Monday, February 11, 2019

The Gospel According to "A Star Is Born."


            As the curtains rise in the movie A Star is Born, Jackson Maine, a Country and Western hero, is singing at a sold-out concert before adoring fans. He’s rich, famous, and good looking. But it soon becomes clear that Jackson is also fighting demons.

            Jackson is the child of an abusive and alcoholic father. Jackson tried to escape his father at age 13, unsuccessfully, by suicide. Now Jackson needs drugs to get through concerts. He finishes off a bottle of Jack Daniels as soon as the show is over. He physically fights with his brother. He has tinnitus, which means he can’t hear what he’s singing. He wets himself on stage at the Grammys. He fails at rehab. Jackson is a good man who is joined to the hip with tragedy.

            In any case, after the opening concert scene, Jackson stumbles into a bar where Ally works as a singer. She is not living the dream. She’s a down-on-her-luck wannabe-star who slings garbage at work and covers songs at a seedy bar, nights. 


Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sing "Shallow."
            For Jackson, Ally is love at first sight. They spend the night discussing song writing. And ultimately, Jackson invites Ally to sing her own song, “Shallow,” at one of his shows. Listen to it on YouTube. 

            For the rest of the movie, Ally’s star rises as Jackson’s falls. They fall in love, get married, but don’t live happily ever after. Why not?

            The lyrics to “Shallow,” get at some of their big issues. Ally wrote most of the song about Jackson on the night they first met. Ally has figured out that Jackson is in trouble, that he’s longing for change, afraid of himself in the bad times, trying to fill a void—the shallows.

            Jackson, for all of his success and fame, needs more. He is trying to keep up a hardcore image but failing. He’s wading in the shallow end of the pool of life, not the deep end, where real adults swim.

            Shallow isn’t what Jackson wants. He’s is a good guy, after all. He is kind. He makes friends. He can make a deep, loving connection with Ally—when he’s sober, at least.

            Shallow isn’t what Jackson wants. He says, “Talent is everywhere but having something to say that is a whole other bag . . . there is one reason we’re supposed to be here, and it is to say something so people want to hear it.” 

            Shallow isn’t what Jackson wants. For example, Ally tells Jackson she’s a failure because the music industry tells me my nose is too big and she will never make it. But Jackson goes for the deep, he sees the real beauty in Ally—her authenticity, her artistry, her soul, and he nurtures all that.

            Shallow isn’t what most of us want, either. 

            But shallow is where a lot of us—myself included—go too often

            Shallow. Shallow is the inability to align your life with what ultimately matters. It’s a kind of preoccupation with the next step, the next paycheck or promotion, the current distraction, so that you absent-mindedly never actually focus on the big picture or the meaning of life. 

            Shallow. It looks like choosing a career not on the basis of your great gift or driving passion, but choosing it pragmatically, for the sake of big bucks or success asForbesor RollingStonemeasures such things.

            Shallow. It looks like adopting political opinions from parents or coworkers, well, because that’s what you heard, but not taking the time to think deeply about such opinions in light of what religious leaders, or philosophers, or scientists, or cultural critics are saying about the deep.

            Shallow. How many Canadians don’t choose their churches, or synagogues, or temples out of custom and superstition, for tribal or ethnic reasons, without ever giving the matter serious thought? And how many Christians hardly understand or even know the basic Biblical stories anymore? Because, you see, faith offers consolation and hope in direct proportion to how much we invest in faith. Deep, says the Psalmist, calls to deep. 

            Shallow can be as simple as the latest gadget we just had to purchase for the endorphin-fueled thrill of hitting the “buy” button on Amazon; the same gadget that Marie Kondo will tell us how to get rid of to declutter. 

            Shallow can be simple, like giving someone the finger at an intersection; or seductive, like drinking a few too many glasses of wine, over and over again.

            And perhaps most difficult, most maddening, shallow can also be good. We all need some shallow. We all need time away from responsibility, fun away from the rat race, soothing if mindless pastimes that can momentarily drown our anxiety or rest our bodies. Shallow is many negative and some very good things, and we are therefore required, if we are to enjoy our shallow, to be discerning, to regulate it and box it in and plan for it so that shallow—like Jackson’s whiskey—does not conquer us and waste our lives.

            In the end, Jackson Maine chooses to die by suicide. The scene is very sad, very jarring, and not knowing that it was coming, it hit my wife and I like a ton of bricks, because a few years ago one of our siblings died in this manner. Jackson’s suicide also seemed an overly melodramatic response to the problem of living in the shallow end. It felt tacked on. After all, A Star Is Born didn’t have to end this way. There are four versions of this movie out there and not all end with suicides.

