Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Marching Onward

I began writing this blog sometime near the end of March.
PEOPLE - it's now MID-MAY!!! I no longer have any idea how time works.
I've been serving in full time ministry for almost seven years and I still find myself surprised that the distance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is so very, very short. When I was a kid, six weeks was an eternity. Remember what it felt like when the first day of summer holidays or Christmas Day was six weeks away and EVERY single day was like a full week worth of time and so it took FOREVER for the celebrations to begin? Pure torture. But now it seems the six weeks of Lent fly by in the blink of an eye. Which is all to say, that I did, in fact, read my March books but the blinking of my eye did not allow for me to sit down long enough to write about them. I found a little time today, in the quiet of this Wednesday afternoon to reflect on the books I read last month. (And now it's a Tuesday in May. SIGH.)

I began March by reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. You will recognize Evans name from previous books I've written about in this blog. Evans is a former evangelical Christian. She is still a Christian but no longer identifies as evangelical. She spent her twenties exploring what aspects of Christianity remained important to her and what aspects of her Christian upbringing she needed to let go of in order to live faithfully as a loving and compassionate servant of God.

In her former evangelical world, there had been much emphasis on controlling what women could and could not do as a follower of Christ. Supporting her husband by staying home and raising children was on the "Do" list. Preaching or being in church leadership was on the "Do Not Do" list. Whenever a woman moved out of her lane, so to speak, she was likely to be reminded of her role in God's world. As part of her faith journey, Evans decided to earnestly explore what the Bible (and presumably God) had to say about what it is, exactly that is expected of women and live a year following what biblical rules she could find about womanhood.

After culling the Scriptures for all references to how a woman should behave, Evans selected 12 virtues and did her best to fulfill them, one at a time, each month - following some general guidelines on how to act or not to act such as she didn't cut her hair for a year and covered her head when instructed to do so. The virtues were: Gentleness, Domesticity, Obedience, Valor, Beauty, Modesty, Purity, Fertility, Submission, Justice, Silence and Grace. Many instructions of how the biblical woman is to behave can be found Proverbs 31.

And this is my confession...I got four months into her year of biblical womanhood and became so annoyed with the whole project that I put the book into a time out. There are so many reasons to be annoyed with a religion that attempts to restrict woman that it would be impossible list them here. So I won't. I will just say, the book sits somewhere between my complete pile and my desk and every once in a while I pick it up but progress is slow. Life is too short to read books that cause existential angst.

The next book I read, however, did not cause me any angst other than to be sad that there will be no other books coming from its author, Marina Keegan. Unfortunately this author of The Opposite of Loneliness was killed in a traffic accident within her days of graduation from university. She was a talented writer and had volumes of material which her parents and former instructor curated to create this tribute to this wonderful and talented young woman. The book has a variety of fiction and non-fiction selections.

I want to lift one idea from Keegan's book. She wrote an essay for the graduation issue of the Yale Daily News. She speaks of the variety of communities that she found herself at home in while studying at Yale. She mentions that there is not an opposite word for loneliness. If there was, that is what she felt while at Yale - the opposite of being lonely. As I was sharing this essay with someone who joined the Brene Brown book study earlier this year, he told me - "I know what the opposite of loneliness is - it is belonging. Brene Brown taught us that." Lovely.

This book is definitely worth the time. If you'd like to borrow it, please just ask. You can borrow the other one too. 😉

Next on my list (For April. Cause, remember, I don't know how time works.):
Reasons to Stay Alive  by Matt Haig and a biography of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Purse is Stalking Me!

Romans 12:2

For this month of April, we have been exploring a variety of spiritual practices. And because Stephen and I appreciate a certain amount of good and reasonable order to things, we chose spiritual practices that all start with the letter ‘s’. For a long time in our schedule, this Sunday’s topic was listed as “another s”. As it was my Sunday to preach, it was up to me to find a spiritual practice that I wanted to talk about which also happened to be an s-word. And I just could not find one. Until one day, as I was writing in my bullet journal (and if you want to know what a bullet journal is, come talk to me later) but as I was working in my journal, I thought, that’s it – I want to talk about journaling. But journaling does not start with an s. So, I did what I had to do when we were naming child number four. We both liked the name Abby if the baby was a girl but because our naming rules (and, yes, we had naming rules to help in the choosing of names for our kids—that’s one of the many joys of living with me—just ask my dear spouse). Anyway, the naming rules included the rule that no one would be named with a nickname. They had to have a full name. So, we agreed on ‘Abby’ but then had to work ourselves backwards to get to Abigail. This is what I had to do with the word journaling—which, if you think about it, is just another way to say writing. So is the word scribing. And so here we have it—another s to round out our month.

