Monday, November 29, 2010

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

One of the things I like to occasionally do in Sunday worship is to play a song from my Ipod, or a music video, that I think connects to a theme I am developing, or a point I want to make in a sermon. I do this for at least three reasons:

1) I like to encourage deeper “reading” or interpretation of the culture we live in. Viewing popular culture with spiritual questions in mind can help us see, sometimes, that we are not the only ones on a search for meaning.

2) There are song-writers and musicians who have inspired, challenged, touched me deeply through their work, and I like to pay homage to them.

3) Some songs just seem like a good fit.

This past Sunday marked the beginning of the liturgical season of Advent. Each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas has a traditional theme attached to it. We light a candle on the Advent wreath each successive week, for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

For “Hope” Sunday, I had this idea that we would listen to the Dixie Chicks song “I Hope”. This was a song that the group premiered a few years ago on a Red Cross telethon in the U.S. that raised money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

I like the song. It speaks to me about building hope, by making good choices about how we act, and about the need to be aware that our children watch our behaviour. We have the power, to some degree, to shape their futures, by the examples we offer them. A young girl who sees her father abuse and berate her mother may be more likely to see that behaviour as normal, and to accept similar treatment.

Maybe if I had introduced the song to the congregation with some thoughts about what I see in it, it would have gone over better. I usually try not to over-explain things, and trust that the listeners will hear for themselves what is of beauty and value.

The Dixie Chicks were not a big hit at Trinity this past Sunday. While most people in attendance were receptive, and appreciative of the service, and many offered their reflections on the overall theme- the only comments I heard about the song “I Hope”, were along these lines:

“ I just didn’t hear anything in it.”
“I liked everything else, but...”
“ Sorry, I didn’t like that song at all.”

I actually was not surprised to receive this feedback. I could feel in the sanctuary that the song was not “working”, not “connecting” with people. The night before, as I was doing my Saturday final touches on the worship script, I had actually considered not using it. There were a lot of other things happening in the service, and I was worried about running long. The song is a little over 4 minutes in length. The worship service ended up about 7 minutes over the usual hour.

I had decided to leave the song in, mostly because we had put the lyrics on a bulletin insert, and I thought it would be waste of paper if I did not use it.
“I Hope” that next time I will follow my instinct better, and not hesitate to pull something if I don’t think it is going to work.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In the running for redemption

As I mentioned in my sermon, I sometimes need external validation to get me out the door for my runs. (Especially on the grey and rainy days of autumn.) This month’s Runner’s World has these cover headlines:

“Special Inspiration Issue” “Get Fired Up!” “The Secrets of Lasting Motivation”

On one corner, in a yellow box resembling a tattered post-it note, was the headline: “The Doper Comes Clean: A marathon champion’s EPO use and quest for redemption”.

It is not unusual to read about inspiration in a sport magazine. But usually, the only mention of “redemption” is about an athlete or team aiming for a comeback. Redemption is one of those words that gets used all the time, but rarely in the sense that I hear it as a pastor and preacher.

In “church talk”, redemption is about turning away from evil, turning towards God, and trying to make our lives right. Redemption is about forgiveness of sin, and our intention to not repeat our offenses. In some circles, talk of redemption is not complete without discussion of the “saving act” of Jesus, in dying on the cross, as the sacrifice that pays the price for all of our sins. I don’t live, work, pray, or think in a circle that finds that aspect of the conversation helpful. It raises questions for me that I have discussed in other places.

But it does grab my attention that in the article about Eddy Hellebuyck, the word redemption actually does refer to his confession that he is guilty of using performance enhancing drugs, despite having denied it for most of a decade. He comes across in the article as having remorse for his choices, and a desire to “come clean”, and have a new life.

In my sermon I compared Eddy to Zacchaeus, the notorious corrupt tax collector, who was a seen by his Jewish neighbours as a collaborator and a cheat. Zacchaeus receives external validation from Jesus, and this seems to help him find the courage to change his life.

The Runner’s World article tells us more about Eddy than we can know about Zacchaeus. We get more of the details about life before and after the decision to change. The writer is generally sympathetic to Eddy, but near the end of the article, makes some pointed observations:

“While he claims to be selflessly risking his well-being for the sake of the truth, for instance, his remorse comes exclusively on his own behalf. He worries that racing officials will come back and investigate him. He also worries that he could suffer financially. And then there's the toll it has taken on his friends and family. "After we talked the first time at the restaurant, I felt really good about it," Hellebuyck had told me. "I kept getting really emotional [about confessing]. It is very important to me. I just cannot die thinking that my whole life I was a cheater. I was not. I didn't get any medals or anything, but I did some really great things—I ran a lot of great races, I managed, I coached."

Not once in our conversations has Hellebuyck ever voiced concern for the runners who finished behind him in the races that he ran juiced; the honest athletes who, as DeHart points out, Hellebuyck cheated out of recognition and potential prize money.”

This reminds me that in my own life, and in the lives of people I know, redemption/ conversion/transformation is usually neither instantaneous, nor complete. We are works in progress.

