UP in spiritual terms

Have you heard the conspiracy theory about Disney’s UP? If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s a beautiful story of an old man who, as a child, dreamt of being an explorer like his hero Charles Muntz and is now living that out by floating his home down to South America with the help of helium balloons. He accidentally brings a child along for the ride, and the two enjoy the adventure together. It’s cute, it’s fun, and nobody sings. I’ll try not to give away the storyline, but it’s pretty predictable. The old man and the boy bond after enduring each other’s quirks, and they find an obstacle that they need to overcome together.

The new and uncommon approach suggests that there is sometime else going on. The idea is that the night before Carl is supposed to move into the nursing home, the night before he secretly plans to fly his house down to South America (spoiler alert), he actually dies. That might sound a little dark for Disney, but consider that the first five minutes of this movie take the audience through an emotional roller-coaster that can leave most adults winded from the heartbreak. It’s almost like it’s a kind of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in reverse, where Russell, the boy, is actually a guardian angel type figure sent from above to prepare him for the afterlife, by helping him take care of some unfinished business.

It seems like an odd idea at first, but this is precisely when the movie switches from reality to fantasy. There are a lot of questions that a person grounded in reality might ask, many of which build on each other. For example, what kind of materials is Carl using? Regular balloons, thread and helium certainly wouldn’t accomplish the task. Once the house is in the air, how does he avoid detection from the presumably numerous countries curious about who is occupying their airspace? Given the distance they cover, how could they travel so fast without any evidence of consistent strong wind? Also, Carl looks like he is at least 75, so Charles Muntz was either a ridiculously young world famous explorer, or it’s a miracle that he is still alive.

I’m guessing that at this point you are either nodding and saying that these inconsistencies ruined the movie for you too, or you are ready to reassure me that it’s a kids’ movie and I shouldn’t take it too seriously. But, remember, there are all sorts of interesting real life stories that happen all the time that don’t get made into movies. People write fictional stories all the time that don’t get made into movies (for example). So, every story that gets told on the silver screen, is told carefully and intentionally. Like any good storyteller, they set out a clear path the tale will take. The story arc here is that Carl wanted to be an explorer, then life happened, and then at the end of his life (or maybe the beginning of his next life) he finally gets to be one. Then, while he is exploring, he makes a discovery, accidentally and inconveniently for him, but a discovery nonetheless. He discovers, and then sort of befriends, a new and undocumented species of bird.

It seems to me that Carl has a revelation. Of course there is the over-arching, moral of the story kind of revelation, which is that he and his wife have already lived a grand adventure, and that with friends like Russell, he can continue to live one. That’s great. But the one that I find more interesting is in his identity as an explorer. Initially he had set out to see Paradise Falls with his wife, but Paradise Falls wouldn’t have been their discovery, they would have been exploring Charles Muntz’ discovery. If Carl had helped Muntz capture the bird, he would only have been a part of another of Muntz’ discoveries. At this point, Carl is much more comfortable with Russell’s plan of saving the bird from Muntz, except that Muntz is Carl’s hero and Russell has been annoying Carl for the whole trip. Will he reject his dreams and follow the whims of a child?

I suspect the Magi asked themselves the same question. Little is known about what led them to Israel? Did one of their own prophets or visionaries receive a divinely inspired word? Did their people interact with the Jews at some other point in history, in the desert, in Assyrian or Babylonian captivity, when a prophetic message was transferred? Either way, these people were probably sitting on this prediction for a long time, and when it came true, there must have been a lot of excitement. What were they expecting? Did they foresee the political turmoil their presence would create? Did they predict the detour after not finding the baby in the royal palace in Jerusalem? Were they expecting a poor family with a surprisingly young mother? Probably not. We can only speculate on what they were thinking, and it might not be the most fruitful process, but they must have been surprised once or twice on the trip and needed to adjust their plan accordingly.

Our journey’s might not be as adventurous as either Carl’s or the Magi’s, but along our various journeys (geographic, spiritual, metaphorical) we will certainly find surprises and setbacks, but we continue forward adjusting accordingly. We cannot know the true nature of the journey until we are living it. We cannot know what destination awaits us until we fully invest ourselves in the journey. God has set a larger mystery in motion, and to engage ourselves in it, we must allow ourselves to be surprised by it.

