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Rachel Kessler at Grace Church

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For God so Loved the World

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Tuesday, 15 April 2014 Category Daily Offices

To sleep, or not to sleep … that is the question. To which, Leeman and I have eventually answered “sleep” (hopefully) by giving in and hiring a professional sleep coach. And by which we prove that we are participants in our highly individualist, consumerist North American culture where there is no problem so great that it cannot be solved by buying a good and/or service. I may be a little ashamed of myself. But, God willing, I will at least be able to embrace my patheticness after a good night’s sleep in the not too distant future.

But pondering our need for a bit of professional help for she who will not sleep brought to my mind a tweet posted the other day Rachel Held Evans: “We are not saved by information. We are saved by restored relationship with God.” Simple, yet profound.

Leeman and I have read a lot of books on baby sleep. We are brainy, overly educated urbanites after all. We are pretty awesome at theory. After a while, the consultant we’re working with kind of figured out that we were on top of all the “information” she was trying to give us. If it’s in a book, we can totally master it no problem. Application, however, is a little trickier. Trying to read inarticulate “sleep cues” from an infant can be a little more challenging. And, unfortunately, the baby herself isn’t reading the books to know how we are expecting her to behave. Getting this kid to sleep is going to take time, care, and attentiveness to her particular needs.

This is not unlike our spiritual lives. We can very easily fall into a trap of believing that the Christian life consists of knowing certain realities about God—being able to articulate all the articles of the Creed or being able to provide an outline for the basic structure of the Bible. We Anglicans in particular like to pride ourselves on being a church that values intellectual engagement with our faith and we thrive on learning about the quest for the historical Jesus or explorations of Christian art from around the world. These things are all well and good. Certainly understanding why, for example, Christianity stands by the Trinitarian doctrine of one God in three persons is vitally important. But we make a grave error if we equate theoretical knowledge about God with personally knowing God. We can only truly become like Christ and convey the image of Christ to the world by actually knowing him—which pretty much only happens through prayer and worship. The Christian life is a relational reality, not an intellectual one. That is not to say that intellectual engagement with our faith is unimportant—it is merely not an end in itself. Rather, striving to a deeper understanding of God’s nature is a means to the end of actually knowing God, not just knowing *about* God.

I also can’t help but feel like this emphasis on stressing the relational—as opposed to purely intellectual—attitude toward our faith is of particular importance in Holy Week. The events which we will commemorate this week defy our comprehension. Some of the greatest minds in the Christian tradition—Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas—have argued over exactly why it is that Christ had to die for our sins. We can argue over whether Christ died to fulfill some sense of divine justice or whether the crucifixion was about inspiring in us an understanding of self-sacrificial love. But that distracts us from the fact that, ultimately, the death of Christ brought us into restored relationship with God. If we emerge on the other side of Easter with no other realization from this week, let it be that renewed sense of God’s unfathomable love for us.

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Of Creatures and Creators

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Wednesday, 09 April 2014 Category Daily Offices

Over the past couple weeks, Leeman and I have really gotten into the new reality show Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge (on the rare occasion the baby actually lets us sit down at the same time to watch something—we still haven’t managed to finish the latest episode of Hannibal). While I find all the standard reality competition tropes—careful editing to heighten inter-personal drama and the like—frustrating at best, I am so utterly delighted to see the Jim Henson company getting attention these days. (Not to mention the host Gigi Edgley starred in my all-time favourite TV show Farscape.)

So far, we have watched aspiring special effects artists use foam and rubber and latex to fabricate amazing, life-like creatures out of the depths of their imaginations. Creativity and ingenuity are the name of the game as these contestants figuratively breathe life into otherwise inanimate objects. One contestant wowed the judges (and his task partner) with using everyday aluminum foil to create the mouth of their underwater creature.

The show reminds me of why I always have and always will love not just the Muppets and their crazy brand of humour, but the whole range of Jim Henson projects. Whether that be watching David Bowie dance around with goblins in Labyrinth or visiting the incredible fantasy world of the Dark Crystal. The physicality of the Jim Henson creatures captivates me in a way that just isn’t possible for the more ethereal CGI-based special effects. For me, CGI just can’t compete with watching a flesh and…well…foam creature up on the screen. It is why puppet Yoda evoked far deeper emotions than his unfortunate CGI counterpart.

