Grace Church Blogs...
Our thoughts... big & small....
Ever have one of those moments that, when you look back on it, makes you slap yourself in the face with a Homer Simpson-esque "Doh"?
This weekend I officiated the funeral for a long-time, well-loved parishioner. In the natural course of events, I chatted with various family members, including his (it must be said, very charismatic) grandson. Upon hearing that he was an actor, I mentioned that my husband was an actor too, and he politely smiled and nonchalantly mentioned that he was in TV. I took this to mean that he, you know, did commercials and maybe an occasional guest spot. It was only after the service that an offhand comment from a family friend made the connection in my brain that he was in fact the titular starring character from a fairly prominent network TV series (one that I admittedly don't watch regularly but, admitted geek that I am, had certainly seen a few times). And so, my fleeting brush with celebrity went unnoticed. Probably a good thing, in the end, seeing as we had more pressing matters at hand at his grandfather's funeral than my own fan-girlish tendencies.
I have often said that one of the greatest privileges of the priesthood is the honour of walking along side sometimes complete strangers in the most intimate moments of their lives. I am closer to a couple saying their wedding vows than are their friends or their family. Such a strange intimacy is only emphasized when one of the people involved is someone who lives an undoubtedly *public* life. This particular guy may have several hundred thousand followers on Twitter, but for all that they might know the details of his professional career, do they really think of him as an actual person with a family, with grief?
I guess on some level, I should say something trite and obvious about how this might serve as a reminder despite status or prestige, we are all mortal and all equal in the sight of God. True enough. And that is not a bad meditation on this week in which we enter the season of Lent, receiving Ashes on our foreheads with those chilling words: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
But there's something more interesting to me in that dichotomy I witnessed between public and private life. The fact is, though it might not be as obvious for us as it was for this TV star I met, we are all prone to that split between our "real" selves--known perhaps to our families and our closest friends--and the version of ourselves we tend to present publicly. That's not necessarily a bad thing. We all know those people who over-share deeply personal thoughts and feelings on Facebook, for example. Rather than seeming "authentic," it just seems out of place to share such personal sentiments in such a public context. But it can be a problem if we begin to prefer the public version of ourself more than the private. If we treat all our relationships as if they belong to one of our 500+ friends on facebook and we never have any outlets when we allow people to see our faults, our weaknesses, and our vulnerabilities. That is particularly problematic when we hide those less desirable traits from ourselves and--more importantly--from God.
This season of Lent which we enter this week is not merely a dour time in which the Church in her authority calls us to remember our sinfulness and our mortality. It is a time when we are invited to reexamine who we truly are, not the desired image we might project. We fast not because self-denial is a good per se, but because fasting allows us to peal away distractions and make room for prayer, for self-examination, and, ultimately, restoration. The key word is, perhaps, simplicity. As we enter into this season of fasting, it is worth considering what aspect of ourselves and our lives we are hiding from God's presence. Where are we afraid of being "real"? Hopefully, that will allow us to see Lent, not as a burden, but as a gift which will prepare us for the joy and promise of Easter.Tags: Untagged Read More
As I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday, I recently discovered Call the Midwife on Netflix. A drama surrounding the precarious situations around childbirth and infancy of impoverished 1950s London was probably not the best thing for me to be watching as I held by tiny daughter. But I couldn’t stop myself! The show is oddly compelling, enriched as it is not just with human drama but also a delightful cast of characters and judicious use of Anglican liturgical music (the main character is a young nurse midwife who works among an order of Anglican nuns). I highly recommend checking it out.
