Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Starlight

It's shining all over the place this month:

- a seven year old boy’s giggle at the way the nutcracker soldier spurts out peanut shells from between his painted wooden teeth
- a neighbour’s gift of baking, apricot-coconut cookies, tightly wrapped, and an I.O.U. for a homemade pie, on request.
- the car radio broadcasting classical hymns of praise to the Mystery who came in baby Jesus.
-  winter sunrise in the southern sky, sparkling the frosted garden's dead stalks
- cheerful clerks and customers exchanging patient smiles despite long line-ups, wishing each other a merry Christmas
- choirs, choirs, and more choirs, offering, like the angels, their Hallelujah song, ”Don’t be afraid; there’s good news!” 
- sweet sounds of Salvation Army bells, still caring for the poorest of God’s children 150 years after the Booth family first enlisted platoons of helpers
- baby-faced toddlers lolling on a stage, dressed as adorable woolly lambs in church pageants…each faithfully rehearsed by eager, tired parents…all to help tell the old story again
- thousands upon thousands of volunteers handing out gifts to needy families, serving turkey dinners to lonely folks on Christmas Day, packing boxes of encouragement for women’s shelters and prisoners’ children.
- gentle “Blue Christmas” services, lovingly designed for those who grieve at this time of year…so many clergy, musicians and lay leaders serving with compassion.
- a five year old grinning delightedly over secret presents she has hidden for her grandparents

These shining star-beams are easy to spot during December in Canada.

Wise seekers watch for other stars, too. Hiding in the everyday dark are a million lights invisible to you and me. 
Lights like:

- a man who gives away thousands of dollars every year because he is so grateful for what the Christmas infant/God incarnate has given to him.  
- a woman who frees Thai children from brothels because, through Christ, she has found personal freedom. 
- a brave few who reach out to their enemies because Jeshua of Nazareth broke down barriers between Jews and gentiles.
- many more, whose faith in Jesus, Friend of the poor, moves them to befriend the unpopular, the odd, the criminal and the emotionally needy.
- intimate moments of forgiveness offered by folks who choose God's way: "Forgive each other as God has forgiven you."
- Christian counsellors and therapists who do more than listen supportively, because when the moment is right, they can whisper good news… there is Someone who will never desert, never abandon, never ignore aching wounds.
These lights gleam in secret, every day, all year round.

We Christ-followers would be fools to claim to shine brighter than others at acting justly and loving mercy. That is not true. 
What we gladly affirm is this. Any flickering light we shine, comes from the Eternal Light who blazed into human life as a fragile newborn. We are merry because God so loved the world.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


The impressive stone building sits on a hill surrounded by old trees, one of the few city churches that still have their own cemetery. Father Martin presides over the “highest of high” Anglican service. He and his servers bow to icons and waft enough incense to choke you.
This weeknight service is held entirely in candlelight, the sanctuary so dark that you grope cautiously to find your way to an empty pew. Out of the darkness come exquisite voices, a cappella, leading our worship mostly in Latin. One feels time–transported to a medieval monastery. The hour is a feast for the senses and a respite for the soul. 

 One night during Advent my husband and I drifted outside after the service, half drunk on tranquillity, and headed for our car. A voice spoke from behind us, “Excuse me. I’m sorry to bother you, but…I need help.” 
We turned to see a pretty woman in her thirties, waiting in the dark. I was expecting her to say that her car wouldn’t start but instead she continued, 
“I don’t have anywhere to sleep.” 
She gestured to the black garbage bag on the ground beside her,
“I’ve been homeless for a year. I’m really cold and I just wondered if you might have some change.”

Sadly, in Toronto we’ve become accustomed to sidewalk beggars, briefly offering them a friendly smile or a couple of dollars before we hurry on, but this wasn’t a busy downtown street. We were in our own neighbourhood. The contrast between the lush service and a poor woman’s destitution was jarring.
We listened as Rochelle introduced herself and told us her story of a dangerous ex-husband and lost jobs. We were jolted into facing the disparity between our comfortable life and her situation.
We discussed Missions, City shelters, the Out of the Cold program, women’s shelters. Rochelle replied with all of the reasons that these programs hadn’t worked for her. We were stymied. Handing her some money, we offered to pray with her. Rochelle joined in our prayer, talking to God in a way that showed her own Christian faith.

The experts tell us that it would be naive to believe a panhandler’s story, so we were sceptical. We couldn’t trust that she was honest, so we didn’t dare invite her to come and sleep at our house. In any case, one overnight might not be a problem, but then? Did we want to take on responsibility for this woman who has no home or job? No. Was she an addict, a con artist, a thief? The risk was too high.

“What would Jesus do?” That facile question was no help at all. Jesus’ circumstances were entirely different from ours. He didn’t even have a home he could open to others. We know we want to follow His teaching of love, but how could we put love into action with someone like Rochelle? Where was God in this?

