Seeing Beyond Differences

 

by Rev LeAnn Blackert

A literal rainbow of colours decorates the wall. A montage of photos, including a shot of the letter Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent. Photos of candles flickering, ribbons streaming, individuals, groups, crowds. Each photo a testament to the outpouring of love and grief after the shooting which took 49 lives at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016.

On a recent trip to Florida I visited the Pulse Interim Memorial. I stood on the grounds where so many lost their lives. I walked the length of the wall, my heart moved by the love and solidarity evidenced through the photos and messages. I read the names of the 49 victims out loud. I prayed for their families and friends.

As I write this the world learns that another 49 people have lost their lives to a shooting. This time at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Though the reasons given for these attacks – and for the other mass shooting deaths the world has experienced recently – in both cases the attackers were fueled by hatred and anger, by a sense that these lives had no value other than as expressions of the shooter’s hatred.

In the immediate aftermath of these horrendous acts so much attention is paid to the shooter. Soon the stories of the victims will emerge. We will learn more about the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and friends who were killed. These are the stories that will touch our hearts. The stories that identify the victims as fellow humans, doing their best in a world that is difficult. Stories are the vehicles of healing, of bridging, of uniting.

In the gospel of John, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. He asks her for a drink and she reacts in surprise. He was a Jew. She practiced a different faith. Typically their differences would create a boundary – a wall between them. But they engaged in dialogue and he learned her story. He responded with understanding and compassion, and she shared water with him.

Jesus often sought out those who were different, who were “other” and engaged them. He listened deeply to the stories of “others” and responded with understanding and compassion. He calls us to do the same. Nearly every faith tradition has an admonition that we love our neighbours – those who are not quite like us. Differences might separate us, but as we seek to understand the humanity behind our “otherness” we can find healing, bridging, and perhaps unity.

Kamloops celebrated our diversity with a walk on the North Shore on March 21st. Together people from all over the world and those from different faith traditions or no faith tradition walked and talked. We told our stories. We celebrated one another. In the coming weeks, many faith traditions will celebrate holidays: the Christian and Orthodox churches will celebrate Holy Week and Easter, our Jewish neighbours will celebrate Passover, Hindus –  Ramanavani, Jains –  Mahavir Jayanti, Sikhs – Vaisakhi, Bahá’ís – the Festival of Ridván, Pagans – Beltane, Buddhists – Therevada New Year,  and Muslims will enter Ramadan.

Let’s continue to celebrate our diversity by reaching out to someone who seems “other” to us. Walk together, talk together, hear one another’s stories. Look beyond the differences to the inherent value every person has. It might seem a small thing to do in a world that seems to be filled with vitriol and violence, but it’s a big step toward learning to love our neighbours, no matter who they are, no matter where they are from, no matter how different we seem to be. Let’s not wait for a horrific tragedy to pour out our love and solidarity for one another. Let’s do it today. And tomorrow. Let’s change the world!

Rev LeAnn Blackert ministers with the congregation of Mount Paul United Church on the north shore of Kamloops (www.mtpauluc.ca) and is a co-facilitator of the new Wild Church in Kamloops (wildchurchbc.org).  LeAnn was imported from the United States in 2009 to serve in ministry with the congregation of Mount Paul United Church (Kamloops, BC). LeAnn is passionate about worship and loves to bring her creative spirit to all aspects of the church. She graduated from Vancouver School of Theology and was ordained in the United Church of Christ (USA). She served San Leandro (California) Community Church before arriving at Mount Paul. In May she will be transitioning to serve full-time with Wild Church (Kamloops), a church plant reaching out to those who experience the Divine in the natural world.

This is for all the wild girls.

capemi

“Oh honey, smile for the picture.”

The words were barely out of my mouth and I was already cringing.  Why had I said that?  It came out so naturally.  I hadn’t planned to say it but there it was, hanging in the air between us.  My sweet and loving daughter had automatically burst into a smile, and I silently cursed myself as my face responded with its own smile mirroring my daughter’s.

