Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Pumpkin Preacher

    Bright orange pumpkins caught my eye as I drove along a remote country road. A bountiful harvest garden with rows of tall cornstalks and root vegetables was backed by a huge sign, “God Makes Them Grow”. Wearing a scarecrow hat, the gardener stood, spot lit by September sunshine, posed as if in an autumn painting. I had to stop the car to admire the sight and to thank him for the luscious scene, including the words of faith on his sign.
Despite the deep ditch between us, we had a friendly chat. He said that local children loved his annual pumpkin giveaway. I spotted tall red flowers growing among the withering vegetable leaves and with my usual restraint shouted, 
“And look at those gorgeous gladiolae!” 
He took out a pocketknife, walked across the clods of dirt and sliced off a handful of long green stems with their brilliant scarlet blooms. As he gallantly handed me the bouquet, he told me that he was the lay minister at a nearby “Community” (no-name) Church and welcomed me to attend their Sunday morning gathering.

Sometimes when we travel, my husband and I visit random churches and we decided that we would return to the charming man’s service, partly to show our appreciation and partly because we’re curious about different renditions of  religious faith and spirituality. You just never know how God may appear next and what you might learn.

Three days later we entered a small white church building to the cheery sound of piano music. An older woman wearing a hat played the beat-up instrument with vigor. I quickly surveyed the room in case I should have had my own head covered, but I was safe; the eight other women were also bare-headed. The pianist, who turned out to be our gardener-preacher’s wife, expertly rocked out old hymns and current church songs. A few people sat scattered among four rows of chairs to the right of a centre aisle. On the left, three empty rows stood vacant in front of five folks who filled the last row! Stifling our grins at such back-row determination, we sat down ahead of them.

My inner decorator cringed at the unappealing worship space. It wasn’t just the plywood panelling, flowered curtains, a profusion of artificial plants and the incongruous lacy table coverings. These aesthetics were hard to ignore, but truly repulsive was the “artwork” on the wall directly in front of us. A photocopy of a painting was taped to the wooden panelling. Between two cities gaped a wide canyon, spanned by a cross-shaped bridge. From out of the canyon leapt monstrous flames of orange and yellow, filling the sky with dark grey smoke. It was hard to see details but the metaphorical image was familiar. In fundamentalist Christian religion, such images represent earth, heaven, and the hellfire torture waiting for any who don’t intentionally traverse the spiritual bridge created by Christ's death as they pass from life on earth to an afterlife in the heavenly city of God.
Maybe sometimes we need to be scared into what's best for us, the way cardiac patients finally begin to exercise, but the old-fashioned picture creeped me out.

Needless to say, we were the only visitors. During the announcements, our new friend, both Chair and preacher, introduced us and told the group how we had met. I was glad for a chance to describe his spontaneous gift of flowers. He strolled over to hand us two pens, clarifying for our benefit that the evening service noted on each pen no longer happened. Wince.
At his nod, his wife hit the keyboard again and the congregation of fifteen sang a welcome song to us.
My heart felt stretched like the crevasse cross between their sweet kindness and the hilarious horror of my confusion: Why do they all know a welcome song? How often can there be anyone visiting a backwoods church of this size? Do they practice the song just in case? And how can they afford customized pens, never mind the heating bills for this north-country building? Will we be allowed to leave???? 

I was impressed that the leader didn’t mention any donation or offering, and I admired their willingness to project all song lyrics on a screen as some big city churches still refuse to do.  

Whoosh! Suddenly back to my childhood in a fundamentalist church.  
The preacher began, “If you have your bibles with you, please open them to …”
Oops, not only didn’t I remember head coverings, I didn’t bring my own bible the way every proper person did in my parents' church.
When he started to read aloud, I realised that we were among what may be the last group in Canada who still choose to collectively read the bible in Shakespearean English (the King James version) instead of a modern translation. Time travel.
He followed his reading with another peculiar norm from my past:
“May the Lord add his blessing to this reading of his word.”
I wondered how this de rigeur prayer, a revised bit of the Anglican rite, had become a standard coda adopted by this sect. If you know, please tell me.