Our conversation slowed to a halt. We’d come to the end of ideas. It was time to say goodbye. It felt useless, but we promised to keep praying for Rochelle and gave her a hug. There she stood, alone in the damp, cold, dark. Aching, we had to literally turn our backs on her and walk away.

O come, Christmas Baby, God of all that is, abide with us who mourn in lonely exile here. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

Neverending Advent Calendar

Three little faces watched the computer screen, a rare treat while visiting grandparents. An online Advent calendar offered wonderful animations set in the city of London, England.  Nine December days had already passed so there were nine windows to enjoy.
The children eagerly mouse-clicked on numbered Christmas balls to open up charming vignettes. There was a comic restaurant scene, a dog and cat chasing each other onto the London Eye Ferris wheel, a white cart-horse munching on Covent Garden vegetables, and three ships sailing one after the other under the Tower Bridge.
On one date the calendar allowed the user to decorate a Christmas tree over and over. On another page, the children took turns designing a snowflake of their own that then magically fell across the sky in the city scene. 
This interactive gift from our friend, Vi, was created by artist Jacquie Lawson

Three small bodies bounced with excitement after seeing all nine. “Let’s do the next one!”

Uh-oh. Hard truth strikes again. This is an Advent Calendar. You can look at all the days that have passed and you can enjoy today’s treat, but you are not allowed to open tomorrow’s scene. Little faces went blank. The children wriggled down from their chairs, turned to their grandmother and said, “Oh, okay. What are we going to do now?”

What a great idea Advent Calendars are, teaching children to wait, practicing when they’re young. When they’re older they’ll understand that life is like a bawx of chawclits, and also like an advent calendar that goes year round. We can’t know what tomorrow’s mouse-click will reveal. Meanwhile we wait. 
Waiting feels so unnatural to us that one man I know starts huffing and puffing if a red stoplight lasts longer than he thinks it should. My beloved knows that eventually the red will turn green. Even so, he finds it hard to wait a few extra seconds. 

 The church’s season called “Advent” reminds us of a cosmic waiting. The four weeks are meant to be suffused with hope, hope based on a promise we find hard to believe. We know that the prophesied baby arrived, but will there yet be peace on earth? When one of our own days is filled with more of life’s rotten tricks than it is with treats, patient waiting is almost impossible. As Margaret Atwood wrote, 
“The facts of this world, seen clearly, are seen through tears.” 
Can it be true that God will one day wipe away the tears from all weeping eyes once and for all? 

God doesn’t seem to act the way traffic lights do, no matter how hard we wish. God is way more unpredictable, as far as timing goes. But if the promises are true, then the Christmas angel’s reassurance makes more sense. “Don’t be afraid, there’s good news!”
 Maybe, like the three wise children, we can surrender to the hard facts of life, and turn to God, “Okay. What are we going to do now?” 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Hard to Shake a Ghost

Every year at Christmas some famous Canadian actors and CBC radio personalities give performances of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as fundraisers for local charities. Although one of the performances is at my own church, I just wasn’t interested. That story has been done to death, I thought.

I looked forward to other Christmas events and planned to kick off my Christmas season with the neighbourhood BIA-sponsored concert. Several local church choirs join with a string ensemble to make heavenly music. 

After eagerly arriving early to get a seat I scanned the programme in my hand. Groan. This year, between selections from Handel’s Messiah, there were going to be readings from Dickens’ famous novella! Oh drat. I was further annoyed when, at the last minute, an usher pushed in a hefty (late) woman to sit beside me, jammed up against my own hefty self. 
The combo of physical discomfort and Dickens, sent me out the door early, feeling cranky instead of jolly.

The next evening, again anticipating a meaningful occasion, I spent a confusing two hours at a fundraiser for a stranger that combined a tragic story, tango dancers, a sexy bar singer, some ballet, and a scriptural benediction. Long story. I left feeling cranky again.

Oh well, I knew that the Salvation Army’s annual concert in the magnificent Roy Thompson Hall would not disappoint.  A week later I settled in my seat near the rafters and looked at the programme.
WHAT? This can’t be.
Tucked between various musical numbers that promised delight, the programme listed readings from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol!
What was going on? Never mind the ghost of Christmas past, Dickens himself was haunting me.

My next evening out had been advertised as a concert by one of my favourite recording artists. Dickens didn’t show up, but most of the evening turned out to be a plea for charitable donations topped off with a sermon. I tried to be positive but I couldn’t keep from grumbling about sneaky organizers who publicize one thing and intend another. 
Crank, crank, crank, 

One morning, I sat in discouraged silence. The Christmas glow had vanished. 
“Okay, God, very funny. I’m trying to celebrate Your incarnation on earth, “keeping the Christ in Christmas”, as they say, and all I’m getting so far is disappointment and Dickens, of all crazy things.” 
After a few minutes, a light bulb went on. 
With shock I realized that I, myself, was acting like Scrooge! I was the one saying “Bah!” as I attend one disappointing event after another.
I finally surrendered to the Ghost and read A Christmas Carol.
There was a vivid description of Ebenezer Scrooge:
“a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”
When his cheerful nephew says to him, “Don’t be cross", he answers, “What else could I be when I live in such a world of fools as this?” 
Oops, my recent sentiments exactly.
For two weeks I’d been hungrily trying to consume merriness and Christmas inspiration. Smug about not spending extravagantly on gifts, and planning my lovely Advent events expectantly, I hadn’t noticed my self-centred greed for tradition, beauty and pleasure at this time of year. Thanks for the wake-up call, Mr. Dickens.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Suit Up

