The Herb Of Grace

Theology and Poetry, Politics and Prose

Change: “let’s not talk about it, okay?” April 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 6:48 am


Probably one of the most frightening words for many of us.  To shift gears, to alter direction, to take one’s pulse and then, upon that taking, change one’s life in some regard:  these are some of the phrases that we file away as being descriptive of the most difficult times.  It seems there has been a lot of change this year for myself and for those I love.  And though not all of it has been negative, most all of it has been intense and challenging.

I know i’ve heard people talk about how each of us is geared to deal with change in different ways, and I think I know what they mean.  At least it makes sense to me when I think about saying goodbye.

Some of us, myself here included, are wired to say goodbye without too much emotion–a wave of the hand and a hearty smile and then back to business as usual.  It seems that when the moment to say adieu arrives, the deep feelings depart without notice and without explanation.  It’s after the person has left, perhaps a long while after, that we suddenly find a whole powder keg waiting for us.  This might happen when an event as simple as seeing someone walking down the street who looks like our absent friend slides through every cool defense or family-acquired mode of being and straight into the soft tissue of the heart.  But by that point, and I lament, the far-away friend doesn’t see my tears, my heart break, and the hole inside me.  So that is one way.

One of my friends is decidedly the other way.  I remember being told how, upon arrival of someone they loved, they had already began lamenting their departure.  Their loved one’s temporary presence signaled their soon-absence.  That is another way.

In many ways, it seems that change happens to us regardless of our input.  The new way of life establishes itself in our midst, at a certain moment, and we respond, on a scale, somewhere between ignoring it until we are not allowed to anymore and trying to beat it to the punch, anticipating it in order to get the sting over with.  I’m not sure that one is better than the other.  It seems to me that we are just trying to be as present as we can manage to be at the moment of change or the moment of goodbye, hoping that the love can once again move through our strange wires.

Hope.  That’s a thing, right?  As I reflect tonight, hope’s relation to change looks like a puzzle that we somehow use as a map before we’ve deciphered it.


Rites of Passage: Afflict Your Comfort April 13, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 10:17 am

Today I’m posting a reflection I gave at a convocation ceremony for St. Stephen’s University.  As the end of April looms large on the horizon with threats of graduation, the catcall for papers reaching a deafening pitch, and as thoughts of one kind of life turn to thoughts of a different kind of life, I thought now would be as good a time as any other to re-share the thoughts below.  A spotch of context:  the last paragraph before the call and response portion was written with a student in mind for each sentence, hence the particularity (though i’m sure we can each relate to many of them).

We are in the middle of a ritual.  right here, right now, we are present to each other in a significant moment.  We are witnessing and we are commissioning, we are calling out and saying goodbye.  we are saying, “it is time to grow some more now.”  It is time to take the next step.

guard your idealism my friends.  For it is not idealism but seeds of hope that God has given to you, ideas of a future world that was imagined at the beginning.  another way to say this is, “continue to lose your faith in the small gods you have learned to spurn.”  Leaving this community will almost certainly mean a re-confrontation with those small gods.  when this happens, they will try to reconvert you to their ways, their values, their plan for the world.  But Jesus has a different plan for your life and indeed for this world.

I hear and have seen many people move, after school, into a season (or a life) where idealism is looked down upon.  There is the feeling that in the “real world,” you have to be “realistic.”  In this “reality,” there are apparently things like “real jobs,” “starting a family,” “providing for your family,” and “being a beneficial part of society.”  Its interesting how related all these things are to habits of consumerism.  In this reality, you are discouraged from engaging in dangerous things like “poverty,” “looking out for others without seeing to yourself first,” “neighbors,” and so on.

Might I suggest to you that you do not want the “reality” that is being foisted upon our world today.  For it is a “reality” which protects you from reality.  It is only this idealism, which i have properly called the holy gift of hope, which will bring you in over your head and into reality.

As you already know, the world is wide and full of beauty and agony.  There are many places in our world and culture where we can see and find God and His kingdom and so we must be open and excited to find those.  But there are, as I have said, forces and systems which will seek the destruction of your hope, or rather the gift of hope that God has given and is giving you.  These forces will also seek the destruction of the latent hope of the world.  In war, in globalization, in dictators, in insane and unlimited consumption, in the complete disintegration of the unity of body and soul.  These forces will peacefully allow “faith” as long as it remains disembodied and “spiritual.”  But Jesus has a different plan for your life.

so continue, as you have been taught here, to lose faith in the god of violence, the god of human arrogance against the earth, lose faith completely in the small god of pluralism, of democracy, of the myth of “the individual.”  As that faith is lost, then the true life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will have increasing reign in your lives and in the lives of all who you meet.

