Friday, August 19, 2016

Resisting Evil - BRIEFLY

Before I left on Sabbatical, I asked the minister (Murray Speer) covering for me to prepare the Orders of Service for the months of July and August so that lay leaders could easily lead the services in July and not have to spend too much time and effort in preparation. And in August, when I was to return, I could spend my time and energy reconnecting with people rather than sitting in my office. It has worked out wonderfully. I have caught up with so many people in these first three weeks, I feel like I'm almost up to speed with the congregation.
My main responsibility for my first two Sundays back has been to prepare the sermons. This past Sunday, the note from Murray was "brief sermon on the topic of the satisfaction that comes from resisting evil". And I laughed out loud. A brief sermon on evil. During a summer service on one of the few nice weather days we've had here in Calgary, I was to address evil and the satisfaction of resisting it AND I was to do it briefly. So, I tried. Here is a summary of my efforts...

Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News
First of all, let’s clarify what is considered evil. In the church, when we speak about what is evil, it is in regards to a system, not an individual. Evil is the reduction of a person or community of people to one of its parts and ignoring the rest. For example, the system of slavery reduces humans to the colour of their skin and ignores their intellect. Nazism reduced millions of people to the religion they practiced or their culture and ignored what they had to offer to the world. The system of Islamophobia is doing the same thing today.

To stand up to the systems that are embedded in our society is hard. For one thing, we don’t often even realize we are even in the system until something extreme happens and gets our attention. And, when concerns are raised by certain groups of people, it can be very difficult to understand their point of view, because, after all, if you have never had their struggles or been a friend to someone with similar challenges, you just don’t know. You don’t know what it’s like.

When we DO recognize that something is not right, that people are not being treated fairly, that certain laws, certain politics, religious beliefs or movements are racist, fascist, inhumane, cruel—when we DO see what is wrong and we decide enough is enough, it is not an easy thing to say “No. Stop.” It takes courage. A whole LOT of courage. Speaking out makes you visible, makes you vulnerable. It feels scary, your heart rate goes up, you probably start to sweat. It’s nerve-wracking, isn’t it, when you say “stop”? It takes a great deal of strength, but we know our world needs people to do exactly that—stand up, potentially putting themselves in harm’s way so that those of us just humming along in our lives can be given a wake up call to whatever injustice is taking place right in front of us.

When I think of how difficult, how scary it would be to be that person who stands up first, I think of a story Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture) wrote in his memoir about teaching first year computer science students that if they were going to make an impact in the world of computing science, they had to be willing to be the first penguin. You know, that penguin at the front of the line of penguins approaching the edge of the ice floe, getting ready to dive into the ocean to look for food. Into the icy cold water where leopard seals and sea lions just hang out, waiting for them to jump in. When you’re the first penguin, your odds of being eaten by a predator is much higher than the penguins who follow you. Your odds of being singled out and people being angry with you increase significantly when you’re at the front of the line and are willing to jump into the fray first. Standing up to an evil system is like being the first penguin into the water.

We know the risks to standing up can be huge. Jesus knew the cost would be his own life and yet he spent most of his three-year ministry being that person who said ‘stop’. Who said, ‘enough is enough’—no more would injustice be accepted from the Roman Empire. No more would the Jewish leaders who were complicit with the Romans be held up as righteous leaders. No more would hunger and poverty be viewed as the fault of the oppressed and marginalized. We spend a lot of time remembering how courageous and strong Jesus was to lead the way in demanding change in his time. Today I would like to spend a few minutes remembering the people of our recent time who have also been courageous and strong when exposing injustice in our world.

Ghandi & the Salt March - 1930
Statue commemorating Salt March in New Delhi
Ghandi and 79 other Indian leaders walked 390 kms in 24 days to the coastal town of Dandi in a peaceful demonstration against the salt tax imposed by the British Government. Once they arrived, Ghandi illegally harvested salt from the edge of the ocean. His actions inspired civil disobedience across the nation, with some 60,000 people being arrested (Ghandi included) for the illegal harvesting of salt--a basic and necessary need in the tropical climate.

Rosa Parks -Montgomery, Alabama, 1955
Parks refused to give up her seat in the coloured section of a bus in  once the white section was filled. As a result, she was arrested. Her protest and act of civil disobedience caused her to lose her job. Her husband quit his job after he was told that he could not speak about his wife or her actions.

Peter Norman - 1968 Summer Olympics
When the American athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith won the gold and bronze medals in the 200m race, they brazenly chose to raise their hands in the Black Power salute. When one of them forget their black gloves, Norman, the Australian silver medal winner, suggested they share the one pair of gloves they did have-which is why the two men have gloves on different hands. In solidarity with the African-American athletes, Norman also chose to wear an OPHR badge (Olympic Project for Human Rights--an American organization to protest racial segregation). Because Norman chose to visibly support the actions of Carlos and Smith, he was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee upon his return home. His athletic career was compromised because of his actions--as were the careers of Carlos and Smith.