Then, the sermon. Cue shark-attack music.

My dear gardener-preacher began with the story of Jesus during his trial. In answer to Pilate’s query about whether he had committed sedition against Rome by claiming to be the king of the Jews, Jesus said,
 “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” (John 18)

Our preacher leapt from these provocative comments about truth to reminiscing about things that had been considered true in his youth but were no longer considered true. With anticipation my husband and I waited to hear how his thinking about Christian life and beliefs had evolved by the Spirit’s faithful teaching.
But no. Instead of focusing on what Jesus clearly taught, like “love God with all your mind and heart, and love your strange neighbours as much as you love yourself and your own kind”, the preacher talked about how far our society has strayed from the "truth” norms of the 1950’s when he was a teenager. He shook his head at the fact that homosexuality was accepted now. He lamented the fact that Canada has no current laws on prostitution (indeed that discussion is in process). He added pornography, abortion and illegal drugs to his list of sins, but didn't point out that his list related to the very people Jesus welcomed, those shunned by the self-righteous religious leaders of his day and still shunned by too many. 
He finished the talk without ever mentioning the type of personal failures most likely experienced by his audience, sins like our critical attitudes, over-consumption, self-absorption, envy, etc. He left us without any celebration of God’s loving forgiveness given to all. There was no encouragement to improve both our personal attitudes and our culture's skewed perspectives on justice, healthy sexuality, and materialism, for instance. 

I wrote and prayed my way through his talk, thankful for  God's merciful patience with us all in our blindness. I gave thanks for this live reminder of my first religious experiences and my escape from some misunderstandings about Christian faith with which I was raised. I thought of the wise, honest writers and mentors who had helped me gradually change my thinking. I felt grateful for moving at least a little, despite my lazy, dragging feet, toward more humility and more compassion for the failures of others.
As the writer of Psalm 130 says, "God, if you kept a record and punished us for our sins [destructive choices, stubborn selfishness, closed minds], who could stay standing?"

Wholeheartedly, I bless this man, his loyal wife, and whatever good they do in the world. May they and their congregation discover ever more of the abundant freedom that is Jesus’ standing invitation. (See John 10:10, Galatians 5:1)

Nothing but thankful. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Moments of Joy

On an early September day in rural Ontario, I walked across a parking lot toward my car, and heard a sound that swept me back to my childhood, an unmistakable crowing. There had to be a rooster nearby. When I looked around I glimpsed the roof and wire mesh of a chicken coop in a neighbouring field. 

Although I grew up in the farming village of Markham, we lived in an ordinary house on Main St. with no resident animals but a cocker spaniel. One Easter my dear father arrived home with my surprise gift, a dozen yellow chicks from who-knows-where. He must have been as impulsive and sentimental as I. How I wish he had lived beyond my teenage years so that we could have discovered more traits in common.
The box full of feathered, chirping babies delighted my little girl self. I doubt my mother was as thrilled, especially as, one by one the fluff-balls expired, until there were only two survivors. But those two grew into my rooster pets, who cocka-doodle-doo-ed from a pen in our backyard for a few years. The familiar sound surprising me 50 years later in a parking lot brought back happy memories.
One vacation morning at a small-town public library, I was enjoying the use of free computers, taking a break from the “back to the earth” lifestyle at our ancient family cottage where there’s neither television nor internet. Libraries often feel like sacred sanctuaries and I was content. 
My bliss only deepened when the library door opened and a little boy entered, clutching a tiny dog in his thin arms, a miniature leash dragging free. I savored the sight of the two sweet puppies, precious in the eyes of God.
During a relaxed, outdoor breakfast the lakeside peace was blasted by a long, loud yell, “Aaaaaargh!
Someone was in real pain. I leapt from my Muskoka chair to see if the shouting man needed help and a beautiful young husky dog came running into our cottage yard. 
A voice called, “Catch her, please!!! She won't bite. She’s not dangerous.”
What had sounded like dreadful injury turned out to be howled frustration.
The blue-eyed pup ran in circles around me, gaily wagging her tail and avoiding my reaching arms. 
"Please try and grab her!"
Finally I snatched a piece of cheese off my plate of morning toast to lure her near and was able to grip her collar. 
Seconds later a sweating young guy staggered onto the property, panting with gratitude. His dog, “Toby,” had somehow escaped her leash and taken her owner on an exhausting chase twice as long as his intended dog-walk.
After he caught his breath and expressed a dozen thankyou's, we had a commiserating laugh together – okay, I was the only one laughing. I patted them both on their way.

