Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Choosing to Believe

Preached at Alma United Church, March 22, 2009
Scripture John 3: 14-21

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have life everlasting. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

We love those words, don’t we? Many of us, most of us, maybe even all of us here this morning can recite that passage by heart. We have it embroidered and hung on our walls. We sing those words as an anthem sometimes. Some have t-shirts or bumper stickers that simply say “3:16,” and some even have it on their license plate.

We’re comfortable with verses 16 and 17. The familiar words lull us to a peaceful sleep like a mother’s lullaby.

But to those of us who believe in the love of God for every person on earth, verses 18 and following are a slap in the face, a car alarm going off outside our bedroom window just as we’re closing our eyes.

I’m not one of those people who believe that you can divine the whole meaning of scripture simply by reading the text. I personally find that I get a lot more out of the readings if I learn a bit about what was happening when the text was written, and this passage is no exception.

The Gospel According to John was written about sixty years after the death of Jesus. The Christian community by this time had grown from a few dozen vagabonds wandering about the countryside to hundreds, even thousands of ordinary people, with more choosing to join this strange cult every day. The fledgling community crossed boundaries, counting amongst its members slaves and masters, poor and rich, prisoners and jailers, Jews and Gentiles.

Because it crossed boundaries, because it didn’t fit into any of the neat categories in the Roman Empire, this new religion was perceived as a threat by Roman and Jew alike.

The Roman Empire was held together by the worship of the Roman gods and of the Emperor. Only Jews were exempt from the requirement to make sacrifices to the Emperor, because they were a pre-existing group that was likely very important to the economy of the empire.

The Christians were at first seen as a Jewish sect, but as more and more Gentiles converted, without the requirement that they also convert to Judaism, the Jewishness of the sect was called into question.

They began to attract the attention of the authorities, probably not because of what they did do, but because of what they didn’t do. They didn’t go to the temples, and they didn’t make sacrifices, which means that they didn’t buy sacrifices.

A letter from the Governor Pliney to the Emperor Trajan makes it clear, at the end, that economic considerations were at least as important as the correct form of worship. He talks of persecuting Christians, and of how many of them have repented of their “folly” and returned to the fold of Roman religious practice:

“At any rate it is certain enough that the almost deserted temples begin to be resorted to, that long disused ceremonies of religion are restored, and that fodder for victims finds a market, whereas buyers till now were very few.”

This letter was written about twenty years after our gospel passage for today was written—an eye blink in an era when things didn’t change very quickly.

John was writing to a community under siege, one where fathers tried valiantly to win their children back to the old ways, because following the new way often literally meant death on a cross, or being torn apart in the arena by wild beasts, or some other horrible death. He was encouraging them to be steadfast in their faith, and assuring them that their goodness would be rewarded, even after death, while the evil deeds of their oppressors would be punished. He was trying to keep them from taking the easy way out and converting back to the old religion.

He was probably also more than a little frustrated—after working with someone new to the faith for months, perhaps years, bringing them to the point of baptism, then having them say to the trial judge, “Well, I used to be a Christian, but it was all so much silliness. I’m not one any more.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be depressed if I taught someone about my faith, came to care about them and see them as a brother or sister in Christ, only to have them say it was bunk when put to the final test.

But scripture is just words on paper if it only applies to something that happened two thousand years ago, and once we understand who John was talking to and what he was trying to say, we have to ask ourselves if the passage has any relevance in today’s world.

And my answer is, “Of course it does!”

We are once again a community under siege. Oh, we’re not likely to end our days in an arena with wild beasts tearing out our throats, but as we look around the church today, we can’t help but notice that the church is less full than it was this time last year, last decade, last century. We see also that the hairs on the heads of the remaining pew occupants are a little greyer (unless they’re gone altogether), and we wonder what’s happening and how can we reverse the trend.

And we increasingly live in a world where faith in a higher power of any kind is ridiculed. The new gods of science and the economy crowd out any space for things that can’t be observed in the laboratory or bought in a store.

