Sunday, December 14, 2014

Silent Night. Christmas Thoughts for Introverts (and Extroverts)


Today we did a Christmas pageant at the church I pastor. It was written by a youth leader, and was about the history of the Christmas Carol, Silent Night. The title of that hymn is actually a bit odd, if you think about it. I mean, if Jesus really was born in a stable, with angels singing and cattle lowing and donkeys braying, and shepherds praising, the first Christmas probably wasn’t that silent.

This year my Christmas isn’t going to be that quiet either. Our kids are coming from New York and Montreal. Including significant others, that’s five. Gillian’s friend from Japan, Aya; her brother and sister-in-law from Halifax, and her brother in Toronto are all staying for several days. That makes nine. And Mariya and Dela are coming in from San Francisco and Berkeley, respectively. Eleven guests, plus Irene and I.

We’ll stay up late laughing, shouting, talking politics and religion. David will make three times the necessary noise banging around pots and pans cooking a meal or two. Taps (my grandson) will be chasing his remote control car with siren up and down the hallway.

But for now, tonight at least, the house was silent. Tonight Irene and I sat in front of the fire with a glass of red wine. We played a bit of quiet Christmas music. I fell asleep with a book open on my lap.

I love the silence. I cope with busy commutes by turning off the car radio.  I get ready for the day by taking the dog for a long walk. I used to listen to podcasts on those walks. Now I just trudge in silence. I daydream.

I love the silence. Max Picard, a Roman Catholic philosopher, writes in his book, The World of Silence, "Outside the forest, the flowers are like silence that has thawed, and glistens in the sunlight." I like that—“outside . . . the flowers are like silence that has thawed.” One of my favorite Bible texts—an important one for pastors to take to heart—is Ecclesiastes 6:11. "The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?"

In my heart I'm an introvert. I know how to be with people, how to get my oar in during conversations at a party, how to do a “meet and greet at church.” But I get my energy from being alone and silence is my reward.

What about you? I know that we can’t all be introverts. We need both extroverts and introverts to make the world go round. But just as introverts need to learn to make their peace with noise, I think extroverts can learn to appreciate the gift of silence.

Here is why. We all have a secret place of refuge, a sanctuary, in our souls. It is where we go to ponder the most difficult questions life throws at us. It is where we construct the meaning we spend our lives achieving. This sanctuary in our souls is where we cultivate gratitude for the good others have done for us and nourish the goodwill we need to love our neighbours.

And that sanctuary in our souls is a place that can only be entered alone. It is therefore a place of silence: a speechless silence full of awe on account the miracle of the universe; a prayerful silence that yearns for peace on earth; a respectful silence that honours life’s great mysteries. The silent sanctuary of our souls is a refuge for those tossed to and fro on the violent currents of time and civilization. The silent sanctuary in our souls is one of the few places we can hear the still, quiet voice of God, if Her voice is to be heard at all.

            And in the end, that is how I take the Christmas carol, Silent Night. Not silent because the animals really were, or the angels lost their voice. But the song sings of a silent night because the story of Jesus’ birth takes our breath away. We are dumbfounded by the story’s suggestion that God is not just notion, not merely the answer to a philosophical puzzle, but Gof is here, with us and in us.


            And so we respond, with the ancient Psalmist, in a whisper, “let all the earth keep silence, before him.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

From Hanukkah to Ferguson


            (I rarely--perhaps never--post sermons on my blog, but here I make an exception. This week's sermon began as an explanation of Hanukkah, but in light of the killings of innocent black men and boys this past week, it also turned out to be a sermon about racism. It's also an example, I suppose, of how preaching in a Liberal church, during Advent even, isn't necessarily Christocentric--and for a topic such as this one, that seems fine to me. Several people asked me to post it, so here it is.)

            Once upon a time, in the fourth century BC, a dashing young Greek emperor, Alexander the Great, conquered most of the known world. Alexander also brought Greek culture—Aristotle, Sophocles, and even the Olympics—to the rest of the world, too. And mostly, people ate it up.

            In Israel, it was much the same. Many people of rank and learning, particularly in cosmopolitan Jerusalem, fell in love with everything Greek. Theatres and gyms were built. Athletes, as was the practice of that day, competed in the nude—a shocking change from traditional Judaism.

            It seems that disagreements between old-style religious Jews and the new Hellenizers eventually led to civil strife—violence—within Jerusalem. One of the Emperor Alexander’s successors, Antiochus Epiphanes, subsequently went to Jerusalem to restore order. While there, he sacked the temple and slaughtered thousands of Jews—apparently under the mistaken notion that the Jews were trying to throw him out rather than just fighting amongst themselves. Never mind, he went on to sacrifice pigs on the temple alter, and built another alter to the Greek God Zeus nearby. And finally, in a break with the generally tolerant attitude to other religions the Greeks had, Antiochus banned Judaism throughout his territory as a radical, violent, and intolerant religion.