Monday, November 15, 2010

quiet thoughts

I was away from the pulpit this past Sunday. I had the opportunity to spend the weekend in silence. I took part in a Centering Prayer retreat organized by the local chapter of Contemplative Outreach. We stayed at a convent of the Sisters of Saint John the Divine, an Anglican order that was founded in Toronto more than 100 years ago. It is a beautiful quiet place.

Whenever I am away for a retreat or educational event I buy books. The convent does not have a store. Instead they have a hallway that is furnished with bookcases, which are lavishly laden with good books. The system is that you pick out what you want, read the price stickers, and place appropriate payment in the slot of the wooden box that sits on one of the shelves.

I love this approach. I wish I could do all my shopping this way. In many ways, I wish the world was more like the convent.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Supporting our Troops

This week I will lead a Remembrance Day service at the Queens Avenue Seniors Residence, which is about two blocks from Trinity United Church. The pastoral care team at Trinity has a healthy relationship with the Residence. A good number of residents at Queens are also involved at Trinity.

Once a month we offer a communion service for the residents. The Remembrance Day service is a natural offshoot of that ministry. It has become a well-attended tradition.

I am glad that we are able to have a service that leads up to the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of the year. I am old enough to remember when Remembrance Day was a school holiday. I also remember taking part in school assemblies close to the date, during which I was often the student asked to recite “In Flanders Fields”.

My father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and after leaving the military, was very involved with the Royal Canadian Legion for many years. I remember a lot of cold, grey November 11 mornings spent at the cenotaph, watching as my parents in the colour party.

It is “in my blood” to pause on Remembrance Day, and pray for the victims of war, and for the many people who have served their countries, and for their families. It is also part of my nature to think about how we do our remembering, and how we honour the sacrifices that have been made.

There seems to be a tendency in some circles today, to equate “supporting our troops” with never questioning the appropriateness of their mission. It seems to me that one of the best ways we can support our troops is to pay attention to what our political leaders have ordered them to do.

As a person of faith, my questions about the mission of our military will always be informed by my hopes and beliefs about God, and how God wants us to live.

There have been times in Canada’s history when churches and preachers have allowed themselves to be pulled on to the nationalist, patriotic bandwagon. There have been times when faith leaders have shown such enthusiasm for a war effort, that subtly, or not so subtly, the message has got across that “our” soldiers were on the right side in a holy war, and that God blessed their efforts. In effect, many churches became tools of government policy, helping to rally public support for a military effort.

I still remember that after September 11, George Bush rallied support for an American-led offensive against Iraq by characterizing it as a modern-day Crusade. He craftily called upon the historical images of Christian nations taking up arms against a Muslim foe, to re-take the Holy Land.

To use any religion as a propaganda tool is offensive. I am more and more convinced as I get older that God’s hopes and dreams for us do not include solving our problems with violence.

Monday, November 1, 2010

forgiveness and revenge

Like many others, I have followed the story of the former air force colonel in Belleville, Ontario, who has been convicted on about 90 criminal charges, including two counts each of rape and murder. While reading on the CBC website, I noticed that alongside the article, the featured ads were for surveillance equipment, pepper spray, and home alarm systems.

There is a multi-billion dollar industry in North America that trades in equipment and services meant to help us feel safe.

When violence is perpetrated against us, or those we love, or happens close enough to feel personal, we are confronted with our essential helplessness. I don’t know anyone who enjoys being reminded of the fragility of life.

On a visceral level, part of me desires to exercise power over the forces, and the individuals that threaten me. Maybe it is about the need to reclaim control. Or maybe it is just a primitive desire for revenge.

Years ago I had a summer job as a prison chaplain. When certain offenders were entering the system, their story arrived before they did. Word passed from the staff to the inmates about anyone convicted of sex crimes against women and children. I made visits to a man held in the infirmary because he would not be safe in the general population.

The part of me that wants to punish those who would threaten me, or the safety of those I cherish, understands why other prisoners would attack a sex offender. It would let them see themselves as better than him. It would be an outlet for their feelings of frustration, that they could not protect their loved ones from “people like him”.

I preached on Sunday about the potential for every person to be the “true self” that God creates us to be. I asked if there is anything that we can do or say, that places us outside of the embrace of God’s love and forgiveness. After the service, it was pointed out to me that I did not actually answer the question.

The “standard” answer is that we “love the sinner, and hate the sin”. We hold the hope that God always loves us, in spite of our mistakes and confusion, and there is always the possibility of reconciliation between us and God.

I think it is important to identify our feelings, which may include a desire for revenge, and separate them out from our thinking about whether or not God can forgive.

I think it is also important to realize that even if we were in a position to act on our desire for revenge, that anything we did would not un-do what the perpetrator had done. Most likely, any satisfaction would be short-lived. We look to our legal system, as imperfect as it may be, to provide judgment and consequences for heinous acts.

The spiritual challenge is for us to set aside the habit of seeing ourselves as the judge of others, and seek to be compassionate towards all.