Friday, 16 February 2018

The Power of Love

If it seems like a long time since I posted last, you're right. Once again autumn has been very busy, in part because Glen and I opted to go on vacation at the end of August, leaving me scrambling to get organized when I returned. I know what you're thinking. I could have done all of that work before I left. And I did some. But not enough. Plus I have always struggled with doing planning and prep work way in advance. Add in to that an extra layer of work from the Circle Process we've been involved in as a congregation to discern future possibilities and you see how my excuses multiply. 

One enjoyable part of this busy fall has been our experiments with "Forest Church". This UK based movement which I have blogged about before has crossed the pond quite nicely and is going under the moniker of "Wild Church" in some parts. Regardless of the name, at its core is the desire to share spiritual experiences where people connect with the divine in nature. So far we've held gatherings for summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, interspersed with meditation walks in local parkland. 

At our very first gathering there were 24 of us celebrating the longest day, concluding with a feast of strawberries and toasted marshmallows. I delightfully discovered what a great combo those are - literally. Toast your marshmallow. Insert strawberry. Eat. It doesn't get much better. Each time we've attracted people from the community, the first time with people simply joining us from the street. 

This past month 18 stalwart souls came together for the winter solstice - and they were forewarned we'd be gathering for part of it in the freezing cold outside. After taking time to give thanks for the dark as well as look with hope to the growing light, we decorated a new Yule log and added written prayers for the new year. There was enthusiasm as we went outside and sang a solstice song and told stories around a yuletide fire. 

The energy with which people have embraced this "fresh expression" of worship reveals an openness to new ideas that gives me reason to feel promise for the future. There was one significant incident that left me reeling though. As people wandered back inside I was confronted by a participant as having made a racist comment. I could not for the life of me think what I had said but clearly my words had been viewed as hurtful. I listened. I apologized. But I was left feeling confused. Had I misspoke? Was I misheard? It didn't matter. Someone was hurt by my words. I felt the good of the evening had been lost and vowed to be more cautious in my phrasing from then on. As you can imagine, I kept ruminating over the incident for days. Despite all the good comments I had received about the evening, that exchange is what stuck in my heart. 

Fortunately for my heart the story doesn't end there. The Sunday prior to the winter solstice, a member of the congregation came up to me after the service and thanked me for my words that day and then said "I have some homework for you. You spoke today about how God's love is all around us and you're right. What I want you to do is say out loud whenever you think of it 'Love is everywhere.' Keep doing it and at some point you will have an experience of that love. Trust me." I thanked her and promised I would. And I did. Most often I would remember when I was walking in the forest with Finley. "Love is everywhere" I'd say, again and again. It made me smile.

Then one afternoon something very healing happened. It was a day between Christmas and New Year. Once again in the forest and once again I repeated a couple of times "Love is everywhere." 
For some reason I started to sing "The Little Drummer Boy" and as I did so I felt overwhelmed by love and started to cry. I shared this with Glen who thought it was an odd song to get emotional about. And it is. Most of us remember the claymation Christmas special on TV. Pretty hokey. 

But here's the thing. Singing the song brought me back to another moment years ago when I was still in seminary. Over the Christmas break I had been asked to deliver poinsettias for the church and while I was driving Bob Seeger's version of "The Little Drummer Boy" came on. I listened like it was the first time I heard it. All the boy could do was offer his best. All I could do in my future ministry was do my best. And that was enough. All those years ago I felt overwhelmed by love and started to cry. And in the forest I felt the same, invited to let go of what happened at the solstice, to know that I had done my best, was doing my best and that was enough. I was loved. 

