As we have seen too often in the past and once again in the last few weeks, the price of stardom, celebrity, even success in general is accepting that sexual harassment and sexual coercion are “normal” as unnatural, abusive and unacceptable as they are. Rightly seen, I believe, sexual harassment and sexual coercion are not really about sex as such but about power. When some people find they have power and control over others the temptation arises in them to use that power abusively. That abuse can take many forms and only some are sexual. That temptation does not have to be given in to, and yet sadly it is – again and again.
Behind the inability to resist the temptation that power brings is the love of self, the idolatry of one’s self. When we love ourselves too much and love God too little, temptation wins – especially when we see ourselves as better than or superior to others, for whatever reason. Strangely idolatry of the self arises not out of a big ego, the big ego and the love of it arises out of fear. Fear of one’s worthlessness, fear of being unloved and/or unlovable, fear of failure to name just a few. Fears breed idolatry and idolatry breeds abuse.
The church is certainly no immune to giving in to abusive temptations. Residential schools, paternalistic missionaries, abusive clergy and priests, etc. Even Catholic popes have not been immune. This Sunday Protestant churches mark the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses 500 years ago (actually Oct. 31, 1517). Luther was protesting the what he saw as abuses by the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Luther himself was abusive of Jews and Judaism. The wilderness of fear and its temptations to abusive power seem to be everywhere. Yet there is a way through.
This Sunday at Living Spirit we will be looking at our journey through the wilderness of fear and how we can walk it together without abusing ourselves or others. Hint: something must die! (Disclaimer: no violence will be done to your most precious idols should you choose to let them go).
In what seems like a long time ago the band “R.E.M.” had a hit song called “Losing My Religion.” Although many assumed it was about becoming an atheist that wasn’t exactly the case. In an interview with Q Magazine, Michael Stipe, the author and lead singer in the band, says, ‘”Losing My Religion” is about “someone who pines for someone else. It’s unrequited love, what have you.” The phrase is common in the US deep South meaning being at the end of one’s rope. When we have tried everything we know to get what we need or want and have run out of options, we tend to start questioning our understanding of reality. When we believe something is true, i.e., that a special someone loves us because we love them, and they show no interest back, it is a time of anguish. That hopeful dream must die a tragic death. That “religion” dies and grief sets in. Sorry if that takes you back to your teen, or even more recent, years of pain and sorrow.
Even more recently for some, the recent municipal election in Calgary is causing some to lose their religion. Dreams of new stadiums and uncontrolled urban sprawl to delight investors seem shattered. Strategies to sweep away opposing candidates have failed. Assurances that a gullible population could be manipulated into voting against their own interest have proved to give false hope. Regardless of your own political leanings I suspect you will agree that conservatives (note the small “c”) in Calgary need to offer something more than “Not Nenshi/N.D.P./liberal/etc” if they want to carry a future election. I think that they need to take a profound look at the failure of their “religion” and thoroughly examine what they really believe about the people of this city, democracy, good government, worthy candidates, and so on. I suspect that instead they will go into the next election with the same old religion and risk getting it handed to them on a platter.
Moses, after leading the Hebrew people out of oppression, out of danger from Pharaoh’s army, out of hunger and thirst and into a new understanding of how to survive together and minimize conflict (the Ten Commandments) was not faced with brilliant success but the one reality he probably didn’t want to face – more wilderness! (Exodus 33: 12-23) He really felt he had fallen out of God’s favour and longed to see God face to face. His deep yearning was heard by God who assured him that he was favoured and reminded him that if he were to experience the full reality of God (face to face) it would blow his circuits (Exodus 33: 20). God does, however allow Moses to see his backside (33: 23).
Jesus, confronted with a question about taxes (Matthew 22: 15-22), held up a small coin with an image of Augustus Caesar on it and uttered “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” This is often taken as meaning “Be good and pay your taxes”, an unfortunate interpretation. As I understand it he was telling his challengers it was time for them to lose their religion and decide on a new future.