Be passionate caretakers of the aspects of your faith that have been birthed in this place.  Guard the connection between God and the environment, stand watch over issues of justice locally and globally, continue to speak truthfully and intelligently about other religions, write melodies of praise and protest, of lament and celebration, do not lose the call to creative non-violent action centered in Christ, continue to slowly build a life in which you eat mindfully, nurture the gift of the past for the gift of the future, never stop expressing the love of God in vulnerability, keep on developing your art so it is good enough that you might die well, never stop opening your doors and tables to strangers and friends, do one of the most politically radical actions you can: join a church you can walk to.  don’t build a community like this one, build the community that has been put in your heart through this community, don’t let your tears dry up or your anger go out, but pray and act that they may be righteous and humble, seek to know yourself and, more and more, to be at home there.


So in light of all this,

will you go forward in the mystery, confusion, and joy of your individual and communal



though we stumble and fall,

though the way is often hidden from our eyes,

we will go forward.

with the help of friends and enemies, we will go forward.

with the help of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we will go forward.

I now welcome you into the fellowship of those adults who have walked and been

dragged through this community’s process of hopefully holistic education.  When you

are too comfortable, may God always afflict you; when you are afflicted, may God

always comfort you. Amen.


He is Risen! Easter Sunday. April 4, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 6:36 pm

Scripture for Reflection:

“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.  And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?”

“He is not here, but He has risen.”
Luke 24:1-6
Easter Sunday Reflection

I remember going out one Easter morning with a few friends for an early sunrise service; we decided on Todd’s Point, a slab of rock overlooking the water.  We had prepared in our minds vistas of sun and sea salt ricocheting off each other in dazzling displays of beauty and in reverent devotion to the occasion.  But even as we plunked through the dark with our flashlights, guitars, and armfuls of firewood, we could tell that it would be a grey and misty beginning to the day.  We lit the fire and huddled around its unimpressive flame, waiting for any sign that night had turned to light, that Jesus was anywhere close to exiting His tomb.  I remember vividly the wall of fog that slowly revealed itself as the sun was dragged up over the hills, sitting invisible behind grey and white; we couldn’t even see the water.  All we were left with was grey fog upon grey stone, our faces quickly following suit as the cold continued.  We tried to play some songs of worship to raise our spirits but our fingers grew numb within seconds; We were speechless as the poetics of our time surrounded us: did God really raise Jesus from the dead?  Perhaps we are fooling ourselves; we should’ve stayed in bed.
There is no part to this story where the sun comes out; no finale where our spirits are lifted by nature’s kind intervention, proving all our doubts to be counterfeit.  The fog stayed with us for the whole day.  And this is how the resurrection is to many; we know that it is supposed to be important but we often live with the sense that we are cut off from its depth, truncated from God in the hour when we should be most connected.  The crucifixion is easier, at least in the sense that people are tortured and killed everyday.  But the resurrection can seem to stand aloof from the grasping hands of our minds and hearts.
That morning, something else did happen.  For me, it happened without drama and without organized fanfare.  I looked up from the fire to see my friend walking down the rock to the place where the impenetrable wall of fog shot up from the water.  In his right hand he held a conch, a shell that you can blow like a horn.  He stopped in front of the grey and blew the conch; the sound reverberated around us and beyond us into the formless mass.  It peeled like bells in the wilderness.  It was a distress call and a song of praise all in one.  It was mystery colliding with history colliding with our small brains, bodies, hearts.  It was protest and lament, thanksgiving and stubborn hope.  Soon after, we packed up and trod the muddy trail back to our cars and, in our cars, back to our beds.
I want to put my hand in the scarred side of the risen Jesus.  But sometimes all there is is my feeble song of faith sounding into a formless void.  Somehow, on that day, it was enough.  My friends and I had a certain idea of how our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus should be; and it was thwarted quite completely.  But perhaps what really needed deconstructing was our idea of the resurrection itself.  Perhaps the strange mix of disappointment and joy that sat in my belly as our car jangled and bumped its way home was the realization that we had indeed celebrated the risen Jesus.  Can a celebration be akin to a cry against a void?  Can something be so mysterious and so explosive that its sound waves escape you completely?
One day the fog will lift and I will scatter song in the full assembly of the sun and sky; but until that day, my heart does not stop singing.  It is fired by a sun which shines as well in darkness as it does in light.  My song does not have to be a certain melody of clarity and picturesque moments; it can exist, can thrive, can still utter the only refrain I believe when I believe nothing else: He is Risen.


How I Got Eucharistically Busted: “give me back that wafer!” March 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 9:11 pm

Today is Palm Sunday.  A Few of us went down to a catholic church in Kitsilano to begin Holy Week with the nominal remnant of Vancouver (humor).