That was such a moment of grace for me and I hope my sharing may be one for you too. There will be times we do well. And times we'll fail. But we can always trust in the power of love.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Hats off to glaciers and garbage

Each year in September, some faith communities mark the Season of Creation, and Richmond Hill United Church is one of them. This relatively new church season helps us engage our sense of wonder regarding the natural world, and offers us a way to lift up the original blessing that is part of our spiritual narrative and not just human frailty and sin. Plus falling as it does in the Season after Pentecost, known by some as Ordinary Time, these Sundays are a nice interlude in the extended period between Pentecost and the beginning of Advent. At times I've advocated celebrating it in spring, arguing it feels more appropriate with spring's renewal and the proximity to Earth Day. (I've also argued that since September is spring in Australia where this season originates clearly spring is the intended time frame.) Regardless of when it is celebrated, I have come to appreciate this season not just as a time for wonder but also as a prod to naming our role in the climate crisis we are facing.

That came home to me this summer as Glen and I visited with family out west at the end of August. After a visit with Glen's sister and family in Waskada, Manitoba, and with my sister and husband in Warner, Alberta, we took the long way around to Edmonton through Banff and Jasper National Parks. Guilty of taking Banff for granted all the years I'd lived in Alberta, I had never been to Lake Louise, I suggested we do so on our way through. A laughable idea. We weren't naive enough to think we were the only ones to get a free park pass in honour of Canada's 150th but were naive enough to think that passing through on a weekday would help. As we drove toward the village site traffic volunteers directed us along. With each turn we thought we were being helped toward a parking lot. That is until we were directed in a big circle right back to the highway. Good times. Fortunately Lake Louise wasn't our only hoped for stop. Along the way we paid a visit to Bow Lake beneath the Bow Glacier. 

It was stunning, no where near as busy, and brought a smile to my face when our dog Finley took a few steps in to the headwaters of the Bow River, source of Calgary's drinking water. Apparently the Edmonton-Calgary rivalry was not erased by several months living in Ontario.

The main purpose of our long-way-round was to visit the Colombia Icefield. Again, I took getting to see it for granted when I lived in Edmonton.

I was awestruck. But not just because it was staggering in size, and clearly powerful, having at one time carved out a large valley. I was awestruck at how far it had receded. When first discovered it filled the valley up to the present highway. Glen and I parked where it had been in 1942, a half hour walk away. We met people who remembered how much further down the valley it had been in the 1980's. And with each decade the speed of its recession is accelerating. Some studies suggest the world's alpine glaciers may be gone in 30 years. We clearly need experiences in national parks, the prodding of the Season of Creation, and any other opportunities to grow in appreciation for our world.

We also need to find ways to protect it, which leads me to another awe-inspiring experience we had - we toured the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. Clearly I need to get a life. And yet it was like Christmas and Easter rolled into one. Edmonton's facility is world class. In fact, representatives from around the world have come to see Edmonton's one-stop-shop waste management.

Edmonton boasts the continent's largest indoor composting shed and is installing an anaerobic processor that will convert excess organic waste into methane, fuel for electricity generation on site. Presently the plant diverts 80% of Edmonton's garbage from landfills, up from 60% because the EWMC processes soft plastic.

How does it process plastic bags and cling wrap turned away by most other municipalities? Chopped up into "plastic fluff", all of this waste is converted into methanol and ethanol in a gassification plant. Plastic bags, made from oil, turned into fuel to be added to gasoline. That's pretty cool.

As I said, it was like Christmas and Easter rolled into one for me, so much so that I'm not sure if I was more awe-struck by the Colombia Icefield or by the EWMC? In the end I am awestruck by both. The glacier reminds me of the majesty of the earth, just as it rapid retreat reminds me of our human impact on it. And the amazing work being done to turn garbage into gold reminds me that there are solutions to our crisis if we put our minds to it.

Each year we have the Season of Creation to remind us of the wonder of our world. But more importantly we have a 365 days of the year responsibility to take care of it.  

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Brooding, part 2

As I shared, brooding takes time. I've been told that it actually takes a good deal of effort on the part of the chicks to hatch. That reality came clear to me recently in regard to reconciliation work with the Indigenous community. In the same "staycation" period as attending the Skylight Festival, I decided to walk one of Toronto's Discovery Walks. Over 4 and a half hours Finley and I walked "The Shared Path" which follows the Humber River and includes several teaching spots regarding the history of the river for both Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg peoples as well as French and British Settlers.

