Friday, December 24, 2010

God is not Dead nor doth he Sleep - A Reflection for Christmas, 2010

In 1861, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, following the tragic death of his wife and the outbreak of the American Civil War wrote a poem entitled “Christmas Bells,” which has come down to us as the carol, “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It tells of a man who hears the bells ringing Christmas morning, but the tragedy of his life has made him deaf to the Good News and glad tidings they proclaim:

“Then in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on Earth,’ I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.”

For many, these words will resonate. For each of us there will be moments and events, both in our personal lives and in the world at large, that seem to rob us of our hope, and rob us of our joy. For many, a loss that occurred around Christmas time makes this season all the more difficult.

Yet, the remarkable Good News that rings out into the brokenness of our world and the brokenness of our dreams is the news of a God that willfully chooses to be with us when hope seems lost and joy forsaken. It is the news of a God who seeks us out, and allowing the pains of this life to take their course, offers a gentle hand, stretched out in love. It is the news of a God who, having journeyed with us through the changes and chances of life, brings new life and light to our hearts in the person of Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, hope returns and joy is rekindled.
That transforming power rings out in the final verse of Longfellow’s poem,

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.”

Truly, God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The bells peal out for us this Christmas seasons with Good News and glad tidings of great joy. They chime a sound that recalls us to the reality of a Christ that is born into our midst, who not only journeys with us, but recreates us that we might indeed make the angel song of “Peace on Earth, good will to all people” our song, too.

May the Holy Child of Bethlehem bring you joy and peace this Christmastide.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reflections on the Journey Part II - Photographer's Choice and a Proprietor named Al

I never knew or cared much about photography, but one of the most interesting and stimulating places I have ever known was a tiny little camera store named Photographer’s Choice. Names can be misleading because the store really should have been called “Al’s Choice.” Al was the name of the proprietor of this gem of a place. He was born in Kentucky and came to Canada during the Viet Nam war. He had an interest in and talent for photography. At some point he opened up his own little camera shop in Richmond Hill, and what a store it was! Photofinishing and cameras were really just a front – a front for the most eclectic and amazing intellectual and cultural centre in town. For me, it was the place of my intellectual and cultural coming-of-age.

Photographer’s choice was the name on the sign, but Al had business cards also made up that touted the store as the “Richmond Hill University Off-Campus Bookstore.” Now, it must be understood that there was, indeed, no Richmond Hill University. Therefore, there was no campus which would house an “on-campus” bookstore, with whom Al’s store was ostensibly in competition! However, the name said something of the ethos that Al was trying to evoke – counter cultural, or more properly, sub-cultural. The rules and guidelines that shaped what was sold were Al’s own, and reflective not only of his own interests, but I think, of his own intellectual and cultural journey. Thus, amongst the many dusty academic volumes and other historical classics (I remember complete sets of Churchill’s Histories), there were shelves and shelves of pocket books – Science Fiction, Westerns, and Mysteries. There were some types of popular literature that were strictly off-limits, though: “We don’t do Harlequins,” I remember Al once saying very sternly. I also remember him telling me that true Science Fiction readers detest the term “Sci-Fi” and prefer “SF”, as an abbreviation of the more acceptable “Speculative Fiction.” It was a tiny place, but there was always something that would capture the imagination.

Al could generally find anything that you wanted. There was a basement that was “off-limits” to customers. If you asked about a book that couldn’t be found on the store shelves, Al would refer to an old-fashioned card catalogue in metal box that was buried under piles of papers on the front counter and finger his way through it. This catalogue was the skeleton key to the mysteries of the mysterious basement. I was a pretty big Sherlock Holmes fan back in the mid-eighties and I was just starting to read about Conan Doyle’s influences and his imitators. I had heard about stories of a detective named “Raffles.” I asked Al about it. He rubbed his moustache, pulled out the card catalogue, found a card and said in his best Kentucky voice (which I’m sure he enjoyed playing up), “Mister Juuustice Raaaffles?” A smile came across my face, and I exclaimed, “That’s it!” delighted at the discovery. Giving me a funny little half smile, he descend into what I imagined must have been a catacombs. After what seemed like quite an eternity, he returned with a little hardback red coloured volume, about 80 years old, and said, “Is this it?” It was. I’m sure I paid him about $1.75 or $2.00 for it and went away happy. I must confess though, that I began to read it and lost interest after the first couple of pages. Having devoured all of Holmes, I was looking for a new seven percent solution, and Mr. Justice Raffles was not destined to become the new drug of choice.

It was probably a few weeks later that I returned to the store. Al asked me what I thought of Raffles and I told him I couldn’t really get into it. “What you should be reading,” he said, “Is Nero Wolfe.” He explained to me that Nero Wolfe was the perfect cross between the English drawing room detective story and the hard-boiled American private eye thrillers. Wolfe was a 300 pound Montenegrin private investigator that never left his office on business. When he was not tending his orchids on the third floor of his New York brownstone, he used his superior intellect to solve mysteries behind from behind his desk. His leg-man, the competent Archie Goodwin, did all his investigative work and provided the American P.I. angle. Goodwin told the stories from his perspective, in the tradition of Dr. Watson. Al gave me a Nero Wolfe novel to read but warned me, that I would not be able to stop reading Wolfe novels if ever I started. Like all good drugs, the first one was free. But for some reason, I was not able to get into it either. I never told Al, because he had been so generous in giving me the book, no charge. I think at fourteen or fifteen years old, I was just too narrow-minded and found it difficult branch out and try something new. Thankfully, Al did not give up on me, and I will say that to this day that he and his store were crucial in opening my mind to new intellectual and cultural delights, of both the “high-brow” and “popular” sorts. I think I first became a listener of CBC radio in his store.

Al was also interested in comic books. In addition to photofinishing, cameras, photography accessories, and used books of all sorts and conditions, he also sold comic books. Indeed, he had another set of business cards that read, “Comic Collectors’ Choice.” Like many gangly unpopular, non-athletic kids of my era, I was an avid comic book reader and collector. Batman was my comic of choice. Al was very tolerant of my devotion to the caped crusader, but sought to educate me in the finer contributions to the canon of sequential art. “Have you ever heard of the Spirit?” He asked once asked me, in effort broaden my horizons in the field of panelogogy. Of course I hadn’t, because my only daring moves in comic book land was to occasionally perform the heretical act of betraying my DC masters by buying the occasional Marvel Comic book the featured the Amazing Spiderman. “Let me show you the Spirit,” he said, once again preparing me as a catechumen about to be inaugurated into a sacred mystery. He prowled around under that ever-present mass of papers on the counter – it always amazed me that whatever Al needed was close at hand under those papers – and drew forth a vintage “Spirit Section.” He explained to me that Will Eisner, the writer and artist, drew a short comic book every week (with the help of his studio assistants) that would be inserted in Sunday papers all across America during the 1940’s, these were known to seasoned panelogogists as “Spirit Sections.” He explained that Eisner was trying to break out of the superhero mode and tell human interest stories. He was an early innovator in graphic storytelling, combining words and images on the page with different shaped panels and panel action creating a pacing and timing that created and affective response in the reader. He also introduced me to the “graphic novel,” a literary art form more-or-less created by Eisner in the 1970’s with the publication of his graphic novel, “A Contract with God,” where Eisner began to explore the human condition more deeply in lengthy narratives and interrelated short-stories about New York city life. Eisner’s work was mind-blowing. My love affair with Eisner continues to this day (indeed, in our last house, I our spare bedroom was called “the Eisner Room” as it was decorated with several framed Eisner prints). I introduced his work to my wife Athena and she has used his stories in her English classes. What I learned from Eisner (and so many of the other writers of popular fiction to whom he introduced me) was that the various media of popular culture, including the comic book, could be the means for exploring and communicating serious themes and ideas about our shared human condition.

Around 1986, Al offered me a job in his store. Ostensibly, he needed someone to help him expand his comic book business, and at the wizened age of 16, I suppose I provided that. Of course, I jumped at the chance. What it provided me though, was my first real adult friendship outside the relationships of family and teachers. Al was a mentor of sorts, but more importantly, he was a friend. He was the same age as my parents, but had lived a very different life. He came here during Viet Nam, and he had experienced the culture of the sixties and seventies in a way my parents had not. He had a love of both high literature and popular culture that allowed us to connect in a way I could connect with so few other people, especially adults. Al had the gift of always meeting me where I was, and then leading me along the road into new and wonderful literary and cultural places. It wasn’t enough to stay with Sherlock Holmes, one must graduate to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe; one should read not only Batman but also Eisner’s Spirit, and explore the hidden world of Dennis Kitchen’s underground comix. This simple transitions are metaphors for the deep sort of growth and transitions a young person must take in their coming of age.

Al’s store was also a place of meeting people and it attracted a group of eclectic and eccentric people. In a future installment I will speak about a man named Woody, who introduced me to Joseph Campbell’s works one day in Al’s store.

Stores like Al’s are a lot of fun, but rarely an economic success. But I suppose in the grand scheme of things, that’s the point, and a word we so desperately need to hear today in our world in which public sphere of the polis has been replaced by the idol of the economy. I learned that economic success is not the most important thing. I know the important role that Al played in my life and the opportunity that his store provided for creating community and nurturing relationships amongst those who sought just a little bit more than the rest of the world was willing to offer. Culture is created in such places and it is a non-pretentious culture that says no to the banality homogeneity and enforced paradigms of success. Such places are places of intellectual and spiritual odyssey, and indeed places where a young person can come of intellectual and cultural age in the beauty of an eclectic landscape. Places like this come and go, and I am glad that I found mine. And glad that I found Al.

