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.  

Monday, 14 April 2014

Donkey Riding

On the day before Palm Sunday, I sat with four other church women, drinking coffee and checking in with each other before we began our bible discussion - sounds prissy and boring, but it wasn’t. Somebody mentioned Holy Week and Denise, who’s enduring a huge computer mess at work, disgustedly spat out the words, “Holy Week!” like a curse. We all laughed because we knew exactly what she meant. We felt her frustration at the discrepancy between everyday reality and formal church traditions like Easter. 

No matter how sincerely we want to follow Christ’s way of life, sometimes Christian festivals seem like a farce and we feel tired just thinking about them. On Palm Sunday, there's the story about Jesus the Messiah riding a donkey through cheering crowds – we shout “Hosanna” in our pews and wave tropical palm leaves. By Maundy Thursday, the plot comes to Jesus' weeping with dread in Gesthemane’s garden - we kneel in grief as our church sanctuaries go dark and silent. At the Good Friday service, commemorating Christ’s crucifixion, we cringe at the thought of nails splitting human flesh and consider our own guilty role in power grabs. Two days later, “Alleluia, Jesus is risen!” Joyfully, we begin Easter Sunday's celebration, our churches filled with colourful spring flowers and glorious music.
Whew, what a ride.

What do Easter traditions like Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc. have to do with actually following Jesus in the way we work, parent, vote or spend  money? Does this festival reflect the rickety jostle of being an intentional Christian or is Holy Week a distraction from reality?

I wondered if it would help to think of Holy Week as a donkey ride, bumpy and risky.
Do you know the old campfire song called “Donkey Riding”? You can find it here with the lyrics, sung by Great Big Sea. I was surprised to read the last verse - it sounds a bit like Palm Sunday! In fact this may be my personal hymn of faith from now on.

Just like the disciples in the bible story, we have high expectations of Jesus. We’d rather our Christianity were practiced and under control, like an expert ride on a thoroughbred horse that clears every jump and wins every race. Why would we follow a Saviour who rides a donkey right onto death row? His contemporary followers were shocked and completely confused. They’d had such high hopes for a rescuing hero. Even when they were amazed by his new life after death their ride was far from smooth. Sound familiar?

Instead, Jesus invited them to hop on with a God who is unpredictable; a Mystery who chose to show up as a Jewish carpenter advocating humble service instead of triumphant success. Christ calls us to mercy instead of retribution. In God’s kingdom we chant “Justice and compassion!” instead of “We’re number one!” For Easter week and for whatever comes next, may we trust God’s love and hang on for the ride. “Way hey and away we go, donkey riding, donkey riding”  

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Four Things That Made Me Smile

1. Driving through suburbia I was amused to see a real life version of those cheesy and rude lawn signs (landscape decorations? more like desecrations). You know the ones. They show the rear view of a bent over woman’s skirt and fat legs, supposedly gardening without bending her knees. I’ve always detested the image but in this case, I had to smile. From my car all I could see of a young woman on the sidewalk was her polka dotted leggings stretched tightly over her legs and her bottom while she tightened her shoe laces without bending her knees. I doubt she was aware of our view.

2. I arrived home already a bit chagrined at having to appear in our rusty wreck of an old van, the one that’s been toting, for six months, mind you, a chaise longue that needs reuphostery. The van is usually hidden behind our cute new Honda Fit but today the Honda was in for a check up. After I parked, I opened the driver's door, got out and then crawled back inside to reach across for all of my stuff that was on the passenger seat. Bad idea. I grabbed a shopping bag, a sunglasses case, gloves, my phone, two library books, and my too-warm coat. Backing awkwardly out of the driver’s door, arms laden, I fumbled the slipping pile. In my desperate flailing to catch everything, my elbow bumped the steering wheel hard. An embarrassing blast from the horn alerted the neighbours. Made me laugh.  

3. In the middle of an exciting charismatic church service, the man beside me sat stone-faced. I, of course, was up and down, moving to the drums, waving my arms to the music. Mostly I avoided meeting anyone’s eyes in order to concentrate on God’s goodness, but a couple of times I glanced at my neighbour, hoping to share the moment. He didn’t return my glance. He sat slouched and stoic. Beside him, his wife managed their very young grandchild. The toddler was as active as you’d expect, climbing around and wandering as far as his grandmother would allow. Her husband ignored them both. Finally, the little one tried to climb onto his grandfather’s lap. I was relieved to see the man help him up and settle him facing forward. The little boy leaned his head onto his grandfather’s chest, rested his baby hands on the much bigger gnarled ones, and then turned his sweet face to look up into his grandpa’s eyes. I couldn’t see if he got any welcoming response but the child’s trusting and hopeful overture made me smile.
"Unless you become like children..." Matt.18:3

4. My neighbour, Sue, was holding a wrapped bouquet while she unlocked her car door.
“Oh, who are the flowers for?”
“My Mom.”
A passing stranger she’d met on the sidewalk had given her the blooms. When asked why, the stranger smiled, “ Oh, just a random act of kindness.” Sue was handing on the unexpected gift to her elderly mother. 
She told me a happy back-story. A couple of days earlier she had noticed a woman running for a bus that carried on without stopping for her. Sue pulled over to offer the stranger a lift to the subway and heard that she was on her way to visit an ailing uncle. Her long trip would include another bus ride even after the subway.
Sue and I smiled at each other, seeing the flowers as a sweet reward for Sue’s previous favour. Karma or an affirmation by our kind Creator.