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A couple of nights ago, not long after Candlemas, I woke up at 4am with our farm animals on my mind. The fire was out, the wind was howling, and it was freaking cold even under the covers. Outside, the temperature had dropped to -40 degrees Celsius. Factor in the wind chill and it was close to -50. As I tried to get some warmth back into my toes, I began to worry about the animals outside. Our small herd of cattle, horses, and sheep are all well suited to northern climates, but this type of deep cold is hard on them. I said a prayer, and envisioned them blanketed by a protective warm layer of light and love. I added another Spirit-song for the dogs, and all the other wild creatures on and around the farmstead. I’m glad they are resilient, but I can’t help but feel concerned for all the wights abroad on a night such as that.

In his recent “Tea with a Druid” blogpost, OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm reminded us that Goddess / Saint Brigid is patroness, among other things, of farm work and cattle. I take great solace in this old teaching, especially in the depth of winter that is Imbolc on the Canadian prairies. Not for us the happy bloom of fragile snowdrops. Not for us the warming breezes of spring’s first gleam. Instead, a bone-chilling, spirit-crushing, unrelenting polar vortex of winter. So in the midst of this brutal weather, what can Imbolc mean?

For me, for now, I find hope in the changing light. Dawn comes sooner, and with it a hint of warmth for the animals, and for us. Spring, real spring, is still months away. But it will come. The Wheel will turn, and the ever-enduring animals will be enjoying green pasture and blessed warmth once again.

In the meantime, I continue to sing Brigid’s blessing on our herd, each time I go out to do the milking. May you and your herd be blessed as well, as we walk through the northern winter.

Mother Mary, bless my cow.
Holy Brigid, bless my cow.
Saints and angels, bless my cow,
O bless my cow.
God our Mother, bless my cow.
Good Lord Jesus, bless my cow.
Lady Wisdom, bless my cow,
O bless my cow.
Amen.

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Reconciliation is a huge task, a deep responsibility, a seven-generation work of covenant renewal. Reconciliation involves decolonization and reparation. It calls for a massive act, or series of acts, of confession and (hopefully) forgiveness. There are no short cuts, and nothing can replace the sheer hard work of re-building broken relationships. Reconciliation is a key aspect of the Great Work of our time.
As an Anglican priest, I’ve been involved in reconciliation and justice work during my entire ministry. I worked as an inner-city chaplain on the streets of Saskatoon. I acted as a church representative in the alternative dispute resolution hearings for residential school survivors, and offered the words of apology on behalf of the church many times over. I sat, mute and numb, in the memorial feast for young Colten Boushie as his community grieved at Red Pheasant. And I know that countless others, in and out of the church, Indigenous folks, settlers, and newcomers, are all doing whatever they can to bring about a new reality of right relationships in our land.
But even so, something seems to be missing.
In ceremonies and in workshops across the land, people (Indigenous people, mostly) are talking about the ancestors and the spirits. In sweat lodges and in longhouses, in resistance camps and out on the land, the spirits and the ancestors are mentioned in prayer, over and over again.
What are Christians to make of this?
Unfortunately, I think that most settler Christians have no idea what to make of this, even though the relationship with the spirit world is at the heart of Indigenous spirituality. Of course, there are many types of Christian theology and various Christian responses to the idea of the spirit world. Liberal Christians tend to hear the phrase “spirits and ancestors” as a mythologized way of simply talking about the Spirit. Catholic Christians (Roman and otherwise) might assume that folks are talking about the saints and the angels. Evangelical and charismatic Christians often fall into the trap of demonizing these realities, which is what the earlier missionaries did as well. And secular folks simply ignore talk about “spirits and ancestors” as another form of religious gobbledygook. (And yes, gobbledygook is a technical term.)
Here’s what I think though: I think that the spirits and the ancestors are absolutely fundamental to many, if not most, Indigenous cultures here on Turtle Island and around the globe. I think that if settler and newcomer cultural groups cannot understand what Indigenous people mean by “spirits and ancestors”, we will be left with a yawning gap in communication. And ultimately, I have a strong intuition that our various processes of reconciliation will remain stymied unless we (Christians) are able to express our contrition and apology, not only to residential school survivors, not only to those who experience oppression from ongoing structures of racism and colonialism, but also to the ancestors and to the spirits of the land. Our churches’ missionary histories cannot be understood without coming to terms with our intentional demonization and/or dismissal of the spirits who were, and are, so important to the First Peoples of this land.
It is time for us to apologize, in spiritual ceremony, honestly and directly to the spirits and the ancestors.
I know that for many Christians, this idea will be challenging on many levels. And I also know that it is a complex issue especially for Indigenous Christians. The missionaries instilled deep fear of the spirits, and demonized Indigenous spiritual practices in ways we are only beginning to understand.
So let’s talk about it. Let’s wrestle with it. This conversation, I believe, belongs to the heart of our ongoing journey toward reconciliation and healing, with each other, with the land, and yes, with the spirits and the ancestors: all our relations.
(Thanks to KAIROS Canada, who originally published this article at https://www.kairoscanada.org/spirited-reflection-ancestors-spirits-reconciliation )