I think it was around 1989 or 1990 that the store closed. I was off to university by then. Al and his family moved down to southwestern Ontario and we lost touch for many years. Photographer’s Choice disappeared, replaced for a time by an upscale ladies’ consignment store and latterly a jewellery store. I regularly visit Photographer’s Choice in my dreams. Sometimes the dream involves realizing that the store never really went away and Al is still there behind the counter, ready to introduce me to some new book or thought that will forever change my intellectual world. Sometimes the dream involves Al returning and setting the store up again, and inviting me to be his partner. If our dreams reveal to us our unfinished business, I think these dreams are about the unfinished business of being formed as human beings. We are forever “works in progress”, especially with respect to our inner landscapes. These dreams remind me that I will never be finished being formed until the Good Lord brings me to completion. When I dream of that special place from days gone by I am reminded that the work of inner growth and maturity is ongoing.

Five or six years ago, when I began spending a lot of time in my car, I decided to begin listening to books on tape. At a visit to the local public library I found a talking book CD of the Nero Wolfe novel, “The League of Frightened Men,” read by Michael Prichard. I borrowed it and began listening. Al was right, if ever I started, I would be hooked. And so I was. As I began to undertake a life of ministry, I realized how important it was to have moments of pure escapism but escapism need not consist of mindlessness. I have learned that Nero Wolfe mysteries provide a world of characters and intellectual stimulation that joyfully fill my moments of distraction. I rushed home and looked for that old Nero Wolfe novel that Al gave me in 1984. As I never discard anything I knew that I would find it after some exploration – nothing. Somehow, over the years and a couple of moves, it had inexplicably vanished without a trace. To seek out old copies I have frequented many wonderful used book shops and now own (and have read) most of the Nero Wolfe books; but as wonderful as those shops are, none of them are Photographer’s Choice, and none of the proprietors are my friend, Al.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

For the Prologue to this series, click here.
For Part I of this series, click here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Reflections on the Journey Part I - A Chorister Named Ron

Note: For the Prologue to this series, click here.

I have always strenuously resisted identification with any particular form of churchmanship or association with any particular church “party.” I tend to stay away from such self-identifying terms as “high church” or “low church”; “Anglo-catholic” or “Evangelical”; “conservative” or “liberal.” This is not to say that I don’t have particular leanings in the direction of some of the above labels, but in the spirit of the great nineteenth century theologian, F.D. Maurice, I have never felt inclined towards aligning myself with any particular “brand” of Anglican churchmanship. I believe that Anglicanism draws together the beauty of these various strands, not creating a dull homogeny, but a rich tapestry. To devote so much of oneself to one strand is to miss the beauty of the whole. As such, I prefer the simple designation “churchman” for that is who I am, neither “high” nor “low,” nor any of the above assortment of colours. Rather, I like to think that I have the strands of each woven into the fabric of my Christian identity.

I was introduced to one of those strands, the Anglo-catholic strand, by a chorister named Ron. As a young man in my early twenties, upon returning home to the parish church I knew as a child (St. Mary’s, Richmond Hill), I was invited to join the choir. This invitation came about because I had sung in a high school choir with the son of a St. Mary’s parishioner. After about a month of being back at St. Mary’s, this parishioner recommended me to the choirmaster who invited me to join. I suppose I was ill-equipped to sing as one of two tenors in a church choir as I had little technical knowledge of church music and only an average voice.

I attended my first rehearsal, was assigned my cubby-hole for keeping my music, a folder, a cassock and surplice, a number (#21, as I recall), and placed next to an older English gentleman named Ron. I’m not sure how old he was, but he was a retired high school art teacher, and thus probably in his late sixties or early seventies. I was one of the youngest members of the choir. The only ones that were younger than me were the priest’s son, who sang bass, and a girl who sang soprano. They were both in their teens. With the exception of them, everyone in Church seemed old to me in those days. At that first rehearsal, I took my place next to Ron, and began to sing, not knowing what I was doing and scarcely hitting a proper note. I’m sure that first rehearsal must have been painful for those around me, but over the years Ron taught me how to sing church music. I still treasure a copy of “Carols for Choirs I” that he passed on to me in my early days in the choir.

Ron had been a chorister since a boy in England. He had always sung in church choirs and he knew every tenor line of every hymn by heart. It was easy to learn to sing sitting next to Ron, all I had to do was listen. If I was a bit flat, sometimes he would gently say “up.” Occasionally, he would ask the organist to play a measure or two again even though he knew it well, just to help me along. To this day, when I struggle to capture the tenor line of a particular hymn, I close my eyes and listen for his voice.

I learned something else from Ron, though, and that was the glories of the Anglo-Catholic Tradition. Anglo-Catholicism is a certain brand of churchmanship that treasures the beauty of the liturgy, holds a “high” view of the sacraments, and a deep appreciation and connection with the historic traditions of the Church. Ron was deeply steeped in Anglo-Catholic piety. The Anglo-Catholic sensual nature of Anglo-Catholic liturgy is very attractive to artists, and Ron was an artist. His piety was of a deeply humble, sort though. He was not the sort of pretentious high churchman that is so often the subject of parody and caricature; rather, he was a quiet and joyful man with a wonderful smile, and engaging laugh, and playful spirit. Most importantly, though, appreciated the beauty of holiness and sought to incorporate it into his own spiritual landscape.

From Ron, I learned the externals of Anglo-Catholic devotion: when to kneel and stand, how to genuflect and when to bow, when to cross oneself in the liturgy, and a profound devotion upon the sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood in the Holy Eucharist. He did not so much as instruct me with words but with the gentleness of his actions and personal liturgical piety. From time-to-time I would ask him why he did certain things, and his answers were usually short but helpful. For example, one Sunday I turned to him and asked him why we did not say “Alleluia” after before and after the fraction sentence (the “Alleluia” is printed in brackets). He whispered back “It’s not a festival.” And it made perfect sense. Festivals were a time for Alleluias.

I suppose in the several years that we sang together, I never really knew Ron that well on a personal level. I knew that his first wife had died of cancer and that he remarried. I had met his second wife and his two sons on several occasions as they attend only on festivals (and shared in the Alleluias). I know that he taught art. Before he died he painted a picture of the Blessed Virgin and gave it to the church anonymously. I always knew it was his work though, as the initials R.S.P. at the bottom betrayed his anonymity. Along with my “Carols for Choirs” I also treasure a copy of an Anglo-Catholic missal that he gave me during one rehearsal.

I never became an ardent Anglo-Catholic, but thanks to a chorister named Ron, certain aspects of the piety of that tradition are woven inseparably into my own spiritual landscape. And thanks to Ron, who now sings in the company of the saints in an incense-filled hall in heaven, I know well the sacred songs of our tradition.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reflections on the Journey: A Prologue

Every few years or so, usually when I move, I find an old photocopied document entitled “Reflections on the Journey.” It is about ten pages long, stapled at the top left corner and now has a water stain on the front cover from resting on the top of a shelf underneath an air conditioning line that was prone to freeze up and then melt. It was produced in 1992 by the people of my home parish, St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Richmond Hill, as part of their Lenten journey in that year. Parishioners were invited to write and share reflections on how God had moved in their lives.

I have kept this little document since then and whenever it pops up I peruse it for a few moments, reading over some of the selections. These moments are usually filled with the requisite nostalgia as I see the names of many who have meant and continue to mean much to me on my own faith journey. The nostalgia deepens when I think of those who are now in heaven. The sentimentality of the nostalgia gives way, however, to a profound sense of gratefulness and thanksgiving when I begin to read the substance of those reflections. Some of the stories are quite simple, while others are deeply personal. All of them, though, bear witness to a profound reality, which is the presence of God in the life of the people of God. While the collection contains the thoughts of priests and theology students, it also contains the reflections of a broad selection of the whole people of God. Some of these people were deeply involved in the life of the parish when I was a young man, and while some of them articulately expressed their faith quite regularly, there are others for whom this must have been an exercise in vulnerability. It can be very difficult to talk about our faith, not because it is not important to us, but because it is very important to us. Our faith journey is at once about the most interior part of our lives and the same time about how we relate to the world. It shapes our identity personally and politically (I mean the latter in the true sense of our participation in the “polis” or society). I think that most of us are afraid that if we stumble in articulating our faith journey, not only do we feel that we have “let down the side”, but that maybe something core to our being has been unmasked as a fraud. Often, we have an inner confidence based on some experience of the divine, and yet we are afraid that if we articulate that experience, someone will assault it, and as a result assault us at our deepest level. Thus, many Christians buy into the modern notion that our religion should be a private thing and not for public consumption.

What occurs to me, though, as I re-read that old St. Mary’s booklet, is how much my faith journey is strengthened by hearing the stories of the faith journeys of other Christians, especially those who were people that were formative in my life as a young man. I don’t look upon these people as somehow crazy or deranged (as I am sure many of them felt they would be taken as the put pen to paper to share their stories), rather I am heartened and my own faith is enlivened. I think this is probably the reason why Christianity is a religion that revels in telling the stories of saints. The lives of our spiritual mothers and fathers are a testimony that we are not alone, much less victims of some sort of mass delusion, as we walk this pilgrimage of faith. And of course, although it might not seem the case as we read the stories of the great saints, all saints are flawed people. Indeed, most saints really are ordinary people. It is the presence of God in their lives, and in ours, which makes us all extraordinary.