Archbishop Oscar Romero - El Salvador, 1980
Throughout his ministry, Archbishop Romero spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture--particularly in the country of El Salvador. He was assassinated in 1980 one day after giving a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights.

Jeff Widener, 1989
Tank Man - Tiananmen Square, 1989 
What began as students protesting against the Chinese government in the spring of 1989—demanding democracy, freedoms of press and speech--ended with the Chinese government declaring that the protestors were terrorists and counterrevolutionaries. Martial law was declared and on June 3 tanks opened fire and killed or injured thousands of people. The photo of the anonymous 'Tank Man' was taken on June 4th by a western photographer who had to smuggle his film out of the country. The man impeded the progress of the tanks until he was whisked away by someone standing in the crowd nearby.

We need to celebrate these people. These incredible acts of bravery and courage that sometimes we really understand only with the benefit of time and hindsight because we just didn’t know--we just didn’t see, at the time, that it was happening. We need to recognize what the moments when these people and others like them stood up and spoke out because when the time comes for us to say--even in a small, little way--‘enough is enough’ we can draw upon their leadership to encourage us to speak out. That we can do more than whisper under our breath. We speak out loud. We an say, “Stop.” We can wear a pink shirt, a rainbow pin, we can walk in a parade, we stand in silent protest, we can write a letter to newspaper, we can attend a demonstration, we can go to a rally, wearing a cross declaring we are there on behalf of Christianity which implores us to love one another, we can be the first in line, ready to jump in so others can follow.

And that's as brief as I can be on the topic of resisting evil!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Letter to the Congregation of Symons Valley UC

Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book, Eat, Pray, Love about joining an ashram in India. She explains that she arrived late in the evening and went to the early yoga class the following morning. No one seemed to notice that she was new--that they hadn’t seen her before. Gilbert compared the experience to how (apparently) a new hen  is introduced into a hen house. To prevent agitating the chickens and then them attacking the newcomer, a new hen must be placed in the henhouse at night, while the other hens are sleeping. When the hens wake up in the morning, they just assume the new hen is not a threat, because she’s clearly been there all along. The woke up together. They must have gone to sleep together.
Today I kinda feel like that new hen.
I’ve been away from the congregation for four months. Once Easter was over and done with and some pastoral care concerns were addressed, I packed up some of my office and a lot of my books and went home.

And, on Tuesday this week, I brought that box of stuff back, with my books and some extra things I’ve picked up along the way. I spent the first day and a half getting sorted with Karen and Kathy. I had to make a decision or two and was given a folder of the worship services planned for August. Karen went home. Kathy went on holidays. Before she left, Kathy said, “It’s like you never left.”

But it’s not.
I might be sitting in my office, working at my computer, reading emails, listening to music, avoiding writing the sermon, eating my lunch, drinking my tea—all just like I did in March. I may have slipped back into the office without much disruption but things are NOT like they were before I left.
Because. You know.
Egypt Air 804 crashing
The attack on the airport in Istanbul
A coup in Turkey
Unarmed black men have been killed by police officers
Wildfires in Fort McMurray
More than once in the past four months, I turned to my spouse, my friends, my Dad and asked, “WHAT on earth is going on??”
I have asked,Where is God in all of this chaos?
What can I do to make a change?
What can we do to make a difference?
What would Jesus have us do in this turmoil?
Where can we see God’s love in action?
Is Christianity relevant in a world where ‘christians’ spew hate, racism and fear?
And I remember that just because the news channels tells me the world is going to hell in a handbasket – it’s not.
There is good. There is God. There are miracles. There is joy.
For example, in the past four months these things have also happened:
Some of the things from the box I brought back to my office.
Muslims rallied for peace (such as the rally Abby & I attended in April on the steps of City Hall).
Children grew up into confident and capable adults and graduated from high school.
Interfaith families celebrated Eid by sharing a meal.
The world tiger population has increased for the first time in over a century.
India planted 50 million trees in ONE day in July.
A huge gathering of United Church ministers came together to support and encourage one another and to remember what it is about God and God’s world that calls and recalls us into our ministries.
I managed to do TWO pull-ups on my very own for the first time since junior high school.  Did I tell you I started CrossFit last year? J
Research resulting from the funds raised in the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge has found a gene linked to ALS.
A woman has been nominated for President of the United States. And if you don’t think that’s a big deal, this cartoon might give you an idea of how ground-breaking this is…

So, here I sit. In my office. At my computer. Listening to my music. Writing. Nothing’s changed. And, yet, everything has changed.
I may have slipped back into the church office while alls y’all are on summer holidays but this just gives me time to reconnect with this awesome community of faith that I have missed dearly. And to start learning what has changed for you and what has stayed the same.
What cares and concerns – the personal and the global – do we need to work our way through? What celebrations and joys can we embrace? Where has God’s absence or presence been most keenly felt? Where can we, together, show the love that Jesus, our Christ, brought to the world in his life and ministry?
I look forward to seeing you soon!!