Finley had a great time, especially when I let him off leash for a swim in a quiet section of the river.

Along the way I spoke to an Anishnaabeg artist about a series of art pieces he is creating in the area. He spoke about the importance of knowing the history of the area and expressed appreciation that I was interested in just that. He said that only by taking the time to listen to the First Peoples and grow trust will we turn a corner in our sharing of Canada.

This was underscored at a couple of talks I attended this past weekend at the Skylight Festival. Adrian Jacobs, Keeper of the Circle at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre (a United Church ministry training centre) was there and shared the history of the Two Row Wampum and the settling of the Grand River area by the Haudenosaunee.

Southern Ontario had been the hunting grounds of his people, but with American incursions into their traditional territory in upper New York State, they withdrew to the Grand River. An agreement was made with the British that they would have set aside for their use 6 miles on either side of the Grand River from mouth to source - that's a large territory. But as is well documented the people were cheated of their land and reduced to a much smaller territory. "People's beliefs are known by their actions," he reminded us. "My people have kept our agreements. If the promised land was returned to us you wouldn't need to worry. We should be scared of you based on the past." You could sense some bristling among the crowd when he said that but I know he was right. That same story has been repeated in many parts of the country.

And yet despite how much settler people have failed Indigenous people Adrian has hope. He invited us to share the story, to do what we can to stand with indigenous people. Many others have shared the same thing with me, that we need to do something beyond just saying sorry in order for a new relationship to be created. It will take effort on our part, more than just attending talks. It will take writing MPs and attending protests. It will take showing up at pow wows and listening to Indigenous people as they share how we can advocate for change.

And truth be told sometimes we'll miss what is going on. We get caught up with our lives and the day to day busy-ness. Meanwhile there are tragedies like the suicide epidemic among young people in isolated reserves, or the fact that the federal government continues to under fund health, education and social services for Indigenous peoples despite being told more than once by the courts that it was in the wrong. And we'll miss the triumphs, like the mandate of Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women being expanded to include police conduct. When it happens I feel overwhelmed, like I have let down my friends by not paying attention.

Something akin to that happened on my river walk. There were a couple of markers I missed along the way. I'd been distracted by a group of kids getting ready to go canoeing and by the rumble of the subway overhead. I was busy trying to make sure I was on the right path and avoid heavy machinery on the sidewalk. When I realized I'd missed them I was tempted to go back. There was a part of the story I'd missed and I felt that I had failed in my mission to learn the local Indigenous story.

But as I walked a labyrinth that I discovered near the mouth of the Humber I realized it was okay. along with the kids and subway and heavy machinery I also had been focused on what I needed to in that moment - the peace of the river, the beauty of wildflowers and trees, and Finley wanting to have a swim. And I was attentive to the paintings under the subway bridge and to listening to the story of the artist. Which is the point he was making in the end. It's easy to get caught up in our lives. But what really matters is the series of relationships that we nurture along the way. And when we take time to get to know Indigenous people and are attentive to our relationships, that's when the healing will happen and something new will be born.

I discovered this a couple of days ago in the nest. I thought the eggs were delayed when all along little hatched chicks had been cozying under their parents slowly getting stronger.

And the same is true of the Indigenous-Settler relationship in Canada. With friendship new life will slowly grow and before we know it a new way of being together will take wing. 


You know you're not living in the city anymore when you look out the window while you're having an early morning coffee and see a raccoon and her five babies scamper along the fence top toward your deck. Or when you are driving to the lake so your dog can have a swim and as you look up and see a hawk flying overhead - with lunch in its talons. Or when you go outside to water your flowers and notice that a pair of mourning doves have decided to nest in your hanging begonia.

I immediately checked to see how long it takes for the eggs to gestate - 16 days. Clearly these doves need to be patient.

