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.

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.

Jesus and the menopausal woman.

Maundy Thursday, the day before the bloodletting, and I knew I was in for some pain of my own.  I had only been at this church for a few months and here I was, preparing for the busiest week in the Christian calendar and I was about to get walloped by all the hormones.  I was also coming to the surprisingly hurtful conclusion that I was now fully entering the menopause phase of my life.  All those years of praying for my period to come, not come; repeating that cycle over and over and here I was looking into the mirror and thinking what I always thought, “Why today?”   These things never happen on our schedule.

I stood there for a moment, holding onto the counter and feeling sorry for myself.  This was a new congregation and I needed to impress them.  Unlike my mother’s gentle experience, menopause has been coming in like a wrecking ball for me.  What once had been a minor interference that was over in 3 days had lately become a serious blood sport lasting a full week at minimum.  I have a group of women preacher friends who connect daily via Facebook Messenger and I shared the now well known to them Gif of the elevator doors opening in The Shining.  If you have seen the movie you remember the scene.  Danny Torance has a vision of the door of the elevator opening to release a flood of blood that sweeps towards him in a raging rapid, smashing against the walls and moving inexorably closer.  My Gif was immediately answered with comments like,

“What!?!  Today!?!”

“Poor you.”

“Ugh.”

Ugh indeed.  Worse than the copious blood loss was the insidious exhaustion.  I have never been this kind of tired.  Not when I was pregnant and not even as I was experiencing a miscarriage.  This exhaustion insisted I go back to bed and stay there for at least a week.  But we women, we do not simply go back to bed.  I have often been amazed at just how easily people judge women as the lesser because we bleed each month.  While we bleed we still get up and go to work.   Women around the world get up and get their work done day in and day out and often while their entire body is rebelling against them.  And yet we are weaker sex?  Hardly.

After my little pity party began to wind down I started seeing this in a slightly different light.  My focus shifted from “why me?” to “what do I need to get through this?”  At times like this I would sit back, take stock of what was on my to do list and balance those needs with the needs of my body.  I was looking at four services over the next four days not including all the prep and fellowship time that came with them.  My child still needed to get to and from school and my husband was caught up with his own duties.  As I began to understand that the next four days were going to be long and difficult I realized something else.  Something that, strangely perhaps, brought me incredible peace.

Over the next four days I would be in pain and bleeding just as Jesus had been in pain and bleeding.

The second realization, that what I was about to go through was so insignificant compared to what Jesus had endured, made me laugh out loud and the fog of woe is me misery finally lifted.  But still I found comfort in the thought that the next four days, four days to relive the torture, murder and resurrection of Jesus, I would be bleeding with him.

The constant ache in my belly would remind me of what He suffered so that I might have eternal life.

The exhaustion I felt as I went about my work would bring my thoughts to the extreme exhaustion He felt when He stumbled beneath the cross He carried for me.

The relief I felt as the symptoms gave way echoed the release he would have felt as he broke His earthly tether, just for a little while.

I honestly do not remember much about those four days.  I was so busy and in such pain that I simply moved from service to service but I do remember the feeling that Jesus was right there.  Next to me.  Behind me.  Sitting in the Sanctuary.  It gave me an odd kind of comfort to know that my pain echoed His, however faintly.

For four days I accepted whatever happened to me and learned a deeper love for the man I have built my life around.  I felt the fringes of His cloak swirling around me as I moved from place to place, speaking the familiar words and praying the heartfelt prayers.  His fringes swept lightly across my forehead, soothing the heat there and wiping away the sweat.  Those fringes tickled my nose and made me laugh, waking me up and giving me the strength to move on.

No, these things never happen on our schedule but they do happen on God’s.  And God knows what God is doing.  I felt a connection to my Saviour that Holy Week that I had never felt before.  Menopause had become a way to grow nearer to my God and I give thanks for that.  I can still feel the gentle touch of that fringe as it reminded me I was never alone and my pain, this pain at least, was fleeting.  I am grateful for that constant reminder of what my God suffered. I am grateful I was reminded to be humble and thankful.  I have a feeling I will be receiving such reminders off and on for the rest of my life.

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