Wednesday, 28 March 2012

God Shows Up on TV's "Britain's got Talent"

Please watch this video before you read.

Like yours, I’m sure, my heart hurt when I listened to Jonathan Antoine tell his story of being despised and rejected. He told how during his childhood and into his teen years he was mocked for being overweight. Anyone who’s ever had their feelings hurt by bullies instantly revisited their own old pain as Jonathan spoke. His words sprang from a social outcast’s face, so swathed by extra fat that his chinbone barely protrudes and his puffy cheeks obscure his eyes.
His appearance, combined with his vulnerable words made him seem like the epitome of the slur, “Loser”. He served as a stand-in for us all at our lowest moments of self-hatred, those desperate times when we curse our failures and weaknesses. He embodied our Lenten lamentation over the evil within and all around. Tears sprung to my eyes. The haunting question echoed: How can God allow such suffering?

And then along came Grace. Somehow, mysteriously, his pretty younger classmate named Charlotte saw past Jonathan’s exterior and found “treasure hidden in a field”. (see my blogpost below). On the advice of their singing teacher, Charlotte partnered with Jonathan to perform on grouchy Simon Cowell’s show, “Britain’s Got Talent”. What young girl-saint is this?!
There they stood, in front of a cynical, show-me world, she in neat red, beaming in youthful beauty, and Jonathan, with unstyled shoulder-length curls, in baggy rock T-shirt and sagging pants. They made a picture so incongruous that Cowell muttered into his colleague’s ear, “Just when you think it can’t get any worse...” 

Their music was cued and Jonathan started just a phrase too early. He immediately looked to  his Rock, Charlotte, for reassurance. She confidently began to sing on the correct beat, bringing him along. Their two strong voices performed a sung-to-death (I thought) song, written, strangely, by Corey Hart, and performed famously by Las Vegas diva, Celine Dionne. Its title is simply “The Prayer”. 
To my mind now, it is no coincidence that a prayer was their chosen performance piece.
Cowell’s face, as he grudgingly pretended to wish them good luck, betrayed that he was thinking something like, “You haven’t got a prayer for winning this contest”.

Again, Grace. As Jonathan’s beautiful voice swelled the praise began. The audience broke into applause. The camera zoomed in on Simon’s look of amazement. All of the judges started to smile with delight at the sound of glorious music. My hair stood on end as I watched the miracle. Within seconds the whole concert hall rose to a standing ovation and we saw Cowell, confused as Saul on the road to Damascus, slowly stand, slowly applaud. 

When the tumult subsided, Judge Cowell began to pronounce his verdict. In essence he said that Jonathan was wonderful and Charlotte stank.Tears welled in sweet Charlotte’s eyes as she heard Cowell’s damning comparison, “Charlotte I think you’re good, but Jonathan, you’re a future star. You’ve got an incredible voice. I like the fact that you’re here as a duo but I worry, Charlotte whether you’re going to hold him back.”
Poor Charlotte, a hero to her friend but only human after all.
Crazy-looking Jonathan took a moment to think. Earlier, during their introduction on stage, he had been so nervous that he could barely answer when bully Cowell taunted him,
 “Jonathan you haven’t said much. Are you shy?” 
Jonathan had replied with mature self-awareness, “Sometimes”. He wouldn’t be silenced now, when his saviour Charlotte was being attacked. He looked at Cowell and said calmly, “Well, we’ve come on here as a duo and we’re going to stay here as a duo”. Grace.

God’s tender love appeared next in another manifestation, the judge who sensed Charlotte’s pain at Cowell’s dismissive words, and said to her, “I think your voice complements Jonathan’s really well, so don’t be disheartened.” 
Oh my goodness, has the kingdom come?

After the three other panellists awarded Charlotte and Jonathan their votes for continuing in the talent competition, all eyes turned to the big boss, millionaire Simon Cowell who prides himself on his reputation for straight talking. 
He tapped his head and said this, “You know Jonathan, my head here would say to you, Jonathan, ‘dump her’”. The audience gasped and booed with disapproval. Cowell continued, “and then my heart would say there was something kind of magical at moments together as well, so I’m going to say ‘Yes’ to the two of you.”

Oh, dear Simon, you felt the presence of God’s Spirit and named it “magic”. Unknowingly you partnered with the Holy Rascal to bring millions of us this glimpse of the sacred. May your limey heart continue to open to the great good news of Easter Sunday when we will all rejoice again in God’s amazing love. 