On some level, the materiality of the Jim Henson creations resonates with our Christian emphasis on the materiality of this created world. We sometimes run the risk of thinking of our faith merely in "spiritual" terms--as a matter of proper beliefs or intangible experiences. We are however physical, not merely spiritual, beings. We live in a physical, not merely spiritual, world. Sacramental elements such as water, bread, wine, and oil are central to our worship because we are physical creatures. God uses these material objects—as we say in our 39 articles—as outward and visible signs of invisible Grace. In the sacraments, everyday items are made by the power of the Holy Spirit into something extraordinary.

This focus not just on the physicality of our worship but on how ordinary items are transformed in our worship into signs of God’s presence, is perhaps particularly worth reflection at the moment as we move towards the observance of Palm Sunday and the liturgies of Holy Week. The coming week will see some of the most tactile observances of the Christian year. On Sunday, we will wave palm crosses as we remember Jesus’s entrance into the city of Jerusalem in the week leading up to his death. On Tuesday, the clergy of the diocese will head down to the cathedral where the bishop will bless the oil we use for baptism and confirmation for the rest of the year. Thursday will see our rector step into the role of Jesus and wash the feet of the congregation on Maundy Thursday—just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. And on Good Friday we will kneel down in a moment of devotion before the image of the cross as we remember Christ’s own crucifixion. These are strange rituals—the odd intimacy of letting someone wash your feet can be a little intimidating especially—but they serve to remind us that our faith is one that embraces the physical. We believe in a God who did physically come into our world and then suffered a literal, painful death—and a death he overcame in his bodily resurrection.

As we move into Holy Week and the celebration of the Easter season, the church in her wisdom invites us to contemplate the physicality of our faith. We do that in part by meditating on the physical suffering that Jesus endured on the cross. But we also remember at this time that last meal Jesus shared with his friends and in the coming weeks we will hear about Jesus breaking bread with his disciples when he encounters them after the resurrection.

We worship a God who came and lived--and died--in a particular time and place among his own creatures. During this season, it might be worth contemplating that physicality of Christ and the intimacy the Creator has shared with his own creation. It is worth considering how such a reality impacts our interaction with our world, both in our love and service to one another as well as our care for God's physical creation. But perhaps that is fodder for another day's discussion...

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How I Ruined A Nine-Year Storyline

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Tuesday, 01 April 2014 Category Grace Church

Congratulations to the writers of How I Met Your Mother on penning arguably the worst series finale on Network television (sorry, Lost, you had to pass the torch sometime).  It takes rare skill to spend 9 years crafting a challenging, ground-breaking narrative about the perspective of maturity which realizes that the things we desire in our youth are maybe not what’s best for us in the long run … and then to undermine that whole narrative in one 40-minute episode.

Why am I so bothered by that, and—more importantly—why does it matter?

Though I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it, I’m one of the only people I know who still cared about How I Met Your Mother at this late stage of the game. For whatever reason, this silly show about 20-something Ted Mosby battling New York’s dating scene in quest for his future wife has stuck with me through its 9-year run.  Is it because I was so sick during my pregnancy that I would spend entire days lying on the couch unable to do anything but plough through seasons 6, 7, & 8 on Netflix despite their incredible drop off in quality? Quite possibly.  It might also have something to do with the fact that show star Josh Radnor and I share an alma mater (love of which also inclines me to give him a pass on the self-indulgent Liberal Arts). Or it could be that Leeman and I share a certain affinity with the show’s beta couple Lilly and Marshall, who have also been together since their first day of university. Also…Canada jokes.

But on a deeper level, at its best How I Met Your Mother actually had some insightful comments to offer on life, friendship, and love—particularly in how they evolve as we grow older. The premiere episode sets up the narrative framework: older “Ted” sits down his teenage children to tell them the story of how he met their mother. Rather than a simple tale of “boy meets girl”, Ted’s increasingly skeptical offspring are treated to a now 9-year long series of anecdotes and reflections as Ted recounts not just how he literally met this titular “mother,” but all of the random misdirections—from being stranded at the altar in his first engagement to his inability to let go of his unrequited love for his ex-girlfriend/best buddy Robin—that were a part of making him the person he needed to be to meet the love of his life. It was a classic example of when the end of the story (who this mother actually is) isn’t all that important. It was about Ted’s journey. A “life doesn’t always work out the way you plan”—and that’s a good thing—message. Until the show undermined all that by taking Ted right back to where he was at the start of the series, rather than respecting his growth and making the bold, bittersweet statement that sometimes we do have to let go of youthful fantasies in exchange for the more realistic, but ultimately more satisfying, joys and sorrows of adulthood.

