It’s been just over a month since we left England to come to Canada and much of that time has been spent in Yukon. The time and space to adjust and process was a sheer gift – of course with good days and bad days, extraordinary days and ordinary days, cheerful days and grumpy days – but my overwhelming sense as we reach the end now is one of deep gratitude.
Somehow, the time away served as a reminder of what it means to be human. I love London – and as we have moved away I’ve realised HOW much I love it despite all my grumbling (it’s strange how leaving a place does that) – but one thing I always found in London was that it was hard to breathe. Sometimes physically due to the heavy duty cycling masks that I insisted on us using (much to John’s delight) but more in my spirit due to the constant stimulus: the onslaught of options and distractions and opinions and soundbytes and adverts and demands and sirens. Some people can navigate this in healthy and inspiring ways and have an effective off-switch. I never quite figured it out.
I love that the Hebrew word for breath is the same as for the Spirit: ruach. To breathe is somehow mysteriously to engage with the One who through the Incarnation has dignified and redeemed our humanity and shown us a new way of being fully human. I think in a way when we struggle to breathe, our spirits – and our ability to be truly human – can begin to atrophy.
Somewhere along Yukon’s winding roads, creation, Stan Rogers and laughter worked together to open up my spiritual lungs, and I am so grateful.
Yukon is famed for its vast wilderness – from the snaking rivers emptying out into the Arctic Ocean to the grizzled peaks shielding still, unpeopled valleys. It was a gift to to spend long meandering days canoeing along the Yukon River, setting up camp under the midnight sun and waking up to the smell of woodsmoke as John boiled water from that same river for coffee.
As days went by, my eyesight reoriented to better read the landscape around us: looking out for grizzlies, noticing the current of the river and leaning into it, observing the forests of young looking trees – charred evidence of a years-old wildfire poking through the lush undergrowth. Given that we went above the Arctic Circle, we even noticed the leaves turning despite it being mid-August – a strong, short summer drawing to a close for another year.
I guess we are shaped by what we pay attention to, and I began to feel just a bit more human as my eyes adjusted to read the story unfolding in the creation around us; the same Breath that hovered over the waters filling our lungs afresh as we stood on shores of pristine lakes, flashes of red catching our eye as salmon leaped out of the water on their way to spawn.
The book I happened to take with me for the journey was Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘Genesis’ trilogy – and it couldn’t have been a more perfect companion. In these books she explores the significance of and the implications arising out of God’s resounding affirmation upon observing Creation: ‘It is good. Very good.’
One of the key messages held within the pages for me was that one of the biggest triumphs of the enemy is to have convinced us humans that we are consumers, when we have been created to be receivers. Receivers who observe and contemplate all that God has made and join with God in affirming that ‘it is good – very good’ before taking our delightful place as co-creators with God as we work toward the liberation of all of Creation into glory. Receivers who embody the prayer ‘your Kingdom come’ through our lives, inviting the Kingdom to come and to grow right in the humus of our decay, our disappointment, our doubt.
It was a gift to read her words which also remind, over and over, that we are interconnected with all of Creation. That intrinsic to our very DNA is connection, not isolation. Connection not only with one another but with every atom held in the universe and beyond.
This idea came into focus for me as I watched a mama duck with her brood one evening along the Yukon River. Unaware of my being there – or maybe they weren’t – she led them across the river, stopping at one point to play, stretching her wings and splashing her babies who responded with delight.
This moment filled me with awe, and yet here we were thousands of miles from home, a few days’ walk even from the nearest road. The stunning life of this mama duck and her family exist here whether or not anyone is here to watch. And yet somehow on this quiet evening I was given a glimpse into it and granted the privilege of affirming ‘it is good’ over this particular manifestation of the story of birthing, living, playing, nurturing and dying which is played out in an endless myriad of ways in every corner of the universe.
I love the idea that this duck family carried on with their lives – lives deemed sacred by the affirmation that their very being is ‘good, very good’ – after I turned away, but that the blessing I received through them remained with me. And the stirring I felt in my spirit was that as they blessed me, so I am to bless them – and all the other duckling families, everything else which is part of the animate and inanimate Creation that God has declared very good – through the way I live my life, through the way I orient my spirit. What a gift to remember that we in our very humanness have too been sanctified and declared ‘good, very good’ – both by the words of God and through the Incarnation. What a terrible privilege and responsibility as we seek to steward this Creation, to honour its innate and unshakeable Goodness and so seek the coming of the Kingdom here on earth. I so loved L’Engle’s plucky and persistent reminder that to do so is to become more and more fully human.