Oats in the Snow

So the snows have come, with the oats yet to harvest. A month still before Samhain, but the Wheel seems to be turning early. My forearms are covered with tiny scratches from the straw, as I pound the oat sheaves into the darkness of their threshing casket. I had hoped for another few weeks of mellow fall weather before the winter sets in, but often the actual seasons of life don’t match the liturgical calendar of feasts and fasts, worship and work, as the moons wax and wane.
That’s ok. It used to bother me a bit, but after a half-decade now of living off grid on our old-fashioned farm, I have come to enjoy the reflections which are born in the tension between the symbolic and the real. What does it mean that the snowflakes are falling in Lammas-tide? Is it a sign that I’ve taken my ease for too long, putting off until tomorrow what should have been done yesterday? Is it a gentle reminder that the sabbath eschaton of the dark-half of the year is often prefigured, even pre-echoed, in the waning of the light-half? That the root-tip of the yin is buried within the full-flower of the yang? As I harvest our years’ worth of oatmeal, sown in the spring with yesteryear’s corn-queen, these and many more oracular hints occur to me.
But at the end of the day, the weather is a goddess all her own. What I make of her comings and goings is up to me, but her reality extends above and beyond my small sphere of concern. And if this is so with the spirit of the seasons, how much moreso with the Creator of us all?
In the end, only Providence endures…

Beating the Bounds

In medieval England, before the reformation, there existed in many parishes a powerful spiritual practice called “beating the bounds”. Toward the end of the the Easter season, in rogationtide, members of the community would spend a day walking the borders of their parish (a parish is a geographical territory, mapped out by the church but used also for civil boundary measurements). The parish priest would lead the people, singing hymns, saying prayers, sprinkling holy water, and “beating” the boundary line with walking sticks as they perambulated the area. The purpose of this somewhat odd annual ritual was twofold: it was a reminder to the people of what the actual parish boundaries were (maps were a bit iffy in those days), and it drove out any evil spirits which might have accrued over the long winter.
This spring, our own farm community tried it out!  Our purposes however, were a little different. Rather than driving out any lingering demons (who don’t come around here anyways!), we walked the farm’s boundaries in order to get to know the land better. We walked and prayed our appreciation and our love for the land and all her creatures, and as we beat the bounds, we sent our blessings into the earth. At each corner of the farmland, we buried a fragment of blessed bread (which had been grown, harvested, milled, and baked right at home!) and said this adaptation of the old Anglo-Saxon Aecerbot charm:
O Holy Mother Earth,
May our Creator, and the spirits herein, let this land grow and thrive,
increase and strengthen with tall stems and fine crops.
May this sacred land be protected from harm and warded against all ills.
And may this gift of bread and blessed water seal the peace between us.
Amen.
The entire walking ritual took us almost three hours, but it was worth it! The crocuses were in full bloom, the trees and grasses were starting to green up, the sun was warm and the wind was cool. A perfect, magical, blessed evening.
Upon our return to the homestead gardens, we took the soil we had collected from the four corners, blended it together with the remaining bread and holy water, and dug it into the earth. The beating of the bounds complete, we finished with the ancient collect of rogation:
Almighty and merciful God,
from whom cometh every good and perfect gift:
bless, we beseech thee, the labours of thy people,
and cause the Earth to bring forth her fruits abundantly in their season,
that we may with grateful hearts
give thanks to thee for thy providence,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.
And that’s how Christian Druids roll. Blessed be.

