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Statement Made to Judge Affleck of the Supreme Court of British Columbia Three Months After My Arrest at the Gates of Kinder Morgan for Protesting the Tripling of the Trans Mountain Pipeline

Your Honour, I want to tell you about the day in March that I stood at the gates outside of Kinder Morgan attempting, as the evidence has accurately established, to block access to the construction of a pipeline that I oppose. 

The police records and the Crown’s argument tell one side of the story. I’m grateful for your willingness to hear the other.

To be honest I had rather heroic ideas about my actions. I have a 15 year-old son, Oliver, and a 17 year-old daughter, Abigail, and they had become discouraged about their future. It seemed that every day on the news there was another development (You know the headlines): the collapse of the bee population worldwide, the demise of the Great Barrier Reef, the breaking up of the polar ice caps, extreme weather destroying homes and neighbourhoods, the anticipated extinction of orangutangs within the next 10 years. And so on.

There are many things a parent can endure, as I’m sure you can appreciate your Honour, but watching your kids lose hope is not one of them.

So, simply put, rather than sit passively by I decided I would do something to empower them  to reclaim their future. I had read recently that the civil disobedience toolkit has been lost to a whole generation in the west where hard-won liberties are now so taken for granted we naively presume right will prevail.  So I set out the morning of March 24 to demonstrate non-violent protest in action (though, truth be told, I hardly knew what I was doing myself.)   

Yet isn’t it the way with life: just when you think you are way out in the lead you discover that there are others with a knowledge and experience base who have been there long (sometimes centuries!)  before you ever appeared on the scene.

We were a big group that day (50 or 60 I believe). It was biting cold and then it started to snow: huge flakes, the size of saucers (you’ve probably seen the footage). The snow caked on our heads and soaked through our clothes to the bone. No one had come dressed for snow.

And that’s when a man by the name of Stacey, a self-identified Anishinaabe ally of the Tsleil Waututh, began walking back and forth in front of us in his toque and grey sweats and work boots, like an unlikely commander of a legion. And he started to play his drum for us and sing us the resistance songs of his people.  And when our teeth began to chatter he told us jokes and laughed with us. And when we could no longer feel our fingers and toes he walked among us passing out warm soup and bread.

And the day dragged on and as our spirits began to flag, an indigenous woman, whom I believe you have met, stood up on a ledge just to the right front of where I was. She needed a cane to balance her frail frame which was wracked by a lifetime of hardship that I’m sure I can’t begin to comprehend.  Yet with her free hand she held up an eagle feather high into the air above us.  I can’t tell you what she meant by this gesture but I can tell you how I experienced it: as an act of protection, as though to care for us and give us the strength we would need for the stand we were taking.

And when the police arrived, they positioned themselves in a line in front of us to begin their arrests. It was at this point that an indigenous man wearing a felt bowler hat stepped out from the crowd of supporters. I learned later that he is an artist and activist who goes by the name Ostwelve. And he planted himself eye-to-eye in front of each of the officers in turn and urged them to re-consider their options:  “History doesn’t have to unfold like this.” I overheard him implore. “None of us, not me, not you, has to follow the script life has handed us.”

As the hours passed I was worried about my daughter who had come to support me and as far as I knew was standing by herself lost in the crowd in the snow and the cold.  And I asked for news on her and word came back to me that she had been invited by the Tseleil Waututh youth leader, Cedar George to join a group of indigenous youth for a special youth-focused ceremony in the shelter and warmth of the Watch House.

And I thought “Who ARE these people?”   From what I know of the historic record all we’ve ever done is swindled, robed, bribed, and used whatever means available to us to take their land out from under them.

In the days following my arrest it became my quest to find an answer to this question. I went to the Tsleil Waututh camp by the Watch House on the soccer field to find out.

If you haven’t already done so I hope you get the chance to visit the Watch House, Your Honour.  I think you’ll be surprised as I was surprised to discover that this protest-based surveillance camp, before it is anything else, is a place for spiritual grounding.

The first thing you’ll be  invited to do on entering the camp is to offer prayer at the Sacred Fire. It’s an act that starts you down the road of reaffirming your connection to the Creator and to all living things (animate and inanimate alike). And the more time you spend at the camp the more you will remember what it means to put human relationships before personal acquisition and the health of the earth before material comforts.

I won’t take any more of your time, Judge Affleck.  My account has come full circle.  I crossed the injunction line not to bring discredit to the court but to bring hope to Abigail and Oliver. 