In the not-to-distant past, atheism was a choice an individual made. But recently, it’s become a religion of sorts on its own. A new campaign by atheists has bus shelters in England plastered with posters saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

It’s a disturbing trend, at least to me. Yes, I know Christianity and other religions have been advertising for centuries. We invented door-to-door sales, and if you don’t believe me, read the Gospel of Matthew. And organized Christianity hasn’t always lived up to it’s promise as God’s greatest gift to humanity.

But organized atheism disturbs me in a way that organized religion does not, because it is, at it’s very heart, based on dishonesty. Not dishonesty about what it is atheist believe in, but about the fact that atheism is, in fact, a system of belief and not of verifiable fact.

It’s true—there is probably nothing scientists can do to prove that God exists. Short of Godself appearing physically on Earth in a form that humans of every age, race and religion would recognize immediately as God, that proof will never be ours.

But it’s also true that there is nothing scientists can do that can prove that God DOES NOT exist. The belief that God does not exist is just that—belief, not knowledge. Hence the word “probably” in the ads. But people who wrote those ads only put that in to avoid criticism. They believe there is no God, but unlike Christians, who talk freely about belief as opposed to knowledge, they KNOW.

And people who KNOW, as opposed to believe, have a sordid history of trampling the rights of their fellow human beings. Hence the abuses that fundamentalist Christianity, Islam and Judaism have wreaked throughout history. If the atheists thing they’re exempt from this unsavoury human trait, they need only examine the history of Communist Russia to disabuse hemselves.

But it’s more than that. People who believe in a higher power, of whatever religion, have something to keep them in check, even if they KNOW. What happens if you believe that humanity is the highest form of life, and that once you’re gone, there’s no-one to answer to?

You bottle the second most needed element for life, water, and sell it back to the very people whose wells you drained, all the while thinking up schemes that will make that most precious commodity, air, turn a profit. You give loans to poor countries on the condition that they gut their health care and education systems, stop producing food for their own people and grow cash crops instead, for which you will, of course, pay less than the cost to produce them. You feed cow offal to other cows because its “economical.“ You sell land mines while piously denouncing them, you draft children at gunpoint and teach them to go out and kill their neighbours and friends.

A world without God is a world gone mad.

I can’t help but think that at some level this organization of atheists is the Emperor striking back at those who would step back from the world and shed light on the evil deeds being done by those whose unbelief frees them “to have fun.” We speak out against injustice and even if we imperfectly embody the justice we seek, still we hold ourselves to a higher standard than just “having fun.”

But even knowing that we are under attack, still like John we need a response to those of our friends and neighbours who once worshipped here, but do no longer.

And here I have an answer, because I’ve had to talk myself through the “Why should I believe?” a few times. Hold on to your hats, though, folks, because there’s logic involved:

The atheists say there is no God, and that we’re wasting our time on Sunday morning. The ads seem to imply that we Christians are always looking over our shoulders to see if God is watching us, and are therefore unable to enjoy life. They say that religion is a blight, and much evil has been done in the name of God.

To this, I reply:

There may indeed be no God. If there is no God, I’ve lost a few hours sleep each week. However, in return for that loss, I almost always get something in return. Hugs from a friend or twelve, lunch after the service, good music, inspiration to carry on despite the odds being stacked against me… I’m sure each person here could make their own list. It’s not a bad return on investment, even if there is no God. I’ve lost nothing.

Nor have I been unhappy. In fact, my faith has pulled me through some pretty tough times. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I might not be alive today if I didn’t believe, even at my lowest, that God loved me.

Again, even if there is no God, I’ve gained by my faith, not lost.

On the other hand, what if there IS a god? What if belief really is the gateway to life everlasting? In that case, the one who believes in God gains everything, while the one who does not believe loses everything.

I’ve seen people destroyed because they didn’t believe that anyone loved them. I buried a sister who killed herself for just that reason. Belief in a power higher than oneself is, and has always been, a matter of life and death.

