten. We hadn’t done anything special to them, or used a particular kind, or tried to grow an exceptional cherry tomato. We had just tied them and suckered them as they grew. In a burst of flavour and juiciness, it was all immediately clear how grievously disconnected we are from what we eat.

We all know this, of course. But it would be impossible to walk through a supermarket with the fullness of this knowledge. I myself often do not care what a meal tastes like as long as I am full at the end, and the cleanup is quick. Gardening goes against almost all of my sensibilities – patience, intentionality, planning ahead while also being flexible with what the soil yields. This is in part why it is so refreshing to me, as I am continually humbled, continually giving up control to the soil.

Spending time in this particular garden, one of the most consistent things that people are amazed by is what broccoli looks like prior to harvest: a large leafy plant that seems far too big to be practical for what it yields – there was so much untouched room that I often found intact spider webs among the deep green leaves. I have led such a life that I have never needed to know how to grow broccoli, or tomatoes, or anything else. A food I eat regularly, only seen for the first time as an adult before it is packaged up for my quick consumption. Of course this is not a privilege, but rather a huge disconnect from what people have being practicing for… most of human history and around the world. I’m in the minority, and I’ve been missing out.

We all eat though, one way or another, and are involved in this process, however disconnected we might be. Wendell Berry calls it “farming by proxy.” So we just have to decide what type of farming we engage in.

A spider's home in the broccoli.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Slow Death of Hope for Creation

My husband works at a homeless shelter in downtown Toronto. He says that one of the hardest things that the staff struggle with, and often burn out from, is the slow death of hope for the people they work with. It’s easier to be cynical than to keep hoping, to celebrate a step forward when you know that more than likely the person will step back, or fall down again. Sometimes there are beautiful ‘success’ stories, as indeed the organization provides resources to help people in the face of material poverty. But it’s also a success story to simply sit with someone, every day, for years, through their struggles, through their failings. We’re not called to love people into being better – we are just called to love them, as Christ loves us, despite our constant failings, thorough brokenness, and inability to save ourselves.

I have been experiencing the slow death of hope for the beauty of creation. More specifically, about people’s apparent lack of interest in the state of creation, and even more, my own inability to do anything. I’m not a fan of fear statistics about rising sea levels, extinction rates, or other doomsday predictions. These inspire guilt, and often despair, as it seems things are too far out of control. A much better motivator that is more rooted in scripture is that we are called to care for creation because we love it. As we love others despite their, and our own, perpetual brokenness so we must look at our broken earth. It is broken at our own hands, and we are to continue loving it, and those that perpetuate its brokenness.

As much as a natural scene (I am a fan of rivers and lakes, personally) inspires awe and wonder they are now often accompanied with the lamenting thought, “what have we done?” This is how God made the world, and look at what we have done to it. Even more, we hardly care. This is by no means intended to inspire guilt, as I am in that place too often. Another large part of my loss of hope is the fact that I can hardly do anything, even if I knew what to do.

Reducing my meat consumption in response to the immense toll that the meat industry takes on the environment means I would have to find protein some other way. One of the best (?) ways to do this is through soybean products, which as a crop are responsible for a significant deforestation and farmer displacement.

As much as I might ride my bicycle instead of driving a car, there are industries and systems in place that pour out pollutants that operate on a scale that hardly seems accessible to me.

I have bought used jewelry to avoid mining and labour issues, but have bought far more electronics that have microchips and materials that play into these same problems – blood  diamonds are trendy, used laptops are not.

Even more, many of these alternative options are only available to me by being middle class, having the time and resources to research and afford these options. Buying locally and ethically, taking the time to compost, recycle, garden, bike, researching what you buy from where, are acts of a certain privilege. Even though environmental concerns disproportionately impact those in poverty, often those who are bound by poverty have more immediate concerns about their health and family, than where their waste might go.
One of the hardest parts about caring for creation is to continue to love the broken church that has largely failed to respond to the groaning of the earth, and to accept grace for myself in this failure as well. We can lament this, but we don’t have to stay there. The type of hope we have is not in our power to reduce carbon emissions. 