The need for patience has been a recurring theme over the last few weeks. First, as previously written about, we are engaged as a congregation in a period of discernment. This process is testing the patience of some in the congregation. There are repairs that need to be made beyond the re-roofing of our Christian Development building, initiatives they'd like to see implemented. But someone keeps reminding them that we're engaged in a process of listening and need to wait until we have decided what direction we're going to take. I sympathize with them. I'm not very patient either but sometimes we need to brood over the eggs for new life to come.

New life takes time. As the organizers of a festival that Glen and I attended in Paris Ontario are discovering. The Skylight Festival is a new venture, spearheaded following a group "pilgrimage" to the Greenbelt Festival in the UK a few years ago. A large group of United Church leaders were sent to experience the event and get some ideas for new ways of being church. My big discovery was "Forest Church" along with "Order of the Black Sheep" which I blogged about during my sabbatical. The attendance dipped this year from last, but as I shared with a friend of mine, the Greenbelt Festival has been going more than 4 decades, and even then attendance has ebbed and flowed. Skylight is small for now but has a nascent Greenbelt vibe with a quirky living room in the middle of a field and of course a tent village and a pub.

As usual my main interest is in "fresh expressions" of church so I was keen to participate in "Be" - an alternative service facilitated by folks from Maritime Conference.

I was also curious to attend "Bible meets Broadway", an exploration of showtunes as sacred music, an idea I've toyed with myself since attending U2charist at Greenbelt and not being able to attend the "Les Miz Mass" at the same event because it was overcrowded. (Truth be told the title of the music event at Skylight took me by surprise because that is what I was going to call a worship service using showtunes as hymns. Clearly it was a good name.)

Overall this year's Skylight was great and I trust with some careful brooding it will grow over time.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

What a month

With the page for June now turned over and the Canada 150 events done, now is a good time to reflect back on a month designated as both Pride Month as well as Indigenous Heritage Month. At first glance these two acknowledgements may seem worlds apart, and yet there is actually much that they share in common. Let me begin though by reflecting on Pride.

Glen and I live in the most northerly of the municipalities in York Region. Georgina (we live in Keswick) is not known as a progressive hotbed. Folks here vote Conservative both federally and provincially. I've read letters to the editor calling down refugees. I've had conversations during which environmentalists are called "*@!* tree huggers and marsh muckers" (little did they know I've done both). So imagine my surprise when I saw Pride flags gaily blowing in the wind at the official entry point to the town. As it turned out Georgina even vied to host York Region Pride Fest this year.

It ended up in Newmarket, having been held for the last 5 years in Richmond Hill. The folks at RHUC were sad. They'd been coming out in full force to walk in the parade in years past, especially with the church right on Yonge. What would it be like walking in Newmarket? Given how poorly the parade had been attended in Richmond Hill, plus push back from local business, how was it going to play out further north? No one need have worried. The biggest impact was on the RHUC contingent. I was first to arrive, then 4 more came, as the parade began we rounded out to 12.

Last year RHUC was 50 strong. Overall they were thrilled because folks from Newmarket lined the streets, free stuff was given out by businesses, everywhere there was a feeling of festivity. "This is what it should have been like in Richmond Hill" one longtime participant noted.

And they were right. Which is why as much as I enjoy a big waving crowd, because there is so much local resistance to Pride in Richmond Hill the parade should be there. We need to be visible and stand proud because it is much harder to be out as LGBTQ+ in the more religiously and ethnically diverse Richmond Hill, close as it is to Toronto.

It is a reminder to all of us why we need to keep creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people, especially in churches and other places of worship. As I shared in my Pride sermon, because the church has singled out sexual and gender minorities for condemnation, we need in turn to single out welcome and inclusion. This sentiment doesn't always sit well, people generally preferring to include gender identity and sexual orientation in a laundry list of marginalized groups. We need to ask why this is necessary when we don't confront sexism or racism that way. Why are we comfortable with stand alone policies for disabled access but not LGBTQ+ inclusion?