I’m not a biblical literalist. There are not very many passages in the bible that I believe to be the true, unvarnished Word of God. There is always human translation, interpretation, and mis-understanding mixed in. But here, in this passage the Word of God shines through so clearly that pretty much each and every Christian can proclaim without a shred of doubt in their hearts:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have life everlasting. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

The car alarm is going off, waking us from our peaceful slumber. Those words are not a lullaby—they’re a call to action. It matters, this belief in God. We need to tell the world.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Phelps Bashing and Other Hobbies

Once again, over at AbsoluteWrite, the subject of Fred Phelps and his gang of loonies has come up. The press over there is uniformly negative, and with good reason. While some of the members over there are Conservative in their viewpoints on homosexuality, it’s possible that not a single one of the 26,000 plus members on the board agrees with his tactic of picketing military funerals to get his point across.

But I’m saddened and dismayed at the vehemence that some of the anti-Phelps crowd, both on and off the board, displays.

They hope that someone pickets his funeral, when it comes, though they disagree with picketing funerals as a general rule.

They hope that when it does come time for him to meet his maker, that he’ll be resigned straight to the depths of Hell.

I’m sure some of them, deep down, think he should be stood against a wall and shot, or stoned to death.

There’s a link on the board to an article written by a journalist about Phelps. The article was written as work-for-hire, meaning the author does not own his work. The paper he was working for does. The paper refused to publish the work, and no wonder—it was poorly written, and made such broad statements as, “Where any family counsellor will assert that a child who strangles pets has almost certainly been brutalized as well,” without so much as a single citation to back up his words. At this point, we’re not even sure who, exactly, the author is talking about—Phelps, or his son Mark.

The paper he worked for, quite rightly in my opinion, refused to publish the work. This was within the rights of the paper, and no insult to the author. Every day, companies pay writers for work that may never see publication for a variety of reasons. As long as the writer is paid the agreed-upon fee, that's their right.

So how did this document come to be published, and available on the web for all to view? The author, claiming he was owed additional compensation for his work (despite having been paid the full amount agreed to in his contract) filed suit in court. The document was appended to the suit, therefore making it a public document. Within hours, parts of the document were published in rival papers (who published it in stories about the lawsuit), and the text of the whole document, including the lawsuit, was available for public viewing on the internet.

An order was obtained by the paper to have the suit sealed so that the Clerk of the District Court could no longer make copies, but no such order was issued to anyone else who already had a copy. The damage was done, and the work was effectively published, without the permission of the copyright owner.

I personally don't believe that the author was trying to get more money out of the publisher. Two things have me convinced that the purpose in filing the suit and appending the document to the suit was to get around the strictures of the law without actually breaking it. One: the document was made public on a large scale within a span of less than 48 hours of filing the suit, and two, appending the document to the suit wasn't truly necessary. The author was filing suit for unpaid overtime, and how the document itself could aid his cause in this is a mystery to me.

I go into such detail about such shady ethics because I’m trying to show that in trying to combat one evil, those who are willing to resort to such tactics are sinking to his level, and even sometimes below it at times.

Combating hate with hate doesn’t work, friends. It only breeds more hate, and the cycle continues.

I follow a man who tried to break the cycle. This is what he says about such circumstances:

“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

“Judge not, that ye not be judged.”

“The measure you give will be the measure you get.”

Do unto others, not as they have done to you, but as you would have them do to you. The measure you give will be the measure you get.

Those are truly chilling words, if you think about it. Have you ever consigned someone to the depths of Hell because they did something so heinous it was beyond your comprehension?

Have you ever actually crossed the line and done something cruel to someone because they truly deserved it? You get what you give.

Those words aren’t idle dreaming. They’re true. So many times, I’ve given evil and had it come back on me in one way or another. And so many times, I’ve given love and also had it come back to me, in one way or another. I prefer to give love. It doesn’t end up hurting so much.

I have to say that I truly pity Fred Phelps. A life dictated by overwhelming hatred can’t possibly have that much joy in it. A life directed by the fear of the wrath of God means he has little time to contemplate the everyday wonders that show the love that God has for him. He must hate himself as much as he hates me and my lesbian and gay friends.

And so, a prayer. May God fill the hearts of Fred and all who hate with joy and peace and understanding and love.

Love will cast out fear and hate.