John gave me the task of putting together a playlist to accompany our many hours on the road. Somehow as we journeyed further north, the song choices that had seemed to make sense in London didn’t anymore. We found ourselves reverting to songs which better harmonised with the story unfolding around us, which made sense against the backdrop of vast wilderness. In the end it was Stan Rogers who most captured our imagination – a Canadian singer songwriter much loved in John’s family and some of whose songs were familiar to us already.
But as we branched out to songs of his that we hadn’t listened to before, I was utterly captivated by his storytelling, stunned by his ability to plunge the depths of what it means to be a human – with all our contradiction and glory, our suffering and our joy. Songs which follow the journey of fishermen migrating from the eastern shores of Maritime Canada to the oilfields of the West as the fisheries closed, which describe the promise and the heartache unique to the rural farmer in the Prairies, the complex journey through ageing and loss. Stan Rogers’s music gives dignity to human experience and edges the truth of it with glory and it moved me deeply.
I was reminded of what (again) Madeleine L’Engle writes about truth – about the fact that we can sometimes be so literalistic in our approach to and search for truth that we miss the truth that is right in front of us. The story of Joseph in Genesis may not be factually true, but it is a true story, she writes. What we learn about the nature of our fallible humanness, of our universal human experience through the story of the spoiled boy whose failings and sufferings are nonetheless turned upside down by a merciful God is indeed true. If we are caught up in arguments about factual accuracies or lack thereof, we run the risk of missing the deep and abiding truth which is hidden in plain sight. I found Stan Rogers’ music to be, in this same way, as true as they come. His ability tell stories deeply rooted in place and time which nonetheless capture the eternal truth of our human experience took my breath away. He is indeed a teller of the truest kind of story, and we who hear are richer for it.
On the way back, we stopped at the home of a childhood friend of John’s. He and his brother had grown up with John and it was an utter joy to spend the day and evening with them, their wives and children. It was a perfect antidote to the inevitable sense of sadness that accompanies the end of a trip. As we shared stories old and new around the campfire, I was aware that we were being nourished not only by the homemade burgers but in the deepest and truest way – in the way that we have desperately needed ever since we swallowed the lie that we are made to live as isolated beings.
These friends are Christian people, and the kind that remind me all over again why it is that I too seek to choose the Way of the carpenter from Nazareth. And one thing that stood out to me as the hours passed was how easily they laughed. Laughter was the backdrop to our time together – because it was the only right expression for the joy that felt very present. These friends reminded me of the truth that to be human is to laugh. I was reminded of the woman in Proverbs who ‘is clothed in strength and dignity. She can laugh at the days to come’.
I have a visceral reaction to the theology which insists that everything is fine and don’t-worry-be-happy-because-Jesus-is-coming! No – I cannot make any sense of a faith that makes no space for lament. I believe in naming the very present darkness and mourning alongside those who weep in the now-and-not-yet of this world. Oh Lord, what possible response is there but horror, nausea, anger, grief as we switch on our phones and Charlottesville fills our screens?
But as Sarah Bessey writes, isn’t our calling as Christians not only to see the darkness and name it but to then light a candle anyway? In my reactive theology, somewhere along the way I forgot what it looks like to keep lighting the candles. Somewhere along the way I forgot that as we are filled with the Spirit, we are filled with joy – and to laugh often and easily is the overflow of that reality. These are dark days where lament and resistance are necessary – no doubt about it. But I had almost forgotten that we can and must – at the same time – light a candle anyway. I so easily default to dualistic thinking – either/or – and forget that we humans are far too contradictory of beings to be made for anything other than both/and – and what freedom there is in this truth.
We read the news, hear our friends’ struggles and sufferings and we pray your Kingdom come into all that is not yet. And at the same time we sit around the campfire to taste and see that God is good; very good. The firelight flickered on our faces as the sun went down and stories turned into songs, the remains of s’mores sticky between our fingers. And as we drove away our hearts felt full. There is so much to lament, so must to work for. But still there is laughter. And that laughter marked us, blessed us, emboldened and strengthened us in a deep and real way.
What a God we serve. What a freeing truth to know that to be human is to not to consume but to receive. To embrace the raw messiness of our contradictory stories and know that in living them we are nonetheless interconnected to those across time and space. What a gift to laugh – to taste and see and, even while the flame flickers in the darkness, affirm that it is indeed good. It is very good.