            On the other hand, as much as I hated it, Jackson’s suicide also underlined that shallow—and the many ways we try to medicate ourselves, or distract ourselves against, or protect ourselves from the challenge of going deep—Jackson’s suicide was an attempt by the script writers to underline that shallowness is not nothing. Shallowness is a pretty, purring beast of prey that can ultimately tear us apart, from within. Beware.

            The movie left me with a big ache. It’s tragic. The family fights, the drugs, the alcohol, the artifice of the world of the rich and famous, the play-acting that everyone does—it’s all shown to be meaningless. Even the most precious, hopeful thing in this movie—Ally’s stick-to-it-ness when it comes to her love for her tragic husband, isn’t enough to save Jackson from the shallows.

            This movie is what the writer of Ecclesiastes might have produced or directed if he made movies instead of wrote scripture. “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind.” Jackson’s love, his musical wizardry, his kindness, all stuck in the swamp of shallow, in the end, all a chasing after the wind.

            And—perhaps to its credit—the movie doesn’t offer any quick fixes or easy answers for those of us who struggle with shallow emptiness. By the end of the movie, not only does Ally’s sacrificial love not save Jackson, but she is herself beginning to sell out rather than sing the truth. 

            There is a Biblical word, however, worth pondering, I think—one that both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament explore at great length, a word that defies the shallows and defines deep. This word is “wisdom.” 

            In the book of James 3:13-18, Jesus’ brother describes wisdom, almost poetically, as a path of purity, peace, gentleness, a willingness to let others get their way sometimes, a merciful life, and not hypocritical. Nothing here about what you have to believe, mind you—just stuff about how to have a life that matters like Jesus’ life did, a life that isn’t shallow.

            Unfortunately, I can’t unpack that word “wisdom,” with words more compelling than James uses. I can’t explain wisdom, briefly, so that your life will be changed. 

            Wisdom, after all, like the deep, is complicated. Wisdom is elusive. Achieving wisdom is a whole-life goal; not a pastime; not merely the third, concluding point of a sermon. Wisdom is a pearl of great price that you must sell all to own. 

            And, there is only one way to acquire it. Commit your life to writing a wisdom script on your own heart. Do what only you can do for yourself; go deep to secure wisdom for your journey. And sure, along the way, carve out a bit of time to enjoy the shallows, too. But ultimately, choose deep and pursue it. Once you set out on that project, you’ll start figuring it out on your own. 


Monday, February 4, 2019

"Roma:" How Remembering Really Matters


We think we are the ones who choose what to remember, but in truth, our memories use us, shape us, make us who we are, often without our even realizing it. 

          Twenty years ago, on my way to work, I used to walk past a shuttered cemetery that came right up to the sidewalk on Kalamazoo Ave, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Very near the sidewalk, standing alone, were three simple stones. The epitaphs read “Francis B. Whitney, 1886-1960;” “Nora Whitney, 1891-1928;” and finally, “Baby Whitney, 1917.”

          I noticed the stones first, on a late-winter day, when everything was grey and brown with a glint of frost, when I was surprised to see a bright spray of yellow and red pansies firmly planted just before Baby Whitney’s stone. Looking closer, I realized that the flowers were made of silk.

          As I walked on, I wondered about those flowers. Was it possible that someone still remembered Baby Whitney’s birth, eighty years later? But how could that be? And why?

          Perhaps a younger brother or sister, someone who was born after Baby Whitney, left the flowers? Or was there no memory here at all, but just someone playing macabre tricks, carefully rearranging flowers for the odd thrill of it? But why?

          My curiosity was aroused. Genealogy is one of my hobbies. So, I scoured city records and census records for more information. Other than confirming that Francis Whitney had lived and died in Grand Rapids, and was married to Nora, I found little else. Family memories stretch back perhaps two, maybe even three generations. But as King Solomon once wrote, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (Eccl 1:11).

          Mary Carruthers, a historian of memory, writes that, “ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories . . . and they regard it as a mark of superior moral character as well as intellect.” Plato’s teacher, the philosopher Socrates, was deeply concerned that the invention of reading and writing would erode our ability to remember and thus make us less human. In ancient days, you cultivated memory.

          You see, if you wanted to be a midwife in the days before the printing press and literacy, there were no written manuals to study in classrooms that would turn you into a midwife. No, you had to learn this art from your mother, who probably learned it from her mother’s mother. You learned by watching, by doing as your teacher instructed, and practicing. But you never knew more than what you remembered. There were no books. No internet. No FAQs. Just your memory. Something you cultivated, crated, paid attention to, made a living from, and clung to.

          Alfonso Cuarón’s "Roma" is based on his bittersweet memories of growing up with his family, and especially memories of their maid, Cleo. The movie is about how memories make us who we are.