Only love will cast out fear and hate.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Turning the Text Upside Down

Scripture: Luke 14:16-24

Yesterday I had the joy of attending the 50th Anniversary of a church in Toronto where I had been Minister of Christian Education a number of years ago. The current minister of this church was enrolled in a doctorate programme for ministry at an American university, and he invited one of his professors, an African-American preacher from Chicago, to come and preach to us.

He preached on this text, the parable of a man who gave a banquet for his friends, and ended up having his servants bring in the blind, the lame, the crippled and the poor in order to fill up the seats at the table. I’ve heard sermons on this text before—I’ve even preached a few myself. But I’ve only heard and spoken sermons on this text from my own white, Canadian middle-class background. To hear the perspective of an African-American on this text was both eye-opening and liberating for me.

His main take on the text, the whole point of his sermon, could be summed up in the phrase, “You don’t belong here. This banquet was made for others better than yourself, and you’ve just been invited to fill the tables.” Or, to paraphrase George Carlin’s “Refrigerator” sketch—“If you don’t eat it, we’re only going to throw it away.”

Coming from a liberal white Christian background, I grew up believing, and still believe, in the inherent worth of each person. Every person is created in the image of God, and every person is loved by God.

As most from my background do, I’d extrapolated that belief to a belief that we all belong at the banquet table, that we all have a right to be there.

Except I knew, deep in the depths of my heart, that the right to be there didn’t really apply to me. I know who I am—I’m a person who lusts, whose financial affairs are a mess, who separated from her husband and left her kids to his care, who is wasting her life working for a movie theatre instead of preaching the gospel as she’s been trained to do. I’m a slothful glutton who eats and sleeps too much, and runs away from hard work.

There are times when my faith in the church has faltered. There have even been times when my faith in Jesus Christ and God have faltered. Merciful Heavens, I still haven’t figured that one out, and can’t tell you for sure exactly what I believe about God!

I don’t belong at the table, and I know it, and it will always be that way, and nothing the liberal feminist theologians can say has helped me believe otherwise.

And for the first time in a very long time I felt liberated. I don’t belong at the table. Nothing I can do can change that fact and earn me the right to belong. And that’s true of the folks who worshipped with me that morning, and of everyone throughout the world who sits down to eat at the banquet that God has prepared. We all have our secret sins and passions, things that make us unworthy to be at the banquet.

It’s a gift we did not, and can not, earn. We’re at the table by grace alone. We don’t have to prove ourselves better than those who aren’t there. We don’t have to prove ourselves better than those who sit beside us. We don’t have to be perfect or anywhere close before we can go to church and sit amongst the congregation of the faithful.

Unworthy as I am, God has compelled me to come to the banquet and eat. I’ve been snatched out of the alleyway where I’ve been hiding, and dressed in my rags I’ve been seated in a chair where a rich, powerful person in beautiful clothing should be sitting instead, eating a meal that is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

I don’t belong there, but by God’s grace, I’m there anyhow. The only choice I have is to enjoy it, or not.

I will choose to enjoy.


Monday, January 19, 2009

People of the "Yes!"

Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

Carl Allen was a “No” man. Ask him out for a drink at the local pub, and he’d almost certainly say, “No.” Ask him to a party, or to stay late at work, or to help out with a project that’s too big for one person alone, and the answer would always be the same.

“No. No, no, no, no, NO!”

And what did Carl do instead of saying, “Yes?” Why, he sat at home watching bad television and DVDs randomly selected from the video store.

His wife left him, and his friends almost gave up on him when he missed the engagement party of one of them. Late one night, he dreamed of himself lying on the sofa dead, while his friends drank his last beer and stared down at him, trying to determine if he really was dead. They had trouble doing this, because in Carl’s case, there wasn’t really all that much difference between dead and alive.

This is how the movie Yes Man starts. It’s an exaggerated version of the start of the book it’s based on, also called Yes Man. The book is the true story of a year in comedian Danny Wallace’s life, a year that begins with Danny realizing that saying, “No” has gotten him nowhere fast.