Flower Power

I enjoy volunteering at my kid’s school. It sometimes means juggling my work schedule, but I’m lucky to have the flexibility required to make that work. The school encourages this kind of parental involvement for a variety of reasons. I like being able to see how my kid behaves out of the house, and it’s good to be able to meet her friends and teachers as well.

There are tense moments. I worry that the good-natured teasing my daughter has gotten used to will somehow traumatize one of her friends (fortunately though it’s far more common that the other kids will laugh at a joke she has long since written off as no longer funny).

There are tense moments, like when I don’t know how to react to another kid because they are not my kid and I’m not sure what the school’s protocol, like when a girl in the group I was watching on a field trip peed her pants.

There are awkward moments too where I worry about what my kid will say. At the Halloween party each group of students needed to count the seeds in our pre-assigned pumpkins. When my daughter heard about the task, she exclaimed proudly, “Oh good! My daddy is an expert in counting things!” I guess I can’t deny that I’ve left a legacy for my children.

There are always funny moments too, but sometimes they border on the profound.

Among the Elsa’s and the ninjas, there was one girl dressed as a hippy. It was an ironically well-assembled outfit. She got a few compliments from the other parents, most of whom were also too young to remember that period of our history. But the most interesting exchange of the day came when another teacher came in, also dressed as a hippy. The young hippy looked up and seemed proud that somebody else liked the idea enough to do it too. Then, as a show of solidarity, the older hippy greeted the younger one, by extending her arm, raising two fingers and exclaiming, “Peace out!”

The look on the little girl’s face made it clear that she had no idea what that phrase meant and why it was supposed to be associated with the clothes she was wearing. I laughed to myself and looked around. The teachers had moved on to another conversation amongst themselves, other parents were busy helping to count their pumpkin’s seeds, and the kids, well the kids had no idea that anything remotely interesting had happened. There was nobody there to share the joke with me.

One of my professional responsibilities as a pastor is to visit seniors. Very often these are people who have already or are needing to downsize their living space. To do this they need to decrease their possessions. Limiting your possessions has always been a spiritual task when it’s done voluntarily, but when it is forced on your, it’s a little tougher to swallow. Their options usually are giving them away, throwing them away or putting them in long-term storage. The preferred option is always to give them away, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Usually, if you’ve kept something for most of your life, that thing has intrinsic, sentimental and/or non-financial value to you. The problem is, it might be tough to find anyone who attaches anywhere near the same value to those things that you do, and try as you might you cannot force someone to attach value to something.

The seniors that I visit often have closets full of things that they value that nobody else does. It’s a joke that they can’t share. The next time you visit a thrift store, you will likely see some of those items. That often means that someone has died, and since nobody in the family wanted it, it was redistributed.

We could say that this is evidence that our society values our possessions too highly, but it could also be evidence that we value stories too little. The next time you visit a senior in your family or community, and if you aren’t doing that you should, ask them about their stuff. Their possessions hold their stories.

‘Cause they’re not hip with it

From time to time I’m in a position where I’m asked to defend the church. Sometimes that means that I have to try to give an intellectual defence for the content of the Bible or my interpretation of the content. Depending on who is asking the question, it’s not always easy, but those kinds of questions are more or less in line with my education and training. Sometimes it means that I am asked to defend the validity of the church in society, and in the challenge it is directly or indirectly stated that I need to defend my position of leadership within the church and the salary that I collect as pastor. I might need to set my ego and emotions aside for that one, but that is also more or less within my professional capacity. It gets tricky when I am asked to defend the people of the church.

It likely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that churches are often accused of housing hypocrites. Ie. that there are people in our churches who claim to live a life of piety and yet their words and actions tell a different story. Maybe it’s some people in the church that get that label, and maybe it’s everyone in the church. It’s most damning when that accusation comes from former members of the particular church, children of members of that church, or current attendees whose loyalty to the church and the faith is wavering. This sense is so strong that there are a large number of people who claim a Christian faith, who are happy with the contents of the Bible, and who strive to follow Jesus, and yet they refuse to congregate with other Christians because they don’t think they can find a group of other believers that isn’t full of hypocrites.

