Thursday, March 8, 2018

On Being Wild

Do you remember the TV show, Gilmore Girls? Before a year and a half ago, I wouldn't say that I did. The show was on from 2000 to 2007 - the precise time I was in the midst of losing my mind trying to keep between two and four little humans alive and somewhat healthy. I had two boys, aged two and under, when the show started. There were four children (another boy and then a girl), between the ages of nine and three by the time the show ended. When I sat down to watch TV in those years, it needed to be the type of show that did not require any sort of maintenance of keeping up with story lines. Law & Order and Survivor were my kind of shows back then.

2012. Or was it 2013?
Fast forward a decade and life has gotten somewhat easier in that keeping the children alive no longer requires vigilant monitoring of their every move. Now I sit in wait, cell phone at hand, ready to help solve transportation issues, giving meal suggestions and taking part in discussions on whether or not the unnaturally bent finger requires a trip to the ER or not. And I can watch TV again. Or rather, I can partake in the joy that is known as Netflix.

I am one of those people who like to start things at the beginning. My dear spouse can just pick up watching TV shows wherever they happen to be in a series. I cannot. I need to start at the beginning. I'm like that with book series too. So, Netflix is totally my jam. I've watched more than few entire series of shows while putting in time in my sewing room. Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, Shameless, Grace & Frankie, 13 Reasons Why and, not only Gilmore Girls but also Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

If you have watched the follow up season to the Gilmore Girls, and I am, in no way, recommending that you do (it was a disappointing reincarnation of the TV show - as I suppose most reincarnations are - and I know some of you will give me grief over this but, you have to admit, I'm not wrong), you will know that the mom, Lorelai, at one point has an existential crisis and decides that she needs to be off by herself for awhile. Her solution is to go be wild. Not wild, as in 'out of control' but be Wild, as in follow in the footsteps of Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) and wrote a book about her experience.

Before I watched that episode, I had a vague memory of the movie of the same name coming out starring Reese Witherspoon but had had no interest in seeing it for some odd reason as I normally quite enjoy Reese Witherspoon's movies. A memory that stuck with me from Lorelai trying to be Wild was that an important component of the being Wild was that one had to throw their hiking boot over a cliff. Which struck me as odd. I didn't get the joke. I didn't know the inside story, which obviously was nagging at me at some subconscious level over this past year. When I sat down to select books to read for my 2018 26 books in 52 weeks challenge,  something triggered in a small recess of my brain and I included Strayed's memoir of her hiking the PCT.

Not only did I find out about the boot throwing, I found out all about it on page one. And despite having that itch immediately scratched, I couldn't put the book down. I don't normally enjoy these types of memoirs but Cheryl Strayed is a talented author who knows how to carry a narrative. The book is filled with facts about the PCT and the mountains the Trail goes up and over that I never knew I would care to know about but am now glad that I do. She shares details of her past life that are neither flattering or inspiring all the while she is managing to hike some 1100 miles with a ginormously heavy pack on her back.

I found Cheryl's book to be quite endearing. I kinda sorta (and know that I never will) want to hike out in wilderness as she did, carrying all that I need on my back. I'm happy that she did it so I can know, in some sense, what it might be like. I understand some of Cheryl's pain of having lost a mom too soon but I don't know how to feel about the decisions she made in her early adult years. I appreciated how open she was about her fears, her struggles, her selfishness, her uncertainties, her anger. I also appreciated journeying with her as she began to heal from the inside out, as she received generosity from nearly every person she met along the PCT, as she learned more about who she is and how she wanted to be in the world once she arrived at the end of the 1100 miles.

I loved this book. If you want to borrow, just ask. What's next on my list? Something TOTALLY different...A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I kid you not.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Celebrating 10 Years of Affirming Ministry

The Annual General Meeting of Symons Valley United Church takes place on the last Sunday of February. This year's AGM marked the 10th anniversary of SVUC becoming an affirming congregation. To be an affirming congregation in the United Church of Canada means that there is full inclusion of all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. In order to become an affirming congregation, a congregation needs to go through an intentional discernment process and then hold a vote at a congregational meeting. More information about the process can be found at the Affirm United website.

Symons Valley United Church also moved into a new building, in a new community ten years ago. As several new communities build up around us, we have many newcomers attending worship services and programs. Over these past few years, we have had many folks join the congregation and so when the plans for recognizing the 10th anniversary of becoming affirming were being made, it was realized that we should recall some of the history of what led the congregation to begin the discernment process. Alice, longtime member of the congregation who participated in that discernment, gave an oral history via recorded video of the events leading up to the affirming vote. Alice recalled how the congregation felt strongly that God's call to love all people was not limited in any way. She also spoke about how the process to become affirming resulted in a deeper commitment to be an open and loving community especially in light of moving locations and opening their doors to the new residents moving into the surrounding communities. Here is the Statement of Affirmation that now hangs at the front entrance of the church building:
We believe that all people are sacred in the eyes of God, welcome at God's table, and entitled to full and equal participation in the life of the church.                              We recognize that congregations have historically condemned and excluded some persons and groups of persons through active effort or complicit silence.             In response to our understanding of Christ's invitation to the table, we declare that we will: continue to be open and affirming of all, regardless of age; ethnic, cultural or spiritual background; sexual orientation, gender identity; family composition; or physical or mental capability, and we will work to live out diversity and justice through our actions and our witness in the world.
Shari D followed the history recounted by Alice. Shari's story with Symons Valley began nearly four years ago. When she and her husband returned to Canada with their two children after a few years of study in California, they were looking for a church that was open and inclusive to all. They found Symons Valley by searching for 'gay-friendly churches' in Calgary. When they entered SVUC for the first time, they had a good feeling about the congregation when they saw the rainbow hangings that greet everyone at the front door. Shari spoke about how she appreciated the welcoming nature of the people of the congregation. Over time, as they got to know people, Shari noticed that same-sex couples were treated just as she and her husband were treated.