Dear Readers, to further enrich your experience of this epiphany, you may want to listen to U2’s most excellent song, called, what else, “Grace”.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

On Being Sherlock

Seems to me that those of us who wonder about spiritual things are always looking for clues. Like Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot, we want to solve life’s mysteries. One of the puzzles is this: what exactly did Jesus mean when he kept talking about “the kingdom of God”? 

First we’re faced with the fact that the very idea of a kingdom sounds like a fairy tale of Cinderella and old English castles. In modern times we’re committed (in theory at least) to democratic governance. We believe, along with Churchill, that “democracy is the worst form of government systems, except all the others that have been tried.” 
Although every Sunday I join a roomful of people in praying “…thy kingdom come”, I still gulp at the archaic term, “kingdom”. (then again I also begin the prayer with a quiet, “Our Mother”, which luckily sounds enough like “Father” that nobody notices...)

 There are so many megalomaniacs wreaking havoc in various countries around the world that many find it difficult to see God as a Sovereign whom we can trust and follow. 
It helps to remember that Christ is not describing life as the realm of a divine dictator. Rather he teaches a way of life offered by the One who not only created us, but loves us in an encompassing way that extends even to allowing rebellion. 

Once we get over the king thing, the puzzle remains: what did Jesus mean?
Warning: at first impression Jesus’ “kingdom of God” sounds way less exciting than “The Holy Grail” or “The Secret”. We much prefer fast and definitive action, but the Spirit’s way is rarely dramatic or obvious.  Like Holmes and Poirot, we must continue feeling our way patiently through the fog and keep hunting for signs.

The other day I read these words:

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…
The kingdom of God is like leaven for making bread…
The kingdom of God is like money hidden in a field… 
The kingdom of God is like a merchant looking for fine pearls…
…receive the kingdom of God like a child…
(Matthew 13, Luke 13, Mark 10)

Jesus had an interesting way of teaching.
Unlike some preachers, and the creators of “The Secret”, he didn’t always explain exactly how life works or give simplistic answers to our deepest dilemmas. He spoke as one who knew that spiritual realities are bigger than human language and beyond logic. On a far smaller scale, but similarly, I can't adequately describe what it’s like to be a grandparent. Words are limited.
I picture Christ frequently pausing before he said, “Well, it’s sort of like this… but then it’s sort of like this, too…. and this.”

Nevertheless, in the homely comparisons above, there are intriguing clues about how God works.  Jesus' descriptions suggest that by paying attention to our everyday experience when we’re farming, cooking, purchasing, or investing, we can spy God’s underground methods. Each simile contains the idea of hidden and subtle goings on. 

“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…”
How much hope and faith does it take to believe that a maple key can grow into a majestic shade tree? Is there really any use, for instance, in a teacher’s attempt to teach children how to negotiate instead of whacking each other? In the face of the latest appalling violence surely it would be hard for him to feel hopeful that he’s making any difference. But what if he's actually planting a tiny seed of peace with huge potential? 
As another example, when a driver waves us into the traffic lane in front of her instead of squeezing our car out, can we see God’s kingdom in embryo? Could that driver's tiny seed of altruism possibly grow into a tree of hope in our heart, hope that enables us to envision a compassionate human community? Such faith is an antidote to today’s widespread feelings of despair and powerlessness.

“The kingdom of God is like leaven…”
If you’ve made bread you know that grains of yeast look unimpressive too. What fun it is to come back after an hour and see your dough puffing up to twice its original size. It sure feels like a miracle.
Some of us viewed the Occupy movement in just that way, as a potential leavening agent for our greedy, oppressive society. But then, when the Occupy campouts were ejected it seemed like the end of the movement’s effect. What a happy surprise recently to discover news of ongoing action that is growing out of that yeasty protest. 
What about emailing a politician with our plea for justice? Is Jesus telling us that one email can work as a leavening agent? 