I believe we found the hope we were looking for though not as we expected.  It comes from the knowledge that at the forefront of the struggle there are indigenous leaders, not only here in our city, but across our country and around the world who understand  that caring for the earth is a sacred duty and comes at a great cost.

Regardless of the penalty you have assigned me today, my actions will have cost me little more than a sliver of my white privilege. In contrast the cost to the leaders I met on the mountain that day is incalculable. They have laid everything on the line for the sake of the struggle.  They are the true heroes.  It has  been an honour to stand with them.

Post script:  I pleaded guilty on June 26, 2018 and was sentenced to 25 hours community service.  The standoff on the mountain continues.  Click here to volunteer at the Watch House. 

Sign above the dish pit at the camp on Burnaby Mountain.

Loving Jesus and Letting Him Go, Again

I’m letting go of the Jesus I love. Which makes it twice now.

Out-growing a religious skin is scary.  I panic. My instinct is to crawl back into the old. Sure it was too tight and left me feeling irritable much of the time but at least it was familiar (and with familiar comes familiarity’s close cousin: security).

Still, I’ve lived long enough to know that that shedding an old skin is not so much a loss as it is a gain. Let me explain.

My Evangelical Innards

I grew up in a world I would describe as gently yet thoroughly evangelical (I say gentle to differentiate from the hard-edged, moralistic, Bible-thumping evangelical traditions that people often flee later in life and which can leave them with permanent spiritual scars.)  My evangelical upbringing had mostly to do with where you stood in your personal relationship with Jesus.

There is a story told in our family of one of my brother’s-in-law who as a youngster was disecting the carcass of a bird he had brought down with a slingshot. When asked what he was doing his reply was “Looking to see if Jesus is in this bird’s heart.”

When we were children where you stood on this matter was all important. It was your ticket off the sinking ship and into the next life, which we all learned at a young age, was the life that really counted.

I was a devout enough child. I had no reason to doubt what I was told by my adults about the value of, in their words, developing a personal relationship with Jesus.  I grew up going to prayer meetings with missionary aunties who would close their eyes, raise their hands up into the air and sing love songs to Jesus.  Never mind that my brothers and I would mimic them in jest afterward.

I did go forward once. It was during a religious rock concert at a highway church near Peterborough that my parents took my brothers and me to.  The drummer dazzled his audience with an instrumental rendition of Amazing Grace and while we were all on our feet clapping called forward those who were ready “right here, right now, to invite Jesus into your heart.”  My brother and I went up. When we got home everyone got a bowl of chocolate ice-cream to celebrate.

We were baptized soon after by a stout, grey-haired preacher with a thick Scottish accent in a Baptist baptismal tank with navy blue, velvet curtains. This formalized things.

My missionary boarding school encouraged morning devotions and gave us each a book called Daily With the King. I was one of a handful of keeners from my dorm who would get up before dawn and sit in the common room in my pyjamas to read the day’s reflection on Christian living with the accompanying prayer and Bible verse.  Each page would get a big checkmark with my bic pen when I was done. I had fuelled up for the day.

My love for Jesus was true. I felt an energy around it and aspired to be like Dorothy Day or Tommy Douglas or other such followers of Jesus who were concerned for the poor and for justice. So much so that I went on to study theology and to become a Baptist minister. I worked in a suburban church (where I wore a black clerical robe and drank wine and discussed justice issues) and two urban churches  (where I dressed in jeans skirts and cardigans and drank beer and further discussed justice issues).

The First Letting Go

Still, when I turned 40 I began to feel boxed in by my faith tradition.  As I’ve described elsewhere it felt like living in a bungalow in the suburbs peering out at look-alike streets through plastic venetian blinds.

So I moved.  Across the neighbourhood into the Catholic church. This was my first letting go.  I let go all the securities of my childhood faith and the evangelical Jesus that went with it.

It’s not that Catholics don’t love Jesus. Of course they do.  But the emphasis in Catholic spirituality is different. Jesus is not so much your best buddy, the way evangelicals would have it. For Catholics, before Jesus is anything else, he is the Real Presence in the eucharistic.

So every time I go to mass and receive the host I receive the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. He becomes a apart of me. His suffering and his resurrection are absorbed at the cellular level of my existence.  All roads lead into the heart of this mystery for a Catholic.

Of course it has its funny side. Like the time a priest accidentally dropped the host during mass and it went down his sleeve and there was a great kurffufle at the alter in an attempt to retrieve it, and a murmur of snickering through the congregation.

I think I’ve become more human as a Catholic because I think I’ve become more attentive to life on earth as the dwelling place of God. As one teacher puts it: “God comes to us disguised as our life.”  Everywhere is God. The Real Presence is all around me. Catholics get this scandal.