          In fact, this movie is all reminisce, a rivulet of time past bubbling into and filling the present. Cuarón remembers both childhood glee and trauma. Interestingly, as viewers, we cannot know how good Cuarón’s memory is, or why he remembers what he does, or even what Cuarón has forgotten; how his memory works, or how our memory works is much more mysterious than we give memory credit for.

          Some of Cuarón’s memories are bitter. His father, a doctor, abandons not just his wife, Cuarón’s mother, but the entire family, neglecting the children, not paying the bills, lying to cover his tracks. Cleo, the maid, is often on the receiving end of small slights and harsh words by her masters. She is used by her boyfriend. These memories are not bitter just because of the facts, but because of the emotion attached to these memories, the feelings that are truer for Cuarón than the bare facts, the feelings that shape his attitude to others and to life.

          For Cuarón, these bitter memories—the emotional impact of them, that is—inform his present ideals. He will cultivate his memories, dwell in them until he has put them in a place he can live with, learning lessons for life and love along the way. In fact, I think Cuarón has made this movie just to make sure he masters his toxic, emotionally difficult memories so that they won’t subliminally influence his soul without him realizing it.

          On the other hand, some of Cuarón’s memories are sweet and a source of strength and encouragement. For example, Cuarón remembers how the whole extended family gathered for fun and fellowship at a Hacienda, or how his immediate family could sit together on the couch, happily watching TV, before the troubles began.

          But even these memories are instructive. The kids had fun, fun, fun at the family Hacienda; but the adults preyed on each other without the kids realizing it. The kids remember the press of warm flesh on the family’s TV couch, but the father was already plotting his exit. Memories—especially good ones of love, and attachment, and kindness, and success—positive memories can be the rock on which we build the house of self we inhabit; and toxic memories, even if we cannot recall them, can be the sand upon which our lives collapse.

          We think we are the ones who choose what to remember, but in truth, our memories use us, shape us, make us who we are, often without our even realizing it. This is why we must master memory, cultivate it. Memories and the emotions they trigger in us, can be bitter or sweet.

          But third, some of Alfonso Cuarón’s memories are actually impossible. Cleo has a miscarriage, and the military government slaughters hundreds of protesting students, scenes that Cuarón cannot have witnessed. But the brain knows how to improvise and fill in the blanks. Many memories end up being the stories we tell ourselves, even without all the facts, and sometimes regardless of the facts.

          In one powerful scene, the climax of the movie, the maid Cleo is left on the beach with the children, who venture into the water. The undertow catches them. They can’t make it back to shore. They are going to drown. But Cleo, who cannot herself swim, wades in, waves washing over her, plucks first one, and then another out of the water, saving their lives at great risk to her own.

          Ultimately, Cuarón’s memories are like those waves—they are angry and bitter, in danger of taking him away, of leaving him overwhelmed by the past. And at the same time, his own memory of that terrible day on the beach is especially sweet for the love that was expressed in Cleo’s courage, and in all the children in a tangle of hugs and embraces with Cleo on the beach. Because they remember Cleo’s love, given freely and at great risk, Cuarón and the entire family can build a life in and for each other secure in the knowledge that they need not do it all alone.

          In sum? Cultivate your memories.

          Remember, most memories are stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our world, part fact, part reconstruction, part convenient forgetting. The brain actively grows and nourishes the old stories we tell about ourselves, so that we will come out looking good. Be aware of this trick, and make allowances for it. You are not always the hero or the exemplary person that you remember yourself as, nor are others always the villains you suppose they must have been.

          Some memories are sweet. Harvest them. Enjoy them. Let them sustain you. Don’t worry too much about how accurate they are, so long as they are true who you want to be.

          Other memories are bitter. You might want to prune these, in spite of the work it requires, discarding those that don’t somehow help make you a happier or wiser person, but meanwhile, not forgetting them so much that you cannot hang on to the critical lessons and insights you gained in spite of the pain. Other memories are a subtle mix of sweet and bitter, as when Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

          Finally, some memories influence us even though we are hardly aware of them—like poisons or fertilizer under the soil. These memories—whether they are the sort that fluff us up or bring us down—these memories are especially tricky. But here’s a hint.

          If someone you love or trust suggests that you should explore these past events, or if you recognize that sometimes you are unaccountably emotionally triggered by people or events all out of proportion to what was intended, or if large parts of your life are barely remembered, take a risk and see a counselor who can explore these kinds of memories with you. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And, it is just possible that you might get to know yourself in a whole new, and more whole way. Don’t think of counselling as just medicine for the psyche—think of it as exercise for the psyche.