Inspired by the TV series, I also looked up the memoir on which it was based. It was an absolutely fascinating read. As a practicing midwife in the 1950s, Jennifer Worth paints a picture of pre-20th century obstetric practice which more or less condemned women to dangerous, painful labours under the care of dubiously trained, unregulated lay midwives. During Worth’s career as a nurse, she witnessed the, for lack of a better word, “medicalization” of care for both women in childbirth and their young babies. The TV series plays this up in one amusing storyline about the first uses of “gas and air” as pain relief in labour. Women are so ecstatic at being released from the inevitable agony of childbirth that the poor local doctor finds himself run ragged, called to practically every birth in the community:
Worth’s memoirs were fascinating to me as someone who has just gone through the whole experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Particularly as someone who always felt a little discomfort with the language around the natural childbirth community. “Natural childbirth” is certainly making a comeback these days, at least in my social circle. I know more people who have given birth at home than in the hospital. So, I suppose it goes without saying much of my pregnancy reading material involved people such as the infamous Ina May Gaskin, godmother of modern midwifery. The thesis of works such as Gaskin’s “Guide to Childbirth” is that childbirth used to be a wonderful, empowering experience for women until it was co-opted by a (patriarchal) medical profession. In other words, men stole childbirth and women need to take it back. And I was always kind of annoyed by it.
Don’t get me wrong. I experienced an amazing natural childbirth—almost a homebirth, but that’s a longer story. If I had another kid, I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was the most insane, most empowering thing I’ve ever done. But I only attempted a homebirth because I had some pretty awesome midwives who used lots of great medical tools to ensure my safety and the safety of my baby. At the end of the day, I didn’t end up needing the resources of the hospital, but I am certainly glad they were there when we thought I might. As wonderful as my birth experience was, though, we don’t do anybody any favours by overly romanticizing the notion of childbirth in the pre-industrial era. Women and babies died at alarming rates. And it’s nice to have my experience of childbirth be something that I imposed on myself, rather than something I was forced to endure just for being a woman.
I will confess myself to be something of an antiquarian—a lover of old books, old music, and it has to be said old liturgy. Even I am forced to admit, however, that the past is not always as rosy as we would make it. We in the church are often particularly guilty, I find, of looking at the past through an idealized lens. We lament how great it was when the pews were fuller. Or when we didn’t have to always wrestle with our contemporary cultural setting to find new, meaningful ways to express the Gospel.
But, traditionalist that I am, even I have to ask … were the good old days necessarily all that good? Was it better that people came to church because it was simply the thing to do in predominantly Protestant Toronto? Or can we see it as a gift that those who come to our churches or engage with our faith are doing so not out of a sense of complacency but out of a genuine desire to engage with the presence of God? Is it not perhaps a blessing in disguise that the changing cultural landscape is challenging to revisit the core message of the Gospel? As much as I sometimes long for an idealized past (which, it has to be said, probably never existed), when I’m honest with myself I have today that now is probably the BEST time to be in ministry. Not just because a generation ago there would have been no place for me in the priesthood. But because we are living in a time where new challenges bring new opportunities, new passion, and new encounters with the living God.Tags: Untagged Read More
Good afternoon fair people of the web! It's good to be chatting with you once again, as I have just returned from my maternity leave. Leeman and I welcomed our daughter Amanda Tarpley Kessler to the world back in October, and life has dissolved into a blur of crying, eating, and, well, what comes as a result of eating. If we're luck, sleep happened somewhere in there. Hopefully, I can regain the ability to communicate with other human beings in a reasonably coherent fashion (though I make no promises, mommy brain being what it is).
As much as having a kid has inevitably turned my brain into proverbial mush in many ways, I suppose it also goes without saying that joining the ranks of parenthood has broadened my appreciation for certain other aspects of the human experience. Mostly just by helping me understand the musings of others on the complexities of child-rearing. Take, for example, John Green, one of my favourite internet personalities (and fellow Kenyon College alumn). Back when Mr. Green has his first, he posted some delightfully introspective videos on his parenting experience:
At the time, I mostly thought--Awww...adorable baby is adorable! But now, I find I can relate rather disturbingly with these musings on parenthood and this notion of our "ultimate concern." I have spent the last 4 months engaged almost exclusively with the immediate needs of my newborn baby. I have no idea much of what's going on in the outside world. I have seen nothing of the Olympics, much less am I up to speed on the more significant political concerns of the moment (except for that crazy law they tried to pass in Kansas. Really Kansas? What was up with that?). I don't know much of what's going on in my friends' lives, and even the poor dog is getting a bit tubby from a lack of walking. Although I could also blame that last one on our icy winter weather.
