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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Serve Somebody

I began the sermon for Sunday, February 21 by playing an excerpt from Bob Dylan’s song “Serve Somebody”. This song was on his 1979 release “Slow Train Coming”. It was one of two albums Dylan recorded during his “born again Christian” phase.

“ You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody....”

During the summer of 1981 I worked for the Barnett-McQueen construction and engineering company in Thunder Bay. It was my third full time job in the hiatus I took between high school and university. During the week I took care of tools that were returned to the shop after jobs. On weekends I sometimes did odd jobs for the company, like re-painting the lines on the office parking lot. I have a clear memory of my boom-box playing one cassette tape over and over again while I free-handed yellow parking lot lines.

One side of the tape was “Slow Train Coming”, and the other was Bruce Cockburn’s “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws”. It was immensely important to me that these two prominent artists were expressing faith. It made my own recent religious conversion, and decision to follow a faithful path seem more possible.

Even at the tender age of 19 I could distinguish that Cockburn was more mystical and less dogmatic, and that Dylan’s faith was rough-hewn and rigid, even brittle.

Over the almost 30 years since, both of these artists have continued to evolve, with their art, and in their personal lives. Dylan’s “born again” phase lasted about 3 years. He is said to have answered critics by saying that even that was longer than Jesus’ public ministry. Cockburn seems to have moved towards more of a Unitarian faith than a Christ-centred expression, and continues to inspire many with his music, and with his personal commitment to social justice and development issues.

These days, I listen to Bruce Cockburn for inspiration far more often than Bob Dylan. But Dylan still has things to say to me, and I continue to be challenged by his assertion from 1979, that each of us “have to serve somebody”.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mountain Top Experience


The Bible stories for this past Sunday were about encounters with God on a mountain-top. During my sermon I made an extemporaneous reference to a moment in the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Viewers saw the snow-boarder Johnny Lyall on the very peak of a mountain, preparing for his exhilarating ride down. The panorama around the lone, daring figure, of a clear blue sky, pierced by the craggy peaks of other Rocky Mountains was breath-taking. I imagined myself in this young man's place. There is no way I could negotiate my way down that mountain as he did. I found myself wondering, "How'd he get up there?"

You can watch the snowboarding portion of the video of the opening ceremonies online at www.ctv.ca. The images are captivating. It is easy to think only about the amazing athlete who bursts through the Olympic rings in BC Place, after the crowd has just watched the mountain descent on the big screen.

It took a helicopter to bring the young boarder to that height. Helicopters were also used in capturing the video of his descent. Each helicopter would require a pilot, and a camera person. Each helicopter also has to be maintained for safety. The raw video footage would have to be edited. The sound track would have to be added in.

I began wondering how many souls were part of the crew that made this amazing mountain-top adventure possible, and then made it available for us to watch it. My research led me to www.snowboarding.transworld.net, which reports that Johnny Lyall “and pro riders Shin Campos, David Aubry and Benji Ritchie provided the action for the segment edited to look like one rider.”

So this “mountain-top” experience was anything but a solitary effort. Does this make it any more amazing? I choose to look at this as another sign that we need each other, and that together we can do incredible things.

I remember reading once that even religious hermits, like the monk and scholar Thomas Merton, who lived for many years lived a solitary life in a small cottage on the grounds of a monastery, need the spiritual and physical support of a community in order to thrive.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Being Tested

Recently the producers of the CBC’s “Test the Nation were looking for clergy to join the “Believers” team on an episode of the game show. As a former “Reach for the Top” contestant, and occasional contributor to radio and printed media, I thought this sounded like fun.

On “Test the Nation” 6 different teams, representing various “types”, are pitted against each other in what is essentially an I.Q. test. Each contestant answers all 50 questions, and every team’s total score is tracked. Viewers can play along at home, either on paper, or online.

The teams included “Believers”,“Atheists”, “Nerds”, “Politicians”, “Twins”, and “Contact Sports Athletes”. The Politicians included Justin Trudeau. The Nerds star player was astronaut Marc Garneau, and the Atheist team included the actor who plays the really annoying Anglican priest on “Little Mosque on the Prairie”. The Believers had the Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo, former minister of Emmanuel Howard Park United Church in Toronto, now serving as an MPP.