The book and the movie aren’t about particularly unusual people. There are hundreds, thousands, millions of people in the world whose life consists of waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, commuting to a job they don’t particularly enjoy but don’t hate enough to leave, doing the job, commuting home, having supper, watching television, and going to bed. Carl Allen was one of those people, and despite his seemingly glamorous career as a comedian and television producer, so was Danny Wallace.

People of the “No” have been around for a long, long time. How many women before Hannah refused to leave their sons at the temple? Refused to give them to the Lord? Our biblical records don’t tell us. They’re forgotten.

To how many people did Jesus say, “Follow me?” Only a dozen? Somehow, knowing human nature, I don’t think so. Probably more than a dozen, possibly many, many more. But the Son of Man had no home. Following him meant leaving the familiar, the supportive. It was a lot easier for them to listen politely, nod their heads, and just say, “No thanks. Not today.”

No. No, no, no, no, NO!

Saying no is safe, it’s easy, and rarely costs anything. Or so we believe. If we say no, we won’t get scammed, taken in, misled. If we say no, we’ll have the time to do the things we really want to do, even if we don’t know what they are. If we say no, we’re condemned to live life as it has always been, and die never knowing what would have happened had we said, “Yes.”

But if we do say, “Yes…” What happens then?

In real life, Danny Wallace was on a bus. He may not have felt down at that fateful moment, but he certainly must have looked it, because a man on the bus spoke to him and said, “You need to say ‘Yes’ more.” Danny thought about that, and decided to say “yes” to everything for the next year.

In the movie, Carl is dragged to a seminar on saying yes by an enthusiastic friend. Guru Terrance Bundley bullies him into making a covenant to say “yes” to everything.

Though the specifics differ, what follows in both book and movie is a funny, moving journey—the journey of a man travelling the road from death to life.

Right about now, I’m almost certain that some of you are thinking, “That’s crazy! You can’t say yes to everything! What about scammers? What about over-commitment? What about money? It doesn’t grow on trees, you know!”

If you’re asking those questions, let me ask you a couple of questions in return.

What place does “faith” have in your journey?
And how important are your concerns, really?

Let me tell you about another journey that has involved saying “yes” a lot. It’s a true story, and I know this because it’s mine.

I said “yes” on the first Tuesday of a long-ago September, when a friend asked me if I wanted to go with him to see what Army Cadets was all about. Something a bit odd, something none of my female friends would have done.

But I said “yes,” and I followed through, and that night I met a young man named Bill Cooke. And now that I think of it, that’s in keeping with what happens to both Danny (in real life) and Carl (in the movie.) We all ended up meeting that special someone— someone we wouldn’t ever have met had we stuck to our routines and our closed circle of friends.

The Saturday following that fateful Tuesday, I learned how to shoot a rifle, and crawl through the bush unseen, and camp in a tent. I went from being a child of the suburbs to being at home in the wilderness almost overnight, and it’s changed how I see and interact with the world.

A few years later I said another “yes,” this time to Bill. A few “yeses” later, and we had three kids. The eldest of those, at age five, wanted violin lessons. We were broke, and I wasn’t sure that five years of age was old enough to learn to play an instrument, and…

I said “yes,” of course. I never imagined that eighteen years later, one of my children would be on her way to being a professional musician. I certainly never dreamed that I would myself be playing in an orchestra and accompanying the famous operatic tenor Ben Heppner, which will happen on February 13th of this year. (Me? Excited? Nah… )

I said “yes,” when at the lowest point in my life, God called me to ministry. Again, no money, no job, no hope. But I had nothing to lose, so I did it. And ended up coming back to life.

I’ll freely admit that many, if not most, presbytery meetings can be boring. When I was in ministry, I’ll shamefully admit to finding reasons to say no. But one day, I didn’t put it off, and I said, “Yes.”

I went home with a flyer about a youth mission trip some members of a Waterloo church were planning. We couldn’t afford to send one child—once again, we were broke, under-employed, and now dealing with an autistic child.

