Imagined Irritability

I don’t mind hanging out at airports. It means I’m financially comfortable enough to be able to afford to fly somewhere. It means I’m about to go somewhere exciting or I’m about to go back home and be close to my kids again.  Not everyone feels that way. That may be an understatement. It’s hard not to overhear conversations between people complaining about the ways they were inconvenienced and the injustices they experienced by having to wait longer, switch planes, move seats, etc.

The airport is an inherently divisive place. They are setup to highlight and exploit the divisions between the haves and the have-way-too-muches. The airplane itself is no different. If you have extra money and are willing to give it to the airline, you get to board the plane first and get off first. You get access to better food and drinks, bigger seats and more immediate service. On top of that, all of the other, less wealthy passengers have to walk past you and see your comfort in contrast to theirs.

I’ve recently returned from a long trip with long travel days. Buying the cheapest tickets possible meant that both leaving and returning I had two layovers and full 24 hour days between initial take-off and eventual arriving at my destination. It’s not always fun, but I can handle it. But this time something happened that had never happened to me before. I started to feel claustrophobic.

Lots of people I know fly with anxiety and so they sit by the aisle to give them the most freedom. I enjoy looking out the window, so that’s where I sit. I means less space and greater inconvenience if I need to use the bathroom, but I have a good blatter and enjoy the challenge of trying to see where we are by recognizing something I see out the window. My crisis began on the first of three flights on my way home. I arrived at the airport at 11pm and used the bathroom soon after. Upon boarding my plane at 2am, I thought about going again, but it would have been a hassle and I figured I had gone recently enough. We were maybe an hour into our four and a half hour flight when the claustrophobia set in. I was by the window, so already a smaller seat. The person beside had a larger than average frame, which ate up a bit of my precious little space. And, my checked bag came in a bit overweight, so I had to carry a few extra items with me so my lap and the storage area under the seat in front of me were both full. I took off my sweater and my shoes, which helped, but I still felt restricted. My mind filled with images of me violently stretching my arms out regardless of who might be in the way, then barging out past my seatmates where I would run screaming up and down the aisle until I was subdued and tranquilized. Instead I sat with my eyes closed using every mental trick in my arsenal to calm myself down, thinking I would only survive the ride minute by minute.

On my last flight that day, another strange thing happened. A child had made a fair bit of noise on the flight, and when we were finally disembarking, the father of the toddler apologized to everyone around him, but he did it by voicing an apology from the child. “Sorry everyone, for all the noise I made. I’m just a kid. I hope you can forgive me.” It was silly. I don’t mean him speaking as his child. I did that all the time when they were babies. I still do it. I even add fun voices. It was silly that he didn’t think we understood. Most of the people around were also adults over thirty, the vast majority of whom were entirely unphased by this. I didn’t like it, but I’ve been there myself a few times. I get it. The whole situation sucks for all of us. I would cry too if anyone would care. How could any of us hold any ill will toward that child? When I was in that situation, I worried about what people around me thought too, but I was worried they were judging my parenting, not my child. What he didn’t know is that many of us would have traded places with him, some of us out of nostalgia, some of us because we think we would do a better job. He put almost no work into quieting the child, and when he did, it was clear that the child was entirely unfamiliar with the concept of being told not to do things.

Back to my brief stint with claustrophobia. I didn’t want to trouble the people beside me. I hate doing that, especially at 3am when we’re all trying to sleep. I wanted to walk up and down the aisle, but that would have bothered even more people, including the flight attendants, so I couldn’t do that. The only thing I could do was go to the bathroom as an excuse to walk around, but how could I return to my captivity once I’d had that freedom? Finally, my seatmate at the aisle got up to go to the bathroom. The person in the middle seat moved, so I knew they were awake, and I took that as my best chance to get up. While I was waiting for the lavatory to be free, I started thinking back to my big supper, how much water I had to drink there, and how maybe this was the whole problem all along. By the time I got back to my seat, my psychological problems were gone. It turns out that my body problem combined with my social problem became a brain problem. Not only could I relax, but in the same confined space I got something resembling sleep.

The woman beside me wasn’t inconvenienced at all when I asked her to move so I could use the bathroom. Nobody looked grumpy when this toddler apologized to us through the words of his/her father. Maybe the other travellers aren’t as bad as we think. Maybe the scariest thing about travelling is that we imagine everyone around us to be the grumpiest version of ourselves. We justify their imagined irritability because in the same situation we would want our annoyance to be justified too. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care what other people think. We are all connected. We should care what other people think and feel. What I’m saying is that if our greatest fear is that everyone else thinks how we think, then they aren’t the problem, we are.