            King Antiochus also sent emissaries to the conservative country towns surrounding Jerusalem, also directing them to sacrifice unclean pigs. It was in one such village, Modi'in, that the local priest, Matthias, was so offended by this sacrilegious act that he killed the emissary. Then, fleeing to the hills with his five sons, Mattathias and his sons began a guerrilla war against the Greek King Antiochus. To make a very long story short, they eventually took back Jerusalem in the year 165 B.C. And, as recorded in 1 Maccabees 4, once there, they cleaned out and rededicated the temple.

            Hanukkah is the eight-day celebration of the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem to true Jewish worship. The most important part of this celebration, at least in the memory of the Jews, was the relighting of the golden lampstand. Although it is not recorded in our scripture reading, the story goes that when the golden lampstand—actually an oil lamp—was relit, there was only enough consecrated oil to last one day. However, miraculously, that single day’s worth of oil lasted eight days—the exact amount of time it took to consecrate a new supply of oil. Thus the Menorah, which is lit to commemorate Hanukkah and recall the lighting of the golden candlestick, has room for eight candles, one for each day of the miracle. The ninth candle is set apart from the eight, to light the others and serve as light before the others are lit.

            So what does it mean? Well, while the candles hark back to the golden candlestick of the temple—the larger meaning Hanukkah celebrates is the survival, against all odds, of the Jewish people, religion, and culture. A well-known Hanukkah Prayer goes like this:

What is the miracle of Hanukkah?
Against all odds, we are here.
Against all common sense,
we have lit these candles.
We see these flames before us now,
a miracle.
We stand in community here,
a miracle.
We see these flames
leaping through space and time,
joining us to history, to our people.

            Against all odds, say the Jews, we are here. And it is a miracle, given 2500 years of pogroms and deportations, forced conversions and finally, the holocaust. In light of this horrific history, and especially the holocaust, the Jews say, “Never again.” And we agree. “Never again!”

            If we have the courage to do so, however, perhaps we should dig a bit deeper into this Jewish story of survival. You see, that survival was actually in spite of the best efforts of generations of our ancestors—that is, at least those of us who have European ancestors. From the crusades to the invention of concentration camps, from massive witch-hunts to multiple genocides, from the bombing of innocent civilians during WWII to the holocaust, our tribe, our culture, our kings and princes have been deeply implicated in generations of racism and xenophobia not only against Jews but many other peoples besides.

            Do we really mean it, when we say, “never again!” Would you be willing to put a price on “never again?”

            This has been a very difficult week for those of us who want to be believe in a “never, never again-land.” Racism is alive and well in America, for example. Whatever you may think about the particulars of the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, everyone agrees that rage boiled over in those streets because what happened to Brown wasn’t unique—it is the daily grind for all Black citizens of that town, and many others in America. The subsequent deaths of Eric Garner of “I can’t breathe” fame in New York City, and Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix—both unarmed—have only served to heighten our concern about ongoing racism. And don’t forget Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old shot for playing with a toy gun in a park, and Amadou Diallo, shot 49 times by police when they mistook a wallet in his pocket for a gun, and Trayvon Martin, shot by a vigilante while walking home through a mostly-white neighbourhood from a store. The list could go on to include hundreds more names.

            I actually believe that things are somewhat better in Canada. We are trying to build a fairer, safer society here than south of the border. But we also have to. Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Half of the people who live here were born in another country—many of them from places like India, Pakistan, Jamaica, and The Philippines. Perhaps 40% of us Torontonians have rainbow-hued skin. We pride ourselves on multiculturalism and open mindedness.

            But even in Toronto you are four times more likely to be stopped by police—carded—if you are black or brown than you are if you are white. Twenty-five percent of Canada’s federal prisoners are aboriginals, while they are only 4% of our population. Blacks make up 2.5 percent of Canada’s population, and make up nearly 10% of our prison population. Forty percent of Canada’s prisoners are not Caucasian. The RCMP noted a few weeks ago that there are 1,200 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women since 1980. Google “racism in Canada,” and you will get millions of hits telling stories of Blacks or Aboriginals being racially profiled, shadowed in stores by security personal, getting pulled over all out of proportion to their numbers on highways, receiving harsher discipline in school than their white fellow students, and so on. All black parents have to train their kids on how to interact with police, because it is dangerous out there for black kids. And even if we don’t always like to be reminded of it, Canada is famous around the world for the ugly water quality, lack of housing, subpar schools, poverty, and violence of its Aboriginal communities. “Never again?”

            I wonder, where is the rage? Where is the sense of injustice? Where is this church at?

            Getting back to the Hanukkah story, there are, of course, ironies. The Maccabean Jews who defeated Antiochus, who are celebrated at Hanukkah, were definitely not in favour of religious tolerance. And in the present, as much as we support the right of Israel to live in a safe and secure homeland, we are all deeply disturbed by the treatment Palestinians receive, whether within Israel or outside the walls of the stolen West bank settlements, or in that nation-sized, blockaded refugee camp otherwise known as Gaza.

            The truth is, xenophobia—the hatred of others who are different—is not just a Western problem. The Turks committed genocide against the Albanians, the Serbs against the Croats, The Hutus against the Tutsis, the English and Dutch against multiple African tribes, the Japanese against the Chinese, and so on, all within the past 125 years. All humans have a deeply evolved, genetically ingrained “fight or flight,” response when it comes to members of other tribes. And even when flight is our choice, it’s usually because someone has taken the fight to us.