The third person to speak in our celebration was Letitia. Letitia and her partner Shauna began attending SVUC soon after Shari. Letitia first became connected to the congregation through our annual dinner theatre production - she volunteered to do hair for the production. One of the performance days, she noticed the rainbow candle on the communion table (we store it backstage during the week). She asked, 'does that mean what I think it does?' She was told that it did. When she mentioned that her partner was a female, the response was, 'Oh? Is she coming to the play?' With that, she and Shauna decided to try coming one Sunday. With her Catholic upbringing, Letitia mentioned that she was not certain how she and Shauna would be received but they came anyway. She recalled being somewhat shocked at how the fact that she and Shauna were not made to feel uncomfortable because they were a couple. And so they came back the next Sunday. And have been coming ever since. Both Letitia and Shauna are now active and vital participants in congregational life, including singing in the choir. We are a more full and loving community of faith because of them.

I began serving Symons Valley United Church nearly seven years ago. There have been many moments over these years in which I have been so proud to walk this journey of faith alongside the many good folks of Symons Valley UC but never more so than during this celebration of being an affirming congregation in the United Church. Only about 5% of congregations in the United Church are affirming despite the fact that it has been thirty years since the denomination voted to ordain and commission openly gay and lesbian clergy. Here in Calgary, just over half of the congregations in the city limits are now affirming. There is still a lot of work to do in this world of ours which still has pockets of ignorance and bigotry regarding LGTBQ+ issues and human rights. God, Jesus and the Bible are still being used to promote hate and violence against the LGTBQ+ community. While we cannot change everyone's understanding and point of view, we can be the change we want too see in the world. I see God's love being poured out by the faithful folks of SVUC and celebrate that they made a decision ten years ago that declares for all who ventures in that God loves them regardless of their shape, size, colour or who it is that loves them or who it is that they love. Full stop.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere

Have you heard of Brené Brown?
Yes? Skip this paragraph.
No? Then watch here in her first Ted Talk.


Right now. Spend 20 minutes and get to know her.

Okay, good. Now you know why I like reading her books. She writes in the same way she is able to tell a story. She knows how to tell a good tale and all the while she's talking, you are learning something. At the very same time.
At Symons Valley United Church we have found a pattern of doing a book study after Christmas. Often into Lent. Folks like to be challenged a little bit but, like all of us, don't want to be burdened by texts that are dense or too academic. Last year we read Brené Brown's Daring Greatly and everyone loved it.

This year we are reading her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness. In preparation for the book study, I read the book as my 2nd book for the year - Book 2 of 26. We have read through only the first two chapters so I don't to give too much away here but I can tell you some of my favourite parts.
Braving the Wilderness is about belonging. Brown takes a quotation from Maya Angelou:
You are free only when you realize that you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all.
True belonging doesn't require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.
It seems that so much of what hurts in life is feeling that we don't belong. We don't feel accepted or included as we fully are. We don't belong in our family, in our social circles, in our work place. Much of what Brené Brown writes about is being authentic - about being fully who we are - about being the person that God intended us to be. That is where the Daring and the Braving come into action in Brown's writing.  It's takes courage, vulnerability and faith to stand up in today's world and be okay with being and saying exactly what you know to be right and true, regardless of what the group around you believes. Even if what you have to say is more about expressing doubt and asking questions.

Funnily enough, as these things happen to be now and then, the next book I picked up to ready (Book 3 of 26) was Brian McLaren's A Search for What Makes Sense: Finding Faith. McLaren's book is more for a reader who is struggling with faith - whether because they find themselves in a faith tradition that no longer makes sense to them or because they have not grown up in a faith community and are trying to understand what they are looking for.

In other words, they are seeking to belong.

I was struck how these two books meshed together. McLaren writes:

Good faith is honest. Shouldn't good faith feel free to express both doubt and confidence?
Good faith is communal. Since my individual understanding is so limited, don't I need connection with a group of trusted companions, so we can help and encourage one another in our common search for faith, God and truth? 
In other words, we naturally want to belong. We are pack animals. But belonging to a group should not cost us our ability to seek truth, express doubt, ask questions and to be fully who it is that God made us to be.

Next on my reading list... Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Reel Theology: The Post

Luke 4:28-30, 22:39-43

Well, here we are, at the last in our Reel Theology sermon series. We’ve looked at a variety of movies with a wide range of themes and topics. We started with “I, Tonya” and Stephen explored how the lack of love in Tonya’s life drove her to seek love in places and people that could not offer her love in return. Then, through “Ladybird”, we explored the determination of Christine in not letting go of her plans for the future only to discover that her success going forward was built on a foundation of love from her past. Then Stephen looked at the impact of isolation and reminded us that it is in community that we find healing when he spoke about “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. With “The Greatest Showman” I spoke about how God’s love is for all people, no matter the size, shape, colour or ability.  And last week, I looked at how God’s grace was portrayed in the movie “Dunkirk”. And this in last week of the series, we are looking at “The Post” starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. In December when we were choosing the movies to preach on, this is the movie I was most excited to see and to talk about. For those of you that were here last week, know that, as unwilling as I was to see the movie “Get Out”, that’s how much I wanted to see “The Post”. One of the reasons for my desire to see it is because I’m thinking we’re watching the Americans live through a similar type political upending, right now, in this modern day.