Sparing you all the details of the service, good and bad, the main thing is:  I got turned down for the Eucharist.  All shock and awe aside, all protestant pride let go of, all self-entitlement released (well not all), i still have some thoughts for that short woman with curly hair, concerned eyes, and paltry blessings for the uninitiated.  “wait,” she said, while the body was already in my hands, “are you catholic?”  Having never been refused the Eucharist before (and i’ve been countless times), i was too shocked to say “are you?” and then chomp, down goes Jesus.  No, i was slow of tongue and so mumbled, “no.”  she said, as she firmly pried the Lord from my fingers, “well you come up for a blessing then,” and waved her hand around my cranium, careful not to touch me.  good times.

So i know the official score and the reasons for it; the catholic Eucharist is a strange practice set apart for the faithful, you don’t need to tell me.  But in the end, she was wrong, is wrong, to try and keep me from the most wholesome food i know of in this life.  after the service, on my way out, i was looking to see if there was any chance i could steal a wafer.  And i would have, with joy, but there was none in sight, all had been locked away, so i went away hungry. (ironically, we went to a jewish deli afterwards and i had a bagel)

I feel no guilt or shame about wanting to take the Eucharist in a catholic community.  part of the reason for that is probably that i’ve never been refused before.  But the main reason is that i need the eucharist, and so i will go up next time, and the next, and also the time after that.  At baptist churches where they try and strip the Eucharist of its presence, i still stubbornly eat the presence that IS there, because i am hungry.  at catholic churches where they (only sometimes) keep the body and blood for those baptized in the catholic community, i take it because i am hungry.  no human will tell me i cannot come to the table, ever.  it is my one hope.

so it was a bit funny and a bit painful, but mostly strange and silly.  we all have our ingrained theological beliefs.  the lady who refused me had it hardwired into her head that because i was not baptized in the catholic community, Jesus was not edible to me.  My hardwired belief is that Jesus is, well, mine.  The one thing flesh and blood cannot take from me is the flesh and blood, how interesting.  For even if i am refused in every church i go to from this day till the day i die, my hunger would remain as a sign that my soul and body have been made to take God into my very self, Gift of all gifts.


Worship Music and the Generation of Embarrassment March 15, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 7:53 pm

There is something strange that happens between worship music and myself, and also, i think, between other people my age that i know want to proclaim the christian faith.  That strange thing is, i think, a kind of conviction.

The music enters with power, whether beautiful or not, into our consciousness, without any permission, without any question of its entering or not.  It just comes into our senses whenever we hear it, our ears performing their listening abilities perfectly.  And so, having heard the music, we hear the words, the gospel proclaimed, and our pasts and histories and our present lives are laid before us.  The difference between our lives and the words, and our lives and the life described in the words, becomes painfully apparent.

It is important to say here that it doesn’t matter whether the lyrics are shit or not, or whether they are even theologically sound!  that reasoning is yet to come.  what is immediate to our souls and senses is the experience of distance from the witness of these songs.  Before a word is said, if we have the feeling that it is a religious song, we are already worried that it will lay bear, or at least accuse, our spiritual inadequacies.  Perhaps we should criticize this, but who do we criticize?  No, instead we should pay attention to our fear.

We are afraid of being found out, of being “outed” as spiritually bankrupt.  Beyond this, we are afraid that the people around us will realize that we in fact DO care if we are spiritually bankrupt or not, that it does matter to us that we cannot lift our hands in praise, cannot stomach most church services, cannot maintain even the simplest theological dialogue with a person from a different generation.  These are deep points of embarrassment.


Finale: Charles Bukowski, TragiComic Hope, and the Inconsolable Secret March 8, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 8:16 am

Find below the final installment of my presentation on Charles Bukowski (the abridged version).

In conclusion, it is true that Charles Bukowski was what Time magazine called “a laureate of American lowlife.”   Yet his influence went far beyond that demographic, suggesting that what Bukowski ended up writing about, especially in his Notes of a Dirty Old Man, was the story of the lowlife in each of us, whether we are poor, rich, cultured, or clueless.  Within the stories he wrote for OPEN CITY, Bukowski traced a line of narration down the centre of the human psyche, a line maintained by the energy of tragicomic hope.  For Bukowski, within every tale of woe there is a joke; within every joke, a longing for a world where one doesn’t need the joke to stall the bitterness of suffering; within every hope a loop back into that appropriate pain mentioned above, where both writer and reader engage in a kind of narrative jousting, nudging each other back and forth between history and fiction, between honesty and justifiable escape.  Bukowski’s tomb is inscribed with the words, “don’t try,” advice he would often give when asked how one should go about writing poetry.  There is a tragicomic loop there too; for trying not to try is still trying.  But Bukowski knew something about the mystery of the human interaction with reading, with human sharing through writing and reading.  Perhaps what he knew was akin to something St. Augustine said in a sermon on the Gospel of St. John,

I am not speaking in order to make [the text] understood, but to tell you what hinders it from being understood…. [This text] wasn’t read in order to be comprehended, but to make us humans grieve because we don’t comprehend it, and to make us discover what hinders our comprehension, so that we remove the hindrance, and hunger to perceive the immutable Word, ourselves thereby being changed from worse to better.