Which brings me to the importance of acknowledging Indigenous Heritage Month. As churches we were prime participants in Canada's assimilationist policy. In the early years bibles were translated into Indigenous languages, as were hymns, but church was still European.

The government banned traditional ceremonies with encouragement from church leaders. I have heard more than one story of clergy gathering up sacred items to be burned. I still hear some Christian clergy condemning Indigenous spiritual practice. And of course we ran Indian Residential Schools, with all of the deep harm that brought through cultural control, not to mention physical and sexual abuse. And so we need to step up as church leaders - step up to help people heal, step up in support of the reclaiming of language, step up to encourage the return of traditional ceremonies.

And one final place we need to step up is in helping communities reclaim the role of Two-Spirited people. In denominations like the United Church that are inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities, we need to underscore how wrong we were to condemn homosexuality and gender non-conformity. There may be liberation for LGBTQ+ people in many Canadian circles, but on reserves many in the Two-Spirit community continue to suffer at the hands of Indigenous people who internalized white homophobia and transphobia. Fortunately things are changing. I was more excited to see Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde walking in the Toronto Pride parade than I was to see PM Justin Trudeau (though I was pretty pleased on that score as well). And then to see right after a large contingent of Two-Spirited people walking and drumming and dancing. It warmed my heart.

It has been an exciting month. It was my first Toronto Pride. And actually it was my first standing as a spectator rather than walking. It was great to see the floats going by (including some "eye candy") and it was great to see such diversity of groups walking, including LGBTQ+ refugees and those who help them get to Canada. I've been told the parade was more ethnically diverse this year. And it was a difficult month with the lead up to Canada 150 and me, among many, not feeling it was appropriate to celebrate. Instead I acknowledge 150 years and pledge to work for a greater partnership with Indigenous peoples in the decades to come. I pray that as churches we will be partners with the LGBTQ+ community, and with the Indigenous community. I pray that the excitement, the spirit of inclusion and the genuine solidarity I experienced this month is what we can all live into.  

Sunday, 4 June 2017

It's a Dog's Life

It must be nice to be a dog. You just live completely in the moment. For example, I recently took Finley for a walk in the forest. I've been avoiding my "rainbow route" because there's a low spot that earlier in the spring was filled with muddy water. And as a part lab part terrier, Finley loves muddy water. Glen will take him that way because "he loves it" but I'm not so keen.

Call me crazy but I decided what the heck. I like the "rainbow route" and maybe the water has dried up. Finley ran ahead and you guessed it - the water hadn't dried up and he went for it.

It's clear that he loves it. He is in the moment. Not worried about consequences. Not concerned that he will need to get clean. Not bothered that his puppy-parent will be mad. And how could I get mad? He was inviting me to live in the moment too. All the way to the car I kept laughing to myself. Fortunately we have the lake close by so he was able to get washed off.

I, on the other hand, have a more difficult time living in the moment. Like most of us, I either look backward at the past or project forward into the future. I'll even do this with other people. Here's what I mean. On a recent visit to see my dad we got into a bit of a tiff. I'm still not sure how we got upset with each other but it all started when he commented how happy he is that Glen is now pursuing a career in acting. "Has he always been interested in acting?" asks my dad. "Yes," I replied. "Too bad he wasn't able to pursue it because it's harder to get roles when you are heading toward 50." I tried to explain to my dad why Glen has followed a number of different career paths and he kept on asking me "Aren't you happy for him now?" "Yes," I'd reply and then explain something else about Glen or what it was like for anyone trying to find work in the 90's, as if he hadn't been around. That's where we started to get annoyed with each other. But in the end, my dad was trying to bring me into the present moment, to the joy Glen is experiencing right now in acting. Ironic given that this is the same man who regularly asks for my feedback about his own past decisions.

Living in the moment is hard for any of us. It's hard as individuals. And as communities. As I shared in an earlier post we are engaged in a listening process as a congregation. We are discerning our mission in the present Richmond Hill - how to use our gifts and passions as a congregation, and the asset of our building. When inhabiting a building that is over 100 years old it is easy to look back to the good old days. But who we are called to be in a changing community is what we need to be about rather than who we were in previous generations. The needs of our neighbours aren't what they were.

