Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent 4: Love & Music, A Wedding and Bagpipes

This fourth week of Advent began with Love Sunday. Instead of a standard service, this Sunday before Christmas has become a music service. Our Music Team of Karen Nell-Bennett and Donna Williams put together the service. Which might lead one to think that I pretty much have the Sunday off and I get to just show up and cheer them on.

And if you thought that this past Sunday, you would be wrong.

Cause I joined the choir. I am not a great singer. Nor do I do especially well at reading music. Hey - I know the higher up the note is on the bars, the higher I sing. But it took me a few tries to realize that if the upper set of bars doesn't have words and the lower set does, that means I don't sing, only the men sing. And breathing is an issue for me. I know Karen can still hear me take deep, gulping breaths of air when I'm, in fact, supposed to be singing. Singing is hard. But I digress.

Anyway, joining the choir meant that I had to be ready to sing with the choir for the three anthems that interspersed Karen's sermon that she and Donna read. (It was awesome, in case you were wondering.) So, no Sunday just taking it easy, drinking coffee, wearing my jeans, hanging out in the Sanctuary. We had to sing a lot and, therefore, sit up on the stage. I thought we sounded pretty good but I'm likely a bit biased. And a little tone deaf.

The theme of the service was Love. Karen spoke beautifully about love. (Click here if you want to read it.) Our prayers were filled with love. And then, we had a wedding.

That's right. Immediately following the Prayers for the People, I married a couple. We surprised the congregation. Very few people knew it was going to happen. The bride is an immigrant from India. The groom is visiting from India for Christmas. They are having a big Indian wedding in March but thought it would be good to have their legal wedding here in Canada. No family here. Just a few friends. Wanted to invite the congregation. I said, why not get married during Sunday worship?

And they did.

It was a wonderful diversion from the service - much like the moments taken for a baptism or Communion. I found myself a little choked up while going through the vows and words of convent with them and the congregation. It seemed to me that God was very near in that space with us on Sunday. It was truly holy ground on which we were standing.

I have no photos to post from Sunday because you can't capture what happened there or what was felt in photos. But, trust me, it was the most perfect way to spend the fourth Sunday of Advent. Awash in love from the start to the end of the service.

And then, to wrap up the whole service, Bret came out, playing his bagpipes. Amazing.
From start to finish.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent 3: Joy & A Standing Ovation

Some days things just line up and magic happens. In my world, I would say that the Holy Spirit was moving and God's presence was suddenly very close, very real. You can try to engineer these God-moments but they don't often turn out like you might imagine, despite your best efforts. I find the most spirit-filled God-moments are those that times that the unplanned and the uncertain flow together with the decided details and everyone is a bit surprised by the result. You can't force a God-moment but you can allow for the Holy Spirit to take over and hope for the best.

Like this past Sunday. We (the Royal We of me and the music team) chose Joy for this third Sunday of Advent. It could be argued that Love is the third Sunday in Advent but we went with Joy. For the candle-lighting we have been using a liturgy from a resource that includes the song, "Lift Up Your Eyes". It is a lovely set of readings interspersed with the choir and/or the congregation singing. BUT the order of those readings were Hope, Peace, LOVE and then Joy. The office admin who formats the bulletins and does up the PowerPoint each week, didn't put two and two together and so the LOVE reading was read instead of the JOY reading. No biggie. That's how Advent sometimes goes when you have 7 services in 4 1/2 weeks - things get a little mixed up. But here is where the Holy Spirit was moving in that mix-up...
Our congregation had three visitors at the start of our service. And they came bearing gifts. No joke. Three men from the Muslim Prayer Group which prays in our church each Friday came to be with the congregation on Sunday. They had requested to join us for our prayer time so that they could give thanks to a member of our congregation, Frank. You see, Frank was asked to build some sort of storage units for the prayer mats used by the Muslim folks because they are so heavy to cart around on Fridays. And Frank built the most beautiful boxes ever. The men said that they give thanks to Frank each and every Friday when they put away their mats.