 

Runic Reflections

Long have I been fascinated by the runes. Recently, my good friend Darcy Blahut and I decided to work together on a joint writing project. Darcy is an accomplished poet, so I invited him to write a poem inspired on each rune verse and my own reflection on that particular rune. I expect that this project will take a year or so, but wanted to share our first effort … feoh. Enjoy!

Feoh: Cattle

Cattle are comfort for everyone.
Yet each of us must share our wealth freely,
if we wish to gain honour in the sight of the Creator.

This first rune of the futhorc gifts us with a snapshot of the Anglo-Saxon concept of wealth. In concord with so many other ancient cultures, the Anglo-Saxon economy was based on livestock, and in particular domestic cattle. Cattle could be eaten, milked, traded, herded, rustled. They were a source of meat, dairy, bone, horn, hide, and many other necessary products. But as the rune poem hints, cattle were also a source of comfort, and not just because they were a measure of wealth.
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to milk a gentle cow in the warmth of a sturdy barn while a snowstorm rages outside, you will know the comfort of feoh. It is a mistake to look at cattle as economic units, as if they simply “stand for” an abstract concept of monetary value. Our ancestors knew that their wealth depended on living beings. From milk to meat to marrow, wealth was embedded in relationships – relationships with the cattle and fields, and relationships with other human people.

Much more obvious in the rune poem is the conviction that wealth is not to be hoarded. The source of wealth is the Creator, and to “gain honour” from the Creator, wealth needs to be shared freely. For indigenous cultures, from the ancient Anglo-Saxon to the contemporary Cree or Metis, generosity is the true basis of the tribal economy. Wealth is meant to be shared.

What is your wealth right now, and what are you doing with it?

The bloodmonth is cold,
fingers rigid to the blade.
Though supple once your hand,
your neck crooked in an honest day’s labour,
locked firm against my frame. Ribs,
the strong pines of a proud house;
unshaken your name,
yet bent low to honour the birth of me.

Your knees, as mine, wet as when
I first let flesh to the warm fist,
both foot and hoof scratching at the ground
till knuckles got their bearing
and set rhythm to relief.
tin-tin tin-tin under the pail’s rim,
silvered by light through barn window,
Half-opened its retinal finding, our breath
visible on sweet-smelling cud.

Wealth is giving. This the first lesson.
And prescience—how we are fed by blessing.
But your fingers, I know, are not without strife.
And your table, your childrens’,
theirs as they grow, who
from inside I nourish and sustain.
It is I who become them, and in becoming honour.

So close this memory now, my reluctance
to move toward charity,
though thank now the hand over me
for having eased my path,
you who sung idylls at my side,
and led me, my twin young,
into meadowing.

In my recent Tapestry interview, I spent a few moments addressing the question of the relationship between magic and prayer. Since then, I’ve had several interesting conversations pursuing this particular question, and it reminded me of a short posting which I published years ago, in conversation with Adelina St. Clair, author of The Path of a Christian Witch. I’m re-posting that short essay here, and I’d love to hear from others about your thoughts on this topic.


One of the reasons I’m interested in this question of the relationship between magic and prayer, is that as a pastor and theologian, I often hear people talking about intercessory prayer saying something like well, it isn’t magic you know. To me, it seems like that sort of statement misses the point of both magic and prayer. But it reveals that for many people (Christian and Pagan alike), intercessory prayer is about asking God to do something, and magic is making something happen praeternaturally, but without the direct assistance of God/dess.