Monday, 25 August 2014

What's God Got to Do With It, Got to Do With It?

For a long time I privately scorned people who said that they felt closest to God when they were outside in nature. I also tsked silently at those who did helpful community work without believing in Jesus. I thought I knew everything about being a good Christian. I believed that the main place to find God is in the Bible. If we put Bible knowledge together with active church membership, we had the basics down about living the Jesus way. 

Now I find myself humming a revised, hopeful version of Tina Turner’s cynical song, “What’s love got to do with it?” because I'm finding that God shows up everywhere. Instead of a constant evaluation of myself, of others, and of God, my Christian faith feels more like an exciting, slightly scary game of Hide-and-Go-Seek at night with all the neighbourhood kids. Where’s God now?

It was shocking to hear a preacher expressing haughty disapproval of another minister’s sermon. He also mocked  the presumed tech ignorance of attendees at an earlier morning church service, because they were mostly older people. Then he whined that since he shows respect for a certain alien group, they should respect him, too. 
How could he study the bible for decades and yet blithely display such mean attitudes? I decided I was done with his pulpit performances. 
But… his church reaches out to the neighbourhood with food and clothing banks, 12-step programs, and other free services.  They help women’s shelters, homeless folk and prostitutes. Men from a nearby biker clubhouse have become friendly neighbours.
What's God got to do with this church? Despite the preacher’s glaring weaknesses, God's compassion shows up.

This summer, the world news is screamingly ugly, but yesterday I saw a ten-foot tall Rose of Sharon bush covered in huge snowy blossoms, each centre splashed with wine-red. I wanted to fall on my knees in awe. Nature's beauty persists.

As I passed a woman on the sidewalk, I wished her “Good Morning” and then cringed a little when she immediately stopped to offer me a brochure from the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion. With a smile, I assured her that I already read the bible and didn’t need her educational pamphlet. Turning to walk on, I touched her arm and said, “Enjoy God’s love!” 
To my delight, she answered, “You, too!”

One morning I lay in a comfy hammock in the backyard trying to meditate and pray, but next door, roofers blasted loud pop music. They kept time to the radio with their whacking hammers. I growled with frustration until one familiar tune made me stand up and dance a little bit on the lawn.
Party God.

After mowing the lawn on a hot August day, I paused for a sweaty minute to look at my front ditch bursting with lovely flowering Cosmos plants. Hundreds of them spring up every year without a lick of effort from me, the very picture of grace. Honeybees toured the weaving pink blossoms. In the bright sunlight I spied one tiny bee of a different species. Apparently, they’re called “metallic” bees. The insect gleamed iridescent green, posing like an art piece on golden stamens encircled by sculpted, rosy petals. Breathtaking technicolour!
Thankyou, Creator!
And then I prayed for patience while I yanked out the contaminating thistles from my next door neighbour's neglected garden. 

Spiritual Hide-and-Go-Seek - where's God in this?
Play on, my friends.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Spread the Love

After 40 years of living next door to each other, my neighbour and I finally decided to throw a block party.
I had talked about it many a time with my husband but we had settled for an annual Christmas party instead, with immediate neighbours only, rotating houses every December (wow, that’s a funny image, especially if the rotating houses had Christmas lights on them). Now that our friend next door had agreed to partner, the block party was on, an alcohol-free, all-ages, afternoon block party, that is.