          I loved this movie. Not so much because I understood Alfonso Cuarón better at the end. But this movie challenged me to be honest with myself and to take responsibility for the memories that will shape my life unawares if I don’t pay attention.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Before Christmas; After Easter. (And the Virgin Birth)


            Let’s be honest. Most of us smile, knowingly, when we think of the virgin birth. I mean, you don’t have to have been taught Ontario’s Sex-Ed curriculum to see the problems here. Even Mary understands. She says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin.”

            It’s much the same when we think about the resurrection stories. Luke says that when Mary—yes, the same Mary, Jesus’ mother—when Mary and some other women told the disciples that the grave was empty, the disciples thought it was an idle tale and did not believe the women. 

            So, a virgin birth. A dead man walking. Either way, “How can this be?”

            It’s a big, serious question. And so, every Christmas and every Easter, in liberal churches like mine you will hear sermons about how Bethlehem stories are a metaphor for the possibility of new life; and you will hear that empty grave stories are, well, a metaphor for the possibility of new life. 

            Meanwhile, in more conservative evangelical churches sermons will argue for the literal truth of these stories. Preachers will explain how, after not breathing for three days, Jesus gasped, wiggled his toes, and then walked out of his grave without being a zombie. 

            I don’t say so to mock either liberal or conservative Christians. Like I said, “How can this be?” is a weighty question, a teeter-totter sort of question at the heart of our theological playground. We ought to toss this question around, from time to time.

            And yet I want think we focus far too much on such questions of historical fact. In fact, if we become too preoccupied with, “how can this be,” we might miss the rest of the story, the heart of the story, the bulk of Jesus’ life. My best friend, Nick, pointed this out to me. Nick is interested in the philosophical challenges surrounding the writing of biographies, and how this relates to the gospels. In that connection, Nick recently recalled an event that many of you will remember.

            It’s like this. You will remember, the Nixon White House tapes. President Nixon 
Rose Mary Woods demonstrating how she allegedly
erased 18 1/2 minutes of Nixon's Whitehouse tapes.
recorded all of his conversations on a tape recorder. Later, these tapes became evidence for the Grand Jury that was investigating Nixon for the Watergate break-in. The tapes were damning conversations about Nixon’s ruthlessness, his disregard for the law, and so on. 

            What really led to President Nixon’s resignation, however, was not the tapes themselves, but an 18½ minute gap in the tapes, during a conversation between Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, and Nixon himself. At the very moment where Nixon was most likely to confess how much he knew about the Watergate break in, the tape goes silent. Rose Mary Woods, his secretary, took the blame for erasing the tape, but Nixon took the fall. He resigned soon after.

            It’s not the beginning and end that matter most, in the Nixon Tapes, but the missing piece in the middle.

            And, before Christmas and after Easter, it sometimes feels to me that much of what really matters, everything between Jesus’ birth and death, has been erased from our Christian consciousness, and we are far poorer for it.

            It is the same in the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostles’ Creed describes Jesus’ life this way: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his son, who was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”

            Nothing is said here about Jesus’ baptism by John. Nothing about the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Lost Coin. Nothing about Zacchaeus in his tree or Mary Magdalene forgiven or dinner at Mary and Martha’s. Nothing in the creed about riding a donkey into Jerusalem as an argument against conquering Roman emperors who rode their war horses into Rome.

            The Apostle’s Creed moves from Bethlehem to Golgotha as if Luke chapters 3-22 don’t exist. It’s an 18 ½-minute—no an 18½-chapter gap—which, if we read it, would convict us, but in an entirely different way than the gap convicted Nixon. 

            So, let’s move beyond controversies of beginning and end, about how such things could be, about whether or not Mary was a virgin, whether or not wise men came from the East, whether or not there was a census while Quirinius was Governor of Syria. Let’s consider the whole gospel, and especially everything between the beginning in Bethlehem and the end at Golgotha.

            You will find there, in the missing 18 ½ chapters, that Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

            You will find there that Jesus also says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

            You will find there, in the excluded middle, a divine longing to heal the sick, to bind the wounds of the broken hearted, to call out hypocrisy; a longing to forgive people who messed up and to live for the love of your neighbours.

            You will find there, in the missing chapters, that Jesus prays, “give us this day our daily bread.”

            You will find there, that Jesus says, “Do not worry. Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. . . But seek first the kingdom of God and these things will be given to you as well.”

            You will find there, in the middle passages we have erased mostly through neglect, that Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to them.”

            It’s beautiful stuff, as moving as ant star in the east or manger filled with straw.

            A final, concluding thought. I have to laugh sometimes about the movement to put Christ back into Christmas. I suppose, at some level, I get it. Santa Claus and his pretty elves in their scarlet miniskirts sitting for pictures in the mall, and Season’sGreetings, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells playing on an endless loop, and of course, the “ka-ching!” of our credit cards getting their annual workouts—it is all a bit too cute, too hollow, too distracting. It can be hard to focus on Jesus when so much is going on.