Let me tell you, my dear spouse would have been quite surprised a couple of short years ago if he heard me say that this movie out of all the ones we selected, was at the top of the list of which one I wanted to see the most—a movie with a story is primarily about political intrigue. You see, it was not all that long ago, I will admit, that I had very little interest in politics—Canadian, much less American. But then, in 2016, November 8th happened. It was a Tuesday and we had a Board Meeting. Nancy McKellar and I sat together, taking peeks at her phone, and watched with despair as Donald Trump made his way to becoming the next President of the United States. Donald Trump. President! I got home that night and threw up my hands and said, this is it, the world has gone to hell in handbasket. The 15-year-old, who was watching the poll returns, told me, it can’t be all that bad Mom, let’s see what he can do. Remember this is AFTER Trump was caught on tape talking about sexually assaulting women and had twelve women accuse him of sexual harassment, never mind all the horrible things he had said during the campaign. Anyway, November 8th resulted in me paying a lot closer attention to everything that’s happening in the States. When the time came that I could name people in Trump’s administration and those Senators who were speaking against the Muslim ban and rallying support for their version universal health care, that was about the time in our household that I realized that those that I live with had only so much patience for American politics. What I find fascinating, is that at this point over a year into his presidency, Trump and his cronies are the creators of and the participants in a modern day political train wreck. And it’s happening right before our eyes. My generation has not ever really experienced something like this. Maybe the Iran-Contra Scandal but not something that has impacted the whole country the way Trump’s policies are affecting all manner of people across his nation and, then, even into ours as travel across borders is restricted and NAFTA and the Paris Agreement no longer seem to be important to the government of the US. So, this train wreck is happening in slow motion and I can’t seem to look away.

So, I wanted to see “The Post” because I was interested to see how an earlier political scandal played out—now that I understand the structure of the American government, it’s a lot less confusing to watch these US political dramas. This movie is advertised as the struggle experienced by the Washington Post, a local Washington, DC paper, in publishing the highly controversial Pentagon Papers in 1971. Now, remember, 1971 was the year before Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began reporting about the Watergate break-in. The Pentagon Papers were thousands and thousands of documents that had researched and assembled as a history of the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The Papers revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War with the bombings of nearby Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which were reported in the mainstream media at the time. The Papers demonstrated that successive Presidential Administrations had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress. The publishing of the Papers allowed the nation to discover how deeply they had been betrayed by their government. So, that’s the basis of the movie but the story of publishing the Papers is not really the Washington Post’s story. In truth, it belongs to the New York Times, whose staff spent three months vetting and confirming facts before taking the risk of being charged with treason in making the Papers public. The Washington Post did their own reporting but, the fact of the matter is, they were quite secondary in the drama of being attacked by the White House and having to defend their First Amendment right and the right to publish.

The underlying story line of “The Post” is, I think, the more intriguing story—especially in light of the recent growing awareness of the role of women in society and the world. “The Post” can be seen as the story of a pivotal moment in the life of Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. The movie displays how Katherine grew from being rather meek and unsure in her role as Publisher of her father’s paper, to becoming a resolute and confident leader who finally takes on the mantle of the guiding force of the paper that had been in her family since 1933. Due to a poor relationship with her mother, who was distant and often away, Katherine’s lack of self-confidence was apparent well into adulthood. Despite having worked for a newspaper in San Francisco and for the Washington Post itself since 1938, her father gave control the of the paper to Katherine’s husband in 1946. When asked if that ever bothered her, she replied, “Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.” Katherine never planned on running the paper but the sudden death of her husband in 1963 elevated her abruptly into leadership. It might seem odd to young women today when the Prime Minister of Canada is asked why he has appointed so many women to Cabinet, his response is simply, it’s 2015 but let us remember that in 1963 women were simply a non-entity in the business world. Time and time again, we see Katherine enter into board rooms and meetings in which she is the only female amongst a dozen men. The very few women in leadership in the Sixties and the early Seventies had no female role models, mentors or examples of how the weaker sex could possibly function in rooms full of powerful men. One quotation that sums up the attitude at the time towards women being leaders over men, which seems unbelievable today and which my movie mates thought was hilarious that I was them to hear it, one of the men says behind Katherine’s back, “A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It’s not supposed to happen.” So, you can see, the mountain that Katherine had to climb in order to establish her authority as Publisher of the Washington Post.

Cindy read two passages from Luke today. The first takes place near the start of Jesus’ ministry once he returns from the desert where he was tempted by Satan. The second reading takes place at the end of his ministry, in the dark of the night in the quiet hours just before he was arrested for blasphemy. Both moments are examples when Jesus finds himself uncomfortably dealing with the outcome of his beliefs and his actions. Jesus knew what he was about. After his baptism and his time of trial in the desert, Jesus firmly believed that his role was to upend society as everyone knew it—so that the poor, the ill, the widowed would no longer suffer at the hands of those who lived by greed and fear-mongering and who remained willfully ignorant to God’s call for humanity to create a loving and peace-filled world. Jesus returns to his hometown after swinging through Galilee and being glorified by all there who heard him speak. He arrives in Nazareth and speaks at the synagogue. You can imagine that he might have been a bit nervous, speaking for the first time in front of the folks he grew up with. His words are heard but the people are not prepared to recognize his authority. Is this not Joseph’s son? they ask—as if Jesus could never be more than the son of carpenter. He holds his ground and continues to speak as one very knowledgeable of God’s ways. How dare he, this son of a carpenter, he’s no religious leader. The people who have known him his whole life rise up and kick him out of the synagogue and down the road. They kick him out. Out of his hometown! Can you imagine what he must have been feeling? But he keeps himself together and passes through their midst. He stood up and said what he knew to be true and when he was challenged, he did not capitulate. He held his ground.

