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Instead of interpreting this biblical advice to put on the armour of God as an outdated military image, I'm seeing the usefulness of donning my spiritual armour against the destructive forces that are part of life.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.