The courage of those men and women in 1992 to share a small piece of their faith journey continues to resonate and inspire. Their risk of vulnerability has become to us a gift. As a priest, I am asked from time-to-time by outsiders the question that so few people in the church ever ask. “How did you know you wanted to be a priest?” Or, “When did you ‘get the call?’” I am sure other clergy have heard these questions. These are honest questions posed by people who are asking us to be vulnerable with our story. And even for a priest that is hard. It is hard because most of us never had that ‘lightning bolt’ moment. More importantly, it is hard because it is difficult for us to be vulnerable with our stories, too. The larger question for me, though, has always been less about being called to be a priest and more about sensing and believing in the presence of God in Christ in my life. Perhaps there are some stories there to share; stories that involve people in my life carrying the light of Christ, that illumined my path at key moments along my journey. To that end, in future posts I will endeavour to stir up the courage to share some of those moments, in the way that those courageous St. Mary’s parishioners did those many years ago, in the hope that it will begin a process of storytelling for all of us that holds before us the reality of God in our midst. I would love to hear your stories, too.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On Obedience - Can an Outdated Metaphor Still Hold Meaning?

The opportunity to preach at the Holy Eucharist at the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine this past Tuesday gave me the chance to reflect on whether two difficult passages of Scripture that use slavery as a metaphor for obedience (Titus 2:1-14, Luke 17:7-10) can still hold meaning for us today. What follows is that reflection.

“Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect.”
-Titus 2:9

“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
-Luke 17:10

It needs be said at the outset that both the passages from Titus and Luke offer words about slavery that rightly disturb our modern ears. In most cases, our lectionaries skillfully excise such passages that might tempt us to justify slavery on account of the biblical text. Yet, somehow today, a simple Tuesday in ordinary time, two of these passages creep in and beg our attention. Perhaps this is a good thing as it reminds us that there are difficult passages of Scripture with which we must wrestle, lest we fall into the error of holding to a “canon within a canon” of Scripture. Thus, we must ask ourselves what we might learn from such texts that grate against our notions of justice, equality and human rights.

It should thus be said that the use of the metaphor of slavery is, of course, time sensitive. The metaphor, as it was used in the days of Jesus and St. Paul, is not a metaphor that appeals to us any longer; yet, as with any metaphor it is not the sign, but the thing signified by the sign that is intended as the focus of our attention. The thing signified in this case, is the virtue of obedience. The use of the slave metaphor is only a tool, or a means, to set before us the matter of obedience. We might substitute the metaphor, or indeed, even rewrite the parable in Luke in terms of employee and employer, or soldier and officer, or perhaps even parent and child, or perhaps even members of religious orders and their superiors, or priests and their bishops, to understand the meaning of these texts in our contemporary context. Obedience remains very much an important aspect of our existence. We seem to live under the illusion today that in our egalitarian and democratic society we do not have legitimate hierarchies of obedience, but they abound, and can be found without too difficult a glance.

It seems to me, then, that the word being proclaimed to us today is that we should not necessarily eschew relations of obedience simply because they make our egalitarian sensibilities a bit queasy. Let us be aware that relationships of obedience often arise out of competencies. For example, I am perfectly willing to be obedient to the instruction of the gas man who fixed my gas leak last week as I have no competency in the area of gas fitting. I am willing to be obedient to the teacher who is helping me to hone my skills as a student because I know that she has expertise and skill that I do not have, and yet hope to learn. The manager who has the whole picture of a workplace in mind, and also holds the confidences of various delicate human resources problems, is to be followed even when some decisions seem to make no sense. Why? Because certain people, like managers, have the burden of responsibility of holding pieces of the picture in tandem that we are not privileged to know, or indeed, have no business knowing. I am also willing (mostly) to obey the laws of the road as I drive, for the safety of all who use the roads. And I am willing to obey the laws of the land in order that we might know civil order and just governance. In the body politic, obedience is in important part of social order. This is true in the world and it is true in the Church. It need not be a tyrannical sort of thing.

When I work with those preparing for baptism and we arrive at the vow “Do you promise to obey Jesus as Lord?” this word “obey” creates considerable difficulties. Will I love Jesus? Will I follow Jesus? Will I turn to Jesus? Yes to all of the above, but to obey? We did take that word out of the marriage liturgy after all, didn’t we? Obedience causes us problems. And yet, as illustrated there are cases where we obey those in authority and the rules of society without a second thought. Why do we balk at obedience to the one who created us and love us with more depth and passion than any human love can know? Why do we have a problem with obedience to the will of God? I wonder if it is because we still, somewhere in the depths of our being, harbor unhealthy images of an angry God – God the angry parent; or God the King who punishes the seditious rebel. But is this the God we proclaim? I do not believe it is the God whereof Luke speaks, the God who has compassion for the broken, the wounded and the sinner. Nor is it the God of whom St. Paul writes to Titus, who in Christ Jesus “appeared bringing salvation to all!” Yes, God is our Judge, but oh, he is a merciful judge who longs to draw even the most rebellious of his creatures into his loving embrace and reconciling arms which were outstretched on the cross for just such a purpose. Perhaps one of my favourite quotations from that most judicious of Anglican divines, Richard Hooker, will illustrate the point and bring it home, “Be of good comfort, we have to do with a merciful God, ready to make the best of that little which we hold well, and not with a captious sophister, which gathereth the worst out of everything in which we err… the bowels of the mercy of God are larger.” Who would not offer obedience to such a merciful and loving God?

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A New Appointment

This morning, it was announced that the Most Rev. Colin Johnson, Archbishop of Toronto, has appointed me priest-in-charge of Trinity Church, Bradford. This appointment is effective September 20th, 2010 and as such, September 19th will be my last Sunday at Holy Trinity, Thornhill. There is, of course, excitement on moving into a new appointment, but there is also the sadness that departure brings. I came to Holy Trinity in August 2007 as assistant curate under a two year appointment. I was very pleased when Bishop George allowed me to stay for an additional year as associate priest. I am grateful to God for the opportunity to minister in such a wonderful community, journeying through joys and sorrows, and forming pastoral relationships in this community. I am grateful to all the people of Holy Trinity, Thornhill for welcoming me allowing me to journey with them. I am also grateful to my mentor and friend, Canon Greg Physick for the time we shared in ministry. With such wonderful memories, leaving is never an easy thing. However, the God who makes all things new is continually calling us into new things, and God is calling the people of Holy Trinity, Thornhill, the people of Trinity Bradford, and me, each into a new thing. There are uncertainties and anxieties, but there is also the excitement and opportunity that change brings. Thus, we go forward in faithfulness to a loving God who changeth not even as we journey through the changes and chances of this wonderful life.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Even At The Grave We Make Our Song

On Friday, July 30th, I left the office and headed home, looking forward to beginning my holiday time. My final ten days in the office before my holidays were to begin were days in which I was filled with joy and gratitude at being a priest in the Church. I count it a great privilege to journey with the people of this place through moments of joy and moments of sadness. Two funerals, two weddings, a confirmation, and a couple of more wedding interviews were all features of these days leading up to vacation time. Each event was filled with such abounding grace and love. Although ready for a holiday, I was feeling grateful to God for being called into this wonderful vocation.

I arrived home that evening to the unnerving news that my sister-in-law (Athena’s youngest sister), who was expecting, had gone into labour at 23 weeks. We hurried to the hospital and it quickly became clear that the outlook was not at all good. The next morning (in a sad convergence of events, as it was also Athena’s birthday), my sister-in-law gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. What was supposed to have been a joyous beginning in the life of this young couple, gave way so quickly to shock and bereavement, and we were all left wondering, “why?”

The next evening, our family still dealing with the profound grief of this loss, I received an email from Archbishop Colin Johnson, which was sent to all the clergy of the diocese, that our former area bishop, the Rt. Rev. Taylor Pryce, had died suddenly after a very brief battle with an aggressive form of cancer. When I was a very young man of 22, Bishop Pryce confirmed me, and actively encouraged me to seek Holy Orders. I shall always remember him presiding at the liturgy with such great joy and enthusiasm. He was a man who deeply loved his Lord and Master and served him well. I shall ever fondly remember him continuing to encourage me toward a life in ministry as our paths crossed over the years since his retirement. His death came as a great shock to many of us have felt his influence in our lives and ministries.

As a priest, when I preside at the funeral and burial of those who have departed this life and await their Resurrection on the last day, I invariably offer the following ancient words found in our liturgy, which have their origin in the Russian Church:
All of us go down to the dust, and yet even at the grave we make our song: “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Sometimes, it is easier than others to make our song at the graveside. Sometimes, the Alleluias can be made with thanksgiving and without reservation. Last night I drove to St. James, Orillia, where Bishop Pryce was lying in state. I offered condolences to the family and stood before the casket of our dear bishop, and offered him a word of thanks for seeing in me the seed of a vocation when I was so doubtful. And I offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for calling this man into his vocation as a bishop in the Church of God, and for sharing him with us for a time. It was easy to give thanks, to make my song, to praise God, and chant my Alleluia.

Tomorrow, I journey with a young couple to the funeral home as they plan their farewell to their child who knew life for but a short time and only in the warmth of his mother’s womb. How much more difficult it is to approach that graveside with a song, to form an Alleluia on our lips, when there are so many dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams. This Alleluia is a much harder one to make.