So there’s this section I’ve never liked in the bible, where it says to “put on the whole armour of God”. It’s in the book called Ephesians, Chapter 6.
That phrase sounds so militaristic, patriarchal and out-dated. 
It makes you think that anyone who believes the bible aligns self-righteously with the Crusade of the moment. Pictures flash to mind of fundamentalists holding up signs that say “God hates gays”. Horrible. In fact such war is neither biblical nor Christian. More fighting is just what we don’t need.

Most of us today find it more enlivening to think of our connection with God through metaphors like Christ as a Divine Parent welcoming home a wayward child, or as a Divine Artist creating breathtaking beauty even out of refuse, or as a Divine Therapist who accepts us as we are and listens us into healing. Who wants to lug shields and helmets? It’s way more fun to dance through life filled with joy and peace.

Even more so for modern spiritual seekers who don’t hold Christian beliefs, the metaphor of spiritual warriors is off-putting. They are drawn instead to messages like “Everything’s fine and you’re fine just the way you are”, or “You control your own destiny” or  “the universe is unfolding as it should”.

Partly true, but tell that to my neighbour whose husband just died. Tell it to a diabetic eight year old girl I know, who gets bullied at school. Tell it to my friend who’s fighting terminal cancer while his wife is pregnant with twins.

Instead of interpreting this biblical advice to put on the armour of God as an outdated military image, I'm seeing the usefulness of donning my spiritual armour against the destructive forces that are part of life. If we are fearless enough to look clear-eyed at the evil of selling girls for men’s abusive entertainment, to look at the outrageous injustice of our engorged malls at Christmas while Ethiopian parents are comforting their children dying from starvation, then we know that there is an attacker called evil. Evil tries to numb us with addictions, tempts us to ignorance and blind optimism, offers false gods like wealth and power that we worship by stepping on the weak and poor.

In fact I do believe in the God I described in paragraph II above. I count on the presence of a God who loves us even better than I can love my grandchildren. I believe that God interacts with us as individuals, and faithfully companions us through life whether we recognize God or not. And I agree with the character in “The Colour Purple” who stands in awe amidst a field of purple wildflowers imagining God’s frustration when we don’t notice Her exquisite gifts in Nature. There is so much fun and love and beauty in life that one can choose to see one’s glass as half full. 

But that is not an answer for the other half of glassy reality. 
I don’t know about you, but I need the protective armour described in this ancient letter from Paul to the people in Ephesus: a weight-lifter’s belt of truth, a corset of justice, and work boots made from peace.
There are moments when I must hold a shield of faith instead of falling under evil arrows of hopelessness and helplessness.
I want to stand firm, not looking for a fight with human enemies but equipped to resist what would destroy. 
Now if someone would just help me get this stuff on.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Occupy Toronto VI - Today I Saw a Kiss

As my grandchildren would say “LOOKIT!”
As the King James Bible would say, “BEHOLD!”
A wonder happened at St. James Park today. 
See law and order respecting rights and freedom. 
See what beauty comes from self-restraint and a shared desire for peace.

I watched my Toronto police act like the upholders of Canadian law they are meant to be. It helped modify my disgust at police behaviour during the G20.
I saw police in baseball caps, not riot gear, carry off one resistor to a trailer. Unlike the police bullies two years ago, they carried her away without kicking her, wrenching her arm or dragging her bare skin across pavement. 

The ragtag collection of occupiers, cold, tired and dirty after a month of living outside, accepted that this encampment needed to end. I heard protestors urging others to maintain the peace.  
Instead of mindless anger and hatred, there was a glimpse of upright policing and intelligent activism.

Whatever happens next  this moment offers hope.

For a month a couple of hundred strangers created a welcoming, listening, caring community. Many others supported them with free food and other supplies. 
For a month those in power were patient and acted fairly, even generously, as bike police accompanied spontaneous marches through street of traffic. 
Media reported more than one side of the story as they gave the Occupy Movement the attention it deserved. 

Thousands of years ago, God’s vision for humanity was understood by biblical authors:

And my people shall abide in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. 
The work of righteousness will be peace, and the service of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever. 
Lovingkindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. 
(Isaiah 32:18 & Psalm 85:10)

Thankyou, Occupiers and Police, for this sweet kiss.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Facing East

Because I’m a born pessimist, I’m always looking for reasons to be hopeful, hence the title and description of this blog. Today I found a heartening name for the One I try to trust in a poem by Thomas Chatterton. His phrase was “…God, my East, my Sun…”
God as our life-sustaining Sun-Star is a familiar metaphor, but God, “my East”? I liked this image a lot. In the face of life’s haunting shadows, it’s powerful to remember the feeling of watching the eastern sky begin to lighten, after a Canadian winter’s night, and then the brilliant moment when the sun’s glorious fire blazes over the horizon.