Now, I don't think this insularity on my part these past few months is necessarily a bad thing. I've had a pretty major shift happen in my life and its only natural that it overwhelm my time and attention for a while. But fellow new parent (at least at the time of that video) John Green is right to question whether our true "ultimate concern"--that thing which we value above everything else--can or should stop with something as noble, but also as self-serving, as our own family. Shouldn't we also be concerned with our larger community, with the larger context of the world? As natural as my single-minded focus on my child has been these past few months, there would be something I think, deeply wrong if I maintain my current level of blindness to the broader affairs of the world. Certainly Jesus in the Gospels lays out some deeply challenging words about those who prize family connection over deeper service to the building of God's Kingdom.
And as I muse on the challenge one must face between our personal "ultimate concern" and a more communal or global "ultimate concern", I cannot help but consider as well the position of our local parish community in the context of our universal church. We have over the past few months been promoting the message that "Grace Matters." This church and this community matters to us for so many different reasons--the people of this community have supported us in times of personal tragedy, or this has been a place where we find a place of sanctuary from the pressure of our daily grind--that place where we are able to connect with God's presence. It is right and good that we consider the meaning this community has for us in its diverse ways. And that we consider how we can honour God by giving of ourselves back to this community through stewardship of our time, talents and treasure.
At the same time, we much also remember that our community--as wonderful as it is--remains just one part of a much larger Christian reality. Part of why "Grace Matters" (I would argue a significant part of why Grace Matters) is because Grace is the local manifestation of God's Kingdom here on earth. God has entrusted this parish too our care so that through our ministry we can take part in God's larger mission, so that we can be a beacon of God's love in the community around us and to the ends of the earth.
Over the weekend, this video started making the rounds on my Facebook page, sparking no shortage of discussion from my clerical colleagues:
If one makes the dubious decision to read the comments which follows on YouTube (and we all know that we should never read the comments...especially not on YouTube), it's clear that the mainstream response to the video was fairly mixed--most blasting the minister for "ruining" the couple's wedding. As you might imagine, however, most of the priests I saw commenting had quite a different impression of the content. The general consensus seemed to be that everyone had at some point or another encountered photographers with problematic attitudes towards respecting the solemnity of a religious ceremony.
Rather than going down the road of what is or is not appropriate in terms of wedding photography--and indeed it seems every priest and parish has a different policy on the subject--there's a deeper issue that the video sparked in my mind. It has to do with how absolutely fixated we are as a society on documenting our experiences as opposed to, well, experiencing them. I remember being at a concert once and being annoyed by the sea of people in front of me watching the concert through their cameras/phones/mobile devices ... settling for a grainy, pixilated version of what they could have been watching live. Sure, they had a memento of that moment to hang on to (and probably never watch again) but the moment itself was gone.
This is what gets me about obsessive photography at weddings and other special events. Not just from the "professionals" (most of whom are wonderful and want to make everyone happy), but from family members and friends intent on capturing all the "big" moments of the ceremony. Part of the question is obviously--what level of photography is appropriate in a worship setting. But perhaps an even deeper question is how much we cheapen special moments--whether they are sacred moments of prayer or simply enjoyable personal moments--by our worry over sufficiently preserving them. If these moments are so special that we feel compelled to crystallize them in perpetuity, surely they are special enough for us to be truly present when they are taking place.