We ended up sending two of our kids, and Allison and David will probably be delighted to tell you all about it some time. They came back changed for life, but it wasn’t just them who benefited. I found out, through saying yes, just how much support is out there for people who say yes. Five different church families supported us. Random strangers donated to our cause. We found resources and talents within ourselves that we didn’t know we had. We made friends, and we had a ball.

Because I said yes to a boring meeting, and yes to what followed.

It’s not just theory, and it’s not just me and Carl Allen and Danny Wallace. Saying yes to most things, even when it’s hard to do so and requires sacrifices we don’t think we can make has rewards that are beyond our imagining.

Let’s go back to those early followers of Jesus. They said, “Yes,” and they learned a new way of living.

Feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked. Don’t be afraid of death, for God is with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death.

We take those lessons for granted some days, but I’m convinced that those simple acts of saying, “Yes” to the world around them were the difference between life and death for the early church.

The people around those early Christians often abandoned those in need. With no antibiotics, no surgery, no knowledge even of what caused disease and how to prevent it, saying, “No” to helping someone who was dying was an act of common sense, not of callousness. The same might be said of giving to the poor and hungry in a world where famine and drought and want were regular visitors, even to the rich. We sometimes forget that in our little world where we too often waste as much food as we eat that it wasn’t always that way, and that giving away one’s excess food might very well cost one one’s life in lean times.

But early Christians became convinced that there was something more to living than mere life, and lost some of that fear of dying that is instinctive to us all. Not being afraid of dying meant a Christian was more likely to help a sick neighbour. The help the sick neighbour received meant the neighbour was more likely to survive. A neighbour who survived a plague due to Christian nursing was very likely to become a Christian himself. And so it went. The early Christian Church had a phenomenal growth rate, and it wasn’t due to preaching the word. It was because Christians live the word, and the word was, and is, “YES!”

Mary said yes, and Jesus was born.

James and John and Simon Peter said yes, and a church was born.

Philip and Nathaniel said yes. Paul said yes. Dorcas said yes. Timothy said yes.

And on, and on, and on, and on, right on down to you. Now the question comes. God is knocking at your door, calling you to do big, scary, fun things—things that you’ve never done before. God is that unknown person on the bus, that slick television guru, that pesky friend who drags you to a new place, that stuttering person standing up at the presbytery meeting.

You’ll listen to their calls to action, and you’ll think about it for a bit. And you’ll find excuses to say no. You don’t have the money. You don’t have the time. You don’t have the energy. You don’t have the skills or the resources. Saying, “Yes” would be a big hassle, and upset your routine.

But God is persistent. God will still knock at your door, calling your name, asking you to come out and play, to come out and live. God will keep knocking, keep asking, for the rest of your life.

How will you answer?

(Preached at Alma United Church, January 18, 2009)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Give to Us Laughter

The astute amongst you will note that I haven’t updated this blog in over a week. The truth is I was, due to my monthly hormonal imbalance, feeling particularly crummy last week. I was grumpy and whiny, and had really low energy. I didn’t want to update my blog. I didn’t want to do anything, really, except hide under the covers for a few days.

But I’d promised my daughter that we’d go see a movie together when she got off classes on Thursday evening, and I’m not one to renege on my promises. So at quarter past nine, we were standing in the theatre lobby, staring at the marquee and trying to decide what movie we were going to see.

Twilight? We’d seen it opening night, and she’d since gone again with friends. She was okay with seeing it again, but I preferred to see a movie I hadn’t already seen.

Marley and Me? Not interested. I hear it’s a great movie, but you need a couple of boxes of Kleenex to get through it, and I was already feeling pretty crummy.

Bedtime Stories? She’d already seen it, and didn’t want to see it again.

Yes Man? That was the movie we really wanted to see, but it didn’t start until ten fifteen, and got out past midnight.

After debating the merits of Twilight versus Yes Man, we opted to wait out the hour and see Yes Man. I’m glad we did.

Now I’m well aware that different folks like different types of humour, but I have to say that Yes Man is definitely our type of humour. We were busting our guts laughing throughout most of the movie, and the slight twist at the end had me rolling in the aisle.

And when I got up to leave the theatre, I found that my cramps had magically disappeared, and my energy level was higher than when I’d gone in, and life was good again.