The second part of the scripture reading is similar in nature, but from a different perspective. Jesus has caused trouble everywhere he went during his ministry. In-between the miracles, the healing, the preaching the Good News and modelling God’s love in his actions and his behavior, the Jewish religious leaders who worried more about their peace rather than God’s peace, have challenged him every step of the way, telling everyone who would listen exactly which societal norms and religious laws he was breaking, and they plotted to kill him. Relentlessly pushing, Jesus did not give up saying what needed to be heard so that change, real change could happen in the world. And, when he arrives in the last few free hours that he has, he knows there is no going back. His path has been set and it leads in only one direction, to the cross. He prays, asking God to take his cup—that cup that is so full of anxiety, trepidation and certainly some fear of what’s to come, it’s so full that it is nearly over-flowing—God, please take the cup. But then he says, not my will, but yours be done. Jesus knows that just as he stood up all through his ministry, he needs to keep standing now. He had been a fierce advocate for speaking truth at all times, even when it meant people would not fully understand and might be angry with him. He couldn’t speak out against complacency, against the sins of the world and against the systemic disregard for the common good in all the days leading to the Garden, and then just denounce it all and walk away.

The definition of integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, the state of being whole and undivided. One does not simply have integrity, one builds and cultivates integrity by behaving authentically in a consistent and predictable way. Brene Brown, the author of the book we are reading for this winter’s book study, Braving the Wilderness, says that for someone to fully belong to any one group, they must first belong to themselves—we must be authentic to who we are no matter the pressure from the outside world to compromise our principles, give up our beliefs or enter into moral ambiguity. We seem to be living in times in which the truth is constantly up for debate, an era of fake news. Promises are made and not lived out. In these days of the phones in our pocket, there is very little chance that what is said, even in a closed setting, can be denied. And now, more than ever, it is becoming apparent that some of our leaders will say anything to be elected only to renege later. How do we explain to our children, how do we justify to ourselves that it is okay to say one thing in once circumstance and then then say the opposite later? When Justin Trudeau campaigns on election reform and then virtually ignores the electoral reform commission’s report? Or when Trump says he loves the Dreamers and wants nothing more than their security but then holds their citizenship hostage against a variety of other political matters?

Integrity is essential for peace to reign in our world. Integrity means that speaking truth is important. When you are truthful, when you have integrity of spirit, of action, of belief, when you have integrity trust is created and built upon. Change can happen. Voices can be heard. Peace can be found. Jesus modeled integrity that came at a great cost. It is said that both faith and integrity always come at some cost—if they were free, neither of them would be much to build a foundation upon. Katherine’s integrity, the principles that she tried to live her life by, the moral compass by which she set her path, were not necessarily known because no one thought her opinion important, but when the time came, when push came to shove, when the White House was using every scare tactic in the book, when that happened, she did not back down. When her personal relationships with politicians caught up in the mess of the conspiracy could have influenced her to set aside what was good and right to do, she didn’t let their likely embarrassment sway her. It was not easy, but she stayed standing. She remained authentic to herself and by saying, do it, publish, her commitment to truth, her integrity, shone through the fear and stress of what might come.

Watching this movie in which someone, particularly a woman with all that’s happening now in our society, that this person sticks firmly to her principles and her moral character and allows for the truth to be known, is so heartening in today’s world. Those who stand for truth, whose integrity is solid, models for the rest of us of how important it is, even when we want our cup, the burden of standing strong, to be taken from us, their behaviour models how vital it is for each one of us to make known that what is right and good must always stand over what is hurtful, what is fearful, what is evil. Knowing that truth and integrity are not necessarily priorities of certain leaders today, it’s more important than ever for us to act with integrity. Which might, in turn, give another encouragement when called upon, to act themselves with integrity, to behave with honesty, to be whole and undivided in their moral principles. Let us hope and pray that it may be so. Amen.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Reel Theology - Dunkirk

John 15:12-17, Ephesians 2:8

When Stephen and I were choosing movies for this Reel Theology sermon series, we had to pick from movies that, for the most part, we had yet to see. We selected movies nominated Best Picture for the Golden Globes. There are two awards in the Best Picture category—best dramatic movie and best musical or comedy. We chose three from both categories. We read the synopsis and watched the trailer for each of the movies. There was much discussion whether we should include the movie “Get Out” or “Dunkirk” in our list—both being the intense, somewhat scary type of movie. It turns out, that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being that we enjoy intense, somewhat scary movies a lot and 1 being that we, in no way at all, enjoy these types of movies, it turns out that both Stephen and I are great big fat 0s on this scale. Neither of us saw “Dunkirk” when it was released last summer nor had we seen “Get Out” which was released last February. When the time came to watch the trailer for “Get Out”—which, by the way is in the comedy category—Stephen completely bailed and left the room. He had seen it once and didn’t need to see it again. We both agreed that it had all the makings of a horror movie, not a comedy. Anyway, It didn’t take us very long to choose “Dunkirk” over “Get Out” and then for him to suggest I be the one preaching on it.

I will say that I have heard very positive reviews for “Get Out” and it seems that we all should be watching it for how it portrays modern day race relations in the United States. My dear spouse has assured me that “Get Out” is well worth the effort and suggested we watch it at home, where all scary movies should be watched so I can keep an afghan close at hand to hide my face behind and he will pause it right before the really scary places and warn me about what’s about to happen. You can understand why the youth had so much fun making a minister-level of scary for the haunted house last fall. So, here we are. I ended up watching Dunkirk by myself on the Red Arrow to Edmonton. I’m sure I looked odd when I was tilting the iPad up and down and away from me during certain scenes. It was hard hold the iPad and cover my eyes with my scarf.