My application for the show included the results of my own online IQ test, answers to biographical questions, and photos of myself. I was also asked to sign a confidentiality agreement about the process, and the production, so I will be careful what I say about it. I can tell you that I ended up on the “standby list”, which I thought was a bit like being named “Miss Congeniality” in a beauty contest. “If for any reason the winner is unable to fulfill their duties....”

I agreed to be available in case the Believers ended up short a player. I had to be ready to go into the broadcast centre that Sunday evening for the live show.

I am telling you all this as background for what I really want to discuss. In connection with my studies in the Jubilee Program for Spiritual Formation and Direction, I have been thinking about “discernment”. How do we know what God would have us do? How do we make decisions?

A day or two before the Test the Nation show, a person in my close circle was feeling quite ill. I realized that it was more important to spend Sunday evening with them, than go into Toronto to be on television. But I had made a commitment to the show!

I decided to “test my spiritual living”, rather than the nation. I prayed, and asked for the ability to discern the right choice. On Saturday evening I came to peace with the idea that if the producer called on Sunday, I would respectfully decline the opportunity.

That Sunday morning I led worship, preached my sermon, and not once did I find myself second-guessing my decision. I was mildly curious as to whether the call might come, but not at all worried about it. I was aware of how much I would enjoy the experience of being in the studio, and under the lights with some truly interesting people. At the same time, I felt absolutely “clear” that I knew where I should be. This did not feel like a “sacrifice”. It felt like the right thing to do.

When I got home from church there was an email, and a phone message from the producer, both urging me to call him as soon as I could, to confirm that I could come in for the show that night. This was an opportunity to review my decision. I found that my thoughts, feelings, my sense of God’s leading had not wavered.

When I phoned the producer, and told him my circumstances he said, “Well I am sorry about the illness, but I am actually quite relieved. I made a big mistake when I contacted you earlier. I had miscounted, and we actually have enough for the team. We had decided since I called you that we would make room for you though, if you still wanted to come.”

When I assured him that I was fine with not going, he sounded like a weight had been lifted. I felt very happy to be able to help, by saying no at the right time.

My family and I spent the afternoon and evening with the person who had been feeling ill, and together we watched about half the show. I remained clear that on the question of what I needed to be doing that evening, I had found the right answer.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Torch Relay

This Sunday at Trinity United Church we had the opportunity to hear Melissa Hill, daughter of Ernie and Vicki Nock speak. She was chosen to take part in the Olympic Torch relay across the country, to bring the flame to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia.

Melissa told us that in order to qualify, she had to enter a kind of lottery. Her name was drawn out of the pool of all those who applied. But there was more than luck involved. Part of the application process was to provide information about her personal achievements, her community involvements, and her ongoing commitment to make Canada a better place.

Melissa has accomplished many things in her life as an athlete, a student, a researcher in a demanding field. She is involved in work that contributes significantly towards efforts to cure cancer. She is clearly the kind of person who deserves the honour of carrying the Olympic Torch.

Members of the congregation who watched Melissa grow up, and who have had regular updates on her progress through life, were happy to celebrate this latest achievement. Many of us had our picture taken with Melissa and the torch.

I found it a bit of a challenge to connect the occasion of Melissa's presentation to a scriptural or spiritual theme for the worship service. I chose hymns that made use of flame imagery. During the children's time I organized a "Bible relay" in which kids passed the book from one to another, making it all the way around the perimeter of the sanctuary in about 16 seconds. I was able to point to this as an example of cooperative team work- which is also a way we can think about the Olympic torch relay- a huge group of people working together to accomplish a shared goal.

I tried to avoid working the "passing the torch" symbolism too hard. Sometimes this image is used to talk about passing the faith from one generation to the next. While it can be quite an evocative image, I think it has a weakness.

In a relay race, once you have passed on your "baton", you stop running.

As people of faith, we are called to keep on moving, to always be about passing on the message, the Good News about our relationship with God.