We composed a written invitation, trying to convey just the right tone of casual but enthusiastic appeal. Sue volunteered to make cookies and iced tea. I promised to buy pop and brownies. My husband agreed to help host and set up.
We chose opposite sides of our street and each delivered envelopes to 12 houses in a row, noticing for the first time who had fancy mail boxes, mail slots in their door, or front steps that were falling apart.
A week ahead we put up handmade lawn signs on our two properties that read “Remember! Saturday, June 7, 2:00”.  A couple of mystified passersby from not-our-block asked what they were supposed to “remember”. I told them they were welcome to join in but from their expressions I think they were relieved to keep walking.

On the big day, we draped our trees with crepe paper streamers, dragged lawn furniture out to the driveway and set out refreshments. The warm June sun shone cheerily between cool patches of shade from a tall linden tree.
Despite perfect weather, the three of us wondered who would turn up for our block’s first street party in living memory. We had been disappointed to hear that several of our closest neighbours were away for the weekend so we didn't know what to expect. 

At 2:00, a woman and man cautiously approached from up the road saying, “Are we the first ones?” We greeted them with relief and the party began. It was my very first conversation with the wife, who told me that even before meeting her husband, she had lived for decades just a few doors north of us.

Guests ranged from long-timers to newcomers. One middle-aged woman has lived on the block since her childhood, but the man who currently rents her basement apartment moved in only eight months ago. A young couple brought their little children who were excited to tour our backyards and to eat all the butterfly-shaped gingerbread cookies they wanted. Two teenage boys dutifully accompanied their very sociable Mom and Dad. A pilot stopped by before he had to don his uniform and head for the airport.
One person arrived with an unexpected plate of sweets for the table. Another couple surprised us with a “hostess” present: a bottle of wine to share and two pretty tea towels. 
For two hours there was a constant hubbub as everyone met someone new, and acquaintances had a chance to say more than a passing “Hi”.

We used the idea of “Neighbour Fan Mail” from one of the “interventions” at Toronto’s “100 in 1 Day” event, asking people to choose a recipient and fill in a brief form thanking a local business or a neighbour. The children’s aunt helped them sign one to a bakery that they frequent. One man chose a specific Starbucks that he enjoys. Several of us signed a communal note to our cheerful letter carrier. As people said goodbye, their hearty expressions of gratitude went well beyond token courtesy.

During the following week I had fun using up the extra fan mail forms. I wrote my appreciation to a neighbour whose spring garden had abounded with multi-coloured tulips, and congratulated the friendly management and staff of a nearby  diner. On the rest I thanked each of the attendees and then enjoyed walking through the neighbourhood for a final delivery.

The low-key party was a huge success; we three hosts felt gratified.
Remember those 24 houses on our block? Despite cottaging absentees, there were 26 neighbours at the party! Zowie!

Our simple happy gathering wasn’t the kind of deep communal connection that the Creator wants for the human race, but it seemed like a baby step in the right direction.
As Edward B. Pusey observed150 years ago,
God so loves us that He would make all things
 channels to us and messengers of His love.”
Even block parties.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

You Have Warts, Too?

A couple of weeks from now, my neighbour and I are hosting an outdoor block party. We thought we’d tag it onto the
100 in 1 Day” idea, scheduled for June 7/14 in Toronto and many other cities.
The organisers are encouraging people to make local, creative “interventions” that in some way improve their city, so we’ve delivered invitations and are curious to see which unknown neighbours show up for lemonade and cookies. We’ll offer everyone a chance to play “Neighbourhood Fan Mail” where you write notes of appreciation to folks in your neighbourhood, like a favourite convenience store owner or a house with a gorgeous red front door, for instance. Then you address the envelope, and swap with other neighbours to  deliver the "fan mail". 

 As my neighbour and I talked about which home-owners we knew on our block and which we didn’t, she was surprised that I knew so few. Apparently, when she walks by and someone is outside gardening or shovelling snow, she doesn’t just pass with a smile or a “Good Morning” the way I do; she stays for conversation.