Which is also, I believe, what has led me to the second letting go that I’m in the midst of right now.

The Second Letting Go

The catalyst for this change has been the global climate crisis and a fast-growing community of ordinary people around the world (me included) waking up to what is at stake for our common home, the earth.

For me, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with climate activists has meant standing alongside humans from every walk of life on this planet: indigenous peoples and children lead the way and everyone else follows – religious and secular and anarchists and grandparents and academics and poets and scientists and environmentalists and buffalo farmers and business owners and my two teenagers and black preachers and banjo pluckers and bagpipe players (to name only those to my immediate left and right).  Its an amazing feeling.

Religious differences don’t seem important anymore, superseded by a shared and urgent concern to rethink how we live and reduce our water and air of human-generated toxins.

I’ve always been interested in low-bar spirituality and recently made up the following creed.  I say it now (usually to myself inside my head) wherever I am to whomever I’m with:

I am human (and so are you).  I am held (and so are you).   I am storied (and so are you).  I am an earth-dweller (and so are you).                                                                                                                                                                 

It’s a start anyway.

I like how it points to the similarities between us rather than the differences. How it joins who I am to who you are.

What’s amazing to me is that in the process of letting him go Jesus hasn’t become less but more. More human. More divine. More universal. More local. More accessible. Marching along beside us as brothers and sisters. Full of laughter, full of hope.

And as a result I find myself more deeply in love with the earth community and the earth that sustains us.  Maybe  to have its well-being in my heart is to have Jesus in my heart.

Maybe, when all is said and done, all I’ve done is come full circle.

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Sacred Stories in a Secular Age

After 20 years working with children and youth in a performing arts program that stages biblical narrative, I find myself wondering about the value of sacred stories.  Apart from giving shape to the religious tradition they represent what role do they play in culture?  Do sacred stories offer anything when it comes to the spiritual and psychological health of humans? Is the loss of a sacred story tradition one of the casualties of secularism in the west?  Are our children and youth suffering from sacred-story deficit disorder?

I was raised on Bible stories so I know most of the fault lines when it comes to sacred narrative traditions. Here are a few of the most commonly cited reasons from people I know who have abandoned the religious narratives of their childhood:

Fault line #1: Traumatic
When God comes across as scowling and vengeful in one sacred story after another it is hard to trust the purported loving side of this, or any other, divinely-appointed authority figure. Indeed, the punishing nature of God as portrayed in Bible stories has been such a source of trauma for some that it remains an open wound well into their adult life.

To this day my younger brother (now in his mid-40s) tells the story of the time as a kid he returned from the corner store where he’d gone raptureto buy a pack of gum only to discover that the house was empty. He walked around calling out and when no one answered he concluded to his horror that Jesus had returned and that for some wrong-doing in his young life he had been “left behind”. I came home 1/2 an hour later to find him balled up alone and crying in the corner of the couch.

Fault line #2:  Boring
For some Sunday School experience was a source of such unbearable dullness that they thought they would pass out for lack of oxygen before the class was over.moses

The issue isn’t action. There is plenty of action in Bible stories. The issue rather is plot. The fact that the outcome of all the action was too predictable. The end was always the same:
A God who had the unfair advantage of all the power in his court would inevitably appear on the scene to save the hapless human antagonists from themselves or condemn them to their misery.  Kids aren’t fooled by a story with tension points that are less than convincing.

Fault line #3:  Colonial                                                                                  Christianity has been thoroughly critiqued in our post-modern context for the way in which its exclusive claims on religious truth displaced indigenous story traditions around the world.

I grew up among the Kikuyu of central Kenya at a time when western colonialism wasn’t yet a full generation old. 14-03-02-g-2-kk-largeStill in that one generation the centuries old Kikuyu origin myth of the nine-daughters placed on the land at the base of Mt. Kenya had been all but replaced by the Garden of Eden origin story introduced by Christian missionaries.

Later in life when I moved to the west coast of British Columbia I learned that the local origin myths of Canada’s indigenous peoples had suffered a similar fate. The “white man’s” Adam and Eve was rolled out over top of creation stories such as the Haida’s account of the first humans being coaxed out of a clamshell by a raven.

Fault Line #4: Exclusive
One of the most troubling features of so many sacred narrative traditions are their harsh exclusions.  Whether on moral or cultural or political grounds it seems that too often sacred stories have a hidden agenda of advancing the political or social privilege of one group over all others.sodom

One of my brothers is gay and because of the blatant prejudice of stories like Sodom and Gomorra, historical context notwithstanding, he has felt marginalized, hurt and angry by the community of people who refer to these stories as “sacred”.

