Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Free light and crystal ducks

(This reflection was written on Cyber Monday, and will also appear in the Christmas edition of Branches, the newsletter for Trinity United Church in Oakville.)

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Gospel of John 1:5

           I have been putting up the outside Christmas decorations at our house. We have a small collection of items that are meaningful to us as much for who gave them, as for what they are. Over the years of our marriage, I have noticed that as we accumulate more things in general, we are more hesitant than we used to be to acquire new items. Where to store it all? What precious, or formerly precious item would need to go, to make room for the new thing? (I think people are like that with ideas and traditions as well- do we really want to give up what is familiar, in favour of something to which we don’t yet feel connected?)

We have been gradually replacing our older lights with energy efficient L.E.D.s. This year we took a further step, and bought a few solar spotlights, and a string of mini sparkly lights that have a solar panel, that generates electricity stored in rechargeable cells. I love that at least some of these decorations shine at night, because of  light we saw in the day. I don’t know if we are actually saving money (especially if I factor in what I spent on the new items) but there is still something satisfying to me about “free light”.

When it gets dark (Which these days seems like about 10 minutes after the kids get home from school!), the solar lights, which are controlled by ambient light sensors, turn themselves on. The rest of our lights, the more conventional plug in ones, come on with a click of the remote control.  The lights that draw current from our house, and set the power meter whirring with excitement, are much brighter than the little solar powered ones. The glare from these “not free” lights reaches the sensors on the solar lights, and they turn off.

I am trying to find an arrangement on our front lawn that will allow both kinds of light to shine at the same time- but it’s a challenge. The plugged in lights (which I am starting to think of as representing the more commercial, consumerist aspect of Christmas) are so bright, that my noble little “free power” solar lights (symbolizing all that money can’t buy) simply cannot be seen.

             In the culture we live in, money is so often used to measure the significance and the worth of things. “Time is money!” “Act now for big savings!” “When you care enough to send the very best!”  “No payments, and no interest for 36 months!” To suggest that the deeper meaning of this Christmas season cannot be bought or sold, and is probably not on display next to the Swarovski crystal duck with the 24 carat gold beak, is a radical, counter-cultural statement.

But it’s also absolutely true. What we are meant to celebrate at Christmas is the presence of love in our human reality. We see in the birth of Jesus God’s passionate desire to tell us that we are all precious, loved, needed, and accepted, no matter what messages we have absorbed from the world about our value.

There are ways in which we can use our resources and money to communicate our love. But there are also ways in which spending money actually seems to take the place of really showing a person that we love them, and that our interest in them goes farther than checking their name off our “to buy” list.

I had an inspiring conversation last week with a man who is one of the wealthiest people I know. We were talking about Christmas. He said that the thing his family most loves to do in this season is find a family that is having a really hard time, and find ways to support and help them. Sometimes that means giving them money. Sometimes that means paying to fix a car, or a furnace. Sometimes it means having them over for supper, or bringing a meal into the family’s home, and sitting down with them to enjoy it together.

When my friend was talking about the joy his family finds in finding ways to be useful, and to bring light into other people’s lives- his face was glowing with excitement. Our world needs more of that kind of light, that may involve spending, but which cannot be bought.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Who laughed?

My pre-Christmas teaching series, “Children of Promise” began with a look at the moment at which Abraham and Sarah learn that they will be parents. There are two versions of the story in the Book of Genesis. It is exactly this kind of thing- multiple versions of essentially the same story, with variations in detail and style, that over a century ago led Biblical scholars to the idea, now widely accepted, that the Old Testament is a compilation of material from several streams or traditions. (The question of why this is still ignored by many Christian teachers and preachers might be a blog for another day!) These stories were told in different ways by different people, and were likely passed along orally, like folk tales.

I was recently at a family gathering at which I heard three different versions told of a story from my childhood. I can’t tell you which is the “true” or “truest” version. I only know which one I remember hearing most often.