A gut-busting laugh is known to cause the brain to release endorphins, hormones that help you feel good and cope with pain. I knew this before I saw the movie. But it took that experience for me to realize that it’s not just theory, and that maybe when I’m feeling crummy, I don’t need another Advil, but instead another laugh.

So from now on, I'm going to try to put into practice this learning. If I'm feeling down or a little under the weather, I'm going to watch a funny movie, or type "funny jokes" into Google and click on some links, or read a joke book start to finish.

Anyhow, in order to finish this, I thought I’d leave you with a joke. Hopefully it will put a smile on your face and help you face whatever comes your way with fortitude and the realization that no matter how bad things may be, there is beauty and laughter in the world to help you cope:

3 friends die in a car accident and they go to an orientation in heaven. They are all asked, "When you are in your casket and friends and family are talking about you, what would you like them to say?”

The first guy says, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor and a great family man."

The second guy says, "I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and school teacher who made a huge difference for our children."

The last guy replies, "I would like to hear them say ... Look, He's Moving!”

Monday, January 5, 2009

Count Your Many Blessings

This blog is my attempt to put into some kind of order some of the things I’ve learned about trying to improve my lot in life, knowledge I’ve accumulated over the course of many years.

Currently, I’d say that I’m in a good place, with lots of room for improvement, of course. But it wasn’t always that way for me. I was a victim of bullies as a child, one whose Grade Five teacher told her mother that she’d always be a social misfit. I’ve been raped. I’ve had cancer, and now have no thyroid. My sister, who was younger than I by a scant fifteen months, killed herself. I’ve thought about committing suicide myself, and battled with depression for much of my life. My youngest son is autistic. I’ve been on welfare, and I’ve had to declare bankruptcy. I’ve been fired from a job, and quit from a couple of others about a minute and a half before I was fired again.

When I tell you what I’d do in someone else’s place to make things better, I’m probably not talking about what I’d do if I were in their place, but what I did when I was in their place. There’s a big difference here—the difference between the theoretical and the practical. I’ve had the practical lessons, and I know from experience that what I’ve done really works, at least for me.

All of this is incredibly heavy to put in a single paragraph, and I hope you’ll forgive me. I just wanted to say in the strongest way possible that I’ve been there, done that, got the tee shirt and got the Hell out. And that no matter how bad it is, life can and will get better if you work at it.

One of the things that I’ve done throughout my life that’s helped me through the tough spots is counting my blessings. I’m doing so again tonight because I just finished reading a few blog posts that Rob McCreery, a friend of mine, made over a period of about a year in his blog. Rob is an ex-pat American who’s made Australia his home over the last fifteen years, and he listed fifty things (out of a list of a hundred—come on, Rob, and finish that list, will you? :D) that he loves about his adopted homeland.

Many of the things on that list make me want to visit Australia. But I realized that no matter how crazy I am to visit that beautiful country, I’d never want to move there. Because I am Canadian, and unless forced to against my will, I will never live anywhere else.

I’m tempted to do what Rob did, and start a list of 100 things I love about my home and native land, but I think I’ll give it just this post, and see where we get.

So, what I love about Canada:

1) Socialized Medicine: Some things should not ever be “for profit,” and necessary medical care is one of them. Even the poorest Canadian does not have to go into debt to get proper pre-natal care, or have their appendix removed, or get treatment for cancer. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough.

2) Four Seasons: Yes, I complain about snow and ice as much as the next Canadian, but when it really gets right down to it, I love snow days where everyone is home curled up in front of the television together, and the white blanket covers all the grime and the muck with a beautiful sparkling cover. And sorry Rob, but Christmas on the beach is just wrong, unless you're part of a Polar Bear swim club. I may not like the song, but I’m all for a white Christmas.

Crisp clear cold autumn days, where we go driving in the country, just looking at the leaves. Lothlorien has nothing on an Ontario hardwood bush in late September or early October.

Forest floors covered with millions upon millions of trilliums in the spring. Summers spent lying on white sand beaches, soaking up the sun. And I don’t have to travel more than a couple of hours from home to do any of this.