The problem with this type of thinking is that it assumes that God is omnipotent, and that if a prayer is not answered, then it is not God’s will. And if a prayer is answered, then it is God’s will, and God causes it directly. All of this assumes that God can do whatever S/He wants in the universe … but I’m really not sure that this is a safe assumption (no matter how traditionally orthodox it sounds!) A more process-oriented theology of intercession reminds us that God, whether by nature or by choice, is at least somewhat limited in power in relation to the creation. Or another way of putting it is that God’s power IS love, and that love, even divine love, never works through coercion, but rather through persuasion. For whatever reason, God has chosen to share Her power with the rest of creation. In intercessory prayer, from this perspective, our conscious prayers, actions, and desires open up options for God’s Spirit to work in the world which would not have been available to God had we not prayed. Or in other words, God works through our prayers, as our prayers become available to Her.


For some people, this idea of God’s power being limited is simply too much to bear. Who wants to worship a God who is not all-powerful, who suffers and waits, and shares limitations in a way similar to ourselves? But if we take the teaching of the Incarnation and the mystery of the Cross seriously, we find revealed a God whose “power is made perfect in weakness”.
In this view of prayer, God is not “in control” in the way we typically think of omnipotence, but rather offers Her Spirit to us in a co-operative way, for the healing of the world.


In some ways, this view is much more compatable with certain progressive understandings of magic. It doesn’t fit with the image of the mage speaking words of power, commanding the spirit world to do his bidding (and thus taking the place of the omnipotent god). But rather it resonates with views of magic which, like Starhawk’s teachings, see magic primarily as energy and consciousness, weaving and working with the patterns of life and healing within a living, interconnected world. When the power of Love is invoked and drawn upon, this seems to me to be actually quite close to the reality of intercessory prayer just described … an intimate cooperation with the Divine Spirit for the benefit and healing of all creation.”

Advent … Yule … Midwinter … Christmas … whatever we choose to call it, this magical time of the turning year-wheel is essential spiritual fare for those of us living in northern climes. Of course, it is easy to start mumbling and moaning about the evils of consumer capitalism and the temptations of overconsumption (which is true!), but really, do we need another grinch? As for me, after a full year of fighting the man, I’m just about ready to kick back and enjoy the blessings of the feast. Bring on the twinkly lights, the Christmas carols, and a whole army of Santa’s elves … the ice-crystal magic never dies.
From a ChristoPagan perspective, Yuletide is one of the most interesting times of blended spirituality. Persian druids following a star, talking animals in a midnight manger, and a wild hunt-esque sled bringing presents to children around the globe all blend together with medieval carols, magnificat gospel narratives, and the Wyrd-made-flesh among us. What’s not to like?
But still, bring the cousins together, and it doesn’t take long for the arguments to begin. Christians stole Yule from the Heathens! No … the Wiccans reclaimed the greenery from the Victorian Anglicans! No … Santa is just Odin in disguise! And just you wait until Krampus shows up!
I’m a pastor, so I’m used to cantankerous religious squabbles. Sometimes I’m even mixed up right in the middle of them. But this is one that seems to me more than a little tiresome … and it gets so nasty so quickly. The battle over the Yule tree degenerates into an all-out shouting match between my two favourite families: the Christians and the Pagans.
But really, folks … does it have to be that way? A good, respectful, deep conversation about actual similarities and true differences is a gift that keeps on giving. But so often, what we fall for is a slugfest between straw men. As a Christian priest, I’m used to chastising my fellow believers when they make silly comparisons of Wiccans to satanists, and land-spirits to demons. But I must admit I’ve been quite surprised at the amount of this sort of ignorance that goes the other way as well. How many Pagans have gotten angry with me for being a ChristoPagan because they assume that all Christians are fundamentalists and believe every word of the bible to be literally true. Please! Most mainline churches (Anglican, Lutheran, United, etc) left that behind decades ago. We don’t have problems with evolution. We don’t think women should be barefoot and pregnant under male headship. We fight for gay rights, trans rights, Indigenous rights, women’s rights, refugees, the environment, and most of the stuff that Pagans do (or should do!) In other words, to my Pagan comrades: please don’t confuse me with a fundamentalist straw man! That’s just so inaccurate, and downright boring. Read up on some real theology instead, and let’s have a fruitful debate!
Or, we can forget the debate and share a horn of mead instead … Happy Yule and a very Merry Christmas to you all!