Stephen explored the practices of stillness and simplicity. For the Sunday we looked at the practice of sabbath, Dave Robertson spoke about how he used cycling to deal with his cancer diagnosis, which has recently returned with no good outcome in sight. And today we are looking at how we can use writing, journaling, scribing to calm our minds, ease our souls and allow the Divine to enter into our here and now. As people of faith, we use spiritual practices for a variety of reasons however the fundamental purpose of a spiritual practice is to make space in our lives for the Divine. You will notice that we have not specifically mentioned prayer. Prayer is, of course, a spiritual practice but we wanted to lift up these other particular practices which cause us to declutter, so to speak. They allow us to clear out and make room for thoughts and ideas to flow unencumbered. They free up time in order to allow the processing, for different experiences to be uncovered, layer by layer. And then, sometimes in those times of making such space, prayer can be known to leak out of us. Maybe it happens by accident. Maybe it happens on purpose. But I think in times in which we open ourselves up to self-exploration and discovery, prayer happens. The Divine is sought. Or maybe it is that you realize the Divine is seeking you. You simply give thanks for what you have or what is before you. Or you cry out for help because it all seems impossible. Or, like so many of us, you begin the complicated process of negotiating for peace of mind and soul. Perhaps then, the Holy Spirit might move. Maybe it moves gently like a breeze brushing ever so gently past our cheek. Or maybe it moves with an insistence such as when the wind grabs at the front doors of our church on certain weather-filled days up here on this hill we sit upon. The moving of the Spirit sometimes reveals to us an answer we’ve been seeking or sometimes points us in a direction we had not previously considered. Spiritual practices make space for God to be made known in our everyday living. 

Our first scripture reading today was from Proverbs. The Book of Proverbs is regarded as a collection of wisdom—a significant set of teachings of how to live a happy and peaceful life by honouring and respecting God as all good and all powerful. Today, from chapter four, we heard that above all else we are to guard our heart as it is the wellspring of life. For anyone who has had their heart broken by a lover, a friend, by a family member, we know that it is instinctual to protect our hearts after a hurtful event by turtling in, wrapping ourselves so tightly around our hearts that it is hard, on most days, for another to find their way in. But, the way of God, the way of Christ, is not to wall off our hearts. Rather than close up hearts from the world, our God calls us again and again to keep our hearts open, as the hymn says, to the joy and pain of living. To keep ourselves open we must dare to be vulnerable and reach outward rather than retreat inward. But we can’t protect ourselves in a world that has little regard for our tender hearts until we know ourselves well and believe firmly in the path before us. And we can’t know these things unless we take the time and space to explore matters within us. Proverbs goes on to tell the reader to keep corrupt words from leaving the mouth, to keep their gaze straight and to not veer off their path. But how is one certain which words are not corrupt? Or that the direction in which one is looking is the correct one? Or, for that matter, that the path one is on is the path set by God? Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans. By renewing your mind and testing what it is that is God’s will. By taking time to allow God to enter in and speak. For giving space to seek out God and for God to find you. 

Paul knew that making and keeping a connection with God is a difficult thing in a world that is out to get us. Well, maybe it’s not the world, as in God’s creation that’s out to get us—unless, of course, you don’t count the poisonous spiders or the spiders that are so large that they are likely to induce heart spasms when you encounter them—if you can just set those aside, I don’t think it’s so much the world that’s out to get us so much as it is humanity’s need for conformity that’s out to get us. In order for humanity to first survive, in the beginning of time, humans had to band together to hunt and protect themselves from the elements of nature. Now our survival is directly tied to understanding the necessary social norms for one to advance and succeed in supporting oneself and families. In order to survive, humans have always had to conform to what the collective did or believed. Society through politics, religion and social groups pressure us to stay within certain boundaries of tradition and customs and, this way, we are marked as who we are supposed to be and what we are to believe. 

Advertising pushes us further to conform to whichever groups we belong. Everyone has what they are selling and shouldn’t you also have it? Or, better yet, you can belong to a more elite group if you just get this other, more expensive thing over here. And we know from recent revelations from Facebook that we are being manipulated and coerced in ways we never understood before. Although the news really wasn’t all that surprising. I am currently being harassed by a purse on Facebook. I made the mistake of expressing an interest in a certain very lovely bag that popped up in my Facebook feed and now the advertising for that bag is stalking my every moment I’m on Facebook. I have yet to come up with a logical rationale for Christopher as to why I should just buy the darn purse so it’s still lurking there in my newsfeed whenever I log on.

So far, I am holding strong. But that’s just a purse. What about those advertisements or postings that prey upon those who have been hurt? Who are broken? Who are lonely? Who feel inadequate or not worthy? And who amongst us has never found themselves in one or more of these categories? And so, when we see signs or notices that encourage ways of thinking that dehumanize others, that dismisses the goodness and the joy of others, that disregard the truth of other people’s experiences and lives, how do we advert our gaze? Because not being conformed to a world of fear and scarcity that certain leaders uphold is a tall order. To believe in a world of love and abundance, this world of possibility that God has been telling humanity about since the beginning of time, a world of peace and unity that Jesus taught about for his whole ministry, to believe in this type of world is to fight every moment to look the other way rather than to allow the glimpses of injustice, hatred, oppression, immorality, greed and violence to define our world.

‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ It takes transformation, a renewal of the mind, to detach ourselves from the world’s attempts to occupy us with things that do not matter. Paul implores us to shake off the negative effects of this world and attend to things that matter and to discern what is good. Transformation such as this happens only when we take the time to ask questions, to express our doubt, to search ourselves for what we know to be true, to notice how the Holy Spirit has and is moving in our world, to allow for the teachings and sayings of Jesus to be the wisdom and truth guiding our actions and to listen for the small, still voice of God, that continues to speak to us whether we can hear it or not. And how do we do that but through spiritual practices such as scribing otherwise known as journaling.

Now, I have a small confession to make. After all this working towards how journaling can be beneficial in making a connection with the Divine and discerning how best to live your life, I woudn’t blame you if you thought that I might be pretty great at journaling. I am not. My journaling totally follows how I approach completing tasks. I don’t. My personality type is very much about starting things. Not finishing things. So, I have journal after journal of all the trips I’ve been on. They all look the same. I start out strong with lots of details of the activities we’ve done and the people we’ve met and, inevitably, by day four or five, my writing begins to wane. And by the end of the trip I’m too exhausted to write anymore. Oh, I always, always tell myself I will go back and fill in the missing details. But I never do. Oh my goodness, I just picked up a lovely looking journal that I’ve had for awhile. It was like walking down memory lane as I looked at the variety of entries I had written. Apparently, I bought it for my last year of ministry training.

I don’t journal well but I like to draw. I’m not an artist like my mom was but I like using colour and making simple line drawings. I often find myself praying in a free-flow kind of way when I do that in my journal. I also like to make lists. When I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed and I’m fretting, Christopher says, why don’t you make a list? And he’s right. What the list is listing doesn’t even really matter. It’s the action that allows me a moment of feeling like the world is not completely out of control. And as often as not, the Holy Spirit will move as I’m making the list and I will notice what’s been missing and has been the cause of my underlying anxiety. Or She will make explicit that what I was worrying about really isn’t the bother of worry about it. There was a time, when our house was chaotic with four children between the ages of 1 and 7, with three very energetic boys who loved to cover their baby sister with stickers or stick her in a laundry basket and see what they could do with said-basket and I felt like I had NO space, time or energy to talk to God, much less hear God speaking to me. But I found if I sat down just before I went to bed and jotted down all the things swirling in my
brain—the to-do lists, the things I needed to remember, a funny thing the boys said or did—I would jot it down in a journal beside my bed. When I was done, I would close my eyes for a moment and think, “There you go Jesus—you take it. Thanks.” Christopher called it my, ‘giving it over to Jesus’. And I would sleep pretty well those nights, except for, you know, the nights where there was barfing, I had a nightmare, I can’t sleep, the night terrors—other than those events, I usually slept well because I didn’t have all those thoughts distracting me and bothering me—Jesus had them. And the next morning, I had a look at the list and notes and I took back only those that needed doing. Because, remarkably, somehow in the night my brain had the space to come up with solutions for some of the concerns that I had been worried about the night before. I think, maybe, this is some of what Paul was writing about, be transformed and discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Not all spiritual practices work for all people. It is a well-known fact that I can’t sit still or stay quiet for much longer than an hour so a silent, six-day yoga retreat like the one she did in Eat, Pray, Love is definitely not for me. My brain might explode. But I know plenty of others who would love that type of practice and would learn so much about themselves and how they want to be in the world. Simplicity would work for me if we could agree that my craft room is not included and no laundry baskets for sorting go near it. And Sabbath for me is Monday. Just as Dave cycles, I have my own routine for Mondays that give me the space and the freedom to work through thoughts and feelings from the past week, to make my lists for what’s coming and to do certain activities that allow my brain to shut off for a little while and make room for God to enter in. We have had some pretty good chats, God and I, on Mondays. Not that God isn’t in and around my life other days of the week, it’s just that I listen best on Mondays. And I journal. In my own way and with lots of different colours. In a variety of notebooks. Which I am definitely not hoarding. What practice works best for you? What gives you the freedom of space and time to connect with the Divine? What do you do to allow for transformation to take place, so that God can enter in, so that the teachings of Jesus can be considered, so that the Holy Spirit may move in your life? God is always with us but sometimes it can be hard to see or hear how God is working in your life. Finding a spiritual practice that works for you, will work for God and reveal more clearly that God is indeed working in your life and in this magnificent world of ours. Thanks be to God.

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.