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. 

Brooding

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.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Rising into new life

It has been a while since I lasted posted, the gap coincidentally aligning with Lent. Okay, not coincidentally. Lent is a busy time in churches and Richmond Hill United Church is no exception. Add to this that it has been my first Lent flying solo in many years and you can see why I haven't posted. 

It has also been a rich Lent. Earlier in the year I joined a centering prayer group. Along with our group sits we have been reviewing over Lent a DVD from the Center for Action and Contemplation comparing the wisdom offered by Jesus and the Buddha. Learning about the false self and the importance of letting it go to discover what is true has aligned beautifully with this season. I've been reading Richard Rohr's recent book about the Trinity, discovering the dynamic flow of love that is beyond and yet within all things. Add to this that as part of a learning cohort with colleagues the facilitator led us in a conversation about being our authentic selves. Like I said, rich.

But Lent is over and it is time to rest in the gift that is Easter, special this year because being in Central Ontario for Easter means all of the snow is gone and the world is bursting into new life. A prime example is the forsythia in bloom at the parking lot door of the church. Spectacular. This sense of new life has been mirrored for me over this past week. It is recovery week for me and I have opted to take time off to review a CAC webcast on the Trinity. Along with the sessions has been lots of time for centering prayer and other contemplative practices like meditation walks. It was in such a walk that everything over the past six weeks came together.


So as you know if you're a regular reader is that I have found a thin place to go for walks close to our home. This morning I took Finley for a walk in this forest but decided to be very meditative about it, to be attentive to my body, to the wind, to the energy of the space. So I started walking, throwing the ball occasionally and just being attentive. It was magical. Everywhere the forest is bursting into life. I even discovered a patch of trilliums that will soon be in bloom. 


I decided to follow a path that cuts back and forth across the main access path. I was in the moment, feeling the wind, hearing the birds, and as I crossed the main path I was struck by how much this following is my true self and not the false person I've been taught to project. I was meandering along where the land begged to be walked and not through the straight shortcut. As part of the webcast Wm. Paul Young (author of The Shack) had spoken about the art of making a violin. The artisan doesn't force the wood based on an ideal violin but works with the grain and allows the best violin to emerge. The wood shapes the violin maker more than the other way around. He used this image to speak about Trinity, about how this relational G-d doesn't force us along a path but draws out of us what is there and empowers us to walk along the path that is most life-giving for us. Trinity draws out from us what is true and authentic.

This was mirrored at the learning cohort. As a visual focus the facilitator lit a floating candle. Over the course of the days I noticed how a new candle always floated with most of its mass below the water. But as it burned more and more of the candle would be exposed. It felt like that was happening in our session as we each felt more free to be ourselves.


This is something many of us struggle to do. We are shaped by the world around us, by the values of our culture, including those that are in opposition to the gospel. But over time we can lay them down. I saw this strikingly as part of our Good Friday service. Each year RHUC youth help lead the service, presenting symbols to help us focus during the readings. I was using the template of my predecessor, adding some of my own symbols, including a Roman Imperial staff. I didn’t realize how powerful it would be until I watched as our youth place the instruments of empire at the foot of the cross. It captured so beautifully what I've been experiencing these past weeks, laying down what is false in favour of what is true and authentic. It is only through the letting go, the surrendering we see in the cross that what is true, authentic, life-giving can be revealed.


So rich, so true, so life-giving.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Hugging Trees

I'm a tree hugger. Literally. I have been known to actually hug a tree or two. In fact when I was wrapping up my sabbatical and heading north from San Francisco to Seattle I stopped in Redwood National Park and did my best to hug one. I realise it may sound flaky to some but it offered me energy and strength. I received it gratefully before continuing on my journey.


Consequently I was very pleased a few weeks ago when I was asked by our Women's Spirituality group to come out to their retreat weekend and share some thoughts about nature connection, and especially Forest Church, which I've blogged about previously. For more information check out www.mysticchrist.co.uk. It was easy to say yes given that the retreat was being held a few minutes up the road from me at Loretto Maryholme in Keswick.


They were gathering just before Candlemas or Oimelc in the Celtic calendar. This is the beginning of spring (the equinox is mid spring by Celtic reckoning) because this is the time of year that the sun is noticeably stronger. This is a celebration focused on light so  it was a nice coincidence that they had made lanterns from tin cans the evening before.


As I sat in front of the fire I offered them my thoughts about nature and how Spirit offers us wisdom and insight. Inspired by the work of Noel Moule (his website is www.christiananimism.com), who I had the privilege to meet when I was at the Greenbelt Festival last time, I shared with the group about Christian animism, the idea that everything is alive, sacred, connected, has a spirit, should be nurtured and respected, and how if we are attentive to the gospels we can see these ideas in Jesus' teachings and actions. Hearing Noel speaking in those terms had been so affirming of my own spiritual experience and I was glad to offer something of the same. 

I also shared with them the practice of sensio divina which I'd been taught by Bruce Stanley at the same Greenbelt where I met Noel. A bit like lectio divina, sensio divina is a practice of listening attentively to a place or thing or event in nature, experiencing G-d speaking through it. Just as you would do when approaching a passage in the bible, you begin by centering in the present moment with mindful breaths, and then appreciating the scene or object as a whole before becoming more aware of details. Again like when reading a passage you move from that to a more imaginative process, becoming less an observer and more of a participant, attentive to the insights that come. It's an amazing practice which continues to speak to me and I was pleased that so many wanted to go outside even though it was chilly. 

For those who preferred not to go outside I had spread out magazine photos of nature and invited them to write a psalm (this is again a practice I learned from Bruce, this time in his book about Forest Church. I chose that option for my own reflection. 

As I looked at the various photos I kept feeling drawn to one from an old edition of National Geographic I clipped out many years ago. I felt drawn to the verdancy of the misty scene of a brook and cedar trees seen below. 


There was something about the image that spoke to my spirit. When I had first picked up the photo I thought the child in the foreground was lying on a stone slab, but then I suddenly realized he was laying on a log, not unlike the log in the background covered with saplings. In that moment I knew what I wanted to say. I offer you my psalm:

Blessed are you mothering God.
A majestic cedar with roots sunk deep into the ground,
you lean against the soil, creating space for new life to grow.
You lay down your life that I may live;
you give yourself freely that I may be nurtured.
I give thanks for the gift of your strength and nourishment.
Beneath the shadow of your trunk I find shelter;
in the security of your womb I find comfort.
May you continue to uphold me
as I sink my roots in the foundation of your love.

You never know how people will receive an unfamiliar teaching so I was thrilled when everyone returned and they shared experiences of deep connection, how they regularly experience G-d in nature, how they had received inspiration from the experience.

When I said I wanted to start hosting Forest Church in Richmond Hill, I received an enthusiastic response. I'm clearly not the only one who hugs trees.