My seven-year-old wild-child, Emilia, was posing at our local movie theatre in front of the Captain Marvel poster at my request.  I had asked her to stand the same way as Captain Marvel and she had immediately struck the appropriate stance.  Legs slightly apart, balanced for a fight, arms down and to her sides, open to discussion and reason, and a determined look on her face.  The exact image of the super hero she had been waiting to see on the big screen for so long.  Captain Marvel wasn’t smiling, so neither was the girl emulating her.  This was serious business and a smile was not appropriate.

As soon as the words requesting a grin came out of my mouth, I immediately took them back and acknowledged that Emilia had been correct the first time.  Immediately her face settled back into that determined expression I have come to adore.  My daughter knows what she wants and woe to the person who tries to get her to do otherwise.

Captain Marvel will always be remembered as one of the moments in our mother-daughter relationship.  Emilia spent the majority of the movie holding my hand, resting her head on my shoulder. or sitting on my lap.  She asked a thousand questions, most starting with “why” and had to be shushed more times than I could count.  But there was no quieting this child.  She wanted to know why people were being mean to others… and why there had to be war and warriors… and why were Vers’ hands glowing… and could we see this movie again tomorrow?

I spent the majority of the movie watching my daughter react to her first onscreen female role model. I loved seeing her fists raised triumphantly as Vers/Carol Danvers effortlessly flew planes, handled herself in one on one combat, and easily made friends with new people she encountered.  At one point in the movie, Vers is outside a store and a man tells her to give him a smile.  My heart dropped and then continued its downward plummet as Emilia looked up at me and said, “Why would he tell her that?”  What was I to say?  “Don’t worry, you will soon discover women get that line once a day or week.”“Because men feel less threatened by women who smile.”  Or, “Well, sometimes women are expected to fulfill gender roles decided on by the society in which they live.”  Instead I said, “Because sometimes people expect others to behave in a way they think is proper.”  That got a sage nod from Emilia.  My child is used to having people tell her to stop being so… Emilia-like.  At school she is admonished for being fidgety in class.  At church she is told not to ask so many questions during Children’s Time.  When we visit other people’s homes I am forever telling her to stop jumping on furniture, and for Heaven’s sake will you stop climbing!  My girl’s world is one of constraint and yet here is super hero Vers, refusing to smile when smiles are not called for, and learning who she really is rather than filling the roles other people had planned for her.

But, the best part of this female super hero movie  came during  the montage,  which for me was rather welltrod ground. But for Emilia it was new and enlightening. The montage is the part where we see all the lessons learned over the course of a life in split second flash backs.  In this case, every time Carol Danvers fell or was mocked, and every time she was told to stay in her place… she got up.  Emilia happened to be on my lap and in that moment she turned to me and with wonder in her voice whispered, “She is getting back up.”   I whispered back, “That is right baby girl.  She is getting back up.  We women, we always get back up.  We are strong, we are fierce and we will always get back up.  And on the days when you think you cannot get back up by yourself there will be other women there supporting you until you get the strength back in your legs.”  She looked at me then, her eyes wide and her face serious and said, “This is the best movie ever.”  That was the moment my wild child learned that it was okay to be different and it was okay to fall down sometimes.  The trick, she learned, was to get back up and having friends to help you when you needed it made getting back up easier.

Now, that may be the part Emilia will always remember… the part when other people told Vers/Carol that she was not good enough as she was only to be proven wrong.  However, for me the best part was when Carol tells another character that by trying to force her to behave in a certain way, a way that went beyond her natural inclination, she was being forced to live “with one hand tied behind my back.” In other words, when told to stop being herself, something Emilia has heard far too many times, she responded that she is at her best when she is being her authentic self.  It was then that Emilia raised both fists in the air and yelled out loudly, “WHOOHOO!!!!  YEAH!!!!”  Several people in the theatre laughed in solidarity with my daughter. I wanted to shout out to them how lucky they were to be there at the moment when my daughter learned that, just like her favourite super hero, it was perfectly fine to be yourself.  That you did not need to suppress your emotions, or your inner self, for others to accept and love you.