So, what does this have to do with faith? For that, I turn to comedian Louis C.K. Ok, so, he's not exactly a religious figure himself. But he did recently share some valuable insights into the problems of smart phone culture, and what he is wary of allowing his children access to the addicting devices:
In short, looking at life through a phone--whether because we're texting, checking facebook, or even taking photos--fundamentally isolates us. Cuts us off from one another. That's a problem. The two great commandments which we repeat week after week in the Book of Common Prayer are to love God and to love our neighbours. How can we fulfill that calling when we constantly put plastic barriers between ourselves and and the people in our lives and the moments we share with one another?
Tags: Untagged Read More
Inspired by last week's reflections on the drama Hannibal, I decided that I needed to go back and re-explore some of the lighter TV offerings from showrunner Bryan Fuller. Not all of Fuller's previous endeavours revolve around cannibalistic serial killers (though it has to be said he can be slightly fixated on both food and death). Indeed, his earlier shows are some of my all-time favourites--what with their whimsy, witty dialogue, and did I mention the pie?
Anyway, the other night this led me to re-watching a couple episodes of the delightful, if short-lived, series Wonderfalls. I believe Wonderfalls lasted about 4 episodes back in 2004, before Fox abruptly cancelled it. Perhaps it was just a little too strange for its own good. I mean, a show about Jaye Tyler, a disillusioned 24-year old Ivy League graduate who lives in a trailer park while working at a tourist shop in Niagra Falls is weird enough. Add in a whole element about how the figurines she sells give her cryptic messages which she feels compelled to act on (usually with profound if unforeseeable ramifications for those around her), and you do not exactly have mainstream television.
Watching the show the other night, however, I was reminded that, for all of its oddities, it might actually have some relevance to the ongoing questions we all wrestle with when it comes to faith ... how we listen to the voice of God and how we take those ultimate "leaps" and act on what God's voice seems to be calling us to do. Jaye has no reason to listen to the voice of a small wax lion from her store's vending machine, telling her to do strange things like not giving a customer her correct change. Yet, despite the fact that she's sure she is slowing going insane, Jaye finds herself following through on these cryptic instructions. Jaye's relationship with these surprisingly animate objects ultimately transforms her from a isolated, sarcastic individualist to a warmer, caring person enjoying much stronger relationships with her friends and family.
The pivotal moment of the show occurs when Jaye, in an act of desperation at the apparent havoc these taking heads have made of her life, demands: "Why do you talk to me!" The simply answer--"Because you listen."
There's a very simple message for us in that exchange. As hard as it might be for us sometimes to understand why God is talking to us or what God's purpose is in talking to us ... the fact remains that God can only talk to us if we are indeed willing to listen. Now, from my own experience, I can certainly say that God has some fairly dramatic tricks up his sleeve in order to get us to pay attention. He is, you know, God after all. But that doesn't change the reality that so much of our life of faith is indeed plunging ourselves into uncertainty ... opening ourselves up to whatever it is God might be trying to tell us or show us, even when we don't completely understand why. But, then, those are usually the moments when God surprises us by doing more in our lives than we could ask or imagine.Tags: Untagged Read More
Good day blogosphere! It's been a while since we've spoken. How have you been?
I hope you all had a wonderful summer. I'd like to say that I spent my summer down time travelling to some exotic location, but, alas, my ever-expanding condition kept me relatively close to home. So, I gave in to my default stay-at-home mode and indulged in some media overload. Leeman and I caught as many of the summer blockbusters as we could manage, I caught up on my reading, and I tried to find some new TV shows. While I certainly enjoyed topping up a bit of my sci-fi geek credibility by finally watching the whole of Babylon 5 some 15 years after it went off the air, the great discovery for me this summer was the far more current show Hannibal.
There's much I could say about this show, which goes to some astounding dark places. But then, what would you expect from a show that's half police procedural and half character study on the infamous Hannibal Lecter? Unlike so many morbid TV crime shows the violence of Hannibal is beautifully realized on screen, which makes it all the more disturbing, rather than tantalizing, to watch. But what I really want to talk about is the show's use of food.
Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the titular cannibal, has described his character as essentially Satan, a corrupting influence on everyone and everything he touches. For me, Hannibal's relationship with food explores this in a particular way. Hannibal is a gourmand, which the show delightfully exploits. Every episode is centred around food, which is always gloriously, appetizingly presented (you can check out the food stylist's blog here). Characters meet and bond over the meals Hannibal prepares for them. Therein lies the corruption. Hannibal's monstrosity manifests itself in his bending and twisting to evil something that should be an unqualified good. The beauty of Hannibal's culinary accomplishments serve to intensify the horror that lies within. What's more, it is not just grotesque that Hannibal feeds his unwitting guests human flesh. But that, in so doing, he is subverting the (we might say sacred) ritual of table fellowship--the communion of breaking bread together. Perhaps it is my own love of food which makes me both fascinated and horrified by the world of Hannibal. By seeing a man so distort the act of eating (and that of sharing a meal with one another), the show challenges us to contemplate why eating should be such an unqualified good.
Consequently, meditating on Hannibal got me thinking recently about the person who particularly sparked my theological love of food--Father Robert Farrar Capon. If you've never read it, you owe it to check out Fr. Capon's The Supper of the Lamb. You'll never look at margarine the same way again. The book uses food as a meditation on God's creation as a whole, reminding us that as we eat we are together partaker's of God's glorious bounty. We should take delight in our food, because delighting in our food is, in a sense, delighting in God's presence among us. It is a simple observation with profound ramifications for how and what we eat, particularly how our eating habits exploit God's creation or leave some of us with abundance and others with nothing. Tragically, Fr. Capon died just last week. So, in his memory, I leave you with a prayer he wrote, one which is particularly timely to the fat-phobic, calorie-counting world in which we live:
“O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron's beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men - to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us - with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.”Tags: Untagged Read More
This week, the popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans (whom I'm sure has come up on this blog before) made significant online waves with a piece for CNN's beliefblog entitled, simply enough, "Why Millennials are Leaving the Church." It's certainly not the definitive word on the subject of young people and the church. And there are certainly some deeper issues of ecclesiology--what the church is called to be and how we ourselves must conform to that calling--which Evans does not address. Nevertheless, it's worth a read, and I highly suggest checking it out. Evans might not be a sophisticated theologians, but she does have a way of saying things that need to be said and getting a conversation going.
In a nutshell, Evans is arguing that young people of our generation have moved away particularly from conservative Evangelical church traditions because they do not find Jesus in them. These churches strive to "attract" younger congregants through hip music and trendy brands. However, on a substantive level, their pushing of culture wars and political ideologies obscures the person of Jesus Christ.
Whether that is a valid criticism of the evangelical subculture could be the subject of a whole separate discussion. Suffice it to say for the moment that Evan's argument strikes a chord of truth with me personally and my experience of the churches she is addressing. I am a millennial (or at least borderline millennial) that pushed against the evangelical tradition of my childhood for pretty much all the reasons Evans states both in this article and in her earlier book Evolving in Monkeytown (which could practically be my own spiritual autobiography). Like many of my generation, I am postmodern enough that I am comfortable living with contradictions and uncertainties in my faith. Much of why I am drawn to the sacraments and symbols within our Anglican tradition is because I find in them a means to express deep truths about God that go beyond what our language alone can convey. And, to counter-point this criticism of Evans' post, what I find in the catholic (little "c") tradition precisely *is* that sense of submitting myself to something far more ancient and authoritative than the current brand of consumerist spirituality to which some churches seem all too willing to indulge. In other words, contrary to the idea that young people are looking for a content-free faith with no definitions and nothing to challenge them, I think Evans is suggesting that today's generation of young adults take maters of faith so seriously that we want to be able to ask hard questions and wrestle with complexities without being shut down by answers which seem unreflective.