I hope they are right. I hope that every church they find, whether it meets in a sanctuary, in a home, or in a bar, whether it’s part of a denomination, entirely independent, or some officially interdenominational, whether it is led by a pastor, a team of volunteer, or a speaker who only ever connects through a video screen, is full of hypocrites. I hope they meet a group of Christians who set as their example and guide the most perfect human being that’s ever lived and then are honest about not being able to live up to their claim to follow that example.

Every church that I have ever attended or worked at has been full of hypocrites, full of people who seek to follow Jesus’ example and still allow hatred, discontent, strife, impatience, bitterness, animosity, harshness and sin rule their lives. Some of these people, by choice or circumstance, have their hypocrisy revealed to the rest of the church.

I know it sounds like I’m making light of this major problem and very legitimate complaint by disenchanted. The problem with hypocrisy in the church isn’t in the presence of sin, but in the claims of its absence. As long as there are fallible human beings in your group, there will be sin, and any church worth attending will have people striving to attain the ideal. So, yes, I hope your church is full of hypocrites. Not the kind that hide their sin and celebrate their own goodness, but those that strive for goodness and own up to their failings.

My yesterday

Like many Canadians, I spent much of yesterday morning reading updates and following developments from our nation’s capital. The photos brought me back to the four months I spent living in the city doing a co-op job with Revenue Canada. Ottawa, despite sitting on political, cultural and linguistic fault lines, is a beautiful city, filled with beautiful people. I spent a lot of time on Parliament Hill, walking around the buildings, admiring the architecture and appreciating the view of the city. Behind the Parliament buildings, close to the beautiful National library, is a little gazebo that is part of a tribute to police offers that have fallen in the line of duty. It provides a beautiful view of the Ottawa River, the surrounding valley, and a number of other beautiful buildings and statues. It was probably my favourite place in the city, and it is the one absolute must-see destination when I make return visits.

Even though the city is full of nationalistic identity and symbols of the country’s identity and power, it’s easy for tourists to forget that and get lost in the beauty of the buildings, the natural surroundings and the people. So, it was painful to see yesterday’s transformation in Ottawa. Certainly the loss of life and the ensuing fear that gripped the city and the nation is tragic, but it is part of the transformation from a place of beauty and tranquillity to a place of power and politics.

What hasn’t been talked about much so far is the symbolic nature of the attack. We have no reason to believe that this shooter had any specific vendetta against the soldier he killed or against the politicians he was pursuing. He was attacking what they represented. So, among the loudest voices, we will hear from other people who represent the same things, about how they too are in danger, and how they now refuse to be afraid, etc.  But the outpouring of grief from this country is not about offices or symbols or representation, it is about people.

I think it is natural, but misplaced, that today we celebrate the resilience of our country, the principles of our armed forces, and the integrity of our national law enforcement agencies. These make great headlines and rallying speeches, but they do not reflect where people’s sentiments reside. Nathan Cirillo is a person. He leaves behind a young son, a person. Sure he wore a uniform, but primarily we mourn the loss of a person.

Our new national hero, Kevin Vickers, the parliamentary official entrusted for the safety of our government officials, is also a person. Today he walked into the House of Commons, the house of common people making public policy of other common people, and received a standing ovation. Were they celebrating his office, his uniform, or his ceremonial position? No, they were saluting a person. Watch the video of that ovation here. What do you see in his eyes as he receives that ovation? Stoic pride in his office, in his country, in the duty to uphold an institution? No, he is humbled. Humbled because he is merely a person, seeking to protect other persons.

The shooter too was a person. A person with the same intrinsic value and rights of any other person, as enshrined by the laws of this country. If in his pursuit of terror he had been captured instead of killed, he would have had his medical bills paid for by the government, and he would have been afforded a fair trial for his crimes, because he is a person, and we Canadians believe this is the way things should be. This shooter did not understand that. He lost sight of the value of all people. But it wasn’t that he ascribed too little value to people, but that he valued symbols and uniforms too much.