The movie version of “Dunkirk” is about the evacuation of some 338, 000 soldiers from the beach and harbor of Dunkirk in the north of France in 1940. Allied Belgian, British and French soldiers had been cut off and surrounded by German troops. Over a period of eight days, a rescue operation initially planned for 45,000 men grew exponentially so that seven and a half times that many were rescued. The evacuation of Dunkirk is a moment in our history that is filled with acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, miracles and unbelievable feats of sheer will and determination. The movie gives very little detail about the how and why of the decisions that brought the 400, 000 troops to the coast at Dunkirk. We are not told much of the events leading up to the evacuation nor, when the movie is finished, are we told what happened once the men are rescued. None of that matters in the telling of this event. The evacuation and rescue of that vast number of troops, who waited with incredible patience and self-control lined up from the beach into the water, day after day, is story enough. That the story is about the rescue efforts made by the British for the Allied forces will likely give cause for those of us on the victorious side of the overall war to pay attention but even if you took the reality of Allied versus Axis away, the movie would still be a riveting tale.

Dunkirk was such a massive operation, it would be hard to know where to focus over those eight days of getting troops off the beach. In a clever manner, the movie narrows the experiences of the evacuation to three story lines. We don’t know names so much as know personalities of the characters, the way they fight to survive in what became, I’m sure, felt like hell on earth. At first, there is a young soldier who emerges onto the beach which already has thousands of men. Over the course of the week he spends on the beach or in the water and water vessels trying to get away, he is joined by one and then another soldier. The three become united in their efforts to survive. There are three other men, or rather, two men, a father and son, and a teenage friend, who leave Ramsgate, England just across the English Channel, in a small pleasure boat having been requisitioned by the navy to assist with the rescue. There were 850 of these so-called little ships of Dunkirk, that could get close enough to the beach to ferry the soldiers out to the larger carriers. And, in the third storyline, there are, at first, three pilots fighting over the ocean, near Dunkirk. Three become two, and then becomes one. Each of the men, teenager included, is either trying to survive or trying to help another survive. The difference between life and death is razor thin.

It’s hard to know where God was in the Second World War. You could say that about any war, but World War II seemed especially heinous. People have trouble seeing how God was at work in the world in those years. It seems that we allow greed and fear and anger to often cloud our decision making. We know that is with us in all times and in all places, but are we always with God? So much of humankind’s folly is at odds with the peace of God’s kingdom. Truly evil things are done during war. These moments of madness make heightened the sin and brokenness of our humanity but these moments of confusion and terror also give opportunity to see more clearly the grace of God which is given to us in this world time and time again. If only we recognize it for what it is. Breaking through the mass chaos of the events in this movie, there are brief slivers of time in which God’s grace can take your breath away if you have the eyes to see and ears to hear. A stranded soldier is rescued from the middle of the English Channel by the men on the boat. He is in distress—shell-shocked and frightened. The father treats the soldier calmly and gently. Makes sure he gets a cup of tea. Makes sure he is comfortable. Grace. Later there is an accident and the teenager is badly hurt by soldier. The son, a friend to the teenager, is angry and scared at first but over the course of the day, he experiences, second-hand, the terror of having to fight for survival, and later, when the distressed soldier when asked if the boy is alright. The son reassures him. Yes, he says, he’ll be alright, even as the boys’ body is being carried off the boat by stretcher in the background. The son knows it was an accident and he knows the solider could not bear the burden of yet another tragedy. Grace. And near the end of the movie, when the evacuated soldiers are moving by train through England, they are feeling ashamed for needing to be rescued. They are afraid that the Allied world will think them cowards and hate them. The soldiers cannot bear to look up when they come into a station filled with civilians. They think the noise they hear are protests against their retreat but then they realize that the crowds are cheering for them not against them. The people waiting at home for word of their troops on the ground, are celebrating their safe return. To their surprise, the soldiers are not blamed for the military failure but rather are greeted with joy and with thanksgiving. Grace upon grace in a time of fear and desperation.

One definition of grace is that it is the free and unmerited favour of God. Grace is our unearned help and our undeserved blessing. Grace is bestowed upon each of us by God without expectation or explanation. In our world, in our common lives, we are governed by a deep-seated understanding that we get what we earn. We get what we deserve. We work, we get paid. We borrow money and we pay interest in exchange. We receive a Christmas card and we are sure to give one in return. Our common lives is often an equation that eventually balances out. Tit for tat. Quid pro quo. That is the economy upon which we structure our everyday lives. But God does not operate within the economy of credit and debt. God does not keep a tally. God’s economy leaves no one behind. In the fullness of divine love, no one is left out. That is the gift of God. That is grace.

Sometimes the witnessing of grace can feel like catching a break. The soldier caught a break in not being found guilty in the manslaughter of an innocent boy. The returning soldiers caught a break by not being blamed for the mistakes of the military leaders. But grace is so much more than that, isn’t it? For God is there, mixed up in the mess of life. The United Church’s A Song Faith states, ‘we are a community of broken but hopeful believers’. Even in the hurt and damage we do to one another—with wars, distrust, greed, fear, with the lack of love, A Song Faith reminds us that:
God transforms, and calls us to protect the vulnerable, to pray for deliverance from evil, to work with God for the healing of the world, that all might have abundant life.
We sing of grace.
War brings moments that are extreme and magnify what is broken about humanity and so, behaviour that is kind and compassionate that might seem insignificant in another time, are also magnified and we can catch a glimmer of God working. But I would hope that we do not need war to open our eyes and ears to recognize God’s grace. In our everyday lives, grace can the nudge from God, reminding us to extend of the courtesy of assuming good intent, or at least the absence of bad intent, on the behalf of the actions of another. Or God’s grace shows up in the unnecessary gracious of another when you’re ‘assuming good intent’ radar is not functionally properly. Like the other day when I was in the lineup for the Tim’s drive through and this guy made like he was going to cut in front of me in line. I expressed my concern for his lack of lineup etiquette. He could easily of escalated the “discussion” but he didn’t—he rolled down the passenger window and explained he was trying to get out of the way of someone backing up. Sigh. You see, I just assumed bad intent on his behalf. Thankfully I wasn’t a total jerk during the “discussion” phase of the interaction but I still felt bad. Why did I move so quickly to the negative possibility of his motives? Probably cause I was in a hurry, just like every other time I’m at Tim’s. As much as I try to allow for grace to enter in and allow me to be gracious, sometimes it’s hard when I’m in a hurry. Again, from A Song of Faith, “God tends the universe, mending the broken, reconciling the estranged.” I said sorry and bought the man his coffee when I got to the window.