We are called to love and care for the earth – but how? We are called to love others – but they fail, they let us down, they relapse, as do we in response to others’ (and God’s) love for us. The love that Christ demonstrates is a suffering love.[1]

In the face of melting ice caps, of knowing your reusable coffee mugs will also sit in a landfill, of the immense consumption and waste of North American culture, we are called to love the earth. Redemption and hope in our own life is not out of the question, as much has been and will continue to be done to foster stewardship of the earth.  But we don’t love creation in order to fix it.

[1] More on this idea:

Saturday, 25 April 2015

For a class in Eastern Orthodox interpretations of scripture, I wrote some poems for contemplation each week of Lent, attempting an Eastern lens. They are also written in a syllabic pattern used by St. Ephrem the Syrian. 
1st Sunday in Lent

You called us while we

       stood under the tree
reaching for the fruit
       under the fig’s shade
You say come and see -
       the prophets spoke true.

You are the one true vine!

Graft us to the branch
       let us bear good fruit
Give us eyes to see,
       You, the gardener.

2nd Sunday in lent

Healer, Redeemer,
       you heal all who come
We are lifted up
       through your forgiveness
Moses raised the bronze
       serpent to Israel

To you, all creation looks.

You stretch out your hands
       in your compassion
As you are raised up
       creation bows down

3rd Sunday in Lent

One from Jesse’s line,
       You have submitted
to be High Priest;
       brought low to raise up;
Your promise, a bow

       over creation.

Your mercy makes your cross light.

The shoot of Jesse
       takes root and redeems.
You have cleansed the earth,
       making fertile ground.

4th Sunday in Lent

The Lord’s healing hand

       is above all others
Through Him, creation
       hears and speaks His name
Chosen by the Lord,
       Abraham went out.

The Lord calls out and draws in.

We praise the Lord for
      His deliverance!
The land has borne fruit;
       Your promise fulfilled.

5th Sunday in Lent

The way has been made,
       the ram was given;
You hung on the tree 
       in your compassion.
The curtain pulled back,
       to heaven itself.

Your grace reaches to the depths.

Your deliverance
       is our assurance.
Ransom for many,
       you clothe us in light.

Monday, 3 November 2014

on Non-Denominationalism, Grace, and Sacrament

The church that I grew up in was the same that I was dedicated in as a baby and worshipped at for the following twenty-three years. There are many aspects of this experience that I am still unpacking, which can be difficult to do so in earnest when it has been the primary informant for many of my early theological ideas. The church is affiliated with the Associated Gospel Church (AGC) denomination, and has close relationships with other Baptist churches around the city. Additionally, the local university’s seminary is Baptist as well, increasing my insulation to different theological streams. There was a strange tension between having the idea that we were very theologically informed, and yet having no formal catechesis process, which resulted in a kind of culture that the way things were done, and the way things were thought about, were simply what Christianity itself  were. I only later understood why those who tended to call themselves “non-denominational” were primarily from Baptist, Evangelical upbringings.

Coming out of this context, I was struck with the depth and significance given of the Eucharist that was in other traditions. It is on this background that I will address the practice of taking the Eucharist at this church. How this was approached at church largely informed how I think of grace and how God relates to us both despite, and due to, the fact that Communion seemed to be a marginal practice. What follows is my evaluation of what the practices meant, or rather, how they manifested themselves to me. Without delving too far into my pre-teen psyche, I will say that my experience with preparing to take Communion was fraught with anxiety. It was generally frowned upon for children to take part in Communion, although some families did allow their children to do so. My parents were particularly insistent on not taking Communion before you could fully understand what was going on. This was part of an emphasis on internal preparation, and ‘readiness’ to come to the table. Turning thirteen allowed me to understand what was really going on through Christ’s death on the cross, however I had been barred from partaking for so long, I did not know how to proceed now that I was allowed to truly remember. It was remembrance that was emphasized, rather than any present grace or future eschaton with the recitation of Luke 22:19 as the closest manifestation of a liturgy. We took of the ‘bread and wine,’ manifested as crackers and grape juice (in individual cups), as what was important was what they represented, rather than the elements themselves. Lacking an overt explanation of why things were done as such implied that there was no objective importance to what was done – it was not tied into our larger experience as the church body or historical narrative, rather our personal reflection on what Christ did for us. Further, by focusing on remembrance there was overwhelming emphasis on Christ’s death. We remember, and are thankful for his sacrifice. 