I can say more on this and probably will this Sunday at Living Spirit. Please let me know what you think before then and maybe I’ll have to lose my religion.
God’s peace of justice and respect is with you.
My title, you may recognize, is a reversal of Barak Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope.” In turning it around I do not mean or intend any disrespect as it, along with poet Malcolm Guite’s meditation on the “Audacity of Vulnerability”, got me thinking about our life both as Christians and as a Church. This Sunday at Living Spirit we will be hearing a story and a parable from the Bible: from the Book of the Exodus (32:1-14), Moses and the golden calf, and from Matthew (22: 1-14), the king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. Whether these are familiar or not I would encourage you to look them up before Sunday and read them through at least once, there is a Table of Contents to help you locate them and they are short!
Audacity is obvious in both. The Exodus story centers on the audacity of the people who grow tired of Moses absence (he was up a mountain talking to God) and demand that his brother, Aaron, build them a golden calf to worship. In Matthew the audacity comes from the king (God?) who is angered by his nobles’ feeble excuses for skipping his son’s wedding feast and sends his servant out to invite everyone else (good and bad, go figure) to come in their place.
In the larger picture both stories speak of God’s audacity, defying our lust for upward mobility, stuff, status and monetary gain (success!), bringing the holiness of presence from abstraction down to earth and to each of us.
Have the audacity to worship this Sunday! We have pumpkin spice cappuccinos AND services.
If you are not feeling overwhelmed by a world of bad news these days you probably haven’t been paying attention. Or you are overwhelmed with your own personal and family struggles. Either way our inner bucket of thanksgiving may be near empty or just plain dry. When you have to think hard and dig deep to find gratitude for anything, Thanksgiving Day is not the most welcome day of the year. The thought of Thanksgiving Sunday worship might be sounding a hollow clang of emptiness that you don’t want to endure.
At the same time, worship on Thanksgiving Sunday might be just what we need. Rather than cocooning into solitary or family seclusion, being with good people (even though they are not perfect), and entering into the rhythms and cadence of worship brings its own comfort and peace. Hearing ancient words that still speak to our humanity and community can both challenge and heal. Singing into and out of emptiness becomes a bold statement of defiance against all who bring only hate, fear and violence. Engaging in conversation, both superficial and deep (sometimes at the same time) over tea, coffee or . . . Pumpkin Spice Cappuccino! . . . can be soothing and affirming. Know that a warm, welcome awaits you and a community which understands emptiness and brokenness will be there waiting with it.
Turning off the internet and TV and ignoring the News for a few hours, or, more so the whole long weekend, can also give the mind, heart and soul a break and help us gain a new and healthier focus. Other parts of our brain are engaged when news of disaster is not flooding our senses. The 24 Hour News cycle by itself is overwhelming. Conflict, catastrophe, calamity give headlines that “sell eyeballs” to advertisers – as more people watch, the more revenue will come in for the whatever media outlet you are watching. Media publishers put it this way, “If it bleeds, it leads”. Good news has trouble getting moved up from the bottom of the news barrel. A sad side effect of this approach to the “news” is the violent impression of the world it gives media consumers, people like you and me. You may find it hard to believe but historians tell us that we are living in a remarkably peaceful time.
Walking or being outside and unplugged can rewire our brains when we give attention to our senses. Autumn is a sensory delight with colourful, crunchy leaves, crisp air, new smells, the bright sun lower on the horizon, blustery days and chilly nights. All remind us of nature’s eternally changing beauty, reinforcing our need for this kind of Sabbath practice. Death is all around us and yet we live, we give thanks.
I am not suggesting we ignore the troubles of the world, our families or ourselves. They are real and they are important. Being overwhelmed and empty, however, reduces our capacity to respond reasonably and effectively. Spiritual practices enable us to engage our God, each other, and ourselves, connecting us with basic, powerful resources that we might make wise decisions and be responsive to the problems that confront us. We might even feel more alive and grateful! A hope, not a guarantee.