            But being human also means being “Homo Sapiens,” which mean “wise.” We must transcend our brutal past and choose something better. Securing a future for my mixed race grandchildren, or Canada’s First Nations, or your Jamaican and Filipino neighbours depends on our overcoming mindless passions and rationally—as well as justly—choosing “never again.” Being human in a global village, being at peace and prosperous in Canada, has a future only if we are willing to pay, sacrifice, and struggle to make it so. Breaking with thousands of years of racist and xenophobic tradition will be costly.

            But here in this church, this morning, there are people who can make it so—or, at least, who can help push the envelope in the right direction. Among those here for church this morning are those who run companies, invest large amounts of money, work in government, vote, know your parliamentary representatives, sit on boards with other powerful people, and have the ear of the elite in your fields. Your influence, your insight, your willingness to take risks for the greater good—that’s a big part of what it is going to take to make this country a “never again,” land; a place where racism has been beaten down and peace—religious and ethnic peace at home—has been given a chance.

            Because in the end, we don’t so much want to sing about the miracle of how our people, or our tribe survived.  We want to sing about the miracle of how all the nations of the world found, in Canada, a land flowing with the milk of human kindness the honey of justice for all, regardless of religion or skin colour.

            At least, this Hanukkah and this Advent, I’d really like to light a candle to that.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Spirituality and Fashion Fails


            So I had a huge fashion fail at my church a few weeks ago—or more properly, I guess I should call it a fashion-and-spirituality-worship-service fail.           

            I blame John Van Sloten, a CRC minister in Calgary.

            A few years ago John invited well-known Canadian designer, Paul Hardy, to come to his church one Sunday. Paul came with two or three models. They showed off Paul’s designs on a fashion runway that ran down the main aisle of the church. After the fashion show, Van Sloten interviewed Paul Hardy about his designs and how they related to his faith.

            The fashion-show service was so unexpected in a church setting that the local CBC affiliate covered it for the TV news that night. So I thought we ought to do that too, here, at Lawrence Park Community Church.

            So, six months ago I told our facilities manager to rent us a catwalk. I signed up an up and coming Canadian designer who goes to church to show off her clothes here. She agreed. After the show, just like John, I was going to interview her.

            While planning the service, my designer said that she would need half-a-dozen models to show off her creations. These models all had to be size four or smaller. And so I, na├»ve pastor that I am, put a note in the church bulletin saying that we were looking for a couple of size four or smaller models.

            No one volunteered. I ran the note a second time. Still no volunteers.

            Finally, some wiser members of the congregation told me that as far as they could tell, there probably were not half-a-dozen such-sized women in our church, unless I wanted to invite some tweens to wear the clothes.

            More to the point, these wise LPCC members told me that one of the greatest problems with the modern fashion industry was just this—how it defines beauty in ways that are unattainable for most of us. Naomi Wolf gets at this in her book The Beauty Myth, “More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

            Meanwhile, if Givenchy and Zara and H&M and Victoria’s Secret have played their cards just right, that impossible beauty standard has many of us who feel inadequate deeply engaged in aspirational buying of clothes and beauty aids. Selling that ideal has become a near perpetual motion profit machine for the fashion industry as we strive and fail, strive and fail, to buy who they tell us we should be. Meanwhile, our ten- and twelve-year-old kids—not to mention our twenty- and twenty-two-year-old kids, and even many of us who are much older—are left to make peace with a standard that very few of us have the DNA to achieve.

            So, anyway, I disinvited our designer. I tried to explain the problem. She was nice about it. But I suddenly had a big hole in the worship schedule. What to say positively about fashion and spirituality from my empty gangway? Well—I basically told the story of why we were not having a fashion show, after all. Along the way I made two ancillary points.

            First, scripture suggests that all humans are, in the words of the Psalmist, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139)—a line echoed in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when beautiful Miranda, seeing her first young man, cries out, “Brave new world that has such creatures in it.” That is a profoundly Christian sentiment. In Genesis, after Adam and Eve are created, the story-teller notes that, “they were naked and not ashamed.”

            Second, a spirituality of fashion, besides embracing all human bodies as good, should also celebrate the potential beauty of clothing. There was Joseph’s Technicolor coat of many colors. The priests who served in the temple wore clothing made of gold, blue, and crimson yarns, all decorated with onyx gems. Solomon was beautifully arrayed, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, even if he couldn’t quite match the beauty of the lily that God clothed. The prodigal son was welcomed home with a beautiful robe.

            Which is not to say that praising God with the beauty of our clothing choices is a big theme in scripture. It isn’t. When it comes to spirituality, fashion mostly falls in the category of “let’s have fun!”

            So now what? I think a fashion show that celebrates not the size-four ideal, but our ability to playfully create beauty no matter our age and size and resources. My plan is to find volunteers to model Goth clothing, senior active wear clothing, 1890’s ball gowns, and Salvation Army Store castoff fashion—along with the one, beautiful size-four dress I bought from my Canadian designer.

            If I can find someone to wear it.