Emilia walked out of the theatre chattering on about flying planes and “boom, bang, punch!”

“Mom!” she asked enthusiastically,“Did you SEE those aliens!? And did you SEE Captain Marvel FLYING?  And did you notice that I look just like Captain Marvel??????”

Yes, baby girl, I did.  And I cannot wait to see what you do now that you know you are not alone in this wild, beautiful universe of ours.

Hide and Seek With God

I’m in the R. Kelly library at the University of Toronto. It’s big. With rows upon rows of towering bookshelves, I imagine how much fun it would be to play children’s games, like sardine or hide-and-seek, here. I’m picturing that there are some corners of the library where you could remain hidden for days. Mental note to self: if I ever organize a giant hide-and-seek game here, make sure to bring snacks and a flashlight because it’s going to be EPICALLY long…

It’s no wonder that I’m thinking about hiding because I am desperately trying to avoid the truth which has just leaped off my borrowed book’s page. Why isn’t there a 5-second-rule for thoughts, I wonder? Because now that I’ve read it, there’s no going back.

I’m skimming through a book about Henri Nouwen’s life and this passage caught me off-guard: “Discernment is about seeing, knowing, and being known. Do you want to be seen by God? Do you want to be truly known, with all your inner thoughts and outer activities laid out before an all-seeing, all-knowing God?”

Well, actually…I don’t. That sounds like a terrible idea!

I’ve been seeking discernment lately because I’m looking for my first call as a soon-to-be-ordained minister. I’ve been wanting some direction about where to apply and how to know you’ve met the right congregation for you. I’m all for the “seeing” and “knowing” part of discernment. Hey Sophia, send all that wisdom my way! But I didn’t realize that the flow of knowledge, clarity and understanding is a two-way street. It’s a relationship. As we open ourselves to be receptive to God’s wisdom, we are also revealing ourselves to God.

Of course, God does already know who we are. God knows our favourite flavour of ice-cream, the wishes we make when we blow out our birthday candles, and the things locked in our hearts which we’ve never told anyone.

But that’s not the point. That’s not what Henri Nouwen was trying to say.

What is important is that we’re ready to show up – as our whole selves – in our relationship with God. Our busy, modern lives are so distracting that we can often avoid having to look at our faults and our wounds. We don’t have to deal with the parts of our lives or our souls which are painful, squidgy or a little bit frayed around the edges. But when we’re asking God to help us with discernment – to help us come into alignment with who we are meant to be – then all parts of our souls will be called into healing.

The book I’m reading, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life by Henri Nouwen suggests that we write a personal letter to God, openly and honestly looking at the areas of life we are not sure that we want God to investigate, and then we can pray that God will help us to see ourselves (and these “tender areas”) as fully, gently and beautifully as God sees us.

Hmmm… sounds like I’ve got some letter writing to do. This could take a while. I’d better bring snacks. And a flashlight!

Joy Cowan is an MDiv student at Emmanuel College in Toronto and she is a Candidate for Ordained Ministry within the United Church of Canada. She adores her silver tabby cat named Kiri, and she has a penchant for collecting acorns and perfectly round stones.

A canoe, a decision and Jesus.

I remember like it was yesterday, staring at the doctor with my mouth gaping open.  Are you kidding?  A Hysterectomy?  I am 44, not 64!  The doctor looked at me with some compassion (and a little puzzlement).  “What’s wrong?  You can choose whether or not to keep your ovaries and it’s not like you want more children now, right?”  That’s compassion for you!