Grace can be knowing, really knowing that so much of our life circumstances can be summed up with, there but for the grace of God go I. By luck or happenstance, we are in the right place at the right time when someone else is not. By the skin of our teeth, we miss a near disaster when another does not. I read a post from a clergy person in the States that I met a couple of years ago. She told of her dear friend, a young man who had lost his parents and sister to a driver who had taken too much Xanax—an anti-anxiety drug that can make you drowsy. Anyway, in the collision, the driver’s 2-year-old child was also killed. The driver had just recently been sentenced for his actions and he received what would seem to be a rather light sentence. Two reasons why the judge was somewhat lenient were that when the driver was free from jail for a short period of time, he returned to the scene of the accident and saw that small crosses had been erected—three for the young man’s family and one for his daughter. Knowing that the young man had set up the crosses and had included his daughter in the memorial, cause the driver to begin doing whatever he could do to make reconciliations for his actions. That he was actively working to make things right—as right as could be—showed the judge that he was taking responsibility for his actions and because he was and because the young man who lost his family wrote a letter stating that he believed there were extenuating circumstances to the accident, that he understood the driver did not enter onto the roadway that day with the intent to kill his family, that the driver made a mistake, the judge was lenient in the sentence. The grace of God shown by the young man, setting a cross for a child he did not know and in the writing of the letter,

God transforms what we have broken. Grace is more than mere kindness, it is God working in our world, it is the transformation of life. We need the assurance of grace when we are recovering from mistakes and need grace to sustain us if we are uncertain we are taking steps in the right direction as we make our way in life. You do not earn grace. Nor do you buy it. God’s grace is given abundantly and without reserve. God loves you and offers you grace, in the good and difficult times in your life. God offers you grace even when you may not recognize it in the moment. God offers you grace whether you believe you deserve it or not. God’s grace is not a transaction. God’s grace is for you. May you recognize it in your life this day and forevermore.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Reel Theology - The Greatest Showman

Matthew 8:1-4, 15:1-11

I'm not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
'Cause we don't want your broken parts
I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one will love you as you are

But I won't let them break me down to dust
I know that there's a place for us
For we are glorious*

So, I will say right now that I love this movie. I have seen it twice and if you like it as much as I do, you might want to download the movie soundtrack to save you some money from having to see it again and again. The combination of catchy music and the funky dance moves make me feel warm and happy inside. It pretty much has everything—a love story that has mean parents getting in the way and they have class differences, success is had through grit and determination, there’s personal growth, there are precious friendships and, not only one underdog, but several folks who are down and out who overcome the odds set against them. It’s a lovely story.

The story of “The Greatest Showman” is loosely based on the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum, who, in 1871, created what would become the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, which shut down for good last year. To say it is loosely based on the historical figure of PT Barnum is a bit of a stretch. There are only three essential details that connect this movie’s story to the life of PT Barnum. PT indeed marry a woman named Charity and, of course, he did create a museum of oddities which evolved into a travelling circus and, for those of you who have seen the show, he really did introduce the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind to America. The rest of his story has been reinvented and reimagined for the movie. However beautiful and compelling the story, it is important to know that this movie is primarily a work of fiction. I point this out because there are relationships and moments in the movie that simply did not happen or could not have happened in the time in which PT Barnum lived and when he created the circus. But I’ll get to that later.

The movie begins with Phineas as a boy who is living in poverty with his father. As all good tales go, there is tragedy in the boy’s life and he must find a way in a world that is cruel to those born within the lower classes. Thanks to the kindness of a woman who has some sort of unknown condition that sets her apart from the rest of society—you saw her in the trailer, she was the one who gave the Phineas the boy an apple—anyway, because of her kindness Phineas survives a rather desperate time and carries on and become a self-sufficient adult. Later, in another bleak moment, Phineas is inspired to start a museum of oddities. His memory of how the somewhat deformed woman helped him when he was younger, leads him to create a new show, a circus displaying people who are, themselves, odd, who are not the normal, not usual—a bearded lady, a giant, a wolf-man, Siamese twins, a man tattooed from head to foot, stem to stern. The Circus has its opponents in those who fear the unknown, the unusual. Phineas must fight against so many cultural norms to create a home for his own family and then the family he creates with the people of his Circus. Despite his successes, he cannot escape the lower class into which he was born. The deformed and strange human oddities he befriends are thought to be the result of moral depravity and so the righteous protest his Circus along with those people who fear what they don’t understand. There are two consistent aspects to Phineas’ character in the movie—he loves his wife and children without reserve and he cares deeply for the friends he finds the creation of the Circus. Of course, there wouldn’t be a story worth watching if there wasn’t a hiccup now and then in how Phineas treats his family and his friends, but, overall, it is evident that he cares not for what society determines as acceptable—he loves regardless of what’s ‘right’.