Unfortunately I made the mistake of looking up this poet’s bio.

What a sad story of an 18th century boy in England named Thomas Chatterton! It appears that little Tom was born with a tendency toward depression, since he is described as a child who sat for hours staring off into space and was frequently found in tears. After a slow start at learning to read and write, this solitary dreamer began creating poems.
At the age of 11 he had one of his poems published in the “Bristol Journal”, and he continued to write for various magazines, while enduring a strict boarding school and later a dull apprenticeship to a local lawyer. In those days, as you know, children were considered adults at a very young age and he was earning his own living by 16.
Chatterton is considered the first “Romantic” poet and did in fact live alone in a garret, where one night, before his 18th birthday, depression overcame him. In hopelessness, Tom ripped to shreds some of his written work, drank a glass of water mixed with arsenic and ended his life.
(See painting by Henry Wallis of Chatterton’s death scene  here  )

Needless to say, Chatterton’s poem below took on a different shade for me after reading his story. Two hundred and fifty years ago, poor Thomas turned away from the Christian hope affirmed in his poem and resolutely set his face toward the west.

Then why, my soul, dost thou complain?
Why drooping seek the dark recess?
Shake off the melancholy chain,
For God created all to bless.
The gloomy mantle of the night,
Which on my sinking spirits steals,
Will vanish at the morning light,
Which God, my East, my Sun, reveals.

May you and I hold up for each other the promise of dawn’s faithful return.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Is that the Alarm Clock?

In Vancouver there is a little boy named Dov, 18 months old. He is very good-natured, grinning far more often than crying.  Like all toddlers he’s funny and cute and wins hearts everywhere he goes. He loves books and cookies and playing ball, but what he deeply does NOT love is being forced to change what he’s doing. If he wants to run toward the road, only physical force will divert him. If he’s watching the screen on Daddy’s Iphone, you’d better put in your earplugs before you take it away. If it’s time to put on snow pants when he’s happy in the livingroom, good luck.  Dov doesn’t always embrace change. He doesn’t like to be changed, either.

Why am I still like a toddler?
If “the only constant in life is change” shouldn’t we be used to it by now?
Why do we often react to change with fear and loathing? Why do we assume change  will be for the worse?
 Researching the source of that quote, I found that from Heraclitus to Huxley, thinkers have discussed the instability and unpredictability of human life on planet Earth.  Shouldn’t change feel like the norm instead of catching us off-guard?
You’d think that our life experience had been like the movie “Groundhog Day”, each day exactly like the previous one.  

We’re so shaken when familiar landmarks fall or new circumstances arise. I park at a favourite restaurant and groan at the “Out of Business” sign.  Instead of imagining the fun of finding a different favourite, I whine, “Can’t anything stay the same?” As soon as my husband and I get the basement floor re-tiled, our furnace humidifier springs a leak and we rant at the irony. Why are we so surprised? We’ve been on this planet for decades!
Maybe your older child had the skilled and friendly Grade 4 teacher so you’re shocked when your younger gets a new teacher nobody knows. Or just when you’re feeling comfortably confident in your current job, a tempting position is posted. Out of the blue a difficult decision is plopped in your lap. Why so unsettling?
Maybe it’s because we prefer to sleepwalk most of the time, like driving the route home on auto-pilot while we focus our thoughts elsewhere.

Although I often give thanks for the predictability of the Creator’s natural laws (spring always follows winter, and water always runs downhill in our furnace room), I guess I need to be thankful as well for surprising changes. No matter how common, change affects us like an alarm clock buzz. When we're startled awake, what if we could respond not with dread, but with excitement about new possibilities?

Recently I heard an interesting snatch from a video sermon. An athlete told about the football tackle that ended his professional sports career. He explained that instead of the natural tendency to cry, “Why did this happen to me?” he has learned to ask with anticipation, “Why am I suddenly here?” Why am I on this two-hour bus ride to an emergency room with my football trainer beside me? What unexpected opportunity or benefit might have suddenly arrived?

One of my favourite names in the bible for God is, “My Rock”.
Let’s see - how can I fit together a rock and an alarm clock? 

Monday, 7 November 2011

Occupy Toronto, Part V

We bumped into each other in our church foyer just before a worship service, a woman I hadn’t spoken to before. Instead of the usual, “Isn’t it a beautiful sunny day?” kind of comment I expected, she began to criticize. She told me everything that was wrong with those “Occupy” people. She was very elderly, so maybe it would be kind to assume that extreme age was twisting her mind and her character beyond her control. “Why don’t they get a job?” “What good are they doing?” “And that girl just died in Vancouver.” On and on she went with a peculiar vehemence. I just listened in silence, but I wondered, “What is it to you, that you should be so upset?”