This shooter refused to see past the uniform. He refused to acknowledge that behind the uniform, behind the political office, was a person, created in the image of God, loving and beloved by an endless circle of other humans, capable of showing and infinitely deserving of our love, respect and honour.

Let’s not make the same mistake. For the betterment of our country, our communities and our families, we need to look past partisan political labels, look past national, religious and cultural identities, and look past the facades of office

Idly by

Maybe you’ve heard the news, our government refuses to stand idly by. Our Prime Minister has said it, other ministers have said it, and so, we will join another military exercise, because our government refuses to stand idly by. But even though it might not often look like it, and they usually don’t want it to look like it, these words are very carefully chosen, because of the obvious and even subtle messages it sends. I think it is worth fleshing out what these messages are and assessing whether or not they are correct.

“We as Canadians refuse to sit idly by”

Across the country, there is support and opposition for military action, across party lines. Canadians recognise the gravity of what is happening in the Middle East, but we also recognise the failure of past military actions and the inter-connectedness of Western intervention and eastern uprisings.

“We refuse to sit idly by … and anything short of military intervention would be sitting idly by”

This message is at the core of the statement, but if we are supposed to believe this, I feel like we are entitled to know what other options were considered and rejected. Have we punished all of the suppliers of arms for equipping ISIS with weapons? Have we aligned ourselves with Arab allies to see if ISIS militants can be shamed out of Muslim holy sites? Have we demonstrated to the young men being recruited into ISIS that democracy and secular free market capitalism are good and incorruptible institutions? If military action is our only viable solution, what are the ways in which the other alternatives have been proven to be non-viable?

“We refuse to sit idly by … as a general principle”

If we’re defining ‘sitting idly by’ as observing human suffering and not sending a military force in response, then why didn’t we send troops to Sudan? Why aren’t we also sending troops to Ukraine, Syria, North Korea (the list is depressingly long)? Obviously there is a very real humanitarian crisis happening there now, but the situation is more complicated than that, just like each of these other crises were/are complex and so our government chose/chooses to “sit idly by.” If it was just about moral principle, we would have sent troops out so often that we would have none free to fight against ISIS.

“We refuse to sit idly by … unlike the previous government”

Remember the last time the west undertook military intervention in Iraq? Yes, there was a recent attempt, and at that time there had been a very recent attempt before that. The last time the west went to war in Iraq, the Canadian government refused to participate. Unlike some of our closest allies, we refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing.’ This was not well received by our neighbours to the south, and some of the members of the party in power now were vocal in their disagreement with that choice. However, anyone old enough to remember that time will know that this was not a decision made lightly or quickly. History too has already shown that decision was probably wise because nobody has been able to draw a direct connection between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein, the world is even more convinced now than we were then that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and it’s pretty clear that either what’s happening there now is a direct/indirect result of previous western interventions or as bad as Hussein was (and he was) this kind of thing didn’t happen under his watch.

 

Wrestling Sermon Series – Week 2

If you found two people wrestling, what would it take for you to intervene? If you were at a public event, like a church picnic or a community gathering at a park, what would force you to step in? Certainly if one of the combatants was wrestling unwillingly you could jump to their aid. If there was an imminent risk of injury, it would be worthwhile to stop them. Are all other cases of wrestling with two willing combatants okay? I think there is another exception, one that points to the kind of closeness Jacob experienced, and that we too are invited to experience, in wrestling God.IMG_20140912_120834

 

I refuse to complain about the weather

As I write this, the forecast low for tonight is -8C.  So much snow has fallen here over the past few days that tree branches aren’t able to bear the load of the uncharacteristcally sticky white stuff, and so they are falling. Branches are falling onto sidewalks, onto power lines and onto cars.  City crews have been constantly busy keeping up with the aftermath, and until the snow melts, we won’t know the damage that has been done.  Those details alone are odd, but it doesn’t stop there.  Today is September 10th, so we are still technically within summer.  My kids built a snowman in the back yard today, and when they were done, it looked around and said, “I’ve been sadly misinformed about summer.” Not only is it this cold now, but it was 25C on Sunday morning. I was sweating at the pulpit, and I wasn’t event talking about sex or money.  The five day forecast for this coming Sunday is 21C as well.