May the happiness of Thanksgiving find a nesting place in your heart this weekend.
This month we are offering Pumpkin Spice services – sweet, savory with the occasional Jack-o-lantern! Or not, we are just hopping on the bandwagon that is offering pumpkin spice flavouring in or on just about everything, and we do want to bring some warm comfort and joy to our journey together into the ever uncertain future. Also, for a small donation, we have pumpkin spice cappuccino from our Keurig machine, or regular coffee and tea if you are not so inclined.
This past week on Thursday I had the privilege of going to Red Deer Cemetery for the unveiling of a memorial stone. The stone (see pictures) commemorates four indigenous children, ages 13 and 14, who died in 1918 during the Spanish Flu epidemic. The children died at the Red Deer Industrial (Residential) School and were buried in unmarked graves by a funeral home in Red Deer. The staff at the school were so sick themselves that they were unable to bury the children on site as other children who died there had been. Family descendants of the children were there to participate in the ceremonies and share their stories with other participants, many of whom were members of Gaetz and Sunnybrook United Churches in Red Deer. President Kathy Yamishita and Executive Director Shannon McCarthy of Alberta and Northwest Conference of the United Church were there and took part in the program.
This Sunday at Living Spirit I will be exploring different kinds of complaining on our journey into a reality, a new wilderness. Like the Hebrew people of old there will be new things happening that can leave us doubting . Doubting our ability to survive as a congregation. Doubting our systems and structures. Unsure about proposed changes and directions. This Sunday we are having Open Doors Living Spirit! Who knows what that is about? Well . . . not anyone, really. It is a new thing that you can help make happen by sharing an interest, skill, hobby, topic in the Hall following our worship service. No rules! (although it should be presentable in a church setting)
Part of living (with spirit) into a new reality is that we won’t like everything that happens. We will not be comfortable, we may be anxious, we will have complaints. Our complaints need to be heard, even if they are not solvable – the past cannot be restored for anyone, resources are limited, there will be hymns you do not know! Praying to God can give us some relief for our discomforts and worries and remind us that we do not journey alone. Complaining to each other, to Council members, to clergy might help and might bring desirable change, so is worth a try even though we are all less powerful than our Creator. Dialogue and negotiating change are possible and encouraged as they can help us all get through this uncertain time. And remember, certainty is over rated. The Hebrew people never felt closer to God than in the wilderness, offering their complaints and being surprised at the outcome. Miracles do happen.
Is forgiving someone or some agency 490 times (7×70, as Jesus says) enough? Sometimes once is too much, in other situations we forgive passively and endlessly, allowing abuse to continue unchallenged for years, even generations. When we challenge neo-fascism, racism and hate based discrimination we are accused of intolerance. When we try to be nice and forgiving we are accused of being weak and doormats. Too often our assumed privilege in society clouds our perception and distorts our judgements. Is it possible to exult with the Hebrew people over Pharaoh’s army drowning in the sea, or millions left homeless by the ravages of nature, and still believe in a forgiving, loving God? I do not have the answer, so let’s engage the question together and see where it leads.
There is a reason preachers are always harping about forgiveness. It is one of the most challenging aspects of living out our faith in the way of Christ, so much so that our understanding of forgiveness is often distorted. We think forgiveness is a gift that we bestow on someone who has offended us, usually someone we would just as soon not have anything to do with. We think that forgiveness makes us look weak and open to abuse from others. We think that forgiveness gives approval and permission to those who have harmed us. We think that forgiveness means overlooking or forgetting our own hurt and pain.
There is a deeper way of forgiveness which honours our hurt and struggle and invites others into responsible living that we can explore together on Sunday in the Reflection time. If you are not able to be there, the recording will be on our web site (http://livingspirit.ca/sermons-2/ ). If you want to discuss this with me personally, please contact the church office at (403)243-3180 to arrange a time to get together.