Sad songs, happy people

Usually, the podcasts I listen to are sermons from other churches, so that I can steal ideas from be inspired by other preachers. I also listen to a few other thinkers and sports commentators, including quasi-Canadian, quasi-Mennonite Malcolm Gladwell. His podcast is entitled “Revisionist History” and in this most recent season (which you can find here), he had an episode called the King of Tears. In it, he contrasted the sad and complex songs in country music to the simplistic and happy songs in the popular/rock music sphere.

This was not a new debate to me. My parents grew up loving country music and were quick to critique the loud, abrasive rock music (or schunt as my father would call it in Low German, meaning garbage) and they feared how the songs about sex, drugs and wild living would influence us.

They wouldn’t have had the ability or desire to analyse the complexities of the songs or the musical styles, but they liked country music at a profound level. They liked how easily you could sing along to country music. They appreciated the sounds of the steel and acoustic guitars. They were drawn to the personalities of the country music scene, upstanding men and women with pretty smiles and clean-cut western clothing. But something was amiss.

Mom and Dad had collected vinyl records before we kids came along and absorbed their disposable income, and we enjoyed listening to those albums too. One song on one of the albums had the lyrics, “wham bam thank you ma’am” on it. My brother and I were too young to know what it meant (and if my older sisters knew what it meant, they didn’t tell us), and it was fun to sing along. All of a sudden that record disappeared from our music collection.

As a teenager, even though I didn’t listen to a lot of rock music, I grew tired of the moral superiority of country music fans. Certainly the industry had good, clean musicians singing good, clean songs, but there were no shortage of exceptions. I could easily find examples of how country songs and the artists who performed them were no more morally sound than rock stars. I happily used those examples to point out the hypocrisy of my parents and others like them. Now, I’ve come around, but I still have questions.

My parents loved Johnny Cash and June Carter’s song “Jackson.” And why not? It’s a fun song performed by fantastic musicians and beautiful harmonies. But it’s a song about a couple celebrating their failing marriage and impending infidelities. “Ring of Fire” is on that same album, a song June Carter wrote about falling in love with a man she shouldn’t and suffering the consequences of that illicit and immoral attraction. The Revisionist History episode I mentioned focussed on George Jones’ song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a song about a man who spun into depression, drug abuse and alcoholism after his wife left him and how he was only freed from that heartbreak and its destructive cycle by his own death. That song was almost a biography of George Jones’ life, as he needed to pull out of a similar destructive cycle just to record that song.

In some ways, you would think that my parents didn’t belong in that world. My dad once got a novelty bottle opener as a promotional gift at some event. The first thing he did when he brought it home was to try to scratch the name “Labatt’s” off the front of it. I’m sure if you asked my parents to explain what the phrase, “snort a line of coke” meant, they would be utterly incapable of the task. Their marriage had issues like anyone else, but when they found about a couple they knew getting a divorce, they participated in the collective Mennonite experience of shame, mourning the demise of a sacred union. This wasn’t always the case, but I now credit most of that to them as righteousness.

So, why did these clean living people sing along so heartily to the sad songs of alcoholic, drug-abusing divorcees? I really think it’s just the rural pop culture equivalent of the songs of lament that our Bible is so full of. We can only climb the mountain tops of Hallelujah after we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

Psalm 137: 1-4, CEB
1 Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?


Hockey Knights

From time to time the National Hockey League looks around to see if, by any chance, they have left money on the table somewhere. Recently, businessmen in Las Vegas, Nevada expressed interest in buying a sports franchise, and when they were willing to pay the $500 million expansion fee, the NHL gave them a franchise. They struggled for a while to come with a name that hadn’t already been copyrighted by someone else, so when they were ready to announce their name and logo to the world, they made a big deal of it. And whenever people make a big deal out of something, the twitter world responds.

Call me crazy, but I don’t mind the idea of a hockey team in Vegas, and I am okay with the logo and the name, but by gauging the online response,  I may be in the minority. The name they came up with was the Vegas Golden Knights and their logo is a simple green and gold helmet in front of a black crest.