Then there was a blog war I followed last week. The blogger had offered an intemperate lecture to the Occupy London participants. Comments poured in. One side agreed with the initial post that the Occupiers should go home and be useful, while the other begged for patient listening.  They did not express these opinions in the tone or the language I am using in this description. Phew, the feathers flew!

I am fascinated by the emotion around the “Occupy Movement”. Why do these campsites make people furious?
I would understand if such anger came from a local business owner who thought they were keeping customers away. I would understand if drivers expressed anger that the marches were adding significantly to traffic congestion. I certainly understand that people will be arrested if they act violently toward others or their property.
But many folk who have no first-hand knowledge or experience of what’s happening seem to be extreme in their reactions. They seem quick to focus on any negative side-effects of the protest and show no interest at all in discovering whether something positive might be happening. Without having met and spoken to any of the Occupiers they spew insulting assumptions about their intelligence, their life circumstances and their ethics. Curious.

The mayor of Vancouver, for instance, is blaming the tragedy of a drug overdose death on the Occupy camp’s “dangerous” living conditions. Really? because such tragedies don’t happen otherwise? Is this just a political excuse to keep the law and order folk happy or is he expressing a deeper fear?

I’d like to think of these seemingly irrational reactions as a litmus test of our own state of mind or spiritual maturity, but it has to be more complicated than that.
There are a lot of hidden buttons being pushed and there have to be some lessons here for all of us.
Wouldn’t it be cool if, when we see somebody doing something we think is crazy, we reacted with curiosity and questions, instead of judgement and disdain?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Caretaker Damien

A new friendship on the periphery of my life went sour recently and the unresolved conflict made me sad. I woke up one day feeling discombobulated. Any shared healing is unlikely, due to circumstances. I was stuck with feeling bad.

I tried reading some inspiring writers. I watched part of a Christian TV show that sometimes encourages me. I prayed, sort of. All efforts failed and my mind kept buzzing.

It made sense to get some errands done so I headed out. Driving between stores, I remembered the saddest little labyrinth I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes it helps my state of mind if I walk a labyrinth and I’ve walked many: a beautiful carpet labyrinth in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, outdoor labyrinths surrounded by exquisite gardens, Toronto labyrinths in Women’s College Hospital and High Park.
The one I was thinking of is nothing like those.

Today’s errands would take me near it. An hour later I drove into a church driveway and on toward the farthest corner of their property.
Years since I’d last seen it, the labyrinth was still there, faded lines painted on parking lot asphalt. It hid at the edge of crumbling pavement, bordered on one side by the neighbours’ privacy fences and on the other by unkempt park grass. When I walked over to enter the labyrinth I saw that it was half-covered by dirt and fallen leaves. Even after kicking away some debris and muck I couldn’t see enough of the paths with their unpredictable turns to follow the trail with confidence.

Labyrinths are not mazes; you can’t puzzle out the right way or decide which path to take. The meditative practice is to follow a path laid out for you so that you are free to let your thoughts wander and become aware of insights God’s Spirit may bring.

What to do?
I trudged across the huge suburban church parking lot. The church secretary seemed annoyed that anyone had opened her office door. I explained my problem and asked if I could possibly borrow a rake or an outdoor broom. I would be happy to clean the labyrinth but I couldn’t use it the way it was.
She frowned, and defended the state of the labyrinth by informing me that there were many other things the church had to spend money on.
Again I explained, “I’d just like to brush away some of the leaves and dirt that are covering the path, if that’s alright.”
 “Anyone is welcome to use the labyrinth at any time” she replied, grudgingly, “but I don’t know where there would be a rake or a broom.”
I persisted, “Is there a caretaker around?”
“I don’t think so and I don’t know where he keeps the brooms and the door would probably be locked anyway.”
“Oh, okay, thanks.”
As I left I added silently, “For nothing.”
On my way downstairs to the exit I passed a man on his way up. Taking a chance I said, “Hello. Do you work here?”
He stared at me, puzzled.
I repeated, more slowly, “I’m just wondering if you work here.”
“Yes. I janitor,” he replied in a strong accent.
I asked if I could borrow a rake or a broom, gesturing outside toward the parking lot. “I need to clean up the labyrinth”
What are the chances he knows that word? None.
“You want to clean?”
“Yes. I want to walk the labyrinth but it’s covered in dirt and leaves. Do you have a broom?”
This word he understood. He nodded and turned to head upstairs. I followed him back past the secretary’s office with its glass walls, keeping my head down and hoping she wouldn’t tell me to stop bothering the staff. He led me around the corner to his (open) closet, getting out a broom and dustpan. I held out my hands but he said, “I clean. You show me”.
Off we went.