In Genesis chapter 17, Abram has a conversation with God, who invites him into a covenant relationship. God is not described in this story, which leaves me wondering if this is a dream or a vision, rather than a physical encounter.

God gives him a new name, and says that his wife will bear a son. This child will be the first in a long line of descendants, numerous enough to form a new nation. They will be given the whole land of Canaan in which to settle. As a sign of the covenant, Abraham, and all the males in his household, and all of his male descendants must submit to circumcision.

Abraham takes the prospect of circumcision in stride, but is incredulous that Sarai, now to be called Sarah, will bear a child. The story says, “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”

Despite Abraham’s laughter, God reassures him that within the year, Sarah will bear a male child, and that God will be back to see that this promise has come true.

In the very next chapter of Genesis, the encounter with God is less dream-like. God appears as a trio of strangers, who are offered the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah’s encampment. (They already have their new names, but do not yet have knowledge of the upcoming birth.)

Abraham calls for water to be brought so that the strangers may wash their feet. He goes into his tent and instructs Sarah to get flour to bake bread. He then selects a tender calf from his herd for the servants to slaughter and cook. He fetches curds and milk to eat with the other food that will be prepared. Abraham fulfills the requirements of hospitality that were common to nomadic peoples in this region.  He would not eat until after his guests needs were met.

“While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.” (from Genesis 18)

In this version, Sarah is listening when God issues the promise of a child to Abraham. She laughs, which is what Abraham did in the first version of the story. (The name Isaac comes from Hebrew words for “she laughed”.) The figure speaking for God (one of the three strangers) asks why Sarah laughed, and echoes the promise made in the first version of the story, that within the year, God will return to them, and Sarah will have given birth to a son.

The promise is the same, but the manner in which it is delivered is quite different. I don’t really know what to make of all the differences, except that they support the existence of variant traditions of how the story was told, over the generations, before the stories were collected into the form we now have them in the Old Testament.

I do find it interesting that in the New Testament, Matthew’s Gospel describes Joseph being told that Mary would bear a son, and the news is delivered in a dream. In Luke’s Gospel, it is Mary who first receives the news, from an angel. I am also curious about the identity of the three strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah- did they come from the East, like the Wise Men? Or were they angels, as suggested by the New Testament letter to the Hebrews:

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Memoral Service for my favourite cousin

Peacefully, after a courageous battle with cancer, at the Ottawa General Hospital , on Friday, November 4, 2011 at the age of 32 years. Beloved husband of Elfrida Tsandev. Loving son of Edward and Bonnie Stec. He will be fondly remembered by his many friends, who he loved and cherished.

Memorial Service for Scott Stec

Monday, November 7, 2011 at 1:00 p.m.

McEvoy and Shields Funeral Home,

1411 Hunt Club Road, Ottawa, Ontario

Greeting and Welcome:

Good afternoon. My name is Darrow Woods, and I am Scott’s cousin. I am also a United Church minister. I met a number of you on July 16, when we gathered for Scott and Elfrida’s wedding. On behalf of all sides of Scott’s family, I welcome you here, and thank you for coming. We see you all as living signs of the impact Scott has made in the world, and how he is loved, and respected, and will be missed.

We gather to mourn Scott’s death, and celebrate his life. We are also here to laugh and cry together, to hold and comfort each other, and look to faith for hope and meaning.

Please take a moment now to make sure that your cell phone is either off or set to vibrate.

Opening Prayer:

Loving God, we live and breathe, and love, and create, and change, and grow, and suffer losses, and grieve. We nurture love, and we help each other. We seek meaning, and look for signs of hope. We grumble, we sigh, we laugh, we cry out in despair. We pray, we sing, and we offer you thanks and praise. Our hearts beat, and the blood moves through our bodies. All the living we do, we do in your presence. You are always with us, God, whether we know it or not. In this time, we quiet ourselves, limit our distractions, so that we can look for you in our midst, and hear your voice, and feel your peace. Amen

Jesus was speaking to people who lived on the fringes of society, who had suffered enormously, and who may have felt that God, had abandoned them. He wanted them to know that this place of desolation and confusion is exactly the place where God meets us. At the place in life when we feel most let down by life, God is there to hold us up, to sustain us, and to give us not just what we think we need, but what we actually need, to live.