But whatever the circumstance, it is my sacred duty and most solemn privilege as a priest in the Church to go to the grave and make that song. Whether we can make sense of a death, much less a life, is not what is at stake. What is at stake is the hope we have in the fullness of Christ that no matter the shortness or longevity of this earthly life, in Christ we shall be fully known in all our divine potentiality. As we journey into the arms of our Lord we attain the perfection that so eludes us in this pilgrimage; and this is why whether it be the death of a stillborn baby or a retired bishop we unfailingly make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, and proclaim that in Christ, death has not won the day.

As a priest I shall sing that song for baby Isaac as I have sung it for my bishop, and I pray that in singing it, God shall deal tenderly with my frail human heart that still harbours its silent question, “why?”

Friday, July 16, 2010

You Did Not Choose Me, I Chose You - A Reflection for St. Benedict's Day, 2010

This past week, we celebrated the feast day of St. Benedict, a great father of Western monasticism. What follows is a reflection on the text of the day, John 15:12-17, and the words of Jesus, "You did not choose me, I chose you."

You did not choose me, I chose you.

Putting aside the debates of the Reformation on predestination and double-predestination (and any other kind of predestination!), these words of our Lord give us pause to consider the purpose of all our pious striving. Ah, how often we forget that it is not our longing for God that has brought us to this place, but God’s longing for us! You did not choose me, I chose you. And yes, while any relationship requires a mingling of the “yeses” of delight in one another, may we never forget that God’s “yes” is the affirmation in which all our hope is grounded. Every “yes” that builds up the commonwealth of God’s gracious rule, and points forward to the perfect day in which all things are gathered together in God, is a “yes” that finds its animation and liveliness in the “yes” God exudes for the whole of his creation and for his people.

On St. Benedict’s Day, a day in which consider the gift of that great father of monasticism, we might very well be drawn to exhort ourselves to deeper fulfillment of the two pillars of his thought, obedience and prayer. Without a doubt, the ordering of our spiritual landscape through a devoted pattern of daily prayer is a joy without peer. Oh, the labour of it all when we have yet to take it up! And oh, the labour of it all when we have let our obedience to the discipline slip! But oh, the joy when we, having failed in prayer, again offer the rhythm of our lives once again to our creator, when we sit in the presence of the one who calls us by name, and when we sing the praise of Christ our God. Oh, the times I have failed in prayer, but oh, the times I have found my home again in God. So, on this day we may choose to exhort ourselves to a recommitment to the vows we have made to be obedient unto a life ordered prayer, but perhaps, just perhaps, there is another more profound recommitment we can make.

You did not choose me, I chose you.

With these words of Jesus ever resting on our hearts, let us hear again to the depths of being the passionate “yes” that God has uttered to us, both as his people and as his individual and well-beloved children. No relationship can be sustained alone on promises made long ago -- our vows begin a life in community; they do not complete it. Frail creatures that we are, again and again we need to hear the words, “I love you,” and again and again, we need to offer from the depths of our own being the words, “and I love you.” And of course, through the changes and chances of this fleeting life, through good times and bad, we bear one another, as St. Paul says, in that same love. On this day, let us recommit ourselves to listening once again to that word of love, “You did not choose me, I chose you!”

The discipline of love may seem difficult and wearying through certain valleys and roads of our common life. Yet, it is always to be remembered that the perfect love of God draws us along in the moments we take to be our greatest failures in love. So, too, it is with the rhythm of obedience we call prayer. Thus, we can be thankful for the words of Jesus, “you did not choose me, I chose you.” These words set me free from my failure to love and my failure to pray. More profoundly, though, I am more than freed, I am loved; and that love enlivens me to love and to pray. Thus, my greatest failure is my greatest hope because God in Christ is faithful in love, choosing me again and again, choosing you again and again, and in that never-failing love, there is hope for us all.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bishop William Hockin appointed Interim Priest-in-charge of Holy Trinity Church

I am pleased to announce that our area Bishop, the Rt. Rev. George Elliott, has appointed the Rt. Rev. William Hockin, the Eighth Bishop of Fredericton (ret.) as Interim Priest-in-charge of Holy Trinity Church, effective September 1st, 2010. Bishop Hockin’s first Sunday with us will be September 5th.

Bishop Hockin received a licentiate in theology from the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad (Sask), in 1963, his BA from Waterloo Lutheran University in 1967 and holds three honorary doctorate degrees. He was ordained a deacon in 1962 and was priested in 1963. From 1962-1966 he was the Assistant Curate of All Saints’ Church, Windsor, ON, and later the rector of St. John’s Tillsonburg and St. Stephen’s Culloden, the Rector of St George’s London, and St. Paul’s Bloor Street. He also served as the chaplain to Havergal College from (1986-1993). In 1996 he left St. Paul’s Bloor Street to become the Dean of Fredericton and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral and in 1998 was elected co-adjutor bishop of Fredericton and in the year 2000 became the eighth diocesan bishop of Fredericton. He retired in 2003.

Bishop Hockin is married to Isabelle, and they are looking forward to moving into the area in late August and joining us in September.

Fr. Dan

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Farewell to the Canon

This past Sunday, Canon Greg Physick, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Thornhill retired after recently celebrating thirty-five years in Holy Orders. Canon Greg served at Holy Trinity for nearly five years, after a lengthy incumbency at St. Matthew-the-Apostle, Oriole (in Willowdale). He had also been the rector of St. Francis-of-Assisi, Mississauga, St. Paul's, Pickering, and began his ministry as Assistant Curate of St. Clement's, Eglinton. It was a privilege and a pleasure for me to serve first as his Assistant Curate, and latterly as his Associate Priest. I learned much from the Canon, specifically, about loving and caring for the people of God. The thing most to be admired about the Canon, though, is his love of being a priest of the Church. Whether it is at the altar as he offers up the sacred mysteries or as he visits the sick and "shut-in" of the Church bringing them the sacrament of our Lord's body and blood, his joy of ministry is always evident and brimming over for all to see. I have long believed that a priest of the Church should exude the joy of the gospel and of our Lord, and Canon Greg certainly exudes this joy in extravagance. The Canon lives out the sort of priestly vocation that never goes out of style, but is always central to ministry, namely a passionate love of God and care for God's people. Whatever trends of ministry may come and go, this sort of ministry endures. The Church continues to be blessed in having such a fine priest amongst its college of presbyters.

He now moves on into retirement, and with time, new ways to live out his priestly vocation. After three wonderful years together, it was an emotional goodbye for both of us. I am happy to continue to regard him as a beloved father-in-God and treasured friend. Thank you for all you have shared with me and for all I learned from you, my friend. Enjoy your well-earned retirement.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Most Blessed, Glorious, and Holy Trinity

The parish in which I serve as associate priest (Holy Trinity Anglican Church, in Thornhill, Ontario) is steeped in history. It is the oldest continually used church building in the Diocese of Toronto. The church was completed in 1830 and dedicated by Archdeacon (later Bishop) John Strachan in February of that year. It 1840 it was widened to include two side aisles with pews. I'm told by Prof. John Hurd, who gave a lecture on the architecture of the church last year, that this was accomplished by raising the roof. The original trusses from the first roof are still in place with the new trusses constructed several feet above the original ones. This is all the more remarkable, given the fact that the building was disassembled (the boards marked and numbered), moved, and reconstructed in 1950 in its current location.

In future posts I do hope to offer a bit more about the history of this remarkable Georgian building (more parish history can be found here), but today I wish to highlight the latest addition, a new set of stained glass windows. The church has windows dating back to the 19th century, most of them designed by the renowned firm, Robert McCausland Ltd. Recently, Andrew McCausland (the fifth generation of McCauslands to operate the firm) dropped by to review some of our windows. A family was wishing to offer a memorial for their parents. Andrew suggested that given the fact that the parish is dedicated to the Holy Trinity, a Trinity window for the interior doors of our church entrance would be very appropriate. So in this year of our 180th anniversary, and after some drawings were exchanged and approval received by the family, our new Trinity windows were installed this week. They are indeed are a glorious addition to the building.
The image is modern in design but incorporates a very traditional set of Christian symbols. At the centre of the image are three rings that represent the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The rings intersect each other and yet are distinct in and of themselves, underscoring the nature of the Holy Trinity as constituted by distinct persons yet of one being. Around the symbol of the Trinity are a series of smaller circles, in sets of the threes. These represent the twelve apostles, who in their triad groupings reflect the divine life of the Triune God lived out in Christian community. More importantly, though, they move outward from the centre toward the corners, bringing the Good New from Jerusalem to the four corners of the Earth. The horizontal and vertical lines represent the straight way of the faith, the road upon which we journey as Christian people, and from which we strive not depart. The lines are both horizontal and vertical, indicating that the way of faith takes place both in this earthly life (the horizontal) and has a heavenward completion (the vertical). As these roads intesect they form a cross, the means through which Christ wrought our redemption, and yet reminding us that if we should follow him we must take up our cross. The curving lines represent the temptations that threaten to draw us from the way.