This says well what Bukowski is doing, if we take it as a sort of analogy.  Augustine is saying, “i’m talking about the text not because we understand it but because we don’t!”  Bukowski is saying something similar, “I’m writing about my life and the lives of those fucked up people i know, not because i understand my life or their lives, but because i don’t understand, and neither do you!”  The comedy is that this is, of course, a profound kind of understanding.  As it ever was, this is the beginning of hope, not the end; not the finish line, happy or sad, but the starter pistol announcing that human beings are at it again, and someone better write it all out, so that we don’t go crazy.


Pt. 3: Charles Bukowski, TragiComic Hope, and the Inconsolable Secret February 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 10:12 am

Here is part 3 of my paper on Charles Bukowski, the american poet.  Read part 1 by clicking here and part 2 by clicking here!

Part 3

When a person writes poetry or auto-biography, there is always a certain concealment at work; it is no different with Bukowski.  That concealment is a function of its proximity to the hiddenness of the world.  So Bukowski’s work is concealed to the extent that he re-presents the hidden population of his beloved and impoverished Los Angeles.  A historian or a philosopher is trying to get close to the truth by the language they use.  A poet is trying to get close to the truth by setting up a world of language in which discovering truth becomes a new possibility.  When a writer weaves images, whether fictional, historical, or somewhere in between, there is always, if it is good writing, a sense of play with language.  This play is an analogy somewhat akin to hide and go seek.  the true meaning of the poem or the self disclosing act of writing is to be found both within the subject matter of the work as well as within the existence of writing as riddle.  the subject matter that the poem purports to deal with can be found within the words, rhythm, and syntax.  the fact of its being, its breathing, can be found as the reader steps back from what she is doing to recognize the nature of the poetic act, in writing and in reading.  the work of the poet, in this case Bukowski, is to say one thing and mean another, and this gives us pleasure.  and it is not pleasure from within the poem, but a pleasure that comes when the reader’s conception of the world as paradox, and as misery and joy, is reflected back to her through the double speak of the poet.

This is especially felt in poets like Bukowski who writes much like one imagines he would speak in person.  Because of this, the reader reads Bukowski much as if he were simply retelling a story he heard himself five minutes ago on the street from a hobo friend.  Because of the pure narrative force of tactile encounter that Bukowski’s writing effects with the suffering world, the reader is obliged to empathize with many shocking and offensive things that, were it not for the nearness of tragicomic hope, would still seem distant, frightful, and disturbing.  For instance, after a sexual encounter with a complete stranger, he writes, “she walked out of the bedroom.  I let them go; they let me go.  everything is horrible really, and i add to it.  they will never let us sleep until we are dead and then they will think up another trick.” (Notes, pg. 104)  This would be only a tragic scene were it not for the humor, the dark laughter, that comes twisting at the end, “then they will think up another trick.”  It doesn’t matter who “they” are, nor does it matter that we understand just what Bukowski believed about the after-life.  What matters is that we, the readers, relate to that strange human mixture of joy and despair, or joy quickly followed by despair.  We are dogged by this intense experience of meaning and then confronted with the finite nature of life, and of finite experiences within that finite life.  There is the feeling that we are being tricked.  But if we have common sense, and Bukowski has a great deal of this, then we know that such a feeling is melodramatic and a bit embarassing.  It is too stark, too over played to really believe that we have been tricked into life, that all of life is a trick, though everyone entertains these thoughts.  It is exactly at this point that the double-speak I mentioned earlier is activated and we are saved from this melodrama by humor.  Even small salvations like this are enough to awaken hope.

We agree with Bukowski’s poetic estimation of life, i am convinced, because he both means and does not mean what he says.  When he speaks without hope, or with derision, about things like love.  there is a trick at work.  The thing that is being derided is our condition, our continual lot, woven as it is between our choice and our addictions.  but beneath this, perhaps within the nature of poetry’s language itself, is a recollection of an unimaginable secret: the longing for love that cannot be satisfied by anything else but love.  For “then they will think up another trick” can also be understood as what to Bukowski would be the greatest joke of all: that there might be some kind of redemption for people like him.  it is a very picky, present longing, and, ironically, Bukowski champions this by describing all the ways in which he, and those he lives life with, trash love, kill it, leave it for dead by the side of the road.  but love does not die, and, by continuing to write, and perhaps even continuing to live, Bukowski narrates into being the stubborn inconsolable secret of love’s longing in the world, of hope that, though it is both tragic and comic, is real hope nonetheless.