This passage I think also speaks to the kind of person we have known Scott to be- one who valued people above possessions, and getting along above petty arguing.

Matthew 5:1-9

1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

3"You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4"You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5"You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.

6"You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.

7"You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.

8"You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9"You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.

First Letter from John, chapter 4:7-12, 17-19

7-10My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn't know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can't know him if you don't love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they've done to our relationship with God.

11-12My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!

 17-18God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us….There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.

 19We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. God loved us first. “

May God help us make sense of these words, and in them, find hope and meaning. Amen

Speakers in order:




Special music


We gather together to celebrate Scott’s life, and to give thanks to God for him. We also make our prayers, and ask God to take care of him. While we are talking to God, it may be that we have some questions. Why did Scott have to die, in this way, at such a young age? It doesn’t make sense. We hate this. The only meaning we see in it is that at least his suffering is over. If it wasn’t going to get any better for Scott, at least now it does not get any worse. But that does not answer our questions.

The questions are very human, and natural, and for the most part, unanswerable. We don’t understand many things about life and death, and really, I am not sure how helpful the answer to the “why” questions would really be. It may be that the only thing that might relieve the grief and confusion and anger of these moments would be if time could go backwards, and Scott never became sick in the first place.

I think the “why” questions are just our mind trying to catch up with what has happened. Our minds can’t cope with the pain of losing a precious loved one, so we cry out why, in protest.

I don’t think there is an answer that makes the pain go away. The pain is real, and natural, and a consequence of loving someone.

The last time I saw Scott was just before Labour Day. My family was not able to be with us for Scott and Elfrida’s wedding, so we all came here at the end of August. I am so glad we did. My kids had not seen Scott for years, and they had not met Elfrida. They treated our family to a great supper one evening, and we made plans for the next day. While Elfrida was at work, we picked up Scott, and took him with us on our family expedition to the Museum of Science and Technology. It was a great day.

My kids got to explore, and play in the museum with their gentle giant of a second cousin. That went well, because even at 32, Scott still had the heart, and sense of delight and fun he had when he was a boy. I know this, because I was 18 when he was born, and I knew him when he was young. I almost said when he was little- but you know…

My wife is also a minister. When Elfrida and Scott took us out for supper, they asked us “What’s the hardest part of your work?” They were being careful, I think because of the presence of our kids, who are 10 and 13. But the unspoken part of that conversation was about death. That was the beginning of one of those conversations that happen a bit at a time We dance carefully around the subject of death, rarely daring to come close. We don’t like to dwell on it. There is probably a fear that we might hasten the reality of death, by talking about it- so we avoid it.

But it came up again between Scott and I. The two of us were in the Railway Hall of the museum of science and technology, seated on a bench beside a huge black steam locomotive. I noticed that the steel wheels were taller than Scott. When you have a cousin that tall, you notice things that are even taller. Not many things are.

It kind of fit that we were sitting in the railway hall, in the shadow of this massive locomotive. Scott and I both grew up in Thunder Bay. It’s a place many know about only because the lake freighters go there for prairie grain brought on the railroad. Historically the rails have been like veins and arteries carrying our country’s lifeblood.

Scott’s dad worked for many years at a big paper mill in Thunder Bay. Trains brought pulp logs in to the mill, and carried away the huge rolls of newsprint made there. The railway, and steel wheels are part of our spiritual landscape. My first job out of high school was as a brakeman. I remember the sights, sounds, smells, and the feeling of riding on diesel locomotives.

Scott and I are sitting on this bench in the locomotive hall.  I think it was cut down from one of the long pews they used to have in railroad stations. He asks me, “How do you do it? How do you talk with a family when someone dies?” Suddenly, there is something even bigger in the room than the massive locomotive. Now we are sitting in the shadow of death. I feel it, like it’s barrelling down the track towards us. In my heart, I feel my own dread of death, and particularly, my dread of the death of this man with the beautiful spirit, who has always, absolutely, been my favourite cousin.