Still, these temperature fluctuations and the concept of snow in September aren’t unheard of in this part of the world. The altitude, the jet streams, and our Canadian citizenship mean that we locals should be used to this.  I’ve only been here for four years, and I’m barely phased by this. Still, a lot of people are doing what I refuse to do, and that’s complain.

It isn’t that I’m entirely unaffected. My walk to and from my daughter’s school left me with wet socks and shoes and stiff muscles from navigating the slush and the ice and the hills. There are tree branches and whole trees down in my condo complex, on the streets and in the parks of my town, and all along my commute to my office. My winter hat, boots and brushes were hard to find and will now be in the way for the next few months before it snows again, and it isn’t worth fully putting them away in the meantime. We had to turn the heat on yesterday, and my forecasted utility savings will have disappeared. Still, I won’t complain, and here’s why:

1. It isn’t actually that bad – I’m guessing if you are dealing with the same things, you’re probably looking at this list and asking why that isn’t a good enough reason to complain. But, if you are reading this in another place or even in this same place a few months down the road, it will look like a pretty pathetic list. These are minor things for us.

2. It sets a bad precedent –  If we all complain about this storm now, then when there is a freezing rain storm in Saskatoon in October or a hail storm in Kamloops in November, or a swarm of lucusts in Houston in December, then they will be just as insufferable then as I want to be now. And if you’re using your good weather as an excuse to tease people about their bad weather, you’re inviting that much more ridicule and that much less sympathy when your storm comes.

3. Our ability to tolerate weather isn’t a contest – If I make a big deal of this storm, and then someone in a warmer climate without snow infrastructure is impacted by a less intense storm, my comments now will make me much less sympathetic then. Plus, it will also invite unsympathetic comments from people who deal with similar storms more often than I do.

4. I see the big picture – One isolated storm does not serve as proof or counter-evidence of anyone’s understanding of climate change. If that was the case, larger scientific studies wouldn’t need to be done, and my wet socks would be the equivalent of a Master’s degree in science.

5. I’m not that important – I can handle a longer commute or even a day working at home. If I miss a meeting, someone can email me the minutes. If I miss an appointment, it can be rescheduled.

6. Other people have it worse than me – I’m not even talking about people in a poor country far away. If you’ve got 160 acres of barley sitting under 3 inches of snow at the beginning of September, you could be in trouble. A tree damaged car pales in comparison to that kind of agricultural economic impact.

7. I choose to be content – Dwelling on the negatives and ignoring the positives is a pretty lousy way to live your life. I’ve got a great family, a good job and I’m relatively good health. It’s going to take a lot more than climate fluctuations to bring me down.

Now, I get it, this is light-hearted enjoyment for some people. It’s fun to complain. I’m complaining about complainging right now. Some people argue that there are therapeutic properties to it even, but that’s really just a “two wrongs make a right” kind of philosophy. The concept that your negative attitude about negative circumstances can somehow produce a positive outcome is theoretical at best. But if you have the mental capacity to choose to be happy, you should give it a shot. Somebody else getting bad weather won’t cheer you up (and it shouldn’t anyway), your own weather improving won’t always cheer you up either. So if you can’t find your happiness in weather, you shouldn’t find your sadness there either.

Canadian Camping

One of the family traditions that we are trying to start is regular camping trips to familiar campsites.  This year we visited three different campgrounds; two of them were national parks and one was more locally administered. We hiked,  we ate smores, we splashed in the water and we took pictures. Except for when we got rained on, the kids did remarkably well.  The people around us varied quite a bit, some were younger and some much older, some lent us things we needed and some needed to borrow from us, some had more luxurious RVs and cabins than us and others … I don’t know, can you get any less comfortable than a tent?

