Saturday, September 19, 2020

Five Minute Friday: CHURCH

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt.

This week's word: CHURCH.


photo Jeannie Prinsen 2017

In the spring of 2017 my daughter and I took the train from our home in Kingston, Ontario to Moncton, New Brunswick and then went on to PEI.

Our return train trip began on a beautiful Sunday evening, and as we rolled along south of Miramichi, New Brunswick, I saw this church. I only had a couple of seconds to grab my phone and try to photograph it through the train window. Somehow I managed to capture it.

I don't know the name or denomination of this church.* It appears to be in the middle of nowhere, though that might not be true at all; maybe it's right beside a busy, bustling road. But that's how it looks to me: secluded from the world. The church spire and the trees and bushes are all bathed in light, reaching toward the sky. It's as if humans and nature are all worshipping God in this out-of-the-way place. Even if the rest of the world doesn't see, God does.

That church is probably empty this weekend. Ours will be. So will thousands of churches worldwide, because of the pandemic. But that doesn't mean there is no worship happening. Chris Rice's song "And Your Praise Goes On" says,

Now rise up everything that lives:
flap your wings and leap for joy.
Forest, lift your arms and sway;
clap your hands, you ocean waves.

And Your praise goes on, rising to Your throne
where You bless our toil and play.
Through the clouds they rise; Your praises fill the skies
till the setting of the sun –
And Your praise goes on.

 Even if we can't be in church, we can join the trees and ocean waves as they praise the God who made them and sees them.



 * Update: A Twitter friend read this post, did some snooping (i.e. Googling), and determined that this is The Most Pure Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Barnaby River, New Brunswick. Thanks, H.!


Friday, August 21, 2020

Five Minute Friday: MERCY

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is MERCY.

Richard and I have been watching a very entertaining drama series called A Place to Call Home this summer, and the episode we watched last night was a fascinating example of the complex relationship between justice and mercy. (NOTE: IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY WATCHING OR INTEND TO WATCH THIS SHOW, YOU MAY WISH TO STOP READING TO AVOID SPOILERS.)

In the show, an evil, malicious man and woman (we'll call them Bad Guy and Bad Gal) are working together to bring down a wealthy but (mostly) good family. They do some terrible things to this family out of ambition, envy, revenge, resentment, twisted love -- all kinds of reasons.

But eventually Bad Gal is brought low, and gradually, over a period of three years, she starts to change. Bad Guy wants to keep using her to hurt the rich family -- but bit by bit she starts siding with the family, telling them Bad Guy's plans and how to get back at him. Because she's done such awful things on her own and in the service of Bad Guy, none of them wants to trust her at first. But slowly that changes too. The warnings she gives them come true. The suggestions she makes for how to thwart Bad Guy actually work. They begin to believe that -- despite all her malicious deeds -- she might actually be on their side after all.

When Bad Guy realizes Bad Gal has been working against him rather than for him, everything explodes, and Bad Gal is found dead. All the evidence points to Bad Guy, who is charged with her murder.

But then two members of the family make a shocking discovery: that Bad Gal actually ended her own life in hopes that Bad Guy would be charged with her murder. Bad Guy had the motive to kill her, and he probably wanted to, perhaps even tried to -- but he didn't do it.

So then the family must make a choice. Do they stay silent about what they've discovered, honour the sacrifice made by a woman they once despised, and let Bad Guy, who has caused them so much suffering, be punished for a crime he didn't commit? Or do they tell the police what they know, thus allowing Bad Guy to go free and (seemingly) nullifying Bad Gal's final attempt to atone for her misdeeds?

After deciding that the choice to keep silent must be a unanimous one, each member of the family states their opinion. One by one, each of them states that they want to keep silent and let Bad Guy go to prison. Finally the matriarch of the family speaks, casting the single opposing vote. She says, "I once betrayed my moral code because of love [helping her terminally ill husband end his own life]; I refuse to do it again because of hate." So the family tells the police, and Bad Guy goes free.

So is this an example of justice? Or mercy?

For Bad Guy, justice prevails: a man is accused of a crime, he's proven not to have committed that crime, and he's freed.

But Bad Guy also receives mercy. The family owe him nothing; he owes them reparations for all the ways he's violated them. But they make a choice that frees him of all obligation to make amends. He never pays and (from what we know of him) probably never will.