Forgive me for the following conglomeration of metaphors but let’s imagine we’re detectives. In our Deerstalker hat, with magnifying glass in hand, we tiptoe through each day, hunting for evidence of this mysterious kingdom. Maybe we'll catch sight of Baker God making delicious bread, or of Farmer God planting wide fields, of Financial Advisor God acquiring abandoned properties, or of Fisher God smiling fondly at a glimmering pearl. And maybe if we are as willing as the child Jesus refers to, when we catch God at work, S/He’ll let us help.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Spring Thrill

I spied it in a small corner of the garden between the driveway and our flagstone walk. In the deep shade of a large cedar bush, one solitary snowdrop flower had pushed through winter’s ugly detritus, giving me my first glimpse of spring’s renewal. Despite the imported masses of blooms in every grocery store, year-round, there’s nothing like spotting a vibrant shoot  sprouting outdoors through the black earth. This is especially true for a carefree gardener like myself, whose showiest successes have usually blown in from neighbouring properties. I’m enthusiastic, but undisciplined, so I may be more impressed than others at any sign of healthy greenery in my own garden.

When I stop to delight in the first sprouts, I’m awed to see that small clumps of dirt and pieces of bark chip have been knocked aside by the unstoppable surge of plant life. How can pliable little leaves push their way up through the dark soil, gradually shoving aside any obstacles, until they reach daylight and fresh air? It should be impossible.

After so many years, I still feel a primal thrill at signs of the new season, a surge of relief that the sun is returning and winter is fading away.
Every Spring, these early flowers sing encouragement and offer their miniature examples of Easter’s blazing miracle: life is stronger than death. 
Maybe, given the daily news, all of us can use every reminder possible.

For a couple of days, I smiled every time I noticed the little white flower on my way in or out of the house. You may have guessed that I’m the kind of person who talks to plants (birds, squirrels… myself). 
Snowdrops hang their heads low to the ground, so you rarely see them up close, but one day I bent down to say thankyou, and got a thrill. Slipping one finger gently under its fragile stem I tipped up its flower face. 
Honestly, I’m amazed at the faith of atheists who believe that mindless evolution could produce this delicate work of art. 
Not only was the flower pristine white above the mucky dirt, but when I looked carefully, I found tiny brush strokes of green decorating each snowy interior petal, a green that echoed the blossom’s stem and the surrounding fountain of arcing leaves. At its centre, bright yellow stamens completed spring’s classic colour scheme. 

I took a deep breath and exhaled a long sigh of grateful for one little piece of perfection. 

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Strawberry Blonde Epiphany

“epiphany: any moment of sudden revelation
or the manifestation of a divine reality”

It was not a good day; joy had disappeared. I didn’t feel like praying and everything seemed annoying. In an effort to regain perspective I decided to drive to High Park’s labyrinth and see if walking it could work its usual magic. Every time I have followed a labyrinth’s circling path I have felt the Spirit’s presence and exited with a better attitude and new insight.

The park is a fifteen minute drive from my house and with every mile I got crankier. 
“There are too many cars in this city! How can it be taking so long just to get to the darn park?!” 
Every driver ahead of me was slow and stupid; every traffic light was red. I figured that probably the parking lots would be filled because it was school break week. Why had I bothered? Should I turn around? Crank-ee!

When I parked the car in one of the (many) empty spaces at the park’s only restaurant I noticed folks sitting outside the restaurant, a phenomenon for March in Toronto. 
The cynic in my head muttered, “Yeah, that’s nice but this winter’s weather has been stupid, too, with its lack of snow and erratic temperatures. How can anyone be so stupid as to doubt global warming? My grandkids hardly know what tobogganing is. We’re destroying the earth!” Crank, crank.

What should I take with me from the car, a sweater? My spring jacket? Will the wind pick up? A scarf? Gloves? If I wear my sweater will I be too hot or too cold? Stupid weather. I picked up everything except the gloves and started the trudge up the hill between the parking lot and the labyrinth. I began to realise that I needed … well… did I need to go badly enough that I had to walk back to the restaurant bathroom or could I wait? Oh, I’d better go. Crank! I headed down the hill, unlocked the car to leave my paraphernalia and walked inside. The water in every toilet looked yellow! Ugh. A friendly woman assured me that it was just the colour of the water today. What? The first booth I entered had no toilet paper! Luckily the next one did. I washed my hands and turned to dry them. The only electric dryer was broken. CRANK!
After asking a waitress for some napkins and informing her about the bathroom situation, I returned to the car. I gathered up my wallet, journal, pen, sweater, scarf and jacket to start again.