We had blow up mattresses and extra blankets, so we were fine, but I was personally surprised at the number of non-Canadians who were tenting it. And I don’t mean that I walked by a campsite and could tell that they were cooking curry so I assumed they couldn’t be Canadians. No, I talked to people who were visiting from various other countries and had chosen to spend their international vacation sleeping on thin foam mattresses on rock hard ground. Don’t get me wrong. I love camping, but if I’m crossing an ocean, I expect to sleep in a bed.

And these weren’t isolated cases, there is a whole industry around this. One couple rented a kit with a tent, sleeping bags, camp stove and anything you could think of for a camping vacation. Another group had a tour guide that camped with them and lead them on hikes and little daytrips from their campsite. I don’t know if being this kind of professional camper would be a good job or a bad one.

I asked a few of them why they had come all this way to sleep outside with only a synthetic fabric protecting them. Their answer was simple. “Because camping is the best way to experience all of this.” And they would gesture around at the mountains, the forests and the lakes. It was obvious.

It struck me that these people were camping for the same reasons that I was camping.  They knew that if you just wanted to see the mountains, you could look at pictures on the Internet, but if you wanted to experience the mountains, you have to sleep in their shadows.

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These people loved the mountains as much as I did, or more, and had sacrificed more to experience them. And maybe they were in fact more Canadian than the people who live here but have never seen the sunset behind the moutains or the morning mist lift from a lake. This was a reminder to me that the insiders often have as much to learn from the outsiders as the other way around, especially when it comes to appreciation, love and even worship.

The threat becomes a challenge

Famous-Rapper-Quotes-30079684You might have seen this quote before.  It sums up how a lot of us feel when we’ve had to go through various kinds of adversity before finally achieving success, and suddenly when we are successful, the people who once ignored us now pretend to be our friends. If I ever get to the success part, I’ll let you know if I feel that way too.  This quote serves as a reminder of the importance of sincere friendships and not viewing people with the expectation of getting something back from them.

220px-TheLittleRedHenThere is some resonance here too with the children’s folk tale of “The Little Red Hen.”  You might remember the story where the hen goes about the various tasks of preparing to make bread and all of her friends refuse to help. Then, of course, when the bread is ready, everyone is eager to eat it with her, but since they didn’t help her make it, she refuses to share her bread with them.

Taken to another extreme, it could easily be read as a threat.  Coming from Will Smith or anyone else, it isn’t too hard to imagine them compiling a list of people who will be cut off as soon as the elusive fame and fortune arrive. Some might utter these words out of bitterness, some might, in the midst of their perseverance, claim these words as their own in an attempt to maintain their own dignity.

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ passing, I started to wonder about this quote and the implications of rearranging it a little bit. There is often a stark contrast when public figures die in this way, between the massive outpouring of grief and support, and the utter loneliness that they were experiencing up to and during the time of their death.  Everyone loved Robin Williams, so why did he die alone? Unfortunately, he chose to die alone, as members of his family and support staff were in the building when it happened. But it isn’t just that he died alone, but he died the way that he did because for a long time he felt alone. The public response has made it clear that throughout his career, Robin Williams made a lot of people happy. So, to use a phrase from the quote, many people were present during his success.

The question this presents then, is “What is our obligation if we have been present during someone’s success, when that person ultimately struggles?”

Will Smith’s threat becomes Robin Williams’ challenge.  Will we continue to be present even when the success of our friends gives way to struggles?  There is a limit to what struggles people will make us aware of, but there should not be a limit to our willingness to help.

Robin Williams was a kind of comic genius that we don’t often get to see. His kind of comedy was only possible because his mind comes up with images and ideas that the rest of us don’t have access to.  That’s why we want to hang out with people like this, because they come up with things that would never cross our minds. Sadly though, that same mind also presented ideas and images to him that most of us have the good fortune of not understanding. But, our friendship, companionship and love need not be limited by our capacity to understand.  There will be seasons in any relationship where we receive more than we give, but we should also accept, and even pursue, relationships where the opposite is the case.

If we are present during their success, let us not be absent in the struggles.