The Canon will dedicate the windows on May 30, 2010 (Trinity Sunday - our patronal festival). They are given by the Rutherford family to the Glory of God and in loving memory of their parents, Midge and Douglas Rutherford. The Canon and I both had the wonderful privilege to minister to Midge until her death in 2008 at the age of 99. She was a delightful lady who lived in a local retirement residence. Midge was fond of telling us that she remembered first hand the Halifax explosion of 1917. When we visited for our monthly liturgy of the Holy Eucharist, Midge had the special ministry of setting out the hymn books and prayer books. She welcomed people with a wonderful sense of hospitality. Whenever we would offer a word of thanks to her she would brush it off as if we were being silly in thanking her. It has certainly not been the same without her gracious presence. This window is a loving tribute to Midge and Douglas, and a beautiful gift honouring our Holy Triune God. We are most grateful to the Rutherford family for this special offering that is sure to enrich our shared life, and ever remind us as we enter this special house of God, of the Holy Trinity that gives us life.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Why Was Peter Fishing Naked?

“Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.” (John 21:4-8)

When we preach on this, the last of the Resurrection appearances in St. John’s Gospel, we rarely stop to ask the question, why was Peter fishing in the nude? After all, the story from which this short excerpt is taken contains so many wonderful images on which we might otherwise preach: the multitudinous catch of fish, the Beloved Disciple recognizing the Lord, the command of Jesus to Peter to feed his sheep, and the prediction of Peter’s own martyrdom. It is really no wonder that we pay scant attention to this obscure little detail.

However, when the Gospel is proclaimed in the midst of the people and this section of the passage is read, there are usually more than a few eyebrows raised, and one occasionally hears a chuckle or two. This past Sunday this led me to offer the throwaway comment at the outset of my homily, “I know you will all be greatly disappointed today, but I am not going to preach on why Peter was fishing in the nude.” I did promise, though, that I would supply a blog entry on the subject in the not-to-distant future.

So, why was Peter fishing naked? And why on earth would the Evangelist have included this little detail in the story? One of the things we often tell people in Bible study is to check out other English translations of the Bible when a passage seems obscure or confusing. I figured I should practice what I preach and turned to a few random versions of the Bible found on my own bookshelf.

The passage quoted above is from the New Revised Standard Version, the version that we read in public worship in the Anglican Church of Canada. Here is the line in question, once again:

“he put on some clothes, for he was naked” (NRSV).

I then turned to the precursor to the NRSV, the Revised Standard Version (RSV):

“he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work,” (RSV)

Next I checked the New International Version (NIV)

“he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off)” (NIV)

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) reads:

he put on his outer garment (for he was stripped for work)” (NASB)

Finally, I also consulted the old King James Version

"he girt his fishers coat unto him, (for he was naked)," (KJV)

What are we to make of all of this? The translations vary widely. Did he put on “clothes”, his “outer garment” or his “fisher’s coat”? Was he “naked” or “stripped for work?” Clearly there must be some ambiguity about how to translate the Greek text. Or is there some significant textual variant in the existing manuscript tradition that causes translators to opt for a different rendering?

The next order of business was to check the Greek text.

I consulted the NA27 (Nestle-Aland 27th edition), the critical edition of the Greek New Testament (a modern scholarly reconstruction of the Greek text based on all extant manuscript evidence) and there appears to be no significant manuscript variance. This means that there are no “competing versions” or “competing readings” of this passage. Fine, so how does the passage actually read in the Greek text? Here it is from NA27:

Ton ependytēn diezōsato, ēn gar gymnos

To deal with the second half of the sentence first, “ēn gar gymnos” is literally translated “for (gar) he was (ēn) naked (gymnos).” Both the KJV and the NRSV have opted for the most literal translation of the phrase. The NIV’s “for he had taken it off” interprets the phrase as referring back to the status of the garment in the first part of the passage, rather than a parenthetical comment on Peter’s status. Thus, it is a much looser, more periphrastic translation. It describes what has happened but is not a strict translation. The RSV and NASB’s “for he was stripped for work,” looks like an explanatory gloss on “naked” intended to provide a less offensive reading for more prudish eyes. Nevertheless, I considered it probably worth consulting a lexicon to determine the spectrum of meaning for the work “gymnos”.

The BAGD (Baur-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker) lexicon provides the primary definition of gymnos as “naked, stripped, bare.” However, a secondary definition attests a usage that could mean “without an outer garment.” A further definition is “poorly dressed”. So, it could have been that Peter was either naked, or simply wearing his “underclothing.” Given that ancient outer clothing might have been a bit more “billowy” that the outer clothing we wear today (no pants or button down shirts) it would be conceivable that those who engaged in various forms of manual labour might abandon their outer clothing for ease of movement. There is some evidence amongst ancient authors that this is precisely what sailors did. Perhaps this was the situation with Peter. Therefore, any translation that reads “naked,” or “stripped down,” or “without an outer garment” could be considered a plausible reading. That the RSV and NASB versions add the gloss “for work” is a helpful and probably an accurate explanation of why Peter was without clothing, but we should be aware that it is a gloss and not strictly part of the Greek text.

Now, returning to the first part of the sentence, the above translations don’t seem to be all that clear on what the garment was that Peter put on. Furthermore, there is some question as to how the garment is donned.

The Greek reads: ton ependytēn diezōsato. The garment in question is an “ependytēs”, and BAGD supplies the definition, an “outer garment,” or “outer coat.” That is clear enough. Peter was not wearing his “outer clothing.” The RSV and NRSV’s, “he put on some clothes” is perhaps lacking in precision as they fail to define what sort of clothing Peter “put on.” Therefore, in this case, the NIV (and NASB)’s “outer garment” is more precise and likely the most accurate. The KJV’s “fisher’s coat” is unfounded.

But by what means did Peter don this “outer garment?” The Greek verb is a form (aorist middle) of diazōnnymi, which means “to tie around,” or in the form here, to tie around oneself. Thus, the NIV’s “he wrapped his outer garment around him” most closely reflects the Greek in this case (the more antiquated KJV’s “girt himself” also illustrates the mode of dressing more clearly than other translations that simply imply that he “put on clothes). The significant thing is that he had to fasten his clothes about himself, perhaps by tying the garment itself, or fastening it with some kind of cincture.

Each of the translations cited above has something to commend them, but we note that none of them precisely translate the Greek text on their own. None of them are strictly wrong, as they all catch the sense of what was happening in the moment, namely, that Peter, stripped down because he was fishing, clothed himself and jumped into the water. However, if we were to seek a more precise reading out of a desire to get beyond merely the sense of the passage, we should probably translate the passage thus:

“He wrapped (or girded) his outer garment around himself, for he was naked (or stripped down).”

The above translation (or alternate translations provided in brackets) would be a very close translation to the Greek text. Of course, none of this answers the question as to why Peter needed to get dressed to jump into the water and go to the shore to meet Jesus. The most likely explanation is that while it was just fine to be “stripped down” or “semi-naked” to work, it would be inappropriate to engage in social relations in such a state. Thus, it is most likely that Peter got dressed simply because he was changing roles. He was leaving his work to meet and converse with another person, namely Jesus.

If you have followed me this far, and I congratulate you for persevering through the lesson in Bible translating, then we may still be wondering why the Evangelist would even bother to include this detail at all. Why does it matter? Would it not have been enough to have simply had Peter jump from the boat and come to meet Jesus? Why tell us that he was naked (or seriously stripped down) and got dressed? Why include this little detail that seems so unnecessary to the advancement of the story?

But is it unnecessary? I would suggest that there is something in this little detail of this final Resurrection story in the Gospel of John that makes it a very important part of the narrative. Let us recount some highlights of the narrative for a moment.

From the seashore, Jesus calls to his disciples, who are having a bad go of their fishing expedition, and tells them where to fish. The Beloved Disciple (that unnamed follower of Jesus, a crucial character in the Gospel of John), ever the astute observer, recognizes that the man on the seashore is the Risen Jesus. At this point, Simon Peter, who is naked (as are presumably the rest of the fishermen), girds his outer garment around himself and jumps into the sea and proceeds to the shore to meet Jesus. Note that none of the other disciples do this; rather, they remain attentive to their tasks and come in with their boats and the load of fish. After Jesus cooks them up a nice fish and bread breakfast over a charcoal fire, Jesus and Peter have a little chat. Thrice Jesus asks Peter to “feed his sheep.” This three-fold command and trust in Peter is clearly meant to parallel (and absolve) Peter’s three-fold denial of the Lord before the crucifixion. Peter is hurt by Jesus’ pressing upon him in this way. He professed his faithfulness before his betrayal of Jesus, and now he professes it again. Perhaps, though, Jesus needs to help him understand a little more clearly what it will mean to shepherd his people, and tell him a little story, which goes something like this (according to the NRSV): “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18) Then the Evangelist has a little aside with the readers and reminds them that this was Jesus’ way of telling Peter how he would be martyred.

Interestingly enough, the verb used twice in 21:18 for “fasten” is zōnnymi (or zōnnyō), which shares the root of the verb diazōnnymi (from John 21:7, above). This leads me to wonder if Peter’s clothing of himself in 21:7 is an enactment of at least the first action of Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s passion and death in 21:18. If I am correct, the Jesus’ words to Peter are an object lesson on his impetuosity and his all-too-readiness to go down a road he doesn’t quite understand. If I am indeed correct, the story reads something a little like this:

When Peter realizes that it is Jesus on the shore, with his usual impetuosity, he fastens his outer garment around himself and jumps into the water and heads to shore, leaving the other disciples to take up the slack by bringing in the boats and fish. Peter is right and ready to get back to following Jesus, and yet still he doesn’t understand what that means. When Jesus begins to explain Peter what leadership in about, he illustrates the contrast by way of Peter’s immediately prior behaviour. “Oh, Peter,” Jesus might have said, “you are so quick to gird yourself and plunge headlong into the task. That’s what we are like when we’re young, is it not? But the time will come when another will gird you and take you where you do not want to go. You won’t be wrapping your mantle about yourself so quickly then!” Or perhaps this is core of the message, “You rush to meet me now, but you do recall, don’t you, that following me is the way of the cross?”