I understand, in that moment, what Scott is asking, is not so much for words of comfort for himself. He is asking whether there will be comfort and hope for those he loves. I hear, and feel, the deeper questions underneath his words. It’s like the rumbling you feel when a train is coming, even before you can hear it, or see it. Death, or at least our shared awareness of the possibility of Scott’s death, was a powerful force in the room.

But it was not the only powerful force in the room that day, and it is not the only powerful force in this room right now. The more powerful force is love.

Instead of answers that probably would not satisfy us anyway, God gives us love.

It is love that makes our lives livable, even in the face of illness, and hardship, and death. It is love that gives us the ability to carry on, even when change happens that we would not have chosen. Love helps us through the times that shatter us, and make us cry.

When it comes right down to it, nothing else matters much, outside of love. I am not talking about the way we say we love a new smartphone, or ipad. I am not talking about romantic affection, or our feelings about a perfectly grilled steak. I am talking about love without strings, love without ego, love that is about nothing except total acceptance and good will. This is the love that conquers fear, and makes life possible, even when the tracks are rumbling.

There are moments like that time on the bench in the locomotive hall with Scott, when we get glimpses of pure and real love. Love that is better than most of us humans can manage on our own. Love that flows through us, to another person, or through another person, to us.

I think that this kind of love originates not with us, but with God. That kind of love does not end with death. The love we have for Scott is not diminished by death. The love he showed the world did not end when his physical body died. All that love remains, and is real.

What I have come to believe is that God’s love never ends. It has no beginning, and no end, it just flows on and on. The glimpses we have of real love in our life, can give us confidence that love comes from somewhere beyond us. Love comes from God. Actually, that love is God.  When we die, we return to be fully with God, the source of all that made life livable in the first place. And in love, God takes care of us, forever. Amen

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Concern

God of grace and glory,

we are so thankful for Scott Stec  who touched the lives of those gathered here,

and who now has died.

He will be remembered in so many ways.

As a son, and husband, as a son-in-law, and as a cousin.

As a housemate, as a fellow student. As a co-worker.

As a floor hockey champion. As a golfer, and sports fan.

As the only person I ever met, who wore size 18 shoes. I remember his parents having to drive from Thunder Bay to Duluth, Minnesota to find him shoes and clothes.

As a gentle, loving, positive man who looked for good in life, and in people, and who did not complain, even when illness made every step, every moment, and sometimes each breath, a painful challenge.

We thank you for the friendship he gave

and for the strength and peace he brought.

We thank you for the love he offered and received.

We pray that nothing good in Scott’s life

will be lost, but will be of benefit to the world;

that all that was important to him

will be respected by those who follow,

and that everything he valued

will continue to mean much to us now that he has died.

We ask that he may live on in our hearts and minds,

inspiring courage, informing conscience.

We ask that those who were close to Scott may now,

because of his death, be even closer to one another,

and that in peace and friendship here on earth,

we may always be deeply conscious of your promise

to be faithful to us in death.

We pray for ourselves, who are tested by this death,

that we do not try to minimize the loss,

or seek refuge from it in words alone,

nor brood over it so that it overwhelms us

and isolates us from others.

God of grace and glory,

grant us courage and confidence. Amen

The Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come,

thy will be done

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread;

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those

who trespass against us;

and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

forever and ever. Amen

Chapel Commital:

In a moment the service will be over, and you are all invited to join the family in the reception area.

To offer a sense of completion, I am going to now say the words of committal that we would use if we were at a graveside today

Words of Committal:

Into God’s keeping we commend Scott Stec here departed.

Earth to earth, Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,

Trusting in God’s great mercy by which we have been born anew

To a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.


On our hearts and on our homes, the blessing of God.

In our coming and our going, the peace of God.

In our life and our believing, the love of God.

At our end and new beginning, the arms of God welcome us home. Amen