So, I’m frustrated that the show ultimately pulled its narrative punches because of how powerfully its reminiscent narrative resonated with me over the years. I’m only slightly younger than the show’s characters. I suppose now having a baby and having just registered for my 10 year undergraduate reunion in May, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, realizing that I’m settling down into adult life after the meanderings of my 20s (which admittedly we slightly less exciting than Ted & Co’s). Indeed, the 10-year run of the show corresponds perfectly with the decade I’ve lived in Toronto. Even if I did marry my aforementioned college boyfriend, we are certainly not where we thought we’d be when we graduated in 2004. Still living in Cananda (crazy!), with a Canadian citizen baby (crazier!), and an Anglican priest (craziest of all!). I came to Toronto 10 years ago because I had a life-long dream of teaching medieval literature, and Toronto was the best place in the world to prepare for that career. Little did I know that I was exactly where I needed to be but for reasons wholly unknown to me at the time. Thanks to what the writers of How I Met Your Mother would call destiny but I would call the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, I found a vocation in the church which is far from what I always dreamed I would be doing, but ultimately makes me far happier than anything I would have imagined a decade ago. I am thankful for that even when we are stubbornly trying make our life go a certain direction, God has a way of quietly working behind the scenes to provide us with something far more than we could ask or imagine.

How sad I would be to go back and be given the life that 2004 Rachel wanted. Fortunately for me, God works on a grander scale than a couple of TV writers.

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Amazing Grace

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Wednesday, 26 March 2014 Category Grace Church

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Fred Phelps this past week, as the news emerged first that he was critically ill and then that he had finally died. If you’re not familiar with the Phelps family…consider yourself fortunate. Phelps is the late patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for proclaiming God's hatred of homosexuals specifically and for picketing the funerals of anyone they deem reprobate in the eyes of God (spoiler alert: that pretty much means anyone not part of their clan). Needless to say, the Phelps have rightly been dubbed “the most hated family in America.”

I will confess that I’ve have gone through phases of morbid interest in Phelps and his ilk. I don’t really know why. As with all bullies, the WBC seem to feed off hate and giving attention probably just makes them stronger.  But my interest in “Pastor” Phelps is theological more than political. Most people never get beyond the church’s offensive slogans long enough actually to engage with what they teach. The church is based on a strange form of Calvinism—asserting that God has predetermined who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. Though if one listens to the Phelps, you come away with the impression that everyone is bound for the fire and brimstone. What fascinates me is that for all of their public demonstrations, the church is decidedly NOT evangelical. When members of the church wave their allegedly prophetic placards, they don’t actually want anyone to repent. They are just proclaiming what they see as the inevitable annihilation of humanity by a wrathful God—and they rejoice in that!

In a nutshell, Phelps presents us with a strange image of a Christianity wholly devoid of Grace. And what a sad picture that Grace-less life is. As detestable as that “most hated family” might be, I often find myself watching them with pity and sorrow in my heart. One looks into Fred Phelps’ eyes in his video proclamations (be warned--Phelps uses deeply offensive language in that link) and sees utter emptiness. One cannot help but be struck by the constant stream of bitterness uttered by his daughter and heir-apparent Shirley and you think—what must her life have been like?  There is no joy. There is no love. There is no GRACE—no image of a God known to us through acts of pure self-giving love. For all that the Phelps proclaim God’s immanent destruction of humanity, I can’t help but feel they themselves give us a palpable image of what damnation truly is. They are utterly lost to the love of God.