At the labyrinth I dropped everything and, without pause or prayer, I started stomping along the labyrinth’s path. Although the setting is pretty with old trees and patches of bush, the labyrinth at Toronto’s High Park is nothing like some beautiful ones I’ve walked elsewhere. 
In the desert of Borrego Springs an Episcopal church offers a labyrinth where the clean sandy path is marked by lines of white stones, surrounded by palms and whitewashed adobe benches. Dramatic and sacred. 
Near San Francisco at a Roman Catholic convent the labyrinth sits in a lovely flower garden and centres on a rough-cut standing stone, just the height for leaning on as one prays. Luscious.
In High Park, however, the labyrinth path is delineated by worn orange lines painted on asphalt, surrounded by a puzzling ring of an extended wooden tabletop with its attached bench along the outer edge.

I strode along the marked path feeling nothing but dull frustration with this stupid life and my stupid mood. I didn’t feel like talking to God. I berated myself with a favourite slur, “Lazy loser.” For a few steps I pronounced this curse on my own head, “lazy loser, lazy loser” – it has a gratifying ring to it. Halfway to the centre I remembered that my wallet was in the jacket I’d left on the table at the labyrinth’s entrance. 
“Stupid selfish thieves! Why should I have to worry about your stealing my money and ID’s!” 
I broke a cardinal rule of spiritual practice and headed straight across the orange lines, yanked my wallet out of my jacket and tried to stuff it into my jeans’ pocket. It was too big to really fit and as I wrestled with my waistband my temper rose further. I can’t stop my addiction to sugar and salt and seem to get fatter every day. There’s no one to blame but myself. STUPID! 

I started the path all over again to see if I could walk more thoughtfully but still reached the centre faster than usual. Although there was no meditating along the way, the rhythm of following a narrow, circling path brought some soothing. At the centre one normally stands in each of the five petals by turn, praying, perhaps, for the various circles of one’s life: family, friends, the church, the world, etc. But when I arrived there this time I was in no mood to care about other people… I felt ashamed of my ingratitude.

Standing still, I lifted my face to the sky and enjoyed the sensation of wind and sun on my skin. Nature so often refreshes even the crankiest soul. I stood for a while, and then remembered the wise whisper I’d heard before, “Let it be”. Years ago in San Francisco, at a painful crisis, the Beatles’ song had been a word from God. It never helps to beat yourself up or to get into a frenzy trying to fix things. When you can’t do anything helpful, let it be.

Without any intentional prayer I started the path back. I made myself thank God for the endless good gifts in my life. My pace became a bit freer, alternating baby steps with arm-swinging strides and slow strolling.  Amidst my feelings of uselessness another song came to mind. I sang the words that I could remember; words that come from a bible verse where God says “I will change your name. “ (Isaiah 62)
I hum and whisper the contemporary lyrics,
 “You shall no longer be called wounded, outcast…Your new name shall be… friend of God, one who seeks My face”. 
(by D.J. Butler)
Feeling outcast and small, nonetheless I was able to agree with the Spirit that on this cranky day I was yet a friend of God, and someone who seeks God’s face.
When I got to the end I felt restored enough to at least turn toward the labyrinth with a bow of gratitude before I walked out.

Here’s the best part of the story.
I picked up my journal and sat at the circling table to write, still far from happy or hopeful, but more peaceful.
A few minutes later I was startled by the clear high voice of a young child. 
“I LOVE it here!”
I looked over to see a little girl with straight strawberry-blonde hair approaching the labyrinth, followed by two women with a toddler.
“I LOVE it here”, she chirped again.”
She walked into the entrance, calling to her mom and grandmother,
 “Come! Come! LOOK at it here!”
I couldn’t help but grin at her delight. Little Mia, as she was named, started walking the labyrinth in her own free-spirited way. She walked on the orange lines instead of between them. She stopped, turned around and then walked straight across several lines until she spied another part of the path she wanted to follow. She played for about ten solid minutes happily exploring, jumping, twirling. 
At one point she squealed, "I figured it out!"
And another time, “Yeah! I made it to the centre!” 
No one pointed out that she’d made it by breaking all the rules. 
She wandered some more, singing a wordless song, "La, la, la", as content as can be. 

I watched this sweet child with joyful awe. 
As beautiful as the sunshine and breeze, more precious than the huge old trees, was four year old Mia, playing on a spiritual tool designed for adult mystics. Was she a picture of God's own Self? Was she an image of the human soul set free? I don’t know. Somehow little Mia served as God’s gracious solace to my cranky heart. This is God’s world. We are not alone. 