Negative responses were pretty predictable, but one hockey fan in particular latched on to a few things that others hadn’t noticed. As a history scholar, she took issue with inaccuracies and misrepresentations in their branding. First, what else could it mean to be a golden knight, she asked, except that their armour would be made out of gold, and given how soft and valuable gold is it would make that knight weaker and bigger target. Also, she said that the helmet was a Corinthian design, which predates the medieval understanding of knighthood by over a thousand years. She was irate, in a twitter kind of way, that these glaring errors would have been overlooked in the design and branding phase.

The day after her rant, a friend of hers responded, trying to point out something that she might have been missing. He said, “The helmet forms the shape of the letter V.” Not everyone sees it right away, apparently, but it is a central part of the logo, the central part maybe. The V isn’t made out of the metal of the helmet, though, it is found in the empty space around it. In artistic terms, it is created in the negative space. She still didn’t like the logo, but at least she could understand where they were coming from.

This woman isn’t alone in her inability to see shapes emerge from negative space, but that doesn’t stop designers from trying to employ it for that purpose.

Many of us also use this kind of negative space tactic, but in entirely different ways. I hardly drink any alcohol, I don’t cheat on my taxes, and I’ve never been to a strip club. All of those are intentional and they reflect, in some ways, the kind of person I want to be, but if I try to build my identity around them, I would fall short. We cannot create an identity out of what we are not. We cannot be defined by the negative space of our lives.

Christians are especially vulnerable to doing this. We take pride in the rules that they follow, calling them to avoid certain temptations. We also want to distance ourselves from other believers who we see as wrong about God, so we are Christians, but not that kind of Christian. Yes, I’m still part of the church, but I don’t go to that church anymore. There are atheists like this too. While they are adamant that there is no God, they are very specific about the God they don’t believe in.

The trouble is that this is a much easier way to define ourselves. Rather than doing the hard work to see what makes sense in the context of a hurting world, rather than looking close enough to see the grays where we once there were only blacks and whites, we recline into what is most comfortable. Rather than carving out an identity based on what we do, who are and what we believe, we fan the flames of other people’s animosity by assuring them that we are not the ones they hate. But it’s a futile game. No matter who you are and what you stand for, people will hate you. So take a chance, own who you are and what you believe.


Moving on up

Jerry Seinfeld famously put ‘helping someone move’ just below ‘driving someone to the airport’ on the scale of things you can only ask a good friend to do. I know some people resent being asked to do this kind of favour, but not me. My line of work leaves me with a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and calling, but not manliness. I don’t know what masculinity would look like in a pastor, and I don’t know if it would be a good thing. But when I’m at work, I don’t swing a hammer, I don’t throw sacks of grain over my shoulder, and when I come home, I don’t need to shower or even change my clothes to look presentable. In my current hobbies, I don’t take slapshots or kick fieldgoals or try in any way to exert my physical dominance over other men. Helping friends move is one of the few ways I have where I can connect with that kind of masculinity.

Now, I recognize that me equating many of those things with what it means to be a man is maybe part of the problem. I do get to “feel like a man” in other ways. When my wife and children come to me for protection, I feel like a man. When they feel that can rely on my love and support, when they know they can count on my continued presence, and when they implement the lessons I’ve taught them and are better off for it, I feel like a man too. Of course these are not the exclusive domain of men, or fathers and husbands. Still, for right or wrong, this is how many of us are wired.

So, when I was asked recently to help some friends move, I was happy to assist. As often happens, the tasks were divided along gender lines; the organizing and cleaning was being done by the women and the heavy work of lugging stuff around was being done by the men. It isn’t just grunt work though, we men were doing problem solving too. We needed to optimize storage space in the moving van, navigate stairwells with long and oddly shaped furniture, and then position the van to best facilitate unloading.

But as we started bringing things into the new place, I observed something interesting. None of us men, even the Man living there, felt comfortable determining where to place things. That kind of decision making fell on the Woman. All of us waited with varying sizes of loads to take instructions from her. Anyone watching from the outside would say that she was in charge, and yet none of us felt inferior for needing her direction. There were no jokes about anyone being emasculated or whipped and no accusations of the wrong person wearing the pants. One might simply say that we all understood our roles within the larger task of moving. We could maybe pat ourselves on the back at being modern, liberated men who have created and are now enjoying an egalitarian paradise.

This exampled is a little overstated, but it does reflect a larger parttern that many people have ben observing lately. More and more, it seems, in churches and various community organizations, the decisions are being made by women, who were perhaps all along better suited for the process of sitting around and talking about the options, weighing the pros and cons, and evaluating if the necessary resources could be made available. And the men, who no longer seem interested in sitting on committees and attending meetings, show up to do the work. The minutes might not show who pushed the wheelbarrow or who sanded and then repainted the equipment shed, but the job got done.