            But actually, we shouldn’t blame our culture for doing what it wants to do, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for joining in on the fun. Jesus wasn’t a killjoy. But, if we really do want to focus on Jesus, like the first Gospel of Mark, we actually don’t need any of Christmas or much of  Easter. In fact, instead of worrying about taking Christ out of Christmas, let’s try to think, instead, about how to bring the missing 18 ½ chapters back into the rest of our year.


Monday, December 10, 2018

God Is not a Celestial Toll Taker


            Years later, I wonder about this.

            It was the first day of class. The course was, “The Doctrine of God.” Our professor, Neal Plantinga, was ill, so I thought the class would be canceled. 

            However, Plantinga had arranged for a guest lecturer, his brother. I had never met Alvin Plantinga before. He was known as a fine teacher and world-famous philosopher. He has since won the Templeton Prize, along with such luminaries as Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and Canada’s Jean Vanier. 

            So, there we sat. Plantinga stepped up to the podium. And then, for what seemed like an hour but might have only been a minute, he stood there, silent, looking at us. Finally, he spoke. To the best of my recollection, he said something like this:

            “Class, today we step onto holy ground. We are about to pit our small, fallible human minds to the task of knowing God. This ought to fill us with fear and awe. After all, who can know God? Who can take the measure of him?”

            “Thus, I begin with a warning: to be flippant or sloppy in speaking of God is blasphemy.”

            “So, let’s being this class with prayer and ask our God to give us the gift of humility as we presume to speak about the one who gave us tongues.”

            I thought “Woe is me! I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).

             I was deeply moved. Plantinga’s simple words and pious manner pierced my complacency about being in seminary, about wanting to be a minister, and all that. He invited me to a deep curiosity about God. I’ll always be thankful for that.

            Years later, however, I’m wondering about that day.

            I’m still happy that my complacency was pierced. I mark the beginning of my interest in theology—a spiritual playground, to be sure, but a lovely one—to that class. 

            But I’m not so sure, anymore, that Plantinga approached this from the right angle. He seems to me, now, to have been too focused on God’s honour and potential vindictiveness, than on really knowing God.

            God’s honour. It’s a medieval concern. It imagines that human worries about rank and power must also be God’s, in a most anthropomorphic way. It used to be the case that if you dishonored someone above your station you were in deep trouble. So, you don’t speak back to your lord if you are a peasant serf—at least if you want to keep farming. You are nice to ladies if you are knight. You bow before kings, or go to prison. That sort of stuff. Human rights were not a big deal back then. Anselm (c. 1000) was so preoccupied with honor that he argued that Jesus’ death was necessary because we humans had offended God’s honour by sinning. 

            Sure, the Reformers backed off the honour argument some, emphasizing another strand of Anselm’s thought, namely that Jesus’ death was necessary not so much because we offended God’s honor, but because eternal damnation was a just penalty for our sins (for any single sin, in fact. One strike and you’re out). What the Supreme Court might call cruel and unusual punishment.

            I wish Christians would move beyond this. 

            Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we ought to be flippant when we speak or think of God. That sort of attitude is merely impolite. It doesn’t do justice to the complexity and wonder we feel when we try to engage mysterious divine matters.

            But Plantinga’s underlying, if unspoken, sense of God as a being to be feared, a being concerned about his (or her) honour, about the real possibility of tit for tat punishment, often connected to guilt we somehow bear for the sins of a mythical couple, just doesn’t seem very credible. It’s a “just so” story. Didn’t Jesus teach us about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, giving the coat off of our backs, after all? Should we suspect God of less? 

            I understand that there is a kind of internal coherence to Plantinga’s—and most of orthodoxy’s—theorizing about God. I get that you can parse scripture in a certain way to make it come out in this way. 

            But I’ve moved on. I like how John Caputo puts it:

God is not a celestial toll taker who charges a fee to undertake a spiritual journey. In short, God is not a Big Deal or Big Dealer, not the Omni-being who overwhelms our finitude with a plan to reward His (sic) friends and punish His enemies (sic, even sicker), which does not sound much like the Sermon on the Mount. (Hope Against Hope, 112)

            You’ll have to read Caputo’s book for the cultural, philosophic, theological reasons Caputo says such things. But ultimately, he wants a God who calls us “back into the toils and troubles of everyday life,” a God who does not so much exist as insist, not a being so much as a small quiet voice that whispers (prays!), “love, forgive, do justice, be merciful.” God depends on us to make all that come true. If we don’t, we don’t. But we can.