Monday, 5 March 2012

L.O.L. At The Foot Of The Cross

I write the above title hesitantly, because the cross of Christ is a sacred mystery to me and I would not treat it lightly. Please read on.
You may think that L.O.L. means “laughing out loud”, but in this case it refers to that phrase I have previously in this blog, single-handedly banned: “little old lady”. Seems I’m reconsidering. Maybe I want to reclaim that insult, as other minorities have with racial and ethnic slurs, and proudly wear it as a medal of honour. Here’s why.

For Christians this pre-Easter time called Lent is very special. It’s an opportunity to stop and take a breath… to look more deeply into our faith in Christ...and into look for new insights as to why we are Christians…to ask again what the person of Jesus really means for us and for our world. 
This year I haven’t followed the tradition of giving up any favourite treats or habits; instead I’ve been reading the biographies of Jesus to get the story straight from his contemporary friends and followers.
I recently read about Jesus’ arrest, torture, and execution in the four versions by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
It’s amazing that we can read the same story a hundred times and yet see something new. For the first time I realized that some of Jesus’ gutsiest followers were grandmothers – the so-called little old ladies! I hope I’m not being too self-focussed in this insight; you all know by now that I’m a grandmother. But then maybe our personal stage of life offers a legitimate perspective for the Spirit’s next word to us.

These bible histories tell us that when the religious leaders arrested Jesus, eventually turning him over to the Roman court, his buddies took off. One of his closest friends, the future apostle Peter, disgraced himself by telling a lie three times that night, swearing that he had never even met this Jesus guy who was on trial. 

It’s interesting that the male authors chose to record that many female disciples stayed at the horrifying scene of Christ’s death. Remember that theirs was a Middle-Eastern patriarchal culture, perhaps similar to the cultures we see today on TV news reports. One of the unusual things about their chosen rabbi, Jesus from Nazareth, was the way he would talk to women, teach women theology and defend women against other men. He treated women as men’s equals. 
These trustworthy male biographers identified a few of the women at the crucifixion as: 
Mary Magdalene; Mary the mother of James and Joses; the mother of Zebedee's sons; Jesus' mother Mary; his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas; and Salome. 

How old were these women? We know that Jesus’ mother had to be at least in her late 40’s since her firstborn was, at this point, 33 years old, likewise the other mothers named above, mothers of grown men. In those days few people lived past 50. As in parts of Africa and Asia today, most women in Jesus’ time were married as teenagers, became pregnant at a young age, and over their lifespan would normally have miscarried and birthed multiple children. They had arduous lives, hauling pots of water, hoeing garden plots and stacking firewood. By 40 their bodies would have been worn and tired. They would be considered old.

Obviously the young mothers wouldn’t be at the cross. No one would bring children along to a ghastly and dangerous setting where Roman soldiers (riot police) were beating convicts and then killing them, especially when one of the men hanging by his bleeding palms was a dear friend of the family. My startled realisation was that most of them must have been grandmothers. They were mothers of several adult children who surely had married young and had children of their own.

I can hardly bear to imagine what it would be like for women like me to watch their beloved Jesus suffering, imagining, say, my friend’s son, or my own best male friend, or my favourite young professor/pastor who had taught me about God’s great love for women – to watch his agony, and worst of all to hear him cry, “God, why have you deserted me?”
Luke tells us that these women were wailing with grief, but they didn’t run or hide. They companioned Jesus even as their hopes for him were extinguished and their hearts broken.
We know that a few days later these same women would gasp at the astonishing news of Jesus’ resurrection, but they didn’t know this when they wept.

When I think about the courage and faithfulness of these grandmothers, who followed Christ no matter what, I just hope to be so blessed as to join their sisterhood. If that’s what being a little old lady can mean, count me in.

Saturday, 3 March 2012


A short note to those of you who follow by email and must have been confused by the empty space in a post you received last week from Everyday Light.
I mistakenly hit the wrong button while fooling around on a friend's laptop and didn't realize until it was too late to cancel.
 I'm sorry that I sent a big fat nothing to your email.

Secondly, I'm just home from a great trip to Ottawa and Mont Tremblant, PQ, where Peter and I got to see some real winter. Gorgeous!
I didn't find time to compose a new post this week, but will be posting my next piece shortly.
Thanks for understanding.