Evans does not come out and say it, but I believe that tension in Millennials between allowing for uncertainty but craving authentic experience of God is GOOD NEWS for the church. But Evan's article also makes it clear that the attitudes of Millennials will mean that the church must be willing to make real, substantive changes about how we operate.
Now, as I mentioned, Evans in her post addresses particularly conservative Evangelical churches in the states. She even makes the point that many young adults (such as herself, and I suppose someone like me) feel drawn to what we see as the ancient, unpretentious spiritual practices of liturgical churches such as Roman Catholics, Easter Orthodox, and Anglicans. As Evans notes in a follow-up post on her own blog, these traditions are losing young people, just like evangelical churches. Indeed, one commentator suggested that, if Evans' claims were true, the United Methodists should get ALL disaffected young millennials. After all, the United Methodists have open stances on most of the social/cultural issues of the day, a strong sense of social justice, and an adherence to liturgical tradition. So, does the shared decline of evangelical and mainline Christian alike invalidate Evans' point? I think emphatically not.
Remember that Evans' argument (which I generally think is accurate) is not that young people are looking for a particular liturgical "style"--whether high or low, contemporary or traditional. But they (we) crave a religious setting where they can authentically encounter God.
I am an adult convert to Anglicanism. I have a huge personal and spiritual stake in our traditions. I love them with every fibre of my being. However, I believe that we mainline and/or progressive churches can be just as guilty of obscuring the person of Jesus Christ as our brothers and sisters from other traditions. Our progressive politics can become just as restrictive. Our arguments over service music can become just as divisive. And let me not go into the issues of church polity currently ripping our Anglican communion apart.
If there is just one point in Evans' post that is worth making it is that ALL churches must find a way to get back to the basics of our faith. We must find a way to encounter God in the person of Christ and proclaim that presence of God to the world in terms that are honest and relevant. That is not just true when it comes to relating to young people, but when it comes to relating to all people.Tags: Untagged Read More
I suppose it is my turn to offer obligatory congratulations to Wills and Kate on the birth of their as-yet-unnamed progeny.
As I reflect on his newly decanted future monarch, a part of me wonders about how the royal couple will approach the challenge of parenthood. I mean, I'm sure there will be a veritable army of nannies and other "staff" there to care for his highness's infant needs. No doubt the Duke and Dutchess will be spared at least a little bit of the sanity that, say, awaits Leeman and myself in the coming months. But, surely, there will be at least some parenting trials and tribulations from which they will not be automatically exempt. Surely.
I'll confess, a part of me gets quite amused at the mental image of the Dutchess of Cambridge stumbling along my new favorite parenting podcast: One Bad Mother. The show conveniently started up right about the time I found out about my own little parasite. And I have to say, it offers a wonderfully refreshing and cathartic antidote to so much of the alarmist rhetoric one reads about parenthood on the internet. I can only imagine Kate--poor woman trapped parenting in the public eye that she is--might find it helps take the pressure off.
Perhaps the best thing the hosts do in each episode is share their parenting "genius" and "fail" moment--those time when they have mastered the art of raising another human being, and those times which have...not worked out so well for them. One week, a host realizes that she has never picked up any of the art her son has produced at daycare, while the other recounts how it took her the first 8 weeks of her daughter's life to realize she needed to wash under her neck (apparently, this led to some unpleasant odours). Even listeners call in with their own "fails"--such as forgetting their children in the car until they are halfway across the parking lot into the bank.
In a world where so much pressure is laid on parenthood by sites such as Pinterest which allows individuals to selectively showcase parenting perfection, the One Bad Mother approach allows everyone to stumble through life's inevitable failures together. It is a healthy reminder that we don't have to be PERFECT all the time, no matter what pressures and expectations the world or society might be imposing upon us. It also requires a definite degree of vulnerability, however. It requires us to let go of the image that we can or should be perfect all the time and own up to reality that for every "genius" moment we achieve in our lives, there will undoubtedly be moments of failure.