Fault Line #5:  Caricatured
Sometimes it seems that all that is left of Bible stories in pop culture is to spoof them. And its easy to do especially in their caricatured Sunday School version. The great greybeards and the bathrobes and the walking sticks and the all-important dialogue. What’s not to poke fun at.

A colleague who works with me in staging biblical drama showed this You Tube video to me a few years back. We laughed.

(If you find yourself offended (I was a bit defensive!) remember that parody is a sign of health for any thought system, religious or otherwise. It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.)

So if sacred stories are traumatizing and boring and colonizing and and exclusive and ridiculous what’s left?

I’d like to think a few  (maybe even important) things

Here’s a list for starters. You’ll notice that it’s based on my personal (i.e. limited) experience of having been raised on the stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s not meant to be an exclusive or a promotional or exhaustive list, but it is what I know. I would love to hear where your own list merges and where it departs, especially those of you reading from other faith/spiritual backgrounds.

1) Sacred stories create a capacity for the soul to hold and live with paradox.                                                                                                      Good sacred stories are honest about the complexity of the human experience and challenge our polarized modes of thinking where everything needs to be divided into the good and the bad andd2e2bb50a89a2523f360385541684409 separated out into the categories of the deserving and the undeserving. The ability to understand reality as non-dual has been described as one of the hallmarks of mature spirituality.

Example: The stories of David contain paradox. He was a conflicted person, who failed himself and his people again and again, yet this did not disqualify him from deep personal encounter with God.

The Shepherd David (E.Bouguereau,1895)

2) Sacred stories carve a pathway through loss and death.
The changing leaves of autumn are a reminder that decay, death and rebirth are an integral part of life at both the micro and macro levels. People need stories that show us a way through death. A strong sacred story tradition gives us the template we need to journey through loss into renewal with an open heart.

Example: The Christian story of Jesus’ journey through death offers a narrative path.

7cdb01593fb27200f88d10d99664a6f1Christ in Gethsemane- by Michael D Obrien

3) Sacred stories enable us to face our “dark side”.
Sacred stories want us to grapple with the truest version of our self including coming face to face with the tyranny of our own ego and the death it must go through for us to live beyond our fears and defenses. We live in a culture where it is second-nature to blame everyone else for our problems. Good sacred stories insist that before we turn our need for “someone to pay” outward we img_0517ask whether the thing that is holding us back resides within.

Example: The stories of the Jewish prophets exemplify this spiritual
practice. The starting point for their careers was personal inventory, i.e. acknowledging their own insecurities and fears before God before making a single pronouncement about the shortcomings of others.                          

Isaiah: “I am undone.” (Loren Balisky, 1997)

 

4) Sacred stories provide an arena for grace.

785px-rembrandt_harmensz_van_rijn_-_return_of_the_prodigal_son_-_google_art_projectI think of grace as a processing plant for suffering and pain. Grace is a
huge spiritual concept which includes confession and mercy and forgiveness and sometimes even reconciliation. Good sacred narrative will hold this almost impossible space without becoming simplistic or silly about it’s potential.

Example: The story of the prodigal son and the embrace of the watchful, non-judgemental father.                                                              

                                                                                  Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son

5) Sacred stories nurture a relational connection to God/the Creator        In a study to identify what it is people value when they speak of their”spirituality”, researchers identified two things:

  • a sense of close personal connection to God (or nature or the universe or whatever term each person used for higher power)
  •  a vital source of guidance

Relationship with the transcendent/divine is at the core of spirituality and sacred stories reflect this.  They provide images for what this relationship can look like and biographies of those who have embraced (or rejected) the relationship.

Example: The story elements contained in the Psalm 23 would be a classic example of this. That one Psalm alone sums up the spirituality img_0516of many who live very simple lives of faith. My great grandmother, Betsy is a good example. As my Dad tells it her life was unbearably hard. She was widowed young, raised six children on her own, laboured at back-breaking jobs in commercial kitchens to the point of mental collapse. Somewhere along the way she stopped going to church probably due to a combination of weariness and social stigma. Yet in her old age she would stop my Dad, then a teenager, in his tracks, and say, “Ronnie, not a day of my life passes when I do not remember that the Lord is my shepherd.”