Traditionalists have long worried that women are taking over. All of this has made me ask myself if/when then that happens, and if it’s done right, will the men even mind?

There are a number of tangible and intangible rewards for heping a friend move. The intangibles are probably enough; a hug and a handshake of appreciation, a strengthened friendship, new friends made, the sense that the favour may some day be returned. The tangibles help too; a cold drink in the shade and a hearty meal when it’s all done (I didn’t have time to stay for the food in this instance, sadly.) But this time, each of us men were also given a Starbucks gift card, as a token of apprecition, which at least one of the guys and I immediately gave to our wives when we got home.

* I recognize that much of this post relies on gender stereotypes that can easily undermine the contributions of a lot of valuable people in our society. I know that a couch can be carried effectively regardless of who is holding up the other end, a wall is painted and a committee is chaired well regardless of who is in charge. I don’t pretend to fully understand the nuances of what it means to be a man in today’s society, nor do I pretend to be able to prescribe what modern womanhood can and should look like.The roles of men and women in our world are changing, and from the haze around those adjustments, I offer these thoughts.


Permission to feel pain

It’s fun to watch a group of adults when children are playing nearby. The parents especially interesting, because while they are mindful of their children and any inherent risks involved in their play, for their own sanity they like to interact with other adults while they can. Of course, the civilized discourse is inevitably interrupted by a child screaming, but before any parent or caregiver goes running to respond, they all listen to see whose child it is. It is remarkable to me how a parent knows immediately that their child is screaming, but nobody else has any idea who it is. It doesn’t work 100% of the time, but these parental instincts come in handy.

I’m not sure on the science of it, but, in some ways, this works because parents are, in some ways, wired to feel the pain their children are feeling. Our son has tested this empathy a few times lately. A while ago, Sebastian woke up fine but very soon started crying. Another instinct I developed as part of a large family was telling the difference between a cry born out of pain, anger or just the desire for attention. My children are capable of all three, but this was definitely a cry of pain. There was no indication that something had happened, no external marks or bruises, and little to no explanation was possible through his cries. Since it seemed to be an abdominal pain, I suggested he sit on the toilet, while I went to talk with his mother about how I had no idea what the problem was, whether or not we should administer pain killers and who was prepared to take him to the clinic. While we talked, we heard a light chuckle from the bathroom. “I’m better now!” he declared. This cause of immense pain, that we were unable to diagnose, was simply a full bladder.

Another time we had returned from a family drive and the two girls were awake, but when we pulled in the driveway, Sebastian was asleep. Rather than wake him and transport him to a bed, I decided to stay in the van until he woke up. I sat reading social media updates on my phone while his napped continued. Again, he woke up, looked around, and then started screaming in pain. I investigated his leg wher he said the pain was coming from, and again there was no bruising or any evidence of something poking him. None of the more dramatic possibilities made sense, so amidst his assertions that it really, really hurt, I asked if it felt like a whole bunch of little needles were poking his leg. He agreed that this was a reasonable description of the pain he was feeling. So, I tried to do for him what I always do for myself when my leg falls asleep, and that’s to massage the muscles until the feeling goes away. He insisted that it was making things worse, not better, and didn’t let me do that anymore.

I had to stifle a laugh that the cause of this great tragedy was simply a lack of circulation, and not all of the more serious possibilites I had conjured up. I continued to reassure him that it would go away soon, and as I did I realized that from time-to-time, I would like it if someone would sympathize with my pain when my legs go numb from sitting the wrong way.

A time will probably come when he can laugh at the notion of these sensations creating those anguished cries, but in the meantime, he has a right to feel that pain. Grief, sorrow, anxiety and pain can make us act differently than we normally would. Other people who are unfamiliar with our pain can often make things worse with their lack of empathy, but that doesn’t mean that our pain is any less legitimate. I believe that pain is part of a God-given process that tells something is off, in our bodies, in our relationships, and in our world. Pain is often our trigger to repair the problem, and so it is a necessary, albeit unpleasant, part of the solution as well (when a solution exists).

This world needs fewer people criticizing the pain we feel and the ways we respond to it, and more people to walk with us in our pain towards a healthier body, community, and world.