We might tweak this perspective a little bit from our faith-based perspective and note that we have something of an obligation to acknowledge our failures and our shortcomings in any of the various areas of life (our "sins" to use explicitly religious language). Refusing to do so amounts to nothing less than pride. An insistence that surely WE must be exempt from the realistic assumptions that plague lesser mortals. That's just not a viable position in the long run. And not only does it render us pompous and insufferable to others it, it doesn't do us much good either. It traps us in a lie of perfectionism which can never be attained. That is as true for Will and Kate as it is for any of us. At the end of the day, no matter where we might fall in the social ladder, we are all one before God.Tags: Untagged Read More
Leeman and I were wondering around a Babies-R-Us this weekend, like you do when you're getting around to your third trimester. In the midst of looking at the normal baby things--cribs, strollers, blankets, etc.--we wandered into the older kids' toys. Which is where I happened across this pink and purple nightmare:
Now, I'd been aware that Lego felt the inexplicable need to develop a version of their classic toy specifically for the young female market. If I wanted to go on a rant, I could argue that it is a need they created by specifically pushing what should be a gender-neutral toy as a "boy product" for the last 10+ years. But no one has time for that, and others have said it better than I could anyway. I also don't particularly want to get up on a soapbox about how this new line of "Lego Friends" is about "realistic, situational" play--rather than the creative, constructive play for which Lego has historically been known. Because why would girls want to *build* something?
What I do want to talk about is the problems that arise when we start putting people into pre-defined, pre-established categories. Boys must play with one type of toy. Girls must play with another type of toy. Boys must have everything is bright, bold colours. Girls must favour soft pastels, preferably pink and purple. (Interesting historical side-note, the association of girls with pink is a late 20th-century innovation. Traditionally, girls were associated with blue because, you know, Mary...). Admittedly, I'm having a bit of a feminist moment here. However, I am troubled when we as a society put individuals in boxes and make assumptions about how people should or should not behave based on those pre-conceived categories.
It goes without saying, that we have recently witnessed the aftermath of a particularly tragic situation resulting from unfortunate prejudices on the part of George Zimmerman. I know Mr. Zimmerman has been acquitted. And, honestly, I'm glad I live in a country where guilt still must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. I do not want to make my own prejudiced statements about what may or may not have happened once Zimmerman was out of his car. Maybe Trayvon Martin did himself become violent towards this strange man stalking him for no clear reason. (I don't think that's likely, but that's why Zimmerman is deemed "not guilty" not "innocent). What I do know, however, is that Zimmerman would not have gotten out of his car--would not have made that initial call to the police--if he were not suspicious of a black kid in a hoodie. Whatever else happened that fateful night, there is no evidence Trayvon Martin was engaged in any illicit behaviour that merited Zimmerman's call to the authorities. That is what haunts me.
We in our enlightened, urban Toronto way might look with disgust at the goings-on in Florida's courtroom. We might pride ourselves on not being over racists like the now-infamous Paula Dean. However, walking through that toy store reminds me that we still live in a society which in so many subtle and indistinct ways puts people into boxes and categories from which they have no power to escape. Maybe what toys children play with doesn't seem all that important, but, as this article points out, even children who step outside of their designated gendered products are prone to severe bullying (not to mention limiting perceived options for how boys and girls can interact with the world around them). Admittedly, this is not as dramatic a case as issues of racial profiling and hate crimes committed against marginalized communities. However, I do feel like all of these categories and labels and prejudices stem from the same source. Maybe those boxes are based on gender, maybe race or sexual orientation, maybe they are based on class or educational background. But they still exist and they are still problematic, particularly in light of the Christian faith.