For Bad Gal, justice also prevails: she has done awful things, and she pays with her life to atone for them.

But there is mercy for her, too. The family has had every reason to reject, disbelieve, and mistrust her; yet they give her the gift of trust, of believing her when she says she's changed -- and she honours that trust. She ends up dying for people who have given her a chance. There's redemption in that.

Sometimes fiction is too black and white: the villains too villainous, the good guys too perfect, the outcomes too cut-and-dried. But good fiction reminds us how complex life can be -- how the black and white can blur into gray, how justice and mercy, love and hate, forgiveness and vengeance, can be all mixed together in a very complicated, and very human, package.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Five Minute Friday: PEOPLE

I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is PEOPLE.

The other day Jonathan and I went for a walk at Breakwater Park. It was a beautiful morning, with a strong wind pushing a bank of clouds swiftly across the sky.

As I watched, I was struck by the way the water appeared to be two different colours: gray where the cloud was, blue where the clear sky was. Of course there isn't actually "gray water" and "blue water"; that's an optical illusion. The water isn't any particular colour but just looks blue or gray depending on what's reflected on it. 

Now, anyone who knows Jonathan's love of garbage and recycling might think "And right away this made you think of recycling day, didn't it? Blue box for plastic and metal and glass one week, gray box for paper and cardboard the next..." 

Instead, what came to mind first was people

People can have experiences that seem, on the surface, good or bad, positive or negative. Sometimes it's very clear which category an event or experience falls into, but sometimes the distinction is more illusory. The same event that's bad for one person (heavy rain on the day of their outdoor wedding -- which by the way isn't "ironic" no matter what Alanis Morissette says) can be good for another (their crops and their livelihood are saved by the rainfall). The event that's negative for one person (not getting the job they applied for) is positive for another (the one who does get that job) ... and in fact could even end up being positive for the first person, who ends up getting a different job that suits them even better.

And people themselves can't be easily categorized into good or bad, however much we might like to put them there. Sometimes a person is acting out of what's been reflected on them throughout their lives. What they do, how their lives turn out, is not simply a question of whether they made right or wrong choices.

Life isn't just blue or gray. People aren't just blue or gray.

It's complicated.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Five Minute Friday: (The Color of) COMPROMISE

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is COMPROMISE.

Our Five Minute Friday leader, Kate, chose the word "compromise" this week because she happened to be reading the same book I was: The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby. I actually won this book in an online draw a few months ago and just started reading it last week. It is a very timely book to be reading with all the anti-racism protests going on in the US and Canada right now.

As a Canadian who (and I'm only slightly joking) learns most of her American history from Jeopardy!, I found this book fascinating and informative. In clear, concise language, Tisby traces the development of (particularly anti-Black) racism throughout US history, showing how the Christian church has been complicit in perpetuating racism from the early days of African-American slavery, through the Jim Crow and civil rights periods, right up to the present day's focus on Black Lives Matter, monuments and flags, and the call for reparations for the descendants of slaves. The book ends with a chapter on action steps, encouraging readers to become better-informed about racism; develop more interracial relationships; become active through writing, joining or donating to anti-racist organizations; and more.

Here are a few quotes from The Color of Compromise that made me pause, reflect, and sometimes cringe in discomfort:

"[R]econciliation across racial and ethnic lines is not something Christians must achieve but a reality we must receive." (p. 23)

"[Revivalist preacher Charles] Finney and others like him believed that social change came about through evangelization. According to this logic, once a person believed in Christ as Savior and Lord, he or she would naturally work toward justice and change.... This belief led to a fixation on individual conversion without a corresponding focus on transforming the racist policies and practices of institutions, a stance that has remained a constant feature of American evangelicalism and has furthered the American church's easy compromise with slavery and racism." (p. 69)

"Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to the phrase black lives matter with the phrase all lives matter. It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are 'divisive.' It looks like conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions. Perhaps Christian complicity in racism has not changed much after all. Although the characters and the specifics are new, many of the same rationalizations for racism remain." (p. 191)

Anyone wanting to learn more about racism in the US and about the role Christianity has played in its perpetuation should read this excellent book.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Five Minute Friday: WORTH (or: Brad Pitt and the Rich Man)

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes about WORTH.

(Disclaimer: this is an updated version of a post from my archives.)

Pondering the word WORTH got me thinking about money, and how we make decisions based on what our money is worth or what it will do for us. Ten years ago the Canadian dollar was at par with the American one -- even worth slightly more at one point. Now it's worth 75 cents against the U.S. dollar. Ouch. I've never been a "cross-border shopper," and now I'm unlikely to become one, knowing how little my Canadian dollar will accomplish for me in the States.

Then I started thinking about other, non-monetary "currency" that we try to use, only to find that it won't accomplish what we  had hoped either.

That leads me to one of my favourite movies, Seven Years in Tibet. It's a very interesting story of a real-life Austrian adventurer named Heinrich Harrer, who abandons his wife and young son to go on a mountaineering expedition, ends up in Tibet during WWII, and becomes friends with the young Dalai Lama.

Brad Pitt plays the dashing Heinrich. There's been lots of commentary about Pitt's suitability for the role, how (un?)successful he is in reproducing a German accent, the historical accuracy of the film, and so on. But that's all secondary to me. What interests me most about this movie is that it depicts a person who really changes during the course of the story. And a big part of what precipitates that change is the character's realization that his currency is worthless.

Heinrich's fellow traveler, Peter, is a quiet, plain-looking fellow. The two are an oil-and-water mix, and Heinrich is pretty nasty to Peter at times, though they stick together throughout most of the journey. After escaping a POW camp they take refuge in Lhasa, Tibet. One of the people they meet there is a beautiful tailor named Pema. Both men are instantly taken with her.

On one occasion Heinrich tries to impress Pema by showing her photographs of himself climbing mountains and skiing as a member of the Austrian Olympic team. But Pema (who, we soon realize, is far more interested in the unassuming Peter) cuts Heinrich down to size. She says quietly, "This is another great difference between our civilization and yours. You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life -- while we admire the man who abandons his ego. The average Tibetan wouldn't think to thrust himself forward this way."

Heinrich smiles, but he is clearly stung by her words. Ever so slowly, the truth starts to dawn on him: the currency he's been depending on for so long -- looks, adventures, awards, ego -- accomplishes nothing in this place. It's worthless.

The beautiful thing is, though, that he allows this awareness to change him. He becomes a tutor to the Dalai Lama and starts to internalize principles of Buddhism like nonviolence, humility, and harmony with all creation. He becomes a different person who can then go home and reestablish a deeper relationship with the son he left behind.

Contrast this with an episode recorded in Luke 18 and Mark 10, when Jesus is asked by a wealthy man, "What do I need to do to have eternal life?"

Jesus says, "You know the commandments" -- and lists several of them.

The man replies that he has kept all of these commandments for his entire life. I can imagine he is feeling pretty satisfied at this moment, because it sounds like the very currency he's carrying -- good behaviour -- is what's required. And perhaps he sees his wealthy status as another result of that good behaviour -- a reward for being such a good law-keeper. How affirming it would be if Jesus assured him that yes, works and wealth are in fact the keys to eternal life.

But Jesus goes on, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I think we can get bogged down pretty quickly here and start arguing about whether Jesus' words to the man should be taken as a literal prescription for all people at all times. It seems unlikely that Jesus is saying categorically that selling all our goods is a ticket to eternal life; that would be just another kind of "good work" to earn our way. But I'm not willing to dismiss it as something just for that moment, either: after all, Jesus says the poor are blessed, so maybe he's making a statement that following him will involve humility, detachment from possessions, and solidarity with the poor -- things the man hasn't experienced yet.

But regardless, I do think Jesus is letting the man know that his good deeds and possessions won't achieve what he wants them to. Following Jesus requires something different: faith and trust. The man is hoping he can keep on using the currency he's always relied upon, without having to change. He's not prepared to give everything up and rely on Jesus. As the Mark version tells us, upon hearing Jesus' words "the man's face fell, and he went away sad," choosing not to follow.

I wonder if at some point we all come to the realization that our currency lacks value: our old answers and paradigms have nothing to say to the situation we're in, or our strengths and accomplishments really have no worth in the place we find ourselves.

The question is, do we let this disorienting experience be an opportunity for real change, like Heinrich? Or, like the man who met Jesus, do we allow ourselves to feel a momentary sadness ... but then go right back to the way things were?