Arriving on Jet Plane

A significant event in the life our church happened this week, but it was even more significant for another group of people. The Syrian refugee family that we are sponsoring arrived in Canada, and I went with my family to meet them at the airport and sit down for supper with a small group of others. It was a beautiful evening, and I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t want to do a typical “listen to all the misconceptions I had blown away, and so if you stil have the same misconceptions I had yesterday, shame on you” kind of posts. Still there were a number of things that came to my mind that I thought were noteworthy.

It was chaotic at first. Airports are confusing places sometimes, and so for a little while, there were three groups; my family and other church members who arrived late because of unexpected traffic problems, representatives from our partner agency Mennonite Central Committee who had been at many welcomes like this before, and the newly arrived family, all waiting in different parts of the airport. When we finally found each other though, there was still a delay. The wife and children were with us, but the father and one of our volunteer translators were not. We asked where they were and we were told that they were helping another Syrian family, friends from the same plane. Assuming they were friends from Syria we said it was great that they could travel together with friends, but in fact, this was simply another refugee family they had connected with on the airplane. They were supposed to meet a government representative after they got off the plane, but they missed them and came out to the terminal. Once that was worked out, we were free to go, but the people we were helping were also helping others. The circle of help continued at other times of the evening as well.

Our whole group sat down for supper at the home where the refugee will settle in for a few days before moving into their apartment. It wasn’t big enough for everyone to sit around the table, but there would be room in adjacent rooms, so we started grabbing food and plates. I sat down with my kids at the main table, but very quickly I realized that we were out of place. The other children went through the line too, but they followed their mothers to the nearby living room, and when they were done eating (not necessarily when their plates were empty, just like my kids) they went to another room where there were toys and video games. Without anyone directing us, the group was pretty soon mostly segregated, with the men around the main table, the women in the living room and the English and Arabic speaking kids playing together in the games room. If we had all formed one large circle, it would have been cozy, and we would have had moments of cultural learning, but it would have been unnatural. All of us enjoyed and learned from our circles, but not as a result of forced interaction.

Already, as a minor player in the process, I didn’t want to force my voice into the conversation, but I found myself holding back even more than normal. As it turns out, it’s pretty tough to talk about why a family would leave a country, what past and present events led to that country turning out this way, and what needs to be done to improve things, without talking politics. It also turns out to be pretty tough to talk about politics without betraying your allegiances. Maybe it’s my Canadian cultural sensitivities, my Mennonite Christian theological leanings or my introverted personality playing out, but I really shut down in these settings. Partly I’m worried about offending someone, partly I’m worried about being labeled as being part of a political camp that I don’t identify with, partly I see the futility of investing my emotional energy into which countries and leaders are to blame and which US presidential candidate can make things better or worse. Maybe, if someone had said ahead of time to avoid political conversations, the conversation may have been more civil (meaning only that the volume of voices wouldn’t have been raised as high). But, like our dinner, this would have been forced and would have provided only a theoretical benefit.

This process will be a long one, with lots of work and learning ahead for many people involved, but there is excitement about where it will take us.




The Kingdom of Heaven is like an All-Star Game

There was once an All-Star event where the players were lined up to be introduced to the fans. At the far end were two men, different in almost every way. One man, named Patrick, was a little under six feet tall, but highly skilled, highly paid, and high scoring, with few penalty minutes. The other man, named John, was well-over six feet, but low skill, low salary, and almost no points and many, many penalty minutes.

When it was almost time for them to be introduced, Patrick turned to John and said, “Watch, I’ll get booed, and you’ll get one of the loudest cheers.” It was seemingly an absurd prediction, but these words served as a reminder of the obvious; Patrick belonged there, John didn’t. Patrick had played in the All-Star game before, and John hadn’t. Patrick broke a record for scoring points this season, and John had one point, an assist, all season long. Patrick’s was a marquee name in one of the league’s oldest and strongest fan bases. John spent most of the season, sitting more than he played, on a team with arguably the smallest fan base in the league.

In order for fans to vote for John, they had to bypass all of the options the website suggested (including Patrick) and manually type in John’s name. This only happened because a journalist concocted a plan to vote John into the All-Star game sarcastically. You see, the All-Star game has become a bit of a joke, where some of the players who are voted in don’t show up, and many of the ones who don’t try very hard. So the plan, in some ways, was to respond to a joke of a game with a joke of a player. Voting for John was an insult, at least many perceived it that way, an insult to the league, and an insult to John. The league responded by telling John he didn’t belong and that he should decline the vote. John agreed, telling fans he didn’t belong and that they should instead vote for the other all-stars on his team, but he didn’t say that he would decline the vote. Maybe he was so convinced that he didn’t belong that he didn’t think it would come to that. So the league pushed again.