There was a strange degree of solemnity for a purely symbolic observance. I am inclined to believe that the fact that it was symbolic made it that much less accessible. This emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice was reinforced through the most important and most serious Communion service on Good Friday. Throughout the year, Communion services were held once a month – although not explicitly stated, I was impressed with the importance of the service, with it only being once a month. It should not be taken for granted, or become routine by having it more frequently. The focus on Christ’s sacrifice, and thus his death for our sins reinforced that we needed to acknowledge what this meant for us, personally. The preamble before the monthly service was generally the same, in talking about the importance of remembering Christ’s sacrifice, and we ought to be sure to pay credence to the event of the crucifixion, and remember the price paid for our forgiveness. This seemed to undercut the grace given, as we were sure to feel the appropriate amount of regret as payment for this gift of grace. The operating paradigm was very much that of personal salvation. Salvation primarily means that we are to be thankful to God for forgiving our sins, because Jesus Christ sacrificed so much. We are able to come to the table because we have asked for forgiveness. There was a shift partway through my attendance of this church, from being served in our seats through passing trays of crackers and the juice (although they were still referred to as the bread and wine) to having the elements stationed at the front of the sanctuary. This move was made to represent our active choice to reach out to God and His gift of salvation, as we had to move up to the front, rather than passively receiving the elements in our seats.

The presentation of Communion as something that someone must individually prepared for, and individually partake in showed an incomplete picture of God’s grace. Communion was both incidental to our faith, while at the same time having almost unspeakable importance, in putting it off until one could intellectually grasp what they were entering into. This importance though was not explicitly named, and I would suggest the gravity with which it was presented (in terms of truly understanding Jesus’ sacrifice) tells only part of the story, and is frankly a shadow of what the sacrament of the Eucharist is supposed to be. I am largely in the reaction phase having stepped out of this context, yet I do not want to paint this experience in a wholly negative brush. There are certainly elements of this practice that are important, however the practices enacted that they are trying to avoid (ritualism, transubstantiation, etc.) are not such that they must be so obviously side-stepped as to make Communion hardly a sacrament.

The main elements that were distinctive of this Communion service, or spoke directly to how this congregation conceptualized God were that it was explicitly a symbolic gesture, it was an act of remembrance, particularly remembering Christ’s sacrifice, it was highly individualized and internalized. By not framing a Communion service as sacramental, that is, not a means in which God interacts with us in the physical world, it creates a dualistic framework between spiritual reality and corporeal reality, individual, inner salvation and the ongoing redemption of creation through Christ. This individualized approach not only creates the false dichotomy, but then relegates our salvation to the ‘spiritual side.’ This lends itself to become a personalized experience, and general conception of salvation. Communion is about your response to God, rather than God’s active work in the world – or, simply both. Our encounter of God’s grace does not precipitate at the table itself, but rather in what occurs prior to the table. There is no conceptual overlap through the consumption of the elements and the reception of grace. We are closer to God because we have once again come before him, and have acknowledged his sacrifice, not due to any grace or effectual change that is a result of participating in the Eucharist. There was dialogue of grace, and our reception of God’s grace through Christ’s death and resurrection, but Communion was not a culmination of this. Emphasizing personal preparation to come to the table through reflection, repentance, and prayer makes the elements an accessory – the work has been done. Although approaching the table was explained to be a response to God’s grace, there was still room left for coming improperly (unconfessed sin, or ‘inadequate’ repentance). This is not to dismiss the gravity of abusing the Eucharist, however this is generally warned against due to the real substance that is present in the elements.