HOWEVER> As C.S. Lewis famously said, “the gates of Hell are locked from the inside.” Phelps and his church have condemned themselves to a Hell of their own making. In spite of the pain they have unquestionably caused others, I don’t believe God is the one who has condemned them to the darkness they inhabit. If we are to take seriously the reality of God’s grace that has so eluded members of Phelps’ church, we have to wrestle with the reality the reach of God’s love extends perhaps even to this broken, bitter man and his family who have caused so much pain to so many people. As one preacher said this weekend:

"The sadness of Fred Phelps—the tragedy—is that grace was ever before him and he could not recognize it. It is heartbreaking that you could live your entire life trapped in so much hate. And then subject others to the hate you carry. The brokenness of our world is that extreme. The brokenness of Fred Phelps is the magnification of our own brokenness. And that terrifies me. His need for grace is not unrelated to ours. His need for living water is a reflection of our own.

And God loves Fred Phelps. God loves Fred Phelps just as much as you and me. And that is really offensive. This is the offense of the gospel: The living water is not reserved for those who are most loving or repentant or even gracious. That isn’t the way grace works. We don’t earn it. It is always a gift."

This Lent, as we journey towards the cross on which God suffered and died for the sins of the whole world, it is worth pondering that OUTRAGE of God’s grace. It is very easy for us to proclaim the abundant love of God when that love is directed to the downtrodden and the marginalized. It is a lot more challenging when we have to admit God's love and grace is so boundless it extends to those we find contemptible. But if we take the promise of Grace seriously, that the reality. We should be offended that God’s love extends even to the likes of Fred Phelps, because the Gospel is offensive. It goes against everything our society teaches us about “fairness”—for which I am thankful. I am thankful that the hatred of Fred Phelps is powerless to overcome the love of God. Deo Gratias.

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Pushing the limits

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Thursday, 20 March 2014 Category Grace Church

You may have noticed that I talk a lot about so-called "speculative fiction" on this blog. Is that because I am a giant nerd? Absolutely. But I also think there is an inherent value in literature and other media that does not merely reflect the world that is, but the world that might be. While sci-fi and fantasy might have its share of fantastical settings and magical creatures, it also has an impressive history at pushing social boundaries. Science fiction has a laudable history, for example, of strong women in positions of leadership, whether it be the indomitable president Laura Roslin of Battlestar Galactica or the Mother of Dragons Danerys Targaryan. Let us not forget as well, that science fiction gave us TV's fist interracial kiss in the 1968 Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren."

While it is easy to write these elements of speculative media as mere entertainment, but I believe they are far more powerful than that. We can never expect the reality of our culture to change--to become more equitable or just--unless we are able to imagine what such a world might look like. Sometimes simply seeing someone challenge our preconceptions can be enough to push us toward more substantive change.

And this brings me to Morgan Baskin, the 18-year-old woman running for Mayor of Toronto. It turns out Ms. Baskin is connected to a couple of my clerical colleagues, so I have been reading much about her on Facebook these days (with great interest). As I follow along some of the articles they share about her, I've been saddened to read some of the deeply cynical comments some people feel compelled to make (I know, I know ... never read the comment. Sometimes I just can't help myself).

People have accused Ms. Baskin of being an entitled millennial with the hubris to think she can run City Hall with no real experience. Others dismiss her as a "novelty candidate" who will steal votes from Olivia Chow, arguably the candidate with the greatest hope of unseating Rob Ford. Now, I certainly think it's worth asking whether ANY teenager is capable of running Canada's largest city, regardless of her comparative maturity level. And it's certainly understandable that some would see the ousting of Rob Ford as the highest political priority of the moment.

But I can't help but feel that if we write Ms. Baskin off too quickly we miss something quite important that her candidacy brings to the table. Unburdened by political pragmatism which inevitably comes with age, she is able to give blunt voice to the concerns of many of her peers--the economic uncertainty young people face today--as well as certain frustrations felt by many Torontonians, particularly around transit issues. Most importantly, she allows other young people to see themselves engaged in the broader issues of society in a real, tangible way. By seeing Ms. Baskin step so far out of the role deemed "acceptable" for someone of her generation, maybe more young people will be inspired to take on responsibility within their own communities. Maybe it will help them see themselves as the leaders of today, not just the "leaders of tomorrow."

Whether she wins or loses the election, I think Ms. Baskin's campaign will be an catalyst for change. Certainly a catalyst for change among her peer group. But I would not discount the impact she might have on people of all ages who are forced to stop and consider what this young woman has to say to us and how she challenges to think beyond what we, in our grown-up cynicism, deem "possible" or "acceptable." While some might condemn Ms. Baskin's hubris, I find myself commending her chutzpah. I wish her all the best!