When we got to the far corner of the parking lot he pointed at the painted circles and asked, “What this is?
“It’s a labyrinth, a path we can walk while we pray”
“Pray? Like… Gott?”
“Yes,” I nod and smile,  “We walk, and we think and God gives us ideas. Sometimes we ask for help. Like I have a friend in trouble and I’m asking God for help.”
I finally had the sense to ask his name.
We shook hands.
“Hi Damien. I’m DJ. Thankyou so much for doing this.”
Waving at the labyrinth markings he said with a smile, “I think this for children to play”.
After his first attempt to sweep the muddy leaves he walked all the way back to the church building to get a bigger push broom. There was no stopping him, so I went to where I thought the labyrinth entrance was and kicked away enough leaves to begin my prayer walk. Soon I heard the whoosh, whooshing of Damien’s broom behind me as I moved slowly along the circling path. I paused. It sounded like Mother God cleaning, cleaning up our messes.
As I turned one of the loops in the path, I saw that he was leaving.
“Thankyou so much, Damien!” I called.

Gratitude began to replace my hurt and frustration, although there were more tears before I was done. It was so healing to stand in the centre circle, complaining to God about the ugly and hard parts of life, wishing there was nothing but beauty and love. I gave thanks for those who had made this labyrinth, poor cousin to Cathedral carpets and lovely gardens. I closed my eyes to face the warm sun and listened to leaves rustling. I sang, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.

When I left the labyrinth, feeling much better, I thought two things.
The church secretary didn’t understand that by being unhelpful, she was blocking the light I badly needed.
And, between language difficulties and his unfamiliarity with labyrinths Damien won’t understand how his kind gift helped me back to the sunshine.

Monday, 24 October 2011

I Was Born into the Wrong Culture

It was fun to watch an African woman cross in front of my car at a red light. Underneath her Canadian winter jacket, she was wearing a long skirt of beautiful Kente cloth. The colours brightened up the grey Toronto intersection of cement sidewalks, hydro poles and pavement. There she was with her creamy coloured head wrap, orange, green, gold and red swirling around her legs.
Just look at your wardrobe, or take a subway ride. How much black, grey and navy do we really need to see in a Toronto winter?
I should have been born in Kenya.

Black women everywhere, African or American, somehow scored permission to be admired for being round and wide. Here I am, rounder and wider with every passing year, feeling repulsive in a culture that idolizes thinness.
I should have been born black.

At two funerals I attended recently for well-loved men, the crowded church sanctuaries were quiet but for occasional discreet sniffing. The only other sign of pain in a room full of breaking hearts were some red eyes as we filed out of the service. One adult daughter of the deceased couldn’t stop weeping fresh tears when each mourner greeted her and I heard a surprised comment on the quantity of her tears, a comment tinged with a disapproving tone, no less.
On TV I’ve seen bereaved Mideastern women in black who throw themselves across the casket, ululating in grief.
I should have been born an Arab.

I once told a psychiatrist that I was feeling so introverted and depressed that I didn’t always feel like saying “Hi” to people on my neighborhood streets as we passed each other. She looked at me in horror, “Why would you think you needed to greet strangers on the street?!”
I should have been born in the Southern States.

In most church worship, whether Roman Catholic Mass, Anglican ordination, or Evangelical songfest the congregation is expected to behave. Sit quietly in the pew, stand when the choir stands, sing when the organ plays, clap self-consciously if someone else starts the clapping, control yourself.
Have these polite worshippers ever watched the hilarious frenzy of two squirrels chasing each other in mad circles around a tree trunk until they’re both exhausted? Have they ever enjoyed the way four year olds wiggle and jump to the sound of drum music? Have they, themselves ever screamed, leapt to their feet with their arms in the air when their team scored?
Do church folk forget who created squirrels, little kids, music, our human bodies and emotions?
I should have been born a Jamaican Pentecostal Christian. They know how to dance and shout their joy.

It’s very cool that the world has immigrated to Toronto where I was born, because I was born into the wrong culture.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Fall Leaves

We all notice when there’s a gorgeous blazing sunset, but every day Earth is like an outdoor gallery full of  installation art pieces.
Stepping out of the car this week, I noticed a brilliant rose-coloured leaf in a small pile that the wind had blown into a corner of my driveway’s retaining wall. Even though it was a cold, rainy day, I had to pause for a closer look.

There, set against the charcoal-grey asphalt background was a freeform sculpture. Two red-pink pointed ovals from a neighbour’s bush lay among buttercup-yellow heart shapes and curled rusty maple leaves. The intensity of rose and yellow contrasted deliciously with the darker shades of maple.
My eyes widened as they focussed on a surprise in the background. The biggest leaf, about three inches long and surf-board-shaped, was a luscious brown; it looked like leather, flat and smooth without a hint of withering. I stood up and looked around to see what tree held such leaves. No use. They must have flown some distance, a wild ride on the gusty day.
Some small ginko leaves added to the beauty, their summer green now fading to ecru. Ginko leaves are shaped like perfect fans, complete with stem handles.

The Artist who composed this installation is so prolific and wealthy that I’m sure She won’t mind; I scooped up two hand-fulls of the leaf sculpture, carried as much of it inside as I could, and re-installed it haphazardly on my kitchen window sill.

Sunny yellow, burnt orange, chocolate brown and brilliant rose; are these the colours of death?