Having Communion as a symbolic, internal exercise reduces the scope of what the Eucharist is meant to capture. Focusing on Christ’s death and resurrection very much historically dates the touch point of God’s grace. The Eucharist is indeed grounded in real events in human history. However, when primarily manifested as an exercise of reflection, this becomes limited to an event in the historical past, rather than an event that has far-reaching (all-reaching, rather) effects. Even more than ‘ripple effects,’ there is no ongoing work that is equally grounded in human historical narrative. The message of hope that is presented in this model of Communion is that we have hope because we have been redeemed, but this is limited to our present and past condition. It proclaims that Christ has died for our sins, yet the scope of that message is stunted.

A foundational principle in rhetoric of the sacraments, why they are what they are, and their importance to the Church is that God implemented them due to our creaturely nature and the difficulty that comes with this. He gave us something physical to orient ourselves, as we could not otherwise grasp spiritual principles. This may at first seem to be a simplification of the human condition, or denying the idea that we are both physical and spiritual; having physical reminders is helpful, but without them we cannot begin to encounter God? However, in a real way, we do indeed need physical reminders, as is evidenced by what becomes of our sacraments when this reality is ignored. Even more, we do not simply need physical reminders of spiritual things, but an incarnational model of how God manifests himself in the world.

Regarding the solemnity that surrounded a Communion service at this church (due to the focus on personal sins, and Jesus’ death), there are important theological impulses behind this, and though the practice should not be limited to this focus, it does well to highlights the difficulty of our sinful nature and how it is a real barrier to us before God. It does not fully align with the symbolic nature of that particular service of Communion, yet it is an aspect of salvation that should not be glossed over; our brokenness is complete before God. That said, this is grossly limited in terms of the story it tells and stops short of the nuances of how this gap is bridged. Focus on mental preparation places an undue burden on the receivers of God’s grace. In this context the elements are not an intermediary to God’s grace, but an expression of having already been cleansed. In an ideal context this may not be as problematic as it is often manifested: we remember, we are thankful for God’s grace and come to the table. What makes this difficult to achieve in many similar contexts is that Communion is primarily framed as remembrance, and thus an exercise in re-living the death of Christ and the gravity of sin that brought it about. In this light, we do indeed respond to God’s grace, but this is secondary. The largest misappropriation of the elements in this context is that it inadvertently paints a picture in which God receives us at his table only once we have mentally and emotionally realized the beauty of his grace.

Indeed, God’s grace is sufficient, and grace itself is not transmitted through the ingestion of the elements. Where this story stops short is that we cannot actually be ready to come to the table in a fundamental sense. That is, we do not make ourselves ready. The message and function of the Eucharist is God’s coming to meet us, rather than us preparing to meet God. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Eating in season.

It's that time of year that the air shifts ever so slightly, and there is a coolness that is now present. This past summer, when it was hotter and muggier than many of us would like, I had the privilege of working in a local garden that provided food for local food banks as well as offered the opportunity for people in the neighbourhood to take home fresh vegetables with them.

As I learned about suckering tomatoes, how to harvest red cabbage, and that although carrot tops might look like parsley they are really not and don't need to be harvested, my idea of food and what we eat broadened. I was struck with how I never stopped to think what a broccoli plant looked like. Some would call this privilege, but in reality I am missing out on something big. At the risk of overstatement, I think I've missed a huge part of human experience - I have not grown up with a concept of food as something that the land yields. It is something I can seek out, at any time, with relative convenience. We do not see food as a gift, but rather a commodity.

Being disconnected from creation is more than simply not being able to enjoy the fresh air, or eating healthier food, but to be separated from certain rhythms of life that are so important for how we see things, what we expect, and how we interact with each other - everything.

I don't know how to make do with the food that is available November through March in Southern Ontario. But - is that too simplistic? We don't live in a world where I need to can everything I need to eat over the winter, and global economies rely on exports and all that. So should I continue eating bananas all through the winter? Is it an important practice to abstain just to be in tune with the rhythm of what I am being offered - to really, truly know that I am not owed easy transportation, simple and affordable food whenever and wherever I am?