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me
Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

When Stephen and I were looking ahead to the movies we chose for this sermon series, it wasn’t hard to connect scripture with this story. The relationships Phineas developed with the people who came out from the shadows to be in his show is reminiscent of how easily Jesus approached the people of his time who had the terrible disease of leprosy. Leprosy is contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves, causing discoloration and lumps on the skin and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities. Leprosy still exists today but is now mainly confined to tropical Africa and Asia. I don’t think that I’ve never met or seen anyone with leprosy but I’m pretty sure that if I did, I would think twice before I would stretch out my hand and touch them as Jesus did in the scripture reading that Kim read for us this morning. Jesus did exactly what no one else would do, he reached out to the one suffering. Besides just the looking gross and inherently not wanting to get too close, Jews would not have touched a person known to be ill because it would mean they would be unclean until they could perform their ritual cleansing. And until they could be ‘clean’, they could not interact in many everyday social activities. Of course, this was in the days before germs and the miracle of soap were understood—it was important to follow the religious laws because it often meant that you stayed healthy.

When I was in grade six, I was called from class to go to the office. Being a relatively well behaved student, I was a bit confused. Once I got there, the school nurse was waiting for me. I can still remember her worried face as asked me to show her my hands and then to open my mouth. Being careful to not touch me, she took a quick look and, from the look on her face, she did not like what she saw. Turns out, a teacher had notice the spots that had recently appeared on my hands and reported my condition. I was sent home immediately with diagnoses of hand, foot and mouth disease. I felt like a pariah. While that was a relatively minor illness, I was quite impacted by being secluded because of it. A few years ago, with our first youth trip to Zambia, I had a parent who informed that her daughter would not be shaking hands with any Zambians for the fear of catching some illness of sort or another. I told the mom the youth would either shake hands or not come on the trip because greeting one another with a handshake is central in interactions in Zambia. The importance of connecting through the slapping together of hands and the unique way they have of shaking the hand that is offered cannot stressed enough. Being afraid to touch another person in Zambia is to diminish their personhood. So, neither my hand, foot and mouth disease or the hand of an everyday Zambian does not even begin to approach what leprosy must look like and yet Jesus did not hesitate. He was asked help and he could have just offered prayers of healing for the man. He could have just prayed. But he didn’t. When asked for help, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the one that no one else in that society would. And he did not rush to the mikveh, the ritual bath, to cleanse himself. He touched the man and did not then pull out his hand sanitizer. He touched him and asked God to free the man from illness, to make him clean. And he was.

The second part of the scripture reading takes place soon after Jesus healed the leper. Jesus is about to sit for supper and, again, has not done the proper ritual. He is criticized by the religious leaders. His response is basically, what does it matter if I do a certain thing, a ritual, if I then go about my life without being kind, without being compassionate? He points out that it does not matter the fuss that is put into eating or not eating from list of ‘proper’ foods if one does not offer words of love to all they meet? I can imagine this was absolutely shocking to those who heard Jesus say this. Remember, these were the days that strict food laws were in place not only to offer a sense of community and belonging to those who followed the laws but they existed also because people had discovered, over time, if they ate certain types of food or prepared some foods in certain ways, people would become ill and sometimes die. So, to disregard the food laws would have been monumental. But Jesus was not disregarding the safety of food preparation so much as he was disregarding the false sense of piety connected to them. It is not what goes into your mouth that makes you more faithful to God, it is what comes out of your mouth that lets the world know your commitment to God and God’s love for the world.

In the Book of Acts, Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church, had a dream sometime after Jesus is killed. Peter and his fellow apostles had been debating about what the emerging church will look like—who can join, who can do what, etc. One point of contention was whether one had to be a Jew before becoming a Christian—remember, Jesus did not set out to start a new church, at the time the followers of Jesus were considered more a sect of Judaism rather than a stand-alone faith tradition. Anyway, one night Peter dreamed a dream in which a blanket descends from the sky, presumably from heaven, and on it were all manner of animals. Peter interprets this dream as confirmation that all animals can be mixed up together, there needs to no longer be a strict separation of certain foods from other foods. The laws of Judaism did not need to be followed if one followed Christ. Yay, they could eat bacon! This was an earth-shattering change. The social norms that had developed out of the Jewish cleanliness laws meant that one had to be careful about who they came into contact with and who they associated with. Division would have been a natural outcome of such norms and where there is division, relationships are difficult to foster. And when relationships do not foster, it becomes easier and easier to see the unusual, the odd, the strange as something scary, unpredictable, unhuman.

Another round of bullets hits my skin
Well, fire away 'cause today, I won't let the shame sink in
We are bursting through the barricades
And reaching for the sun (we are warriors)
Yeah, that's what we've become

Won't let them break me down to dust
I know that there's a place for us
For we are glorious

But with Peter’s dream, the newly emerging Christians could start eating bacon and they could begin eating with the other, the outsider, those at the margins. Remember Jesus ate with all he met along the Way—with prostitutes, tax collectors. He healed the blind, drove demons out of the ill and he cured the lepers. He sat with people with illnesses and deformities. It was confusing why one person and not another would be unfortunate and become ill or be born with a deformity or to be profoundly unlucky with their life circumstances. This random selection of fortunate and unfortunate, the ancient Hebrew people turned to God and let God take responsibility for the good and the bad. And if you had something bad happen to you, if you were not what was considered normal, surely God had weighed in and found you lacking in some manner. It was in bad form to associate with those that God had clearly judged to be less-than. Their misfortune might rub off onto you. And yet Jesus did associate with the less-than. With the ill, the unfortunate, the down and outs. He did openly. And he did so while calling those who wouldn’t hypocrites. Because if anyone needed to know God’s love, it was the very people who had been rejected by society.