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Confessions of a Reluctant "Fannibal"

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Wednesday, 12 March 2014 Category Grace Church

I have a confession to make. For all of my TV obsessions, I cannot bring myself to watch some of the most popular shows currently on offer. No Breaking Bad or House of Cards for me. I fully believe everyone (including my husband) who tells me they are brilliant examinations of the banality of evil within human nature. But they just seem a little too grim … a little too nihilistic for me to fully commit to them. That said, I have for some bizarre reason found myself utterly captivated by Hannibal, an exploration of pre-Silence of the Lambs arch-villain Hannibal Lecter. (Side note ... apparently this makes me a "fannibal"? Oh, internet, you can be so weird sometimes) Surely such a series would fall into the category of “pessimistic depictions of humanity”…right? But I don’t believe it does.

In some ways, I feel almost uncomfortable talking about Hannibal. It takes the procedural crime genre to its most gruesome extremes, depicting serial killers who flay their victims to make them look like angels or perhaps render them into a cello (warning: some graphic imagery if you click on those links, but don't worry, NBC has protected us from any mild nudity). This is all, of course, in addition to the central conceit of Hannibal the titular cannibal himself who is seen not only consuming magnificently prepared meals of human flesh but also feeding them to his unknowing dinner guests.

On the other hand, Hannibal might be the television offering most worthy of our time and attention at the moment. Unlike so many crime dramas (or the film genre which might rightly be dubbed “torture porn”), Hannibal never deal in gratuitous horror. While the show’s creators seem to revel in the macabre, they do so in a way that at once repulses us while making it impossible for us to look away. You see, this show is beautiful. The murders we witness are truly works of art, a fact highlighted by the refrain “this is my design” as FBI profiler Will Graham explores the mind of each killer. These are crimes not of passion but of design. It is in the juxtaposition of the gorgeous and the grotesque that the show challenges its viewers. It is in the beauty of these crimes that we are most aware of their horror. One gets the sense that the perpetrators are not simply evil in themselves but rather are corrupting concepts which are inherently good—concepts such as beauty and art.

Nowhere is this more true than with character of Hannibal himself. Mads Mikkelsen who plays Hannibal describes the character as the devil. But Hannibal is not a devil with horns and tail. He is a devil immaculately dressed. Who delights in the finer things of life. This devil revels in the beautiful. The cannibalistic meals Hannibal prepares are exquisite (just check out the blog run by the show's food stylist). It is through their artistry that we see the nature of Hannibal’s evil. The monster in Hannibal turns the goodness of food and fellowship into a perversion.

This is what I love about Hannibal, and what distinguishes it from other notoriously dark TV dramas. For all that it is potent, Hannibal’s evil does not exist as an entity unto itself. Good and evil are not opposing forces, nor does the show present some general idea of the banality of evil that exists within us all. Indeed, Hannibal eschews banality in any form. The world of Hannibal is a world in which goodness and beauty exist as positive entities. Evil exists only as a corruption of those ideals.

That underlying premise makes Hannibal, at least in my opinion, fascinating viewing. But perhaps it is also more theologically sound than dramas which revel in the inherent evil of their characters. God and the devil are not equally opposing forces. Just as darkness is merely the absence of light and cold is simply the absence of heat, evil might seem powerful but it is not real in itself. It is the absence—or perhaps the perversion—of the goodness which truly exists in the world.  I find that an oddly optimistic thought. So, while Hannibal is intense (I confess, TV-marathoner that I am, I can only watch one episode at a time), it’s a world I find infinitely preferable to what we so often see depicted around us.

Also, dogs.

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Public Personas and Private People

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Monday, 03 March 2014 Category Grace Church

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.

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Putting the Past in Place

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Tuesday, 25 February 2014 Category Grace Church

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.

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Back in the Collar Again!

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Tuesday, 18 February 2014 Category Grace Church

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.

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Living in the Moment

by Rachel Kessler
Rachel Kessler
Rev. Rachel Kessler is Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto
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Tuesday, 24 September 2013 Category Grace Church

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?

 

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