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.