            Even if, once upon a time, we daydreamed through a class on the doctrine of God.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Preaching Climate Change


            One Friday, before Joe left for work downtown, he opened his Waze app and typed in “work” as his destination. Waze continuously tracks all of its users while they drive, and by doing so, maps out the fastest route to any destination. Along the way, Waze uses the electronics, algorithms, street maps, computer code, and even geography to do so. It is a very cool app. And so, though Joe didn’t understand the engineering or science behind Waze, he loves how it saves time, every day. He trusts it.

            This morning, Joe’s drive was not without incident. He listens to Radio 590, The Fan. But Joe accidentally hits a button on his steering column, and his kid’s rap music comes on. So, Joe takes his eyes off the road to change the station back, for just a second, and in that moment, a car in front of him slams on its brakes. Joe would have hit that car except that his car automatically slammed on its brakes too, sensing that an accident was imminent. Joe didn’t even know his new car had an accident avoidance system—but this morning the engineering and science behind it saved him anyway. Joe was impressed.

            At work, early, Joe booted up his computer and surfed over to 23andMe, a genealogical research lab that reads your DNA and compares it to the DNA of other people who have sent theirs in. A few months ago, Joe sent 23andMe some saliva in a tube. Joe is an adopted child and has never been able to connect with his birth family. This morning, Joe’s results have finally been posted. He discovers three likely second cousins. Joe doesn’t know it yet, but later that month, as a result of this DNA matching, he is going to meet his birth-grandparents. The science is way above his head, but he trusted the biologists enough to give it a whirl. 

            That afternoon, Joe knocks off early. He’s going to fish for brook trout at his cottage with his buddies. Joe doesn’t know this, but forty years ago, his lake nearly died due to acid rain. When scientists raised the alarm, Ronald Reagan and Pierre Trudeau enacted a series of laws to reduce Sulphur emissions, so that Joe’s lake and many more like it are now full of fish. In fact, thanks to those scientists, he’s always counted on catching them.

            Joe buys and sells bonds for a living. He has a good life. Between algorithms he doesn’t understand, the engineering in his car, nuclear DNA and mitochondrial genome science that is way over his head, and governmental action on Sulphur and ozone emissions, science has made his life a lot better. He’s also a two-time cancer survivor, thanks to MRIs, radiation treatment, and new chemo drugs. He never doubted that his doctors were the best, and would use the best techniques to heal him. And now, he hopes to live a long, happy life.

            Modern sciences: math, engineering, biology, chemistry, have made our lives better. Joe hardly thinks to thank the Nobel prize winners, GM engineers, 23andMe biologists or Sunnybrook doctors for all this good stuff, though. He takes it in stride. He expects it. We all do. We hardly ever say prayers of thanksgiving for these gifts—unless it’s under our breath, as when Joe muttered, “thank god,” when he avoided an accident. We trust today’s science and the scientific method it uses, and depend on it for the most comfortable lives humans have ever lived.

            Anyway, Joe and his buddies go to the cottage. They catch a lot of fish. And at the end of the day, they light a fire down on the beach, pour themselves a scotch and talk. Of course, they do. It’s the good life.

            Eventually the conversation turns to climate change. A new government has come into power. It has cancelled several environmental programs. A new leader has publicly expressed doubt as to whether or not climate science can be trusted or whether anything can be done about warming temperatures, anyway. 

            “Yah,” says Joe. “I don’t believe in it either. How can they know? Do these scientists think they’re gods? Anyway, the weather changes every week, every year,” says Joe. “Two winters ago? It was cold. Water main burst in front of the house. Basement flooded. Don’t talk to me about climate change. It’s a hoax. Some pointy headed guys in lab coats trying to get promotions. I’m with Ford and Trump and the pipeline companies on this.”

            Well, what do think? Is climate change a hoax or not?  Canyoutrust the overwhelming consensus of scientists when it comes to climate change? Like you trust your doctor or the physicist who figured out how to make MRI machines work? Or here is another question. Even if—and there isn’t, but let’s just pretend—even if there was doubt about the long- and short-term impact of climate change, would you dare take a chance on it? Cross your fingers and hope for the best, because that is easier than doing something about it? Like, would you drive your car if the brake pressure light went on? And for how long? How much are you willing to risk to leave the status quo alone?

            Look, we all depend on the findings and theories of science, every day, for every piece of our good lives. We trust the science behind auto radar and Waze, the science that makes computers work and that predicts tides and eclipses. We trust the science of DNA to find relatives and rapists, and we have, in the past, trusted scientists to clean our air and reduce acid rain and clean up the great lakes. 

            And now, scientists tell us that climate change—unless we act now—is going to transform our world so dramatically, so fundamentally, that our grandchildren are going to suffer serious harm to their living standards. It will result in massive movements of climate-change refugees unlike anything we have seen so far. Climate change will contribute to the largest extinction events since the dinosaurs. 