I had been having major trouble with my period for a few years, but was not expecting to hear this…I knew there were less invasive procedures. I went home and discussed it all with my partner Steven.  It was true we didn’t want more kids, and our children, Kate and Michael were now 20 and 18 years old.  My identical twin happened to be pregnant with her sixth child and I thought she was crazy.  “So what do you think about taking or leaving my ovaries?”  “Take them, I would say.” said Steven. I agreed.  If I was going in, I was going in once and would take away any chance of ovarian cancer in my future.

This was such a tense time in life anyway.  I wondered if I was being punished for going into discernment. I am usually the last one to think this way, but I was wondering what was happening in my usually tame life.  I mean who did I think I was anyway?  My dad wasn’t well (although we did not know for months yet that he had cancer), and my mom was lying in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s Disease.  She didn’t know us anymore and rarely spoke.

I called to cancel my Discernment twice and hung up before anyone answered.  I prayed and prayed.  Bleeding or immediate Menopause?  Discernment or back to my old life?  Did God want me or not??  I (like I am sure many others), had a blissful picture of Discernment being a quiet time of contemplation, a time when I would become convinced of my call and all would be well.  Now, I thought bitterly, I felt more like I was on the Road to Damascus than the Road to Emmaus.   Please God send me a sign that’s strong!  Give me an answer I can’t ignore!  I knew that if God was going to be subtle with me, I would miss the answer completely.  I discussed it over and over with Steven, and finally decided that if I didn’t get a good shove from God in the direction of staying in Discernment soon, I would call and withdraw…and never show my face at Church again…OK, for awhile anyway.

 

It was during this time that I had my dream.  I have spoken of this dream to many groups, and each time I feel enveloped in love and acceptance by the listeners.

I am not confident enough to be in a canoe in rough water.  I can swim, but not long distances, and tend to panic easily.  There I was, in a canoe, all alone and the wind was soaking my hair and I could hardly see.  The waves were rocking the canoe violently and I did the only thing I could think of.  I started praying.  “Lord save me from this, it’s too much. I can’t cope with this and everything else.  I have too many burdens.”  The canoe was way down at my end and I was taking on water when I noticed someone sitting in the other end of the canoe.  “If you are Jesus, calm the storm please!”  “Give me your burdens” he said quietly.  I should not have been able to hear him over the waves and thunder but I could, clear as a bell.  “I can’t!” I shouted, “The boat will sink!”

The figure kept saying “Give me your burdens” until I was almost waist deep in my end of the canoe and yelled “OK!”  The storm stopped immediately.  I opened one eye to see if I was dead, drowned in the water, but I was still in the canoe….and far from being lower in the water at the other end, with all of my burdens, the canoe was completely level in the water….  “I will help you, we will work together.  You are not alone.”  I never doubted again.  I felt so at peace.  I think if I had heard “Your burdens are gone, all taken care of.” I would not have believed it, and drowned in my own panic.  Instead I woke up feeling better than I had in months.

My doctor called and said he would recommend taking my ovaries and that there were ways to help my body through the shock of immediate menopause.  My Discernment Committee decided to ask me if I wanted to take a few months off so I could be with Mom and Dad (they passed away within six months of each other that year).  Before he died, my Dad told me out of the blue how proud he was of me and that he just knew Mom was too.  On our 45th birthday, my twin gave birth to a gorgeous baby girl.  I felt her happiness and knew suddenly that I was happy with my decision too.

Small answers with enormous results. A canoe, Jesus, sharing All is well.  I prayed and God answered, not with thunder but with gentle rain, soaking into my conscience.  We are not alone, we live in God’s world.

DLM Wendy Lowden was born and raised in Hamilton Ontario and married her first boyfriend forty years ago.  They have two married children, Kate and Michael, and five wonderful grandchildren, in Ontario and in Lewisporte, Newfoundland and Labrador. Wendy is currently enjoying her time as President of her region.  She loves to write, and thinks it is always good to stretch her wings and get away from writing sermons.  The drawing of the canoe was made as soon as she woke up from her dream.wendy

Canoe

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