I’ve two funerals to attend this week. 
Both are for men who were not elderly and who, before cancer appeared, filled their lives with adventures, with laughter and with family love. One was an engineer and stand-up comic, the other an accountant who dressed as a clown for the Santa Claus parade. It hurts to imagine the pain left for one man’s 12 year old daughter and the other’s five little grandchildren... his aging mother… his widow.

Surely the Creator who designed joyful colours to be revealed in Fall’s dying leaves meant them as a metaphor. Even in the face of death there is hope. The clues are everywhere that death is not the end. This is, however, a truth easy in the saying; in practice, bitterly hard can be the wait for spring.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Occupying Toronto, Part IV: Signs

It felt weird to walk up my quiet suburban street, solo, holding at my side a hand-made protest sign. I avoided people’s eyes but could see that everyone I passed curiously scanned the upside down text on my piece of cardboard. Have you ever been on a protest march all by yourself? On your own block? Embarrassing.

At the subway entrance, I hoisted the sign over the turnstile, scooted down to the platform and when a train stopped, leaned the sign against the train’s doorway wall, out of people’s way. I slunk from one side of the car to the other (with my sign) so that I could stand in the doorway opposite the one where riders were exiting and entering.  As usual, multiple passengers offered the old lady (me) their seats. This time I pointed at my sign-on-a-stick as I smilingly refused their kind offers. Now they think I’m crazy as well as old.

St. James Park was week-day quiet, still filled with tents and guarded by police on bikes. I walked around reading chalk messages along the sidewalks. Beside these on the grass were piles of cardboard signs. “People aren’t for sale”, “We are the 99%”,

I noticed a group of teenagers. Their teacher spotted my sign and said to them, “Look at this. It’s a bible verse” They obediently looked over, with that killer teenage stare.

Micah 6, the Bible

They weren’t impressed.

The sound of drumming started and I found a few First Nations guys gathered nearby. They had a couple of Indian flags and a megaphone. After a song and a speech the leader started off to march to Bay St. A small group followed.
Since nothing else was happening, I figured I’d join in.  I shortly found myself dodging both the leader who was using the megaphone to share his political harangue with stunned passersby and some tall man wrapped in a cannabis flag, carrying a sign that read, “Hemp will save the world”
Oh dear. I did a u-turn and headed back to the park.

In my head someone’s singing an old 60’s song , “Signs, signs, everywhere a sign,  blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind”.

I remembered one more sign on the grass at St. James. I didn’t write it, honest. In big letters on brown cardboard it said “ God is here”.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Occupying Toronto, Part III

St. James Park on King St. was full of tents. Smack up against the most “establishment” church in Toronto, hundreds of young adults have hunkered down to live out their own values and make their own rules. St. James is the Anglican cathedral (head church), and in the history of Toronto, Anglicans used to call the shots. This is the church that mayors (maybe not Rob Ford) and Premiers still attend on Christmas Eve.
It also welcomes the Queen and other royals any time they’re in Toronto on a Sunday. This is where, if anywhere, the ultra rich are likely to worship among their friends. It was a hilarious and wondrous sight to see a rebel campsite in the side yard of the huge, old stone building, its spire long a landmark for our city.

I wandered among the tents seeing handmade signs for First Aid, Media, and Information.
There were roughly crafted signs everywhere, leaning against tree trunks, stuck in the ground, taped onto people’s chests, or laid in rows under another sign that read, “Signs”, ready for the next street march.
I could see a couple of the usual union banners but  few people over forty.

As an aside, people are very kind to anyone with white hair like mine. They assume we’re fragile and decrepit, offering me seats on the subway so frequently that I’ve given up saying I prefer to stand. White hair is a perfect disguise for a rebel.

I was warmly welcomed and asked if I was going to join the march. I said, “Sure” and could hear surprise in the young guy’s voice, “Great!”

A covered bandstand was serving as a stage for speakers. I didn’t understand what the crowd was saying in unison until I got closer and witnessed something intriguing. Maybe the technique is common in poorer countries but it was new to me. 
The speaker had no microphone, so, as if he were working with a translator, he would first shout “Mike check” and then begin his speech or announcement. Without a real microphone, those near enough to hear the speaker would loudly repeat what he had said, so that people further back could get the message. It worked brilliantly. 
When the speaker  was trying to tell the crowd where any volunteer leaders would be meeting and pointed to  a meeting tent, the crowd repeated his words and his gesture.

I spoke to a couple of young women beside me who had come in from London, Ontario. According to them, these speeches, by anyone who signed up for a turn, had been going on for three hours. Somehow a commitment had been made for consensus decision-making and they had spent hours trying to agree on their next steps. What a refreshing change from the usual cynicism of politicians and corporate executives! Impractical and inefficient, sure, but glorious to see.

Occupying Toronto, Part II

Today I heard God speak on TV.