Rev. Paul Mullen
He walked gently upon the Earth.
He was kind and carried more empathy in his heart than anyone I have met.
He was shy and unassuming but he could swing dance and pray.
He did not fit into his skin and it haunted him every day because he lived in Redneck Country where bibles slammed and shamed.
He worked until he couldn’t but he still gave and learned humility through fear and acceptance.
He loved animals and they loved him.
He loved me and my brothers unconditionally.
He saw the wealth in the wisdom of Seniors and in the Lost and Broken-Hearted.
He loved my children and their spouses and he loved my grandchildren yet he was only able to meet my grandsons through FaceTime.
His voice was soft and yet his energy was full of musicals and Hollywood Greats.
He was nervous every second of every day of his life but he never lacked the strength to tell someone that he loved them.
He enjoyed a salvific and heart wrenching relationship with our mother who gave everything and more to keep him with us. A true love story.
He grew tired of the rejection, betrayal and abandonment of our world while our family held him, knew him and loved all of him.
He loved Jesus and the music of Steven Curtis Chapman.
He was here for 48 years.
He walked gently upon the earth wanting and needing what we all want and need…to be seen, to be known and to be cherished.
And now he is gone.
But just from our sight, not from our souls because that is impossible.
As Steven Curtis Chapman sings, “I’ll See You In a Little While” I live in anticipation of being with my whole and happy brother.
Until then, I’ve got this Teddy. I will take care of Mom and Big Guy. Promise Promise.
I love you my brother, a courageous soul with a cause who just happened to be a minnow kisser.
And P.S. If you did not have the opportunity or take the time to get to know Teddy, well…you missed Heaven on earth.
His big Sister
There is new evidence that a fire in a coal bunker inside the Titanic weakened its structure making the iceberg impact worse than it otherwise might have been. The fire was ignored? Only heaven knows. What we do know is that experts agree that a combination of different factors led to the Titanic’s disaster.
The first voyage of the magnificent ship was doomed before it set sail because the heart of the Captain was focused on himself instead of his responsibility to listen, watch, navigate and steer. The ship’s speed was too fast for the ice filled waters and a critical and documented iceberg warning was missed. Was the Captain not equipped to deal with life threatening warnings? If he was equipped his role would have been to turn the ship around and address the weather issues, passenger complaints, media disappointment and take the heat for caring for the safety of his passengers, crew and ship. Was he prepared to be courageous and ethical?
The prefix “MSG” was missing from the critical iceberg warning so Captain Phillips chose to believe the message was not urgent. How long did he wait to discern when the warning was urgent? What did it take to get his attention that the boat and her precious cargo and mission were in grave danger? And why, when the ship is in the most dangerous waters, did the Captain give the wheel to a Senior Officer, Charles Lightoller, instead of being on deck fulfilling his role?
First Officer William Murdoch was the first to spot the iceberg and scream a ‘hard a-starboard’ order to which Officer LIghtoller turned the ship the wrong direction. The ship and its leaders were operating under two communication systems that were in direct opposition with one another. Under one system, to turn ‘hard a-starboard’ meant to turn left and right under the other. By the time the Captain and Officers had listened and corrected their move, it was too late.
This past weekend I had the privilege of being on the Conference Praise Team “Joyful Noise” and listening to the speakers who spoke to the needs and woundings of clergy by church leaders, colleagues and congregants. One speaker, a psychologist, talked with us about “circles of trust” being critical safe places for clergy to feel safe enough to courageously share their truth with the Empire. Many clergy dared greatly and stood before the 400 clergy and Conference paid accountable and volunteer lay leaders speaking their truth through fear and tears. I was sad to see so many clergy feeling undermined, misunderstood, betrayed, rejected and abandoned. The speaker replied, “Thank you for your courage to speak with us. Can you imagine how many more inside this room are afraid to speak and seek support for their ministry and congregation?”