The story of our faith is the story of a God who continually broke down barriers between people. Who even broke down the barrier barriers between humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus Christ. The more we stick to our pre-conceived categories and prejudices, the more we continue to live in our fallen world, rather than opening ourselves up to the life of grace God offers us, where there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free.Tags: Untagged Read More
Before he headed off on his holiday, Peter and I sat down to record a podcast about our respective summer reading plans, as well as our recommendations for anyone who might be listening. While I made a nod to the always-delightful Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett classic apocalyptic comedy Good Omens, I did not actually mention that a brand-new book by Mr. Gaiman has just hit the shelves. Prone to my own book-oriented version of retail therapy (did you know thinking about babies can be stressful?), I picked up a copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane on Canada Day.
The book is classic Gaiman. Whimsical, melancholy, and a touch creepy. Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who's always been there for me, whether it's exploring the darker side of the fairy realm in Stardust or the power of dreams in the Sandman graphic novels. Part of what I love about his work is how he plays with and invokes the power of stories. This latest offering is no exception. But he also adds to the exploration of story and memory the contrast between the worlds children and adults inhabit. Without going into too many details, the Ocean at the End of the Lane explores a particular (and indeed fantastical) childhood memory of middle-aged man who has returned to home for a family funeral. Along the way, it asks those perennial questions--Who is he in relations to his childhood self? How does the world of childhood differ from the world of adult? What are children willing to see that we cannot? The narrator mentions numerous times how the world a child sees is a world of exploration, wandering, magic. Adults see practicalities and either/or answers. When children go from one place to another, they find hidden paths and the potential for adventure. When adults go from one place to another, they see merely the clearly laid-out path before them. In a sense, the world of childhood is infinitely more complex and mysterious than the world of adults. And what Gaiman (in his singular way) is also able to express for us is that the world of children in its wonder and complexity is infinitely more terrifying than the simplistic world of adults. Because children can see hidden possibilities. They can see the monsters lurking under their beds. It is wonderful. But it is also terrible.
It is impossible (for me, at any rate) to enter into Gaiman's exploration of childhood without considering that (in)famous word from Jesus that unless we become like little children, we have no place in the kingdom of heaven. As good, simple-minded adults, we often write this passage off far too easily. There's the tendency in some circles to suggest such childlike faith speaks to blind, unconditional trust in the faithfulness and care of God. Like the intuitive trust an infant has for its parents. Others, often from a more progressive persuasion which I think would relate to more of the readers of this blog, counter that children of all people hardly take anything on face value. Children are highly discerning, questioning everything put before them. So should we be engaged and willing to challenge the spiritual truths presented to us.
Neither of these approaches seems to do justice to what Jesus is challenging when he urges us to become like little children. Neither blind acceptance or incessant questioning really strikes me as all that attractive when it comes to my life of faith. I want to engage in something deeper. And I wonder if it is just our inevitable grown-up simplicity that causes us to see the call to childlike faith in such binary terms. I wonder if, instead, the type of childlike engagement Jesus had in mind was something much more like the childlike world of Neil Gaiman. A world where we do not see only simple, practical solutions to problems, but where we see the potential to wander off on mysterious paths without knowing exactly where they might lead. It means being open to the idea that our the nature of God might far surpass anything we can easily comprehend--and being open to that reality.
I mentioned a joint Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman book at the beginning of this post. And there is a recurring phenomenon in both Pratchett and Gaiman. Which is that there are certain realities only children can see (monsters under the bed, and the personified character of death, for example). The implication is that children have not closed off options. They have not decided how the world "ought" to be.
And so when Jesus challenges us to become "childlike" in our faith, I don't think he's speaking of a pure acceptance of any truths presented to us, nor a defiantly questioning attitude. Rather, I think he is speaking of that openness, that sense of wonder, which comes with no preconceptions about how God or the world "ought" to be. That's open to mystery and open to the idea that God can and will continually surprise us and defy our expectations. And, just like in the world of Neil Gaimon, there's much wonder and excitement involved in that. But it can also be terrifying. Because it means letting go of the idea that we will EVER have all the answers to life, the universe, and everything (except for 42, obviously).
Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go look through my closets until I find Narnia.Tags: Untagged Read More