Ironically, it is wondering about our future that has been more of an issue. Almost as soon as our 1950's addition was built the congregation has pondered how to redo it. It was good for the days when there were hundreds of children in Sunday School but now... So every once in a while we've done visioning, even drawn up a possible major renovation. And in the meantime some significant maintenance was deferred. We all know what that impact can be.

Which brings me back to focusing on right now. People are sharing some great ideas as they listen to what is on each other's hearts and minds and looking at the needs of our community in this moment. It's clear that there is holy wisdom among us. And of course as people share ideas I want to jump ahead to all the things we can do in the future when what I need to do is stay in the moment knowing that we will discern our course of action together.

I wish I could be more like Finley and just live in the moment.  

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Power of Listening

As a congregation we have recently engaged a consultant to help us discern our future together both in terms of our shared mission in Richmond Hill and how best to utilize our building for that mission. It's significant work. After all we have been handed a legacy that extends back to the early days of this community over 200 years ago with Methodist circuit riders.

Housed in a beautiful sanctuary built in 1880 along with a Christian Education building constructed in 1957, this congregation has watched Richmond Hill grow from a village north of Toronto on the route between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe to a vibrant and diverse city (even though it' calls itself a town) in the GTA. The changes around it over such a long period have left it as an aging congregation in a building complex in need of lots of upkeep. This would be challenge enough but we are in the original village core of the town that is trying to find a new heritage-inspired identity. Add to that the reality that our community is much more spiritually diverse than in its Christian heyday. Clearly we need to do significant discernment.

And we need to do significant listening. We are part of a four part process which begins with a series of "Listening Circles" held in people's homes. Our main task is to listen - to each other and to the prompting of the Spirit within each of us. Our consultant reminds each group that we are trying to avoid "group-speak", that is the bane of many a visioning process when only one or two ideas come out because as a group we get excited by what one or two people offer and then we all start contributing to those ideas, forgetting completely that we have some of our own. "There will be time to explore ideas in the next part of the process," she tells us. "This is a time for all voices in the circle to be heard. We all have wisdom to share." And she is right. Over  the last month I have heard significant wisdom shared. And as I have mostly kept silent, holding the circle in prayer, I have heard Wisdom speak to my heart.

One thing that our consultant has us pledge to is to not debate statements and ideas as they come up. I'm so glad she tells each circle this. As people start to jump onto what someone has said you can feel "group-speak" begin. You can also feel the true power of hearing each other begin to ebb away as people feel their safety compromised, no longer truly free to share what is on their heart. When we maintain the no debate principle, there is a greater depth to the listening, and the sharing.

In the world today I feel we could all use the benefit of "Listening Circles". We need to create safe spaces for people to share what is on their hearts without fear of judgment or recrimination. In recent days as more and more media attention is given to the question of "cultural appropriation" I have been struck by how much talking is happening and how little deep listening. An Indigenous or other racialized person will raise the question of appropriation and right away non-Indigenous, non-racialized (that is white) people will start speaking, justifying their wearing of x-outfit, or painting in y-style, or writing in the voice of z-group, saying it's free speech, or it's intended as a compliment, or "we live in a global village". The voices of the dominant culture are loud. No one is listening to what Indigenous and racialized people are trying to say. The status quo is being threatened.

I say "Amen" to threatening the status quo. That status quo has kept lots of people on the margins, disempowered and disenfranchised. If as white folks we stop talking and start listening we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change how we interact with each other. We may actually come to a place where we offer each other mutual love and respect. Then we will appreciate culture and share together rather than appropriating . We will listen to each other's stories, dreams, loves, hurts, hopes, fears, and in the process of truly letting another person's viewpoint touch our hearts, we will be changed forever.

As we continue to engage in "Listening Circles" with each other as a congregation I can hear some of that happening. Would that it happen in the other circles of our lives.