I suppose this is all to say that the message Jesus speaks across the ages to us is that leadership in the Church is less about what we want (which is signified by Peter’s enthusiastic girding of himself with his outer garment and jumping forward to meet Jesus) and more about where the way of the Cross takes us (signified Peter being girded by others and being taken down a road that he would not otherwise traverse on his own). Indeed, Jesus reiterates to Peter (and the others, John 21:19, 22) after all is said and done, the same call he uttered first in John 1:43 at the outset of his ministry, “Follow me.” These words take us to a cross, but that cross is the glory of God. Christian leadership is fully realized in the glory of the cross. It is not a mantle that we tie about ourselves lightly.

If I am correct about these things, this is the reason that John tells us the story of why Peter was fishing naked (or at least in his underwear).

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"You are Witnesses to These Things" - A Reflection for Eastertide, 2010

Before Jesus ascends into heaven in the final verses of St. Luke’s Gospel, he sat with his disciples and had a little Bible Study. We are told that “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to these things.”

Just in case that had not fully understood, after following him through his ministry, after watching him be taken away to trial and execution, and then after seeing him appear to them not as a ghost, but in his physical body, he made it absolutely clear what his life, death, and resurrection meant (and continue to mean). The story of Jesus is about repentance and reconciliation, it is about facing our darkness that we might dwell in the light, it is about touching our brokenness that we might live in wholeness.

It is difficult for us to recognize within ourselves the need for repentance. It is much easier to look upon the sins and faults of others and call them to repentance. It is much easier to cry out “you have hurt me!” than to confess, “I know that I have hurt you.” It is much easier to look upon the darkness of this world and be thankful that I am not living in poverty or broken relationships, than to look at myself in the mirror and face my own spiritual and emotional poverty, or to really take stock of the relationships in my life that need mending. It is much easier for me give sympathy to those who are broken, in body mind or spirit, than to admit that I have much within my own life that needs healing. It is not easy claim our need to repent, to turn from darkness, and ask for healing.

This is what our Lenten journey has been about. It has been about doing that deep “shadow work” and bearing our souls to the light of Christ, that we might be transformed by the light. At the apex of if all is the moment when Christ, in deepest humility and profound vulnerability, hung on the cross. In that event, our shame was exposed before God and before the world.

I have often pondered why it took a few days for Jesus to rise from the dead? After all God could have done it in an instant. Why wait until Sunday? The Crucifixion-event is the moment in which human shame is exposed for all to see. Sometimes we need to sit with the shame of our failures exposed for a time. We need to weep before the cross of our brokenness and failure. Any one of us will know that transformation takes time. Healing takes time. When we recognize we are in need of healing, that is the first step. To live with what ails us is another. To expose our brokenness so that we might get help in our healing is yet another stage. I wonder if that period between mid-day on Good Friday and early dawn of Easter morning is the moment of exposure in which our tears flow that we might be washed thoroughly by God’s healing grace?

Then healing comes. Transformation comes. Christ is Risen! Then comes perspective. Jesus opens the Scriptures to his disciples and explains to them what it has all meant: recognizing brokenness, confessing that we need healing, exposing our wounds by seeking reconciliation, living for a moment in the nakedness of our shame and sadness, and then, in our vulnerability, finding our strength. The cross gives way to the risen life.

“You are witnesses to these things.”

We are not citizens of first century Judea, so no; we are not witnesses in that sense. But we are indeed witnesses. If we have hurt others and our Lord has turned that hurt into reconciliation, we are his witnesses. If we have felt overwhelmed by the darkness of the world only to realize that the light shines more brightly and casts away the darkness, then we are his witnesses. If we have hidden our brokenness -- physical, emotional or spiritual -- and later found that in unveiling our brokenness before the Great Physician, we have been healed, then we are his witnesses.

If we have, in moments of weakness, in our most fragile vulnerability, called upon the Lord and known his gentle healing touch, we are indeed his witnesses. And if we have not, it is never too late, for Christ Jesus, risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, is the enduring witness of God’s healing love.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sing, My Tongue, The Glorious Battle - A Reflection for Good Friday

The Good Friday liturgy is, without a doubt, the most solemn liturgy of the year. At the appointed hour the congregation assembles and the clergy enter the church in silence, dressed only in their black cassocks. The altar and chancel, having been stripped of all adornments the previous evening, appear stark and barren. The service begins with a solemn confession, without absolution. The absence of the absolution is striking and we might wonder where that particular liturgical event has gone, but as the liturgy unfolds, we come to understand that the entire liturgical enactment of our Lord’s passion is the absolution so desperately sought after by our wounded souls. Readings from Scripture then follow. First we hear of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53; next is chanted the words of the twenty-second psalm, the very cry of Jesus’ dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Next, come words from Hebrews, and finally, the long reading of St. John’s Passion. Following the homily, we pray the Solemn Intercession punctuated by moments of silence.

The drama of the liturgy heightens when a large wooden cross is carried in procession around the church while a hymn is sung. This procession often takes place to the singing of that well-beloved hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The cross is then placed before the people and all kneel in devotion as the meditation on the cross is sung. Our Book of Alternative Services, provides several anthems that may be sung, but the most powerful of these contains a series of solemn reproaches, literally a dialogue between God and God’s people reproaching us for the evil that we do, in which we in turn respond with the ancient words of the Trisagion, “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal one, have mercy upon us.” The reproaches are harsh and elicit profound emotional and spiritual reflection on our own failings as a people, and as a species in spite of the infinite majesty, goodness, and love of God. The words of the confession at the opening of the service are most fully experienced and understood at this point. Few are not moved to tears. Nails may be driven into the wooden cross at this point in the service.

For many, this may be the most powerful liturgy of the Church Year as it draws us deep into the reality of our human brokenness and need of divine healing. It is in this liturgy that we face the demons of our existence. It is in this liturgy that we realize that it is we who have crucified our Saviour. All we like sheep have gone astray.

A strange thing happens just before the liturgy ends, though. The rubric in the liturgy then states, most assertively, that “the hymn ‘Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,’ or some other hymn extolling the glory of the cross” is to be sung. To my knowledge, this I the only place in the entire Book of Alternative Services in which a particular hymn is instructed to be sung. The ancient hymn, written in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus, translated by the incomparable Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), and preferably sung to the triumphant tune “Oriel”, begins:

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle;
sing the ending of the fray;
now above the cross, the trophy,
sound the loud triumphant lay:
Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer,
as a victim, won the day.

The participant in the liturgy will then experience a striking dissonance with the rest of the liturgy. It may feel as if this solemn liturgy has been “wrecked” by this triumphant hymn. This dissonance is intended, for we are then drawn out of the darkness and hopelessness of our human condition by the proclamation that in the cross of Christ we are redeemed from al l that ails us. The instrument of death and shame has been transformed for us by God, into a sign of hope and new life. Thus, the cross is no longer seen as an insidious instrument of torture, but instead as the new tree of life. The third verse underscores this with these words,

Faithful cross, thou sign of triumph,
now for us the noblest tree,
none in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be;
symbol of the world’s redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee!

The tree of life can carry all the weight that we cannot carry, our personal failings, the failings of our systems and governments, and incomprehensible evil that men and women do. The tree of life takes it all and in spite of it all blossoms forth with the fruit of redemption, reconciliation and new life. This gives us reason to rejoice, even during the enactment of our most solemn liturgy. It does not wreck the mood of the day; rather, it transforms it, and proclaims the mystery of our faith. It pronounces the absolution that is missing at the opening of the liturgy. This is why this day “good” Friday and not “bad” Friday: The cross which should appear to be bad news is in fact Good News. We stay not under the condemnation of our brokenness but taste of the fruit of the tree of life.

Then, in faith we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught us, and depart in silence, meditating on this joyous truth, and awaiting the promise of Easter.

c. 2010, The Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Spark Interview with the Rev. Heather McCance

My good friend and colleague, the Rev. Heather McCance, incumbent of St. Andrew's Church in Scarborough, was interviewed the the CBC radio program Spark, this week. Her interview touches on how the internet has revolutionized the distribution of sermons (a topic dear to my heart) in both positive and negative ways, and how the internet has facilitated "sermon-theft." The podcast of the interview can be found here. Heather did a fantastic job. I hope you all take the time to listen to it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Darkness Cannot Overcome the Light - A Reflection for Holy Week

“When the great crowd of the Judeans learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Judeans were deserting and believing in him.”-- John 12:9-11

Darkness cannot withstand the light that is cast upon it. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” writes St. John in the opening verses of his gospel narrative. It may seem as though darkness rules the present age, for we live in an age of pessimism. We live in a time when words of good news are dismissed as sentimental and idealistic, and a world in which those who pronounce good news are thought of as peddlers of starry-eyed dreams. If there is a good news story to be heard, it is relegated to the end of the broadcast, to the final page, below the fold, and if some better bad news comes along, we will kill the good news altogether.