Just a few weeks before the game, John’s team traded him, and his new team sent him down to the minor leagues. The trade didn’t make a tonne of “hockey sense” and it led many to suspect that the league had engineered it. With him playing on a different team and even a different league, it would spare the league the insult of having a man play in the All-Star game who didn’t belong.

Whether or not they made the trade happen, it was clear that the league didn’t think John belonged in the game, and they haven’t hesitated in the past to work behind the scenes to make sure non-deserving people are excluded. Not only that, they are also willing to do what it takes to make things easier for the people who do belong, people like Patrick. Over the summer before the All-Star game, Patrick was accused of doing something very bad. Something so bad that just about anyone else in a public role would be asked to step away for a little while, or even be smart enough to do so voluntarily. The criminal charges have since been dropped, but other similar accusations have been made. Patrick was also charged in a different violent attack that happened a few years before. Still, Patrick is popular enough with the league, so not only does he not have the same obstacles as John, he lives under the league’s protection.

Patrick’s absurd prediction was correct. When John’s name was read, the arena thundered with applause, more than for any other star. When Patrick’s name was read, people booed, people who cheered for rival teams and people who think victims of crime should be taken seriously. But why would people cheer for John? Well, as the march toward the All-Star game went on, we, the fans, learned more about him. He wasn’t just a violent cartoon character goon we imagined him to be, but a man worthy of our respect and our support.

As it turned out, there was a moment where the story changed. John was considering turning down the invitation to the All-Star game, and in an effort to persuade him to do just that, a league official told him that if he went to the game, he would make a fool of himself and embarrass himself in front of his children. And that’s when it changed. Perhaps in John’s own eyes he didn’t belong, but he knew that in the eyes of his children, he did. And that was partly what made the trade that much more tragic. It meant that John, his two kids, and his eight months pregnant wife had to pack up everything and move from Pheonix to St. John’s, Newfoundland.

We don’t know for sure, but it looked like John wouldn’t be able to play in the All-Star game, until enough fans made enough of stink, that the league swallowed their pride and let him play. And he loved it. While other people seemed to be just going through the motions, John was having fun. When Patrick got booed, John laughed really hard.

During the games, John scored two goals, and his team won a million dollars in prize money to share between them. When it was all over, his teammates lifted him up on their shoulders, all 250 pounds of him. When it was time to announce who was the Most Valuable Player, and the winner of the new car, John’s name was called, and the camera panned to his beaming wife and joyful children. (She would later say that she cheered so hard after one of his goals that she had to tell herself to take it easy. The game was played on a Sunday, and she was scheduled to be induced on Thursday.)

This is one of the reasons why I love sports. I know a lot of people who, like John, are convinced that they don’t belong; that they aren’t good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, rich enough, etc. John belonged in the All-Star game. He had enough votes, and that’s all that mattered. But it was only when he started to believe that he belonged that the All-Star game became worthy of him.


The David Bowie Effect

This has been a rough week for celebrity deaths. Yesterday, Celine Dion’s husband and manager, René Angélil passed away. Before him well known film actor Alan Rickman also died. And before him stage actor Brian Bedford. Each of these men were famous enough to trend on twitter, at least in Canada, after their deaths, but the one that started it all off was the iconic singer David Bowie.  Bowie trended the longest, because for a long time, everyone was talking about him. There was even a little bit of backlash, with a few people writing about how too many people were talking about him. And while they felt some backlash of their own for their perceived lack of sensitivity, they raised a valid question. But they weren’t simply saying that too many people were talking about his death or that he didn’t warrant the attention, but that given what they knew about the friends that share social media space with them, the amount of attention Bowie had been given after his death far outweighed the attention he had been given before his death.

There might be something bigger at work here. In some ways, this is the way that we as a society collectively mourn, but posting articles, videos and musings about a celebrity after they have died. It’s a pretty good bet that if someone older than 60 is trending on twitter, there is pretty chance that they’ve died. But there was something about David Bowie that I think made his death different.

I should make clear that I wasn’t a David Bowie fan. It wasn’t that I actively chose not to like him, but I was (and in some ways still am) just mostly so far outside the popular currents that I don’t know who is big and why. So, I am commenting, not as a fan, or as a critic, simply as an outsider.