            Mind you, it isn’t a few lone scientists saying so. All of them are saying so—or, at least, such a high percentage of them that I wouldn’t want to bet a plug nickel on the tiny, tiny group of them that still question some aspects of these trends. The latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us that unless serious efforts are made over the next ten years to change course, it will be too late. I won’t go through all the data here, since tons of it is at your fingertips. Read the report yourself. But I warn you that there are some groups out there, mostly funded by libertarian or very partisan industry organizations, that try to tell a completely different story to provide cover for a certain brand of politicians to deny, deny, deny. History will roundly condemn these short-term, me-first, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil leaders.

            Meanwhile, as a society we refuse to deal with more and stronger hurricanes, and rising sea levels, and dying corals, and plunging insect and amphibian populations, and droughts in Africa so severe that whole peoples are migrating to Europe, or drowning to get there. 

            Here in the West, our wealth and—to some extent—our geography, may protect us somewhat in the short term. But you just wait.

            The writer of Psalm 19 exalts God for the beauty of creation. But he, or she—the Psalmist was most likely a man—also warns his audience that when it comes to God’s laws, including stewardship of the beautiful garden of creation; when it comes to God’s laws it takes an act of will to abide by them and uphold them. You have to choose. The Psalmist warns us not to be fooled. He says:

            “Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.” And who are the insolent? I’d say those who, for whatever personal or financial or political reasons, would rather, for short-term gain, destroy the earth as we know it than make costly, sacrificial changes today.

            When it comes to climate change, false prophets are crying, “Peace, Peace” when there is no peace. And if enough Joes choose these prophets of all’s well instead of serious climatologists who dare to tell the truth in difficult times, you can be sure that ruin and defeat will follow for us as surely as it did for Old Testament Israel.

            So, what is it going to be? Are we going to go with our most comfortable, uniformed hunches, the ones that require no sacrifice, no changes in habits, no tax increases, no action on behalf of the planet or its creatures or our children? Or will we make big sacrifices, like our great-grandparents did during the depression, and our grandparents did during the Second World war—will we make big sacrifices in what we buy and how we vote, how we run our corporations and which ones we invest in—will we make big changes now, for the sake of—well, everything good that we have taken for granted for too long?

            An idyllic future will not fall into our children’s laps, from the heavens, regardless of the choices we make. Joe—who otherwise would never question the opinion of a single scientist, never mind a scientific consensus—Joe and the insolent politicians who have his ear are, biblically speaking, fools. Peace, when it comes to climate change, peace must be waged by us, now, tooth and claw, urgently, if we are going to turn the corner on this.

            The heavens may declare the glory of God, but right now the earth is crying in agony because of human idiocy. I wish I could say something more comfortable this morning. I wish I could say something more constructive. I wish I didn’t have to say anything about this at all. 

            But this morning, Joe is not going to have the last word, at least not here. We are in serious crises, as serious as that of the cold war or the bubonic plague. And, until we act, personally and as a society, to tackle climate change, you will not hear “peace, peace,” from me.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Are You Our Next Minister?


Lawrence Park Community Church (United, Unlimited, Unorthodox), where I am a minister, needs a second minister! He or she will be a co-pastor with me. The ad that we've put in the Christian Century and in The United Church Observer says: "This position will include preaching, pastoral work and team building with a focus on youth program leadership. The new minister will play a key role in helping us launch a new evening service which will explore the role of Christianity and spirituality in the modern world. It will be a service for believers and doubters. The new service will include the following elements: debates, Tedx-type speakers, meals, and secular but spiritual music. The bridging of traditional and innovative approaches will require a recruit with flexibility and vision as well as strong preaching skills."

Worship with the Brian Barlow Quartet, Easter 2018
Of course, there is a backstory. Our long-time minister of pastoral care. Eric Bacon, is (sadly) retiring at the end of the year. I will share pastoral care with the new minister--depending on our skill mix and preferences. And the new worship community we're planning to launch in September of 2019 is a big deal, a huge rock that we're working together as a congregation and staff to launch successfully. The focus will be on making Toronto a better place to live--and extending that to the world when we can.

Well, and there is our morning worship too. We have an unmatched choir that sings a wide variety of traditional and contemporary genres. We do an old-style, low-liturgy Methodist type of service that's tall on community and come as you are and coffee and other refreshments. We mix in jazz, themed Sundays (the church dressed up as the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz, with Auntie Em's potluck after; or four weeks of music and choir on Les Miz). Our morning service is a going concern. But we want to extend our impact!

We have already hired a program manager with deep expertise in social media, marketing, and event planning to work this project (and others) full-time.