At the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, a good news story was being told: Lazarus who had died was alive, and through his resurrection many people were coming to believe in Jesus. This good news story was too much. It unsettled the Judean leaders and drove them to scorn. Indeed, this good news angered them so much that they sought to snuff out the life of the one who proclaimed this news, and also the life of the one whose life had been restored. Jesus and Lazarus had become marked men. The leaders of the Judean people simply could not comprehend what this good news meant.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. The Greek word, “to overcome”(katalambanein), has a variety of connotations. It has been translated variously throughout the years. Many of the early Church Fathers tended toward the definition, “to comprehend” or “to grasp,” and this is certainly the rendering in the King James Version, which reads, “The light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.”

At the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany, the light was shining in darkness, but darkness failed to understand it, failed to grasp it: the darkness comprehended not the light, and in failing to understand it, it sought to snuff it out. The leaders planned to destroy Jesus and his witness Lazarus. Not only did they seek to destroy the light itself, but to destroy any witnesses to the light.

But paradox upon paradox, to destroy the light was only to cause it to shine more brightly! Those closest to the Lord understood this, Martha proclaimed him as messiah and confessed her faith in the resurrection of the dead, Mary anointed him as for burial in anticipation of his reign, and Lazarus’ very life witnessed to the reality that death would not destroy the light of the world. Jesus announced, “When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people unto me.” He proclaimed boldly that against the onslaught of darkness and night, against the torture of crucifixion, the darkness would not overcome the light. Good news rises like a phoenix from the ashes of death. The darkness failed to comprehend the light and the darkness failed to overcome the light.

Thus, the darkness can make its claims on the day, but it shall not prevail. The darkness shall attempt to snuff out the light, but it will not succeed. The darkness will seek to silence and envelop all those who testify to the light, but it has no power over those who witness to the light, because even the darkness of the grave itself cannot contain the bright Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the World, who cast his rays into the darkest corners of the depths of our hearts and souls and replaces the shadows of doubt with the light of life.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, March 19, 2010

On Empathy and Keeping an Open Mind

Last night I was listening to a portion of the 2009 Dalton Camp Lecture being aired on the CBC Radio programme, Ideas. The lecturer was Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. During the portion that I heard, Gardner spoke about how the internet has let us into worlds that would be impenetrable to us in another time.  In particular, the rise of blogs, chatrooms, and group websites allows us to peer into the world of individuals and groups radically unlike ourselves.  For example, Gardner spoke about surveying the blogs of conspiracy theorists. With "in person" social interaction, we tend to naturally gravitate to those with whom we agree and build relationships and networks with them.  Without relationships, it is difficult to understand the minds of hearts of those radically "other" from us and to feel empathy for them.  Typically, the chief way we overcome prejudice and build bridges of reconciliation is through deepening relationships with those with whom we find ourselves in conflict.  Garder suggests that the new online world gives us an opportunity to experience the world of those who are radically "other," those with whom we would never associate (or have the privilege even to peer into their world). Circles that were once very private are now very public and open to online viewing.  She believes that this is an opportunity for understanding and empathy.

I peruse certain very conservative Anglican blogs on a daily basis.  Sometimes I find it very depressing.  To be frank, I find much of what I read on these sites to be written with such anger and hatred toward mainstream Anglicanism (and especially toward gay and lesbian anglicans and those who support them), that I wonder why I visit them.  Is it a perverse voyeurism on my part? 

Gardner's lecture helped me to understand why I feel so compelled to make my daily visits into these strange lands; I make those visits precisely because they are lands that are strange, and shocking, and frustrating to me. It is for this reason that I must go there.  It is an ethical obligation. It is an obligation of being a citizen of both the civic polis and the commonwealth of God.  There is a sizeable community out there that is deeply angered and frustrated with the path the Anglican Church is taking.  I am not amongst them, but I need to understand them, because if I believe anything, I believe it is that the gospel of our Lord is a gospel of reconciliation.

In my own sinfulness, I would not choose to walk amongst these people. Without looking into their world, and they into mine, how are we to have any empathy and understanding of each other. It is true that we are far from experiencing a shared relationship, but perhaps our shared online presence creates a safe space in which we can watch each other from a distance and be open to the healing and reconciling power of God in Christ.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hope in Bereavement - What we can learn from Gregory of Nyssa

This past Tuesday was the feast day of St. Gregory of Nyssa, that great Cappadocian father (died c. A.D. 395). There is much that could be said of this luminary of the early Church. We might speak of his excellent early education and training in rhetoric; we might speak of his difficult episcopacy, which he reluctantly took, later to be exiled under trumped up charges of embezzlement by his Arian foes; we could speak of his vindication and return; we could speak of his biblical exegesis and preaching, his mystical and ascetical writing, his ardent defense of the Nicene faith against his Arian foes; we could speak of contributions to our understanding of the triune God, and especially, the person and working of the Holy Spirit; we could speak of all these things, but in doing so, I fear we may fail to see something very important about the man behind the doctor of the faith, something very ordinary, prosaic and indeed common to our human condition.

In perusing Father Stephen Reynold’s wonderful book, For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for the Saints’ Days (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2004) I learned a couple of very important things about Gregory. First, his older brother, St. Basil of Caesarea, coerced him into accepting the bishopric of the small town of Nyssa. It was, as mentioned, an episcopacy fraught with conflict, false criminal accusations against Gregory, and eventual exile. It is no small wonder that he had strained relations with his older brother, which is the second fact that I discovered. Thus, behind this great father of the faith, we see a man plagued with “brother issues.” We can only begin to imagine what their relationship must have been like. I suppose it was the usual sibling relationship filled, at once, with both deep love and moments of resentment. Father Reynolds writes, “Basil died leaving Gregory regretful over the history of their strained relations.”

In 2009 at Holy Trinity, Thornhill, the Canon and I officiated at a total of over forty funerals. About half of those were members (or close relatives) of the parish. On our vestry Sunday at the Eucharistic prayer, I slowly read the names of those twenty people who were close to us who have died since the previous year’s vestry meeting. It was the longest list in many years. Since January, we have officiated at sixteen funerals to date. In the midst of life we are in death. In the reality of so much death there is much reflection on things done and left undone; on broken promises, on unfulfilled dreams, on hurtful words. Of course there is also the reflection on joyful lives well lived, but one can never underestimated the unspoken regret that is present as we say farewell to those we love. St. Gregory of Nyssa, that great Cappadocian father and doctor of the faith, who defended the Nicene faith, was just like rest of us, with regrets over relationships whose frayed threads remain unresolved at the grave.

In his deep bereavement over the loss of his brother, Gregory faced another tragedy. His beloved sister, the Holy Macrina, was also deathly ill. After the death of Basil, and in Macrina’s final days, he nursed her caringly and lovingly. In those final moments together, they formed a deep and lasting bond that transcended the grave. They shared their thoughts on the Christian faith and life. He later referred to Macrina as “his teacher.”

His deep and profound regret over things said and left unsaid, and things done and left undone in his relationship with Basil, stirred him to a deep and holy communion with Macrina as she prepared to depart this life.

It calls to mind for me one of the prayers we use regularly in our funeral liturgy, a prayer in which we pray that, “those of who were close to the deceased may now because of his or her death, be even closer to each other.” In death there is a hope that transcends the grave, but there is also another hope that touches us in the course of our earthly pilgrimage. As we face the death of a loved one and stare into the face all the regrets that might linger in the loose ends of that relationship, the God of all hope stirs within us a deeper longing for communion, reconciliation, and love amongst those who remain. This is a hope worth laying hold of, that even in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death, our God is with us and his Holy Spirit comes to us, knitting the frayed ends of our broken relationships together, that we might not sorrow as a people without hope this side of the grave or the next. This is the quieter, but no less profound teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Slowing Down - A Lenten Reflection

In Luke 13:1-9, the passage appointed for Lent 3, Jesus counters the insecurity of a group of people that approach him about God's wrath upon sinners with a parable about God giving the tree that fails to bear fruit another season to grow. The individuals come to Jesus' hoping that he will confirm that they are not as bad as others who have died under horrible circumstances, apparently the wrath of God poured out upon their faithlessness. Jesus, of course, rebukes them for their own sinfulness and warns them of a similar fate if they do not repent.

At this point, we might shudder at that time honoured tactic of "evangelism by fear." But, Jesus does not leave things with this admonition, rather, he engages in his favourite passtime of storytelling. He tells them a parable about a man who is quick to cut down a tree in his vineyard that bears no fruit. But this man has a gardener who knows the virtue of patience and of careful tending of the plants in his charge. The gardener begs his employer for another year to give the tree another chance before he cuts it down. We are not told if the gardener gets his wish. The sympathic listener will hope he does, for he or she will realize that the story is not about the tree, but rather about giving us another chance. I wrote about this aspect of the parable in my homily this week. However, I wish to consider another aspect here.

Quick decision-making is seen as a virtue to most people. Decisiveness is a mark of strength. When there is a problem we must deal with it swiftly, purosefully, and with finality. How often have we hear such words trotted out by politicians. I suppose that at the root of this rhetoric is the realization that we want our problems to go away quickly, to disappear. Conflict makes us uncomfortable. We long for homeostasis in our communities. When a there is tension in a workplace, in a family, or in a society, we demand action. Those who are in leadership positions are expected to solve the problem swiftlly, without delay.