But the nature of the comments about Bowie were different than other celebrities. With Rickman and Bedford, people talked about their acting abilities, and about the connections that they as fans made to the characters they portrayed. Alan Rickman was great at being a bad guy, but I also appreciated how he walked the fine line between good and (perceived) bad as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility and as Harry in Love Actually. And while I wasn’t a frequent guest at the Stratford Festival, I did appreciate Brian Bedford’s voice performance as Robin Hood in Disney’s animated adaptation. While there were some fans talking about their love of David Bowie’s music, as many or more were talking about the “roles” that he played. And I don’t mean the parts he played in various TV shows and movies (although I loved his appearance on The Extras) and I’m not saying that his presence was anymore artificial than any other celebrity. But David Bowie was the kind of celebrity that was known as much for his personality as he was for the art that he performed (as though the line between art and personality can neatly be drawn).

At the peak of his celebrity, David Bowie was “weird.” (I don’t use that word derogitorily, but any alternative I could think of, ie. outsider, different, alternative, freak, etc. either also carried the same stigma or just sounds too soft to be accurate, so I add the quotes to lessen the blow.) That was just who he was. And maybe it helped to deliver the “weird” music that he was writing, but it also helped to endear him to young people who saw themselves as “weird.” And I think therein lies our current juxtaposition. It is surprising to see how many people now identify as having been fans of David Bowie. For most of us, there is room in our social sphere for “weird” people, and we expect them to like and identify with “weird” celebrities. It can be surprising now to see which of our friends was a fan of David Bowie, because we didn’t see them as being “weird” then, at least not “weird” enough that they needed a “weird” hero to give them the courage to continue living out their “weird”ness.

The thing is, most of us saw ourselves as “weird.” Despite our constant striving to be “normal,” many of us accepted that we could never quite fit in, or that the only reason we did fit in was because people liked the artificial self that we were presenting more than the “weird” self that we were hiding. You can test this out. Look around the high school classrooms of your memory and estimate what percentage of people you thought were “cool” and which ones were “weird.” Now do the same in the professional and social circles today. But don’t just think about it, ask people if they were “cool” or “weird” in high school. You will be surprised at how many thought they were “weird.” From time to time we get reminders of the emotional trauma people carry from the social rejection of their youth. Maybe we can call this the David Bowie effect.

There is a lesson here, that many of us learn as we age, but we don’t always manage to teach it to our young people. “Cool” and “Weird” are artificial and unhealthy. Striving for those labels for ourselves and attaching them to other people are destructive for us, for other people, and for the prospect of building authentic, life-giving relationships with them. There are still young people in our world who need a David Bowie to make them feel better about who they are, but even more than that, they need regular people to throw off these labels that limit and hinder us.


Sensitive, not accurate

I don’t know anyone who was actually offended by the red cups controversy at Starbucks. Maybe I just don’t have the right social media contacts, I don’t know. This isn’t the first time what we call the time around Christmas has stirred up a media frenzy, and it probably won’t be the last.  I’m not the kind of person who gets offended at the idea of being wished Happy Holidays, but I wonder how accurate that sometimes is.

Now, believe me when I say I’m aware of the various other religious holidays happening around this time of year. Ever since calendars were based on the sun and the moon, people have used the Winter Solstice as an excuse to have a holiday. In fact, that has more to do with when we celebrate Christmas than any sense of historical accuracy. But while there is a veritable pantheon of other reasons to be festive, in a commercial setting, I think “Merry Christmas” is often the only one that is accurate. I’m not saying that this should be case, but sadly it is.

In our western culture, we’re very good at getting offended on behalf of other people. So, if a non-descript imaginary retail store had a bold “Merry Christmas” greeting for their customers, they would probably get more complaints from non-religious people, and even Christians, than they would from adherents to other religions with overlapping festive schedules. From my experience, most religious minorities in Canada are happy to experience religious freedom and are far more interested in interacting with others living out authentic versions of their own spirituality, rather than live in a world artificially free of religion. I wonder if those complaints were collected, if they might sound something like this:

“Why wouldn’t you include my faith group in your signage? We shop just like Christians; a whole lot in November and December and then not again until April.”

“For your information, I’m not buying Christmas gifts. My people too have allowed their sacred festivals to be absorbed into the western commercial process.”

“Rather than absorbing myself into my religious calendar, I am trying instead to simply buy my faithfulness, so if you could make your holiday greeting a little more generic, that would make it easier for me to do that.”