So, the new minister and I will sit down, figure out what we love and what we're best at, and split the difference! We're really keen to find someone who thinks outside of the box, who has an imagination, who has stage presence, and who is deeply engaged in making the world a better place. I'm easy to get along with!

We invite American citizens to apply if they are members of a denomination in official fellowship with ours, such as the United Church of Christ. We invite LGBTQ people to apply. We invite persons of colour to apply. We are inclusive and welcoming--and working on becoming more so.

This is an adventure job. An "I can't believe there is a liberal church trying this stuff" job. We'll make sure that you are remunerated in a manner that allows you to live in Toronto. When you arrive, you will find just about the friendliest, low-anxiety, high-fun church going.

If this sounds like it is for you send an email inquiry to Judi Pressman, and ask her for a position description and more background. Her email is judi@lawrenceparkchurch.ca

I want to hear from you!


Monday, October 8, 2018

Thanksgiving Nostalgia


       Rolling Stone magazine called this Beatles song the best song of the twentieth century. It goes like this:

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday

       Yesterday. Remember? Canada’s Happy Days. The Mounties were beautiful in scarlet and above reproach. Archie’s biggest problem was choosing between Betty and Veronica. 

       The past. Remember? Everyone who wanted a factory job had one at the Motors in Oshawa or GE in Peterborough. Women stayed home and wore aprons and the only people who said “me too,” were kids who wanted dessert.

       Yesterday. Remember? Expo 67. The Leafs won a Stanley Cup. Paul Henderson scored—not once or twice, but three times. Kids played baseball at the park and road hockey in the streets. Screen time meant The Brady Bunch or I Love Lucy.

       The best of times. Donald Trump misses them, so he promised to, “Make America Great Again.” During the presidential race he was asked by a journalist when exactly that was. Trump said, “well, America was great when Ronald Reagan was president!” 

       So, do you remember what Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan was? You guessed it. “Make America great again.” We have always believed in yesterday.

       And lest we think that is just an American thing, don’t forget Doug Ford. He said, “We will return our province to where it belongs. Ontario will be open for business.” He said this when our unemployment rate was near historic lows and businesses are complaining that they can’t hire the help they need. 

       We believe in yesterday. Nostalgia is a worldwide phenomenon. Chinese president Xi Jinping calls for “a great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” Russia’s Putin insists that the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster that he will help Russia recover from. After the Brexit vote, British politician Vince Cable said, "Too many were driven by a nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink."

       Yesterday. Actually, the best of times, but also the worst of times.

        Not quite fifty years ago, mortgage rates were 18 percent and unemployment over 13 percent. More than 400,000 people died of starvation in Ethiopia. The Vietnam war raged. Residential schools sundered children from parents and tribes. Not long ago most cancers could not be beaten, the cold war filled us with fear, labour strikes were regular occurrences, and acid rain had killed many of our lakes. Looking a bit deeper into the past, there was WWII, the holocaust, the 1918 flu epidemic, as many as twenty million starved to death by the Soviets in the Ukraine, and we lived, on average, twenty years less than we do now. 

       Nostalgia has a sweet aroma, but as a plan for the future, it is poison. Our memories are very selective.

The truth is, as Calvin so aptly observes, when you think about it, our lives now are actually pretty nice. A lot of kids don’t have as good a home life as we do. We have a lot to be thankful for today. We can’t really complain.

       Which is not to say there are no problems. Our lives are always a mess of broken windshields and relationships and worries of deep concern about big worldwide problems. I write about those problems regularly. But we will never find a solution to those problems by idealizing a past that gave them to us. We must find solutions to those problems, in part, by seeing things as they are now.

       I’m a writer, and so perhaps I have an over active imagination. But I play an odd game with myself, sometimes, when I’m driving through town, by myself, at night. 

       I imagine that my great grandfather, Willem Suk, who died in 1909, is sitting beside me in my car. Willem died of lung disease from working in a cement factory after spending most of his adult life selling groceries door to door out of a dog cart. His family was left in heartrending poverty. Anyway, as I drive along, I describe for my grandfather wonders he could never imagine: jetliners landing at Pearson passing overhead, Audis and Buicks, electric street lamps and three-bedroom bungalows with in-door plumbing, air conditioning, and my groceries in the back seat. He would have been amazed that his own tragic life did not result in generations more of pain and poverty for his descendants, the same pain and poverty that was commonplace for his ancestors.

       Today is Thanksgiving. Let’s embrace how far we’ve come in order to tackle the problems we have.

       The truth is, our future can be even more bountiful, more life-sustaining than our lives are today, so long as we do not wallow in yesterday, but rather, roll up our sleeves, and with hearts full of gratitude, live by ideals worthy of the future we want for our own grandchildren.