The men came up to the stage (our sanctuary was built as a theatre) and presented Frank with a heart-felt 'Thank You' and their gifts. I asked them to remain on the stage and invited the Chair of our Board to join us. The Chair then read to them a letter of support that we had written together on behalf of the congregation. It expressed our collective frustration at the misrepresentation of the Islam in the news and social media and by politicians, political candidates and national leaders. The letter assured the Prayer Group that they are loved and cared for by our community of faith and that they would always be welcome in our church. Our vision statement is: Your Church at the Centre of the Community. We stated that we would like it to also be: Your Mosque at the Centre of the Community.

When the Chair was finished reading, the congregation burst out in applause and rose from their seats. Everyone was clearly moved.

AND THEN...we all sat down and the Advent Candles were lit. With the wrong liturgy. Instead of expressing joy in the readings, love was expressed instead, with the following words (the bold is the congregation saying the words to together):
In a world torn asunder by violence, Jesus says, “No more.”
“As it is written, a new command I give,
‘Love one another as I have loved you’.”
In a world where hurting people are too often neglected,
Jesus says, “No more.”
“As it is written, a new command I give,
‘Love one another as I have loved you’.”
In a world where another’s needs are too often overlooked,
Jesus says, “No more.”
“As it is written, a new command I give,
‘Love one another as I have loved you’.”

Magic. Mistake. Coincidence. The Holy Spirit. God coming close. God being with us and amongst us as we prayed together. With our neighbours. With our family. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent 2: Peace & Donald Trump

Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.
I was supposed to begin an Advent spiritual practice on November 29th. But due to a terrible and intense bout of stomach flu that made its way through our family of six like a slow motion wave of despondency and destruction over a four day period, I did not begin my practice. Because I did not fully enter back into the land of the living until Thursday, December 3rd and I am a little OCD in following the proper order of certain things like prayer practices, I found myself struggling to pick up the spiritual practice that I had ready to do.

I have, however, been thinking quite a bit about what the Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love mean to me. Particularly in these months that have known the Syrian refugee crisis and acts of terror and these weeks filled with hate, fear and despair. Where can there be hope when people are willing to bomb one another? How can there be peace when millions are displaced from their homes in war zones? Where is joy when racism, fear-filled rhetoric and hatred are allowed to flourish? What is love when Donald Trump is permitted to spew Islamophobic garbage to a cheering crowd?

In the second week of Advent we are to contemplate peace. In this month of waiting expectantly for the Christ Child's birth, we are called to remember that the people of ancient times lived under a false peace--Pax Romana. Caesar Augustus created a so-called peace throughout the Roman Empire. It was a peace born of fear and made at the end of a sword, dominating and subjugating all those in the lower classes.

In our world we do not need to struggle to remember a lack of peace that has existed in the world's history because this very day we live amongst an absence of peace--as the news and media remind us on an minute-by-minute basis. We do not need to imagine the desperate desire for an end to violence. For killing to stop. Because this, too, is our reality.

I cannot help but wonder how we, the small and insignificant individuals of the world, can end the violence. End the killing. So much of the time I feel helpless and ineffective. The Reverend Murray Speer reminded us this past Sunday that the peace the prophet Isaiah spoke about was between wild and domestic animals. The domestic stock which needed protecting from the wild, fearful beasts from afar would no longer need to be afraid. They could be safe and vulnerable with one another because one would not harm the other, will not use its power and strength to overwhelm those who have less power and strength.

The Christmas carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing tells us that peace will come when God and sinner reconcile. The word sin is a challenge for United Church folks. The concept of being sinful is a difficult one for those of us who do not want to be too quick to condemn another in the name of God. But consider that sin is not simply an action; it can be a state of being. I was taught that one definition of sin is when you are broken with God. When your actions or statements are not aligned with your beliefs and understanding of faith and God. This carol reminds us that until that until we are whole and healthy, the world cannot be whole and healthy. Until we can reconcile ourselves with God, the world cannot be at peace.

Which brings me around to The Donald. And how, my small and insignificant self can make a step towards peace in our world. How each of us can work together to make peace. Because I would say, in the midst of the Islamophobic hate that seems to be spreading like the stomach flu across the continent and world, I am not right with God--WE are not right with God--if we do not say "ENOUGH" to people like Donald Trump. We are broken with God unless we are prepared to say, "STOP" to the haters, the racists, the Islamophobic people of our world. We can only be reconciled with God when we stand up together and declare that we will not allow another holocaust in our world. Genocide will not happen again. EVER.