This is why I am not perturbed when I don’t see a Merry Christmas greeting written onto the receipt, the coffee cup or the walls of our commercial establishments. It our post-modern western society, we dare not leave anyone out, unless we offend them, so rather than say anything offensive, we do our best to say nothing at all. It is a shame to be left out, unless what we are being left out of is corrupted.

I wonder what the response would be if, instead of writing generic holiday greetings, stores would include holidays greetings specific to the other religious festivals being marked. What if people realized that the “Kwanzaa gifts” they found on sale were manufactured by slave labour overseas? What if we were greeted at entrance of store by an image of the Hindu god Ganesh pointing with his many hands to various items you could purchase there? What if the Hanukkah themed mall display included manikins wearing women’s underwear with Maccabeean tassels? Maybe this already happens in more metropolitan places than I’ve lived, but I suspect that somewhere along the line, leaders and adherents of these other religious and cultural groups would stand up and say ‘no thanks.’

In our most commercial settings, only ‘Merry Christmas’ is fitting, because only the church, by aligning itself with western states and western culture, has allowed one of its most important holidays to be co-opted like it has. I only wish it weren’t so.


Musings Parenting

Am I just lucky?

This past Saturday afternoon, I sat with my wife, watching our three children run around a playground. We took a trip to celebrate ten years of marriage and we had spent much of our quiet time reflecting on how far we had come, what we had gone through together, and what we had accomplished. In many ways, we were watching our three greatest accomplishments (our children) and reflecting on another (our ten years of marriage).

And, it had been a great trip, experiencing the beauty of God’s creation by hiking up to breathtaking scenic lookout points and places of absolute serenity. Our kids hiked more than 7km over two days with almost no complaining. They approached each new park, hotel room and restaurant with excitement. My wife and I had nothing but happy memories to reflect on from our marriage. It was just a happy, happy time.

As I sat there reflecting, I said to my wife, “I hope we’re not just really lucky!”

This would have been the perfect time for her to say that no other man could possibly make her this happy. She could have listed off all of the conscious decisions and sacrifices we had made that had brought us to our present almost utopian reality. She could have pointed to any combination of our intelligence, faithfulness, and mostly humility as the cause of our current stability, but she didn’t. She just smiled and said, “Yeah, I don’t know. “

It would be great to be able to control our own narrative like that. It would be great to be able to say that each of us, sought out to find a companion, and because of some mixture of determination, divine providence and the proper criteria, we found what we were and should have been looking for.

Of course it is possible to tell another story; that we got lucky. Lots of people never find their soul mate, but somehow we succeeded. Lots of couples try and fail to conceive, but for us it worked right away. Then, of those couples who manage to get married, many don’t last for ten years, but we did. And we can’t say that we are somehow better and more deserving than these other people, because we know them. We know that they are as much or more intelligent, attractive, gracious, loving, faithful, and marriable than we are. So the question is obvious, why us and not them?

There are perils to embracing either story wholeheartedly. If I believe that my good fortune resulted only and completely from my work and actions, then the logical conclusion of that is that the pain and difficulties my friends experience is the direct result of their failures. So if someone were to complain to me about their plight, what could I possibly do but diagnose their failure and prescribe some kind of remedy. If I believe that I have earned nothing, then it would be best not to hold too tightly to my family because that which has come randomly will leave randomly. If someone asks for my advice, I dare not give any, because I wouldn’t have earned the right to comment on any situation, no matter how similar to mine.

There are benefits though too, and, as usual, it’s best to dwell on those. If I believe that I have done good things to earn my good situation, then I need to keep doing those things, or else I will deserve to lose those good things. In this world view, if my wife loves me, it must be because I have done something right, so I need to keep doing right by her. If my kids are happy, it must be because I have either given them a happy world, or because I have given them the tools to be happy in an unhappy world. Why would that change now? Keeping them happy and joyful will require more work. If I see my blessings as easy come easy go, then maybe I should hold them even tighter. From time to time random evil does happen; a child is kidnapped, a plane crashes, and vehicles accidentally collide. In those times all we can do is draw our loved ones closer and tell them, just in case it’s the last time that they hear it, that they are loved and valued and cared for. Shouldn’t I do the same thing all the time if my day-to-day fortunes are just as random?

You may have learned to be leary of any time a pastor presents opposing and flawed positions, but I don’t have a clever third option. I don’t even know where on the spectrum of in between options I would place myself. But I am truly happy to be where I am, and so I am committed to do whatever it takes to stay and I want to do whatever I can to demonstrate appropriate gratitude. Whatever the truth is, I want my response to be appropriate.