During free time at the Conference I noticed small circles appearing in different places around the Pomero Hotel and I could see persons talking quietly and intently while others listened and held space and hands. Conversations of clergy being spiritually and emotionally bullied and abused began to come out of the closet of our affirming lingo. One minister shared that after they retire they will never walk into another church. I know this person and I have listened to her heart, her tears and her sermons. She is a huge presence in our Conference who has been bullied and abused by clergy, leaders and congregants. To watch her suffer anxiety issues that affect her health breaks my heart.
In my own congregation, critical warnings were documented and provided by myself per request by appropriate leaders and they were argued over and then ignored. Then a scream came out during a Council meeting in 2015 by this co-captain begging for people to heed and see the iceberg in the room but no one was willing to listen until the iceberg was upon us and then the truth hit the ship where a fire had long been burning and ignored. For the last year I have been the Captain willing to be on deck in the boat with my congregation. Sadly, the signs are pointing to this Captain walking the plank of her imperfections, blind eyes in courts of leadership and gas lighting that warped perceptions and created circles of blame and shame. When clergy present a consistent false persona to their congregation, they bring down their personal and professional ships in ways that place responsibility on everyone else but themselves. People have been manipulated, lied to and used to deflect and cover up a pattern of icebergs and watching this unfold since April 2014 almost broken my spirit. All I have left is my integrity, my truth and documented critical warnings and my love for you which has never wavered. As these next four weeks unfold between us I pray that each one of us may look into our hearts and see where we have been called to speak to the Empire and take responsibility for our part in sweeping the iceberg under the carpet and blaming another for the effects of the past few years. We are all ministers. We are all called to speak the truth in love no matter how ugly it may be because we are called to be reconciled to God, ourselves and one another as one body in Christ. We are called to own what is ours and to refuse to be scapegoated because that means others are hurting, not just the goat on the cross. We are called to listen and ask clarifying questions, not assume that we have heard correctly or understood what another has said. I was diagnosed with PTSD because of the sustained stress of betrayal, abandonment and rejection. My voice was enlisted but not heard and I own that it is difficult to complete sentences and stay on course under the waves of PTSD. Others among us have suffered stress and hurt or perceived hurt as well and our ship is drifting among long standing toxic systems that existed before we met in March 2009.
Have courage faithful sailors. Discern who is trustworthy and create “circles of trust” among you. Stay on deck offering your gifts. Speak the truth with courage and love to the Empire and do not accept an answer that is not true and healing for all concerned, paid accountable or lay leader or congregant. You are all in the same boat and not every sailor wants to listen, reconcile and heal. Not every sailor has their eyes and hearts opened due to long standing unhealed wounds and fears. Not every sailor is equipped to take the helm and lead through hidden truths into healing ways of being in community. Some will leave the boat because they are wounded by blind eyes to the iceberg and the problems it created. Some will leave because the story is too heavy. Some will leave to find a place of worship where they trust their leadership. Some will jump ship because they didn’t get to fill a power vacuum while others will leave because of those who fill the power vacuum. Squeaky wheels and wounded wheels are listened to and believed much faster than truth bearers. Don’t give up. You are not alone. No minister walks on water but there is someone who does and he says, “Don’t be afraid. It is me.”
Take heed…listen…ask clarifying questions…speak your truth…create circles of trust. Repent, reconcile and repair the ship together and name it AUTHENTICITY AND EMPATHY. If you do, all you will need to do is raise your flag and radically welcome all who enter. And remember, you do not have to be on board with the way everyone does something, says something or believes something in order to be a supportive and compassionate community of sailors. One more thing, have courage to make all pirates walk the plank and don’t blame your new Captain for being human. Encourage them, love them, pray for them, and ask clarifying questions as you hold them accountable. You don’t need a bottle of rum for healthy relationships although sometimes a stiff toast doesn’t hurt! Shalom and Shanti. I love you all.