Wednesday, 22 October 2014

And What Do You Do?

This is a post written for today's synchroblog on "othering" at SheLoves emagazine

Friendly strangers at parties or conferences frequently stump me with this icebreaker question, “And what do you do?” 
I panic every time. I feel instantly “othered”. If I could reply with a clear, familiar answer like “doctor, teacher or lawyer”, the conversation would be a cinch. As it is, I stutter and mumble until the poor stranger sidles away. 
The question has a narrower focus, of course, than its wording describes. I’m actually being asked what the world pays me to do. I confess that on occasion I’ve grunted, “Nothing”. You can imagine the reaction that provokes. As a blogger I could now reply that I’m a writer, but the next question would be about publication, another hurdle to clear.

Who am I in our culture if I’m not employed in some recognizable and respected work?

 I’ve never had a job that could be called a career. I’ve been unemployed by choice for most of my life, maintaining the home front while my husband’s executive position in finance provided our income. I spent my younger years raising children, fighting depression and migraines, volunteering at schools and churches, and doing graduate studies (okay, mostly self-taught) in theology, marriage, parenting, and gender issues. How could any stranger respond to an answer like that? 

I’ve heard about cultures where such a question would be considered intrusive and rude, too personal for strangers to discuss, but that’s not the case in middle-class North America. 

Even now, as an elder, the casual question bothers me.  My peers might reply by saying, “I’m retired” but the follow-up would be, “What did you used to do?” Ugh. And even so, “retired” often equates to “old”. In our society that word is a slur implying dim, feeble, and boring. Who wants to identify as a “Little old lady” or a “Stupid old man”? But ageism is  another whole version of othering.

If I were to describe what I “do” now, my best bragging would be: I join political protests, attend lectio divina prayer groups, write encouraging emails, gaze in awe at ancient oak trees, and blog in the most basic of ways. In fact, lots of my time is spent reading books and watching screens, with a sideline of adoring my grandchildren.

Compared to the fraught “otherings” of gender bias and racial prejudice, being identified primarily by our employment is a minor way of distancing, but we can do better at building two-way bridges.


Monday, 20 October 2014

Hospital Hospitality

The “Tranquillity Garden” at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Toronto, is one of the noisiest places in the city. With the nearby sounds of regular road traffic, a streetcar depot, an expressway, a commuter rail line and the occasional siren, the roar is deafening. And yet the small garden offers an oasis in the asphalt desert for many tired and worried hearts who pass through the hospital doors. It's some relief to sit under vine-covered trellises that dapple the sunlight on paving stones. 

Despite the traffic's cacophany, you can hear dozens of sparrows chirping as they flit in and out of the leaves and hunt for any dropped crumbs. What a gift their birdsong is! So common that they’re usually ignored, sparrows are bits of lively art, with their intricate, feathery patterns of ecru, sand and black. One full-sized bird revealed itself as a baby in masquerade. I smiled to see it hold its beak wide open as it looked around, clearly still hoping for Mama’s feeding. Somebody? Anybody?

Inside the building, minimal d├ęcor and crowded waiting rooms are debilitating to everyone, but the shared discomfort seems to create instant community:
“We’ve been here for three hours!”, “Yeah, I had to take the day off work!”, “Here, take my seat”, “Would you like my newspaper?”, “Your husband went in that door”, “Where are the washrooms?”
The staff have endless patience, some of them even downright cheerful as they draw blood from the hundredth patient's arm or answer the same questions ad nauseam. What a difference a shared smile makes!
Volunteers generously donate their time to guide wanderers to the cafeteria or point them to the nearest elevator. Kindness abounds.

I remember how my own heart lived in this same hospital ten years ago, when my first grandchild spent weeks in its neonatal nursery. 
If there's any place where deep hospitality is needed it's at hospitals. Sitting in St. Jo’s little garden helped me echo the familiar African church chant”: 
“God is good?
All the time!
All the time?
God is good!”

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Lament and Give Thanks


Happy Thanksgiving Weekend to you all!

Yes, I know, daily news reports keep punching us toward despair, the way they always have, even in 700 B.C.

“There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.

Because of this the land dries up,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky

and the fish in the sea are swept away.

The more priests there were,the more they sinned against me;they exchanged their glorious God for something disgraceful.”
(Hosea 4)

YET WE GIVE THANKS...

For those who love us, for those who help, for those who persist and for those who hold hope…
For scarlet maple leaves, pumpkin pie and warm homes…
For democratic elections, public education, healthcare and safe drinking water.  

At the farmers' market gorgeous mounds of vegetables and fruit line the outdoor aisles. Shades of peach, orange, purple and green shout "Hosanna to our Maker!"
A lovely Mennonite woman whose white hair matches her prayer cap sells her last cherry pie of the season.
See bright yellow goldfinches clinging to the thin stems of Cosmos flowers that wave their pink and wine petals.
Notice the wind-chime’s changing tune as the breeze quickens. 
The Spirit of God sings "Life will win, life will win." 

Lament and give thanks.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Pumpkin Preacher


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, the sermon. Cue shark-attack music.

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

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

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

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

Nothing but thankful.