3) We’ve got it all: Mountains and plains, arctic tundra and rain forests, Pacific islands and Atlantic islands, rocky shores and white sand beaches, and half the world’s fresh water. Lakes, rivers, streams, waterfalls…

My father’s family was mostly originally from Austria, and after they emigrated, someone sent my father a letter from Austria (which apparently has exactly five lakes) asking, “How many lakes are there in Canada?” My grandfather sent back a map and said, “You count them!”

I think my kids and I are part fish, really. We love being around water, and my kids have swum in all five Great Lakes, even in Lake Michigan, which isn’t in Canada, but should be.

4) Hockey. I don’t play it, but I used to play road hockey, just like every other Canadian born. I've laced up a pair of skates to shoot a puck on the backyard rink. Hung out at the arena and cheered on the local team.

Actually, that’s something I’m doing rather more of these days, as one of the theatres I work in is in a shopping plaza, and right smack dab in the middle of that shopping plaza is an ice arena. How Canadian can you get?

5) Multi-culturalism. I grew up in the Greater Toronto Area, which I was once told is the city that comes closest to having a population make-up similar to that of Planet Earth. When I was growing up, it was said to have the second-largest Italian population of any city in the world, behind Rome, Italy.

Immigrants from all over the world have come to live there—so many that as someone who was not only born in the city, but has both a father and a son who were born in the city (making three generations of Torontonians) I’m not only unusual, I’m so rare as to be a member of a nearly extinct minority.

That’s not a bad thing, in my humble opinion. I can get real Chinese food, real Italian food, real food from any culture in the world, in fact, all without leaving the city. You can also experience dance, music, film and visual art from all of those cultures—truly an experience to be savoured.

6) We share the longest undefended border in the world, and we share it with one of the most powerful nations in the world.

We may make fun of our neighbours to the south (and to the north, since Alaska is also part of the US), but when push comes to shove, Americans and Canadians can still cross over the border with relative ease. That shared border peace is something both nations should celebrate, and work to preserve.

7) We have some things Boston, New York and Switzerland don’t have: We have Boston Pizza (a chain started in Edmonton that hasn’t reached Boston yet, as far as I know), New York Fries (which started off in New York, but were bought out by a couple of Canadians who knew they were on to something good), and Swiss Chalet (and I’ve been told that Switzerland doesn’t even have chickens!). It’s so totally Canadian to deny that anything good can come from Canada by giving it an American or European name, while celebrating the fact that it’s 100% Canadian!

8) We have poutine. I don’t know how Americans can possibly think themselves the monarchs of heart-attack cuisine when you can’t get poutine in the States! French fries, lovingly slathered with cheese curds and gravy—just about the most heavenly thing on earth to eat on a cold winter’s day.

9) We have two official languages. Others may disagree with me on this, but I think I’m a better person because I can read a little bit in another language, and I can only do that because I was forced to take French in school. I find it sad that while most French Canadians can, if necessary, function in both languages, most English-speaking Canadians can make no such boast.

10) We have some of the biggest and most beautiful parks in the entire world. I spend a part of every summer, if I can, in Algonquin Provincial Park. I’ve been there in all four seasons, including week-long camping trips in the depth of winter when the temperature reaches forty below zero. I’ve been to Banff National Park, and Lake Superior Provincial Park. We even have one park that’s under water—Five Fathoms National Park in the Bruce Peninsula. It’s where I learned to scuba dive.

Seeing all the provincial and national parks in Canada is a goal worthy of a lifetime—my lifetime!

I’ll stop at ten for now, so I don’t bore you to tears, but you get the idea.

When I think of Canada, it isn’t pride that fills me so much as a deep and abiding contentment with my lot in life and my place in the world. I wish for every one of you to find that contentment, whether like me you were born in the place you belong, or like Rob you have to go out and find it.

When you do find your “place,” I invite you to take pictures and write your own list. So that when you’re feeling down about your lot in life or yourself, you have something to look at that will help you realize that things aren’t always bad, and that you have a home to retreat to.