6) Sacred stories create an enchanted universe where everything belongs. 
Children live in an enchanted universe when they know they belong to it and it belongs to them. Like the Kikuyu whose creation myth tells them their people were created on location at the foot of Mt. Kenya and the Haida whose origin story tells them “two-leggeds” first emerged from a clam shell on the beaches of Haida Gwaii. Myths and rituals hold children and youth. They give them a place to land their own lives and know that they have not been cut loose in the universe to figure it out on their own.unknown-1

In the story guild program that I developed the kids say a prayer that goes like this “Thank you God that my story is held in your story.”

Example: Most origin myths of traditional peoples including the origin myth found in Genesis 1.

In summary then, here’s my case for sacred stories:

First, what they are not.  Sacred stories are not political platforms. They are not morality tales. And contrary to popular opinion sacred stories are not inspirational stories advocating up-standing character traits.

Sacred stories are metaphorical narratives that speak to the deep-level questions and longings of our soul.  At their best they give us a symbolic roadmap that helps us find a way through struggle and separation toward wholeness and community. They hold our lives at a sub-conscious level and fortify our minds at a conscious level. Sacred stories are about the greatest of undertakings whether individual or collective: the journey of transformation into the fullest expression of what it means to be human. 

To this end I would include epic narrative like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as contemporary forms of sacred story.

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Though I wonder how tellable they are, i.e. sitting on grandfather’s knee? (That’s a different blog).

Sacred stories were once considered essential guides into and through life’s so-called Big Questions. They are now on the endangered list in western, secular culture.  Good? Bad? Inevitable? Will it make any difference human development and thriving? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

The Shape of Being

In Grade 4 we were given class time to draw a blueprint for the house that we’d like to live in one day. I made a large round circle on my page, added two lines to mark the door then set my pencil down.  img_0431My teacher looked up from his desk at the front and frowned. The rest of the class was busy turning their rulers and paper this way and that.  I quickly took up my pencil again and spent the remaining hour designing roundish furniture to fit inside my circular house.

Recently I listened to an interview by someone described as “an intuitive empath.”    (There was a time when the voices inside my evangelically-formatted head would have cautioned to keep an intellectual distance.  I’ve learned over the years however that when it comes to spiritual integrity curiosity generally serves me better than suspicion.)

Penney Peirce has devoted her career to the study of human intuition and makes the case that human consciousness is undergoing a critical shift.  Up to this point in our development, she maintains, the “human geography of perception” has by and large been linear and left-brained. In a linear world everything is premised on the concept of separation and the space that exists between things.

Peirce makes the case that the relational universe is spherical rather than linear.  Inside a spherical universe there is no separation, not even within time itself. Some things exist at a different frequency or have not manifest themselves physically yet, nevertheless, maintains Peirce, everything exists all at once in a unified cohesion. Access to this reality is a matter of practised “softening” to what is already there,  what Peirce calls “playful attention”.

This is a concept I can hardly wrap my Western-educated brain around. Everything I’ve ever been taught, whether religious or secular, is decidedly linear with a beginning in the Garden of Eden (or its organic-y, evolutionary equivalent) and an ending in the Heavenly City (or its utopian, secular equivalent).

9781907377105

Peirce insists that the more we move out of the word-based left-brain and into the intuititive-based right brain the more we appreciate the interconnectedness of all things.  One of the ways the muscle of right-brain perception can be exercised is through meditation (or “contemplative prayer” as my tradition would say).  In the interview Peirce described the effect this way:

You will begin to experience yourself moving out in all directions until you realize that you are shaped like a sphere. That your energy level is you at a different frequency. That it goes out all around you in every direction and it gets bigger and bigger, and it includes more and more time, more and more space, more and more knowledge, other dimensions – everything. All the beings in the world…once that starts happening to you start to realize how interconnected everything is. That’s where we start seeing that other people are in me, so I must know about them and they must know about me at some level.

When I was a kid in rural Africa I would go up the hill to my friend Wangari’s house for sleepovers. img_0433-1Wangari lived in a circular mud hut with her sisters and mother and grandparents. Everyone, even the young goats and the chickens, slept in the same round room around the dying embers of the central cooking fire.  I would lay awake beside Wangari on our goat-skinned framed cot and think how I could draw a straight, unimpeded line between me and everyone else in that home. It was different from my family’s missionary house down the hill where we all slept in our own rooms, separated from each other by stone walls and doors and hallways.

I’m learning to meditate/pray in the early mornings with my hands open and my palms turned upward on my lap imagining the universe as a sphere about me. There is a direct field of energy between me and everything that exists. I think of it as the Christ Presence at the centre of all of us that connects us all to each other.

For now I’ll hold off standing up on my chair in my Grade 4 classroom and shouting “I knew it”.  All the same it is reassuring to know that my grade school instincts about living in a round world may not have been that far-fetched after all.