Yet, sometimes swift and decisive action is destructive and unforgiving. Sometimes, we need to stop, take a deep breath, and consider our options, as unpopular as they may be. I have been in workplace situations in which the homeostasis of the system has been upset and I have wished that some decisive leader would make things right. Conversely, I have been in several management situations when I was expected to take decisive action. There are times when swift decisions need to be made, but I believe that there are many more times when strength and integrity are best exercised by by careful, measured thought, and a resistance of decisive action. Sometimes swift decision-making is simply an act of cowardice.

I recall reading Rowan Williams' book, Writing in the Dust, a reflection on the events of Sept 11, 2001, written very shortly after the tragedy of that day. Williams was deeply worried that the response would be decisive (but thoughtless) action, simply to demontrate that in the midst of anarchy, the American government was strong and in control. Of course, his fears were realized and we are still living with the results of a thoughtless, swift reponse to those events. It has been a mark of Rowan Williams' episcopate and leadership as Archbishop of Canterbury that he proceeds slowly and thoughtfully in any matter of contention, taking plenty of time to discern the Spirit of God. He is now roundly criticized as indecisive. Slowing down seems to have become the sin of his episcopacy.

However, I still think he offers a prophetic voice in the wilderness of thoughtlessness and decisive shows of brute force. In this, I believe him to be a faithful disciple of the Lord who comes not swinging the axes but tending carefully tending the root of the tree. The temptation ever remains for us to take the axe to the tree that seems withered and bearing little fruit. After all, the land is being wasted where a new tree could be planted. Take the axe and swing it, we demand of our politicians and employers and bishops and leaders. However, I say give me the leader that is slow to anger and great with loving kindness, patience and compassion. Give me the leader that stops, and thinks, and carefully consider her task. Give me the leader that will give the tree another season. Give me the leader that will tend the soil around the failing plant. Give me the leader that will offer nourishment and care over swings of the axe. This is the leader I pray for, lest the axe fall on me.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, February 12, 2010

Second Print Run Ordered for "Prayers for Healing from the Anglican Tradition"

I have been informed that the first print run of my book Prayers for Healing from the Anglican Tradition is nearly sold out. A second print run has been ordered and will be arriving in stores soon. I wish to thank all those who have bought copies and have supported this project to date.

I am very pleased at the amount of publicity that the new book is getting. There was a nice write-up in this month's The Anglican (the monthly newspaper of the Diocese of Toronto the story is found on page 12 - a pdf of the paper can be accessed here), a wonderful colour advertisement in the Augsburg-Fortress Canadian Lent mailing, and today, Ali Symons the news writer for (the official website of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada) has published a story entitled "Book of Healing Prayers Pocket-sized but Powerful".

It looks like a mini-tour is coming together as well. I have already attended a couple of events, and on Saturday, March 6th, 2010 there will be signings at the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto (10 a.m. - 12 noon) and Augsburg-Fortress in Kitchener (2 p.m. - 4 p.m.). There are also some events taking shape at various churches around the diocese. You can check the book's official website for times, dates and locations.

We are currently working on American distribution and publicity stateside, which should be coming together next week. American customers will soon be able to order the book through their local episcopal bookshop or directly from ABC's Amercian distributor, Forward Movement.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Grandfather's Books

At a meeting of the Richard Hooker Society last fall, I had a conversation with one of the senior scholars of the society, Lee Gibbs, about our shared love of books and of owning a good library. Lee related to me some words of wisdom that his father had imparted to him many years ago, “Don’t ever get rid of your books, they will be your friends in your old age.” Lee told me that he had certainly found this to be sound wisdom.

I am only in my fortieth year, but I certainly know the friendship of books. When we read we are mystically connected with those who have gone before us, who have thought about similar subjects, wrestled with similar issues and problems, who have attained wisdom we can only hope to attain. The most apparent communion (or dissonance) that we share is in the author-reader relationship. There is a conversation of the most intimate sort that happens between the author and reader, a conversation that laughs at death for death cannot silence words on the printed page, resurrected once again on the lips or in the mind of the reader. There is another communion, though, that happens between readers who share the same copy of a printed book. This is the communion that we experience we share books. Remember reading the names on those old library cards (before the advent of computerized circulation technology), and seeing who had checked out the same book as us over the last thirty years? A similar, and even deeper communion is experienced when an antique edition passes through our hands and we see the names inscribed on the front leaf under or beside the latin phrase “ex libris.”

I have a seventeenth century book that has passed through many hands. It is of no great monetary value. It is a puritan tract that I picked up only for its antiquity and subject matter when I was in England in 1995. It passed through successive generations of a single family who each inscribed their names. “Richard Wynne, his boke” reads one such inscription with an seventeenth century date beside it. Other names, possibly related, probably not, adorn that page. I have added my own with a date because it seemed fitting. Antiquarians may squirm here that I defaced such an antique edition, but I assure you, the book is really in quite bad shape. Yet, even if it were not I still would have done it. There is something special about being part of the genealogy of that little obscure book, something sacred.

My paternal grandfather had many books. He must have been a member of various mail order book clubs as his library ranges from the late thirties through his death in 1975 containing books that were clearly special mail-order editions. His library, while not large contained some substantial editions. I remember that it was on a wall in an infrequently used room in their house in the rural Ontario near Parry Sound. The room was always cold as the door was kept closed. My grandmother used the room to cool her baking, so we tended to go into it whenever we were helping her set the table or following behind her for a treat. I seem to remember her brother, an old bachelor, napping on a sofa in there from time-to-time. While the baked goods provided a sort of instant gratification and fulfillment, little did I know that editions from my grandfather’s library would provide life-long sustenance and nourishment.

When my grandfather died in 1975, I was only a lad of five. We knew that he had been sick with cancer. I remember going to stay with my maternal grandparents (who lived close to us in Richmond Hill) when my parents went away at the time of his death for the funeral. What do I remember of him? He was a carpenter and electrician who had a separate little building on their property as a workshop. I recall that he made for my brother Tim and me little toolboxes each to carry our tools in. I still don’t own any tools, but I do have that box. I remember watching him work in this shop with his table saws and drills. I remember the smell of sawdust. And I remember him smoking a pipe. To this day these are the two smells most strongly associated with my early childhood, sawdust and pipe smoke, and both of them evoke memories of this man who lives distantly in the recesses of my childhood memory. I remember a walk with him down the trail that was once part of the Grand Trunk railway which ran past their house, and I remember him picking me a blackberry, the first one I ever tasted. I don’t recall that he was a difficult man, although I’m told he was. I’m glad I don’t remember that. I do remember him sitting in his leather lazy-boy chair with his feet up, smoking a pipe, and reading.

He loved to read. His library was filled with books on all things historical. History was obviously his subject of choice. My mother once told me that when my father first brought her home to meet his parents, she remembered him sitting, with his feet propped up by the stove to keep warm, reading Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. She said he was the most interesting man to talk to because of what he read. He must have seemed quite an anomaly amongst the farmers of the township.

When I grew up into early adulthood and my memories of him were quickly fading, I used to sneak a peek into that room whenever possible and look at those books. There were books on world history, British History, Russian History, Napoleon, the Wars, as well as many books on local history. At this point in my life I had acquired a love of history and a love of reading. I always knew that formal training in reading history would be a part of my education. In my mind I would imagine him reading these books and I began to wonder what he was like, what it would have been like for me to know him as an adult, if he had lived.

My grandmother knew of my fascination with my grandfather’s books, and as I became a young man, she would give me a book from his library on many of my visits. Some of them I read early on, others sat on my shelf for years waiting to be read. When she died in 1997, I was given several other volumes.

When I began reading my grandfather’s books I noticed something particular that all his books had in common, that each page was pressed flat along the spine as it had been read. I began to form an image about how my grandfather handled his books. Obviously, as he turned each page, he intentionally ran his hand from bottom to top, or top to bottom along the opened page, pressing them flat along the spine, leaving a vertical crease. All of his books have this shared feature, from front to back. He read his books thoroughly and carefully. This tiny detail allowed me to feel like I was reading with him, alongside him -- a tangible sign of his presence with me as I read. In reading his copy of a treasured book, I have experienced time and again an intellectual, even mystical communion with my grandfather.

One treasured book was Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, a well-known book that apparently influenced Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, about the events leading up to and the opening days of the World War I. It was clear that my grandfather was interested in military history as he had several books on the subject. I read the Guns of August during the days of August sometime in the mid or late 1990s. The text moves day-by-day through the month, in my own late twentieth century days of August, I read it day-by-day almost concurrently with the events described in the narrative. On each page I felt not only an intimate connection with the past it animated, but also an intimate connection with my grandfather, the previous reader of that book (the pages so carefully pressed and read).

To this day, I have several of his books on my shelf. There are shelves in several rooms of our house, but his books are in the living room, where I can access them easily, and where their presence calls to mind his presence in my life. Volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s multi-volume History of Civilization are there, as are popular illustrated biographies of James I and of Queen Victoria, and Dostoyevski’s, Anna Karenina. There they sit like old friends, their pages intentionally pressed flat, waiting for a new and fresh reading, for a resurrection of the printed word and the resumption of relationship across time and the page. Right now I am reading his copy of War and Peace. I wish I had that old copy of Shirer’s Rise and Fall; I don’t know whatever became of it. These books are my friends, not only because of the friends now long deceased who put the words on the page, not only because of the many and varied friends that inhabit their pages, but also because of the friend I have found in a man I barely knew, but who will ever be close to my heart and close at hand in the gift of his library, my grandfather, Frank Graves.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves