Monday, May 16, 2016

Things We Found in the Fire

Reading: Acts 2

My son David preached yesterday, and his sermon reminded the congregation that the images surrounding Pentecost of "tongues of flame" aren't always comfortable ones. In ordinary years, the average congregant might perhaps equate those flames with the warmth of a fire on the hearth, or in a wood stove. Perhaps we might think of roasting marshmallows over a campfire or a candle-lit dinner with a loved one.

Warmth, beauty, sustenance--these are the associations we might make with the fire and flames of Pentecost in an ordinary year.

But as David pointed out, this isn't an ordinary year. Fire still rages over vast areas of Northern Alberta, and the entire city of Fort McMurray has been evacuated. "Only" two lives lost (if one can describe anyone's death as "only two lives"), and those in a motor vehicle accident, not in the fire itself. But eighty thousand people are now homeless and unemployed, and many of those will never return home or work in Fort McMurray again. Parts of the city have been destroyed by fire, while much of the rest will likely sustain damage from the smoke and heat.

Tell the people of Fort McMurray or anyone whose home, business, school or place of worship has been consumed by fire that flames are warm, sustaining and nurturing! The truth is that those small, tame fires are merely seeds of something that can grow to be much bigger. Given the right encouragement, a campfire can consume a city.

Believe it or not, those raging, out-of-control fires are necessary. A forest fire is nature's way of clearing out dead growth and underbrush, and preparing a nutrient-rich seed bed for new life. Certain pine cones will only open to release the seeds within when heated to extreme temperatures. Numerous species of animals and birds, including deer and black bears, thrive in the aftermath of a forest fire. The death and destruction of the old brings about life for the new.

And so we come to a bunch of men and women, some hundred and twenty persons in all, hiding, meeting in small groups, comforting one another and grieving for the past, as those in transition are wont to do.

Then roaring through their gathering with the ferocity and violence of a Northern Alberta forest fire comes the Holy Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit. Come.

If we had any knowledge of the true power of that invocation, many of us would never utter it again.

That roaring power immediately destroyed that tiny gathering of Messianic Jews. They began babbling in languages they'd never learned to speak. Onlookers accused them of being drunk--at nine o'clock in the morning! The tongues like fire raged, burning away their protective cocoon. They left the room where they were gathered and began to witness to the people of the city. They stopped speaking their own language, and told the story of the Risen Christ in tongues that their listeners understood.

And within days, one hundred and twenty Messianic Jews became over three thousand Christians. The raging fires of Pentecost had given birth to the Christian Church.

We sit in our pews today, and we have once again dwindled. Two thousand years of traditions and doctrine and being embraced by the political establishment have grown up around the pillars of our faith, sometimes choking them, and certainly smothering new ideas. We have become more afraid of losing our positions of influence with the governing bodies of our countries than we are of losing our evangelistic roots. Many of our churches today are insular, pursuing what they perceive as "their God-given mission," in isolation from other congregations of the faithful and from the world. The majority of congregations today aren't any bigger than that scared little group of first century Messianic Jews, and many of them are much smaller.

And so we huddle in our little congregations on Sunday mornings, speaking our own languages, preaching to the converted, and fearing the future.

Come, Holy Spirit. Come.

Burn away our fear and shame. Make us drunk with the possibility of new life. Blow away our cloak of respectability, and teach us to speak the languages of the masses outside our door.

Teach us to prophesy. Fill us with dreams. Boot us out of our sanctuaries and into the world. Impel us to act.

Prepare us as a seed bed to nurture new life.

Come, Holy Spirit. Come!

Thursday, May 12, 2016


It's finally over.

Two years ago (shortly before my son went berserk) my father slid all the way into dementia. He'd been showing signs for a few years, but sometime around Christmas he attacked my mother as she was sitting at the table. A couple of weeks later, he attacked my sister-in-law. My younger brother only found out because he'd phoned Mom to tell her that his son had been in a serious snowmobile accident (he recovered).

My brother called me, and we urged Mom to put Dad into a nursing home. Instead, she decided to ask for home care. The night before the home care assessment was to happen, Dad struck again, this time attacking my brother. They called 911, and Dad was taken to hospital. I'm told that once there, he got out of bed, wandered around a bit, then got back into bed.

He never walked again.

When I visited on the weekend, he was unable to speak coherently, and I wasn't certain he recognized me.

He was in the hospital for a few weeks, but once his condition stabilized, he was moved to the long-term care wing. At that point, his OHIP-subsidized stay ended. Unable to pay both a mortgage and my Dad's costs, Mom put the farm up for sale.

At this point, my brother and sister-in-law, who were both hoarders, both chain smokers, and both alcoholics, were living with my parents. Neither had worked in years, they lived out in the country, and it was winter. They were present for every single showing, and there were many at first.

Unsurprisingly, no offers on the place were forthcoming, despite its being over a hundred acres of bush in cottage country.

My brother and his wife did manage to get away on the long weekend in May, and I brought a friend up to the farm to clean. We did what we could, and by the end of the weekend the kitchen, front entrance, and bathroom were decluttered and cleaner, if not exactly clean. We put odor eaters in every room.

Then my brother and sister-in-law came home and immediately dumped their bags on the kitchen table, sat down in the living room, lit up and popped open beers.

Despite this, the next week garnered an offer, conditional on an acceptable home inspection.

A crack in the foundation was discovered.

Instead of purchasing the inspection report (it was offered for less than half of the cost of the inspection) and selling the place as-is, my mother elected to travel into major debt territory and call in a contractor to fix it.

My brother decided to stay and "help" the contractor, despite the fact that he'd lined up a place to live and a job in Welland, where his buddy lives. My brother still insists he saved my mother money, but I calculate her loss at thousands of dollars. He actually slowed down the contractor (he didn't follow through on jobs he'd been assigned), and I would not clean while he was in the house.

In order to encourage him to leave, and to save a little money, my mother cut off the satellite service. They watched DVDs instead. By this time, Mom had moved in with me, at least part-time, and we were making weekly three and a half hour trips (one way) to keep an eye on how things were going. My mother threatened in June to cut off the electricity, but before she needed to carry out that threat, the company hired to clean out the septic tank discovered major problems, and the water was shut off.

That forced them out, but by then it was the beginning of July, and the house was off the market. We'd missed the big wave of people wanting to buy in that area (by July, most of them had bought or were waiting until the following spring.) Cleaning began in earnest. I traveled up to the farm at least once every week with anyone who would come along to help. We emptied out the trash (seven dumpster loads), took about twenty car loads of stuff to the thrift store, and brought piles of stuff home. I filled up my basement, then a storage locker. We cleaned tar and ash and soot off of just about every surface. We cleaned mouse poop out of the pantry and every single cupboard. Then Mom decided that the kitchen needed to be redone.

Finances became critical. I was spending over a hundred dollars a week going up to the farm, and I had to take out a ten thousand dollar loan in my own name in order to keep the contractor working and the other wolves at bay.

Finally in October, with the house mostly cleared out and a new septic system and foundation, as well as the beginnings of a new kitchen, the house went back on the market. Being in vacation country, there were few showings during the fall and winter. And one of the showings resulted in one of the "prospective buyers" returning on his own, driving over the new septic bed with his pickup, and appropriating some of the tools my brother had left in an unlocked outbuilding.

The house did sell the following spring--Mom received two offers on the same day! The major debts were paid off, and we finally were able to sleep at night.

Meanwhile, Dad had been moved to a nursing home in Fergus, about half an hour from where I live. It wasn't great, but it was close enough for Mom and I to visit often. After about a year, Dad was offered a place in a better home only ten minutes away.

At first, Dad would often be awake when we visited. Sometimes he would recognize us, and sometimes he wouldn't. Once he even had a somewhat coherent conversation with Mom, but by winter of 2014 he'd stopped talking entirely. He did enjoy music therapy right up until the end, but he didn't respond to much else. Most of our visits in the final few months of his life were very short.

My brother and sister-in-law, surprisingly enough, are doing reasonably well. For the first time since they married, they have their own place, and my brother found a decent job which lasted for well over a year. He was recently laid off, but he's looking for work, as well as calling his former boss, hoping for a recall. They have friends and they do volunteer work. Life isn't perfect, but they are now adults and no longer anyone's responsibility but their own.

Dad died on Monday, February 15th, 2016 after a short illness. In the week preceding his death, my younger brother and his wife, my son and his husband, and my daughter all had a chance to visit and say goodbyes. His funeral was not large, but friends and family came from all over, including one of my childhood friends I hadn't seen in over thirty years, and a first cousin once removed who I'd never met, but who lives less than ten minutes away.

It's finally over, and new life begins for my mother, brothers, and me.

I'm glad.

I know Dad never wanted for this long drawn ordeal to happen. I'm sure he's glad too.