We want peace. We are desperate for peace. And so we say, with one strong voice:

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent 1: Hope & Mass Shootings

This past Sunday, Hope Sunday by some traditions in the schedule of Advent, I took the opportunity to encourage my congregation to consider the role that each of us has in the coming of the Messiah. The scripture reading on Sunday was Luke 3:1-6:

He (John the Baptist) went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

I put forth the challenge that our work this Advent is making straight paths, filling in the valleys and lowering the mountains by being kind. Which is totally radical and counter-intuitive in this world with random terrorist activity--the bombings in Paris being seared into our minds so recently. Which, unfortunately, perpetuates the rhetoric of fear that has developed by government officials, the Gun Lobby, and the media since 9/11. And which, in turn, supports the prevalent North American consumer mentality that feeds on the theology of scarcity;  we do not have enough - we may never have enough. If we believe that we do not have enough, it is difficult to be generous or to share our resources. And so we hunker down and begin to horde--our money, our food, our compassion, our power, our control. Which makes others resentful, impoverished, and desperate.  

To be kind in this world can be a risky endeavor. But our God tells us, through our Christ, that we have no other way to behave. The ministry of Jesus was of kindness, compassion and justice. Love and peace for all people. And it was not easy--for him or his followers. Nor is it easy for us.Clara Hughes quotes a native elder in her memoir (Open Heart, Open Mind),

The strength to be kind is not often asked for, but this is perhaps the most important strength to have.

So, what do we make of this Advent season that has barely begun and there are 14 people dead in a mass shooting in California? On Sunday I declared that the most dangerous person in North America today is not the Muslim refugee but young, mostly white men, between the ages of 18-30 who have access to guns. Which is not a statistic that I actually found anywhere reputable but was based on my news-listening knowledge of recent mass shootings in the States. Yesterday, two people, a man, 28, and a woman, 27, for some unknown reason went to a social services centre and opened fire. Killing 14 and wounding 21.

This was not a terrorist attack. Why would terrorists go to a social services centre to make an impact? But, the shooters have middle-Eastern names and so might be Muslim.

Like Muslim people can't have mental illnesses or psychic breakdowns. 

Christians in the States have breakdowns too. ALL THE TIME. Like the young Caucasian American who killed the church members and pastor at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in June. Or the older Caucasian American who attacked the Planned Parenthood Clinic last month. I'll bet the mass shooting in California was exactly what it appears to be--somebody went off the rails and killed their co-workers. That both shooters were in a great deal of pain of some sorts and had been hurting for some time. That help had been sought or recognized in some manner in the past but the issue(s) was not fully addressed or resolved. And that they had access to guns that have a stupid-capability of firing multiple rounds and could purchase more bullets than any sane person could argue would be needed for self-protection.

So, what can we hope for as make our way through this first week of Advent? This Advent season in which we are reminded of a time that the people of ancient Judea and Galilee were waiting in desperation from deliverance of the evils of the Roman Empire. And their hope arrived in the form of a helpless baby. That they needed to start making the rough ways smooth so that the baby could grow into adulthood and begin a ministry that showed God's people and the Empire that love will always win out over hate. That kindness and compassion can be difficult to share but are they only paths to the peace God would have for humanity and the world.

Our hope is for ourselves and humankind to be delivered from the fear that permeates our world. To recognize that our fear of losing power, control and authority prevents us from being compassionate and open. Our hope this Advent season is to be freed from feelings of uncertainty, scarcity and distrust so that we may turn to our neighbours, near and far, and love them, truly love them. As we will ourselves. So that loneliness, mental health issues, chronic pain, dis-ease, feelings of disconnection and apathy can be addressed, treated, talked about, acknowledged. So that no one is alone in their pain and despair. So that the solution to never-ending heart-ache is not in attacking the vulnerable and innocent with weapons of mass destruction. But, rather, the solution is in the reaching out to your neighbour, not being afraid to ask for help or accompaniment. Our hope this Advent season is to make kindness our default setting, so that loving and helping one another, no matter who they are, is our first response. And that no one is alone.

**And my hope is that the people and leaders of the United States take back their nation by opposing the Gun Lobby and the NRA and demanding that manufacturing, selling and purchasing automatic weapons be outlawed. Just saying.