At some point in his life, the real PT Barnum became a politician. From one of his speeches is the line, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.” In a time when people of colour were disregarded as less than human, when those who were not normal or who suffered misfortunes in life were considered beneath the general public’s care, PT Barnum made a home for the unusual. This sentiment comes through more so in the movie than the reality of PT Barnum’s life. As I said earlier, the progressive views that the movie displays are improbable considering the time the movie was set in. Although PT Barnum advocated for an end to slavery and pushed for African-America suffrage, in his younger years he was a slave owner. The movie does depict an openly inter-racial couple but it is hard to imagine that could have been possible in the mid-1800s. But that is one of the reasons this movie is so compelling—what seems to have been impossible, becomes possible. Social barriers are broken, courage is found to stand up to what is unjust, the strong fight the good fight so that the broken, the scared, the ill, the hurt, and the unusual can come out into daylight and be seen. The movie version of PT Barnum creates an environment of welcome in which each person’s worth is recognized regardless of how there are packaged up for the world to see. He says to those who have not known any kindness from society as he tries to convince them to join his Circus: They don’t know it yet but they are going to love you.

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
Gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me
Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

No matter the size, shape, colour of those in his life, he sees them fully for who they are. His actions showed his love. And that is what Jesus taught us to do so long ago with the lepers, the prostitutes, the ill and the poor. And that is what God would have us do as we leave this place of comfort, safety and love and go back out into the world to share God’s love with all we meet. To know that in the praying for healing, courage and hope, we must never forget to also reach out in love and offer a hand that is compassionate and welcoming for love is not distant. It is as close as a handshake, an arm around the shoulder, a hug, a hand held in prayer. I pray that it may be forever so. Amen.

*Lyrics from The Greatest Showman soundtrack - song: This is Me

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Evolving in Monkey Town

Isn't January great? In the first days of the month we make New Year's resolutions. And the for the first few weeks we actually follow through with said resolutions. And when we do, we feel such a sense of accomplishment. And we try our best to not worry for the next goal cause that's for our future selves to worry about. Right? Or is that just me?

I love New Year's resolutions. In January.

February is another set of feelings. Cause. You know. Ash Wednesday needs planning. So does the AGM. And that stupid Masters thesis proposal isn't going to write itself. And there's the little trip to Ontario that I need to make. (Did I tell you that I have the privilege to be a Youth Group leader for General Council 43? Yay! But there's some traveling ahead to prepare for that.)


Life in ministry has a tendency to hit hard in February because Lent always (ALWAYS) seem to take ministers by surprise. It always (ALWAYS) comes a lot sooner after Christmas than you would think.

But I digress.

This year I've set my reading goal to be 26 books. They are stacked every so beautifully on one of my bookshelf. I am excited to read each one of them as I carefully selected them just last month. I love looking at books. And holding books. And choosing books. And buying books. It's the reading all of that's hard. There never seems to be enough time. I sometimes think having a chauffer would free up some valuable reading time.

Today I am happy to report in about book #1 - Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans. I enjoy Rachel's writing. When I was on sabbatical I read her book, Searching for Sunday and very much enjoy it. As do lots of people on Twitter. I regularly see tweets that are thanking Rachel for her wisdom in that book. So, as I do when I like something, I get more of it. In fact, if you pay attention over the next year, you will see a few repeat authors (Hatmaker, McLaren, Barnes) - I might be able to run workshops on each of these theologians by the time I'm finished the pile. From Rachel Held Evans, I selected Faith Unraveled and A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

The long and short of Faith Unraveled is that it is a memoir about Rachel's faith journey. She grew up as a conservative, evangelical Christian in Dayton, Tennessee, which is where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place in 1925. The trial was a test of the law, at the time,which prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union sought a teacher who wished to sue the State to oppose its anti-evolution laws. Some bright spark figured that Dayton would be put on the map if the trial took place in their courthouse. A local teacher by the name of John T. Scopes was found and the trial took place in the heat of that summer. Essentially, it was a science vs. religion spectacle. Dayton acquired the name, Monkey Town (a play on evolution's assertion that humans are just a short genetic hop from primates).

The trial was many things and both sides think they won. Scopes ended up being charged with violating the law as he admitted to teaching evolution in his classroom. Dayton ended becoming fervently religious. Conservative religious. Evangelical religious. Rachel grew up in the nineties as a believer in the black and white of God's Word as presented in the Bible. All of life could be seen through a biblical worldview and there was only one correct path - the path of her church and pastor. A critical event occurred as the US was about to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and was broadcast on TV. This event made Rachel ask questions of her faith tradition and her God. Questions that her friends, student colleagues, parents and religious leaders could not answer to her satisfaction - thus beginning the unravelling of almost she had ever believed in. And the building up again of her faith and the establishing of a firm foundation upon which she meets God and Jesus.

I very much enjoyed this book if, no other reason, than it speaks to what we, in the United Church of Canada, know to be true - doubt and questions are not denials of faith but essential components of faithful living. Here's one of my favourite lines, from chapter 19 entitled, Adaptation:
I may have met one or two people who rejected Christianity because they had difficulties with the deity of Christ, but most rejected Christianity because they thought it means becoming judgmental, narrow-minded, and unkind. People didn't argue with me about the problem of evil; they argued about why Christians aren't doing more to alleviate human suffering, support the poor, and oppose violence and war. Most weren't looking for a faith that provided all the answers; they were looking for one in which they were free to ask questions. (203)
If you'd like to borrow this book or any other one that I've written about, swing by my office one day - I'd be happy to lend it to you.

Onto book #2 - Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown - the book we are studying for our Lent Book Study. See the SVUC website for more details.