I thought of her surprised tone the next time I walked through my neighbourhood.  When I noticed a woman pulling maple tree sprouts out of her garden, I stopped to chat. She was friendly and after we’d covered several subjects she said,
“Yes, I’ve seen you walking by. How many times a day do you do your walk?”
With my customary restraint I snorted loudly, 
“A day? More like a week!”
She laughed and said, “I like you!”

Her reaction to my admission is such a tiny example that I’m almost embarrassed to link it with a huge truth. But in fact, my everyday life is small compared to most, so I guess ya gotta go with what ya got.
On any level, honest vulnerability can create intimacy. 
To state the obvious, it’s easier to connect with someone like ourselves than with those who seem foreign. It makes sense that the more we can simply express our true selves, warts and all, the more likely we may find commonality, because everybody has warts.
When Christ told us to love our enemy, maybe his implied goal was for us to redefine the concept of “enemy” and stop dividing our world into friends and enemies. Surely such community is a glimpse of heaven or the “kingdom of God”.

As the bible says, “If we admit our warts, we can always count on God to eagerly forgive every wart and to patiently apply wart removal cream.” 1 John 1:9

P.S. When I got home from my walk, I told my block party neighbour why I deserved a gold star.
Did I just reveal another wart?

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Echo on a Toilet

There were no other options.
One sunny afternoon, I slipped into a public washroom at the park, dreading the grunge.
As I entered, I heard a child’s voice hooting. Of the two stalls, one closed door evidently concealed a mother and her young one, so I said, “Somebody sounds happy.” 
The mother replied, “She’s trying to hear the echo.”

By this time I was seated in my own cubicle but offered,
I could be an echo.”

It isn’t easy helping your small child use a public washroom but this cheerful Mom encouraged her daughter,
“Say something.” 
A little voice called “Echo”. 
I answered in the same pitch, “Echo”. 
She said “Hiya.” I copied, “Hiya”. 
She made nonsense sounds and I copied her tones.
Yes, I was sitting on a toilet all the while, smiling to myself.

As I walked to the sink for hand washing, I said, “The Echo is leaving now.”
The mom told her little girl, “Oh, she’s faster than we are”. 
I called, “Bye-Bye” and went out the door, hearing,
“and we never even saw her.” 

I want to play with every person I meet – ignoring any ugly unmentionables and echoing the mutual joy that God has placed inside our hearts.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Trees Planted Near Water

The bible has some weird, weird stuff in it - no question - but so much of it stops me in my tracks with awe. 

I’m writing this at the end of a long bitter Canadian winter. Snow and ice covered our city for months and even in April, everything looked grey and dead. Most of the snow had melted to reveal the messy detritus of months of neglect. I cringed when I glimpsed a squirrel's body half buried in the mucky boulevard near my grandkids’ house.  As a gardener and mystic, I felt desperate for the sight of green growth. 

On the first day that my backyard was only soggy instead of treacherous, I snipped some branches from a forsythia although the bush was nowhere near blooming. It’s scraggly branches held the same tiny dormant knobs that hadn’t changed all winter long, but I was starving for living flowers and thought I’d at least try.

I filled a vase with water and set the brown branches on my livingroom mantle. Every morning I’d check, wondering if there was any chance that they would spring to life. And then the day came. All up and down the length of each branch were tiny tips of green with a minuscule bit of yellow poking out. I gasped, and almost cried. I felt like running out into the street yelling “LOOK! Come and see this! I can’t believe my eyes – these dead branches are blooming!”

Honestly, there is no word big enough except miracle. A dry woody stick, given some water and warmth, produces out of nowhere a soft, pretty lime green casing for a sunny yellow four-petalled flower. How is this possible?!

A couple of days later I happened on this biblical sentence:
“Happy are the ones who delight in God’s way and meditate on it; they will be like trees planted by streams of water, trees that yield their fruit in season, trees whose leaves don’t wither.”
YES – water! Christ’s offer stands,“If anyone’s thirsty, they should come to me and drink”
Wherever things look dry and dead, the God who powers Spring’s flowers can bring new life.