A television reporter was standing at the Occupy Toronto encampment in St. James Park and wanted to find someone to answer the anchor desk's question about how these campers could afford to stay in the park for days on end. 
The reporter pulled in the nearest protestor.
Here's the short interview with young “Elijah”.
Reporter: “How can you afford to do this?”
Elijah: “I quit my well-paying job as the operations manager of a woodmilling shop.  I moved out of my apartment . We’re going to stay here until world peace is achieved.” He looked into the camera, raised his hand in the peace sign and said, “Welcome to freedom.”
Again, I admit, the naivete is breathtaking, but...

Elijah is the name of a Jewish prophet who lived many centuries ago. He is honoured by Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is famous for conducting an outrageous experiment to show his contemporaries that there is only one God worth recognizing, the God who created us and wants justice and mercy for all of humanity. He tells the people to to stop giving honour, time and money to false idols. 
The folks who are occupying world cities are speaking out against the false idols of wealth and power. They are calling us all to love justice and mercy, to share power and to lift up the poor.

Jesus said to the rich man who wanted spiritual salvation, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor”. Like all the other preachers who explain this bible story, I’m sure Jesus didn’t really mean what he said (!), but a few people take his words seriously.
Some of them are camping out in our cities and marching through our streets. Instead of scoffing, we should cheer them on and help them find their way.
We oldsters who watched in amazement as the Berlin Wall was torn down, we know that the unimaginable is possible.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Occupying Toronto, Part I

After my neighbour called me out for being at home doing a crossword on my front porch instead of joining the protestors downtown, I decided to head for the subway. She never attends such marches and rallies herself, but knows that I’m a demonstration junky. I joke that my favourite part is getting to walk in the streets shouting my head off. It feels great yelling chants like, “Hey Mister, Mister! Get your hands off my sister!” or the favorite call and reply chant, “Whose streets?” “Our streets!”

In truth, I am always interested in what issues motivate people, and often they hit the streets for reasons that matter to me, too. However, I hadn’t been moved by this new “occupy” action immediately, probably  because economics makes my head spin. I’m allergic to numbers, spreadsheets and anything else that reminds me of Grade 10 math, the last year I took that lousy subject. Apparently fate thinks it funny to watch those of us who snobbishly scorned the highschool courses in typing, scrambling desperately, decades later, to learn keyboarding. Likewise with math. I was chagrined to hear a leading feminist preach that if we wanted to change the world for girls and women in particular, we had to learn how the world economies work. Doggone it.

So I have learned about micro-businesses and made myself listen to some of the reports on Bernie Madoff and his evil colleagues. I’ve watched documentaries explaining how the mortgage mess happened in the U.S. and others that tell sad stories about clueless home buyers who are now homeless. Once in a while I even open the Business Section of the newspaper.

Lately there’s been enough broadcasting about occupying Wall St. that despite the appearance of disorganization and lack of clear goals among the protestors,  I do recognize values in common. I suspect that the Spirit of God has provoked many to take a stand, even without offering solutions,  against the unfair distribution of resources and profit. They are protesting a capitalist system and unionism that are both unchecked by any concern about their abuse of power and endless greed. 

Yes, the ‘occupiers’ are a ragtag bunch, unable to identify exactly what they want or exactly how fundamental changes to our economic norms can happen (don't ask me). But the movement may be, at least partly, an expression of a God-given insight that we are living in a deeply unhealthy culture, where some among us need reality TV shows to rescue us from buying more stuff, and others rob and murder as a twisted response to hopeless poverty. 

My own story of occupying to follow.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Baby God

She bounces into the cottage kitchen first thing in the morning, white-blonde baby hair frizzed by sleep into dreads and ringlets. Her pyjamas are a pink flannel one-piece. My granddaughter.
Although she has wakened all of us an hour earlier than I usually get up, my heart races when I see her on this new summer day. Anticipation floods me. I open my arms and she runs toward me.
I know that one day this pattern will change, but for now 2 yr.old Amelia Charis runs into my arms every time we greet each other.

With my widest grin and raised brows I bend down and scoop her up so that we’re face to face, with her whole length flat against my chest and belly. She clasps my upper arms as far round as her baby arms can reach, and tucks her head inbetween my neck and shoulder. I feel our bodies, so disparate, melting into each other’s warmth. Her relaxation is as complete as mine. I stand motionless as she lies against me in a full embrace, both of us lost in the feeling. For some reason, she doesn’t squirm in my arms to be put back down on her toddler feet, feet that have already learned the pleasure of running and dancing.
She is still.
I close my eyes so that I can focus on sensation. Quietly, I hum and murmur tunelessly, rocking a bit. I whisper, “I love you, Amelia”.  
She rests.
It feels like prayer to me.

Eventually, she lifts her head to look into my face. Our eyes meet and we gaze full on, soul to soul. I drink in her perfect, fresh-born face haloed by wisps of blonde, her flawless complexion and clear blue eyes. I forget what she is seeing, skin that blotches and sags, and my aged eyes.
She doesn’t turn away.
I wonder what she’s thinking.
Wordless, we hold each other and look long at love personified.
Ecstatic Union.