The Black Gong Returns: What This Summer Taught Me About Living in a Redemptive Community

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The Black Gong game was something packed away in the back closet of my mind. Years ago, when I was a youth pastor, we (the youth staff I was a part of) devised a game where kids would have to work together to solve a game.

So we divided them into teams with flags (or pennies or bibs, depending upon which Commonwealth you came from) and told them to find 3-5 hidden stations.   Complete the task from each station, then they would earn a token.   Get all of the tokens, you could ring the Black Gong; the team with the most rings won. However, there would be enemy teams out there. If they pulled you flag (or penny or bib), you couldn’t go to the next station but back to the Black Gong for a refill.

This simple game worked well in the beginning because we were trying to teach kids about small groups and how to work together with people.   As well, we needed the kids to run, get chased, and have some kind of engine that drove them around the campus: so we turned the other teams into that impetus.

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Originally, the Black Gong was an Aztec metal sundial that used to hang in our family’s cabin.   Us kids would play “The Gong Show” with it: we would have one of us perform and act only to be stopped halfway through with the ringing of a gong.   We had the idea that everyone on the Gong Show got gonged and the show was steeped in rejection.

So we had this gong and the game and played for years and years and years.   Through the evolution, we came up with magical items [1]used to be little aids in playing the game.   A committed MMORPGer lifted this from his gaming experiences. In order to lighten the Black Gong, the items were played more absurdity than any real threat[2].

Added to this insanity was a character called “The Floating Head of Red Death”.   He was our intern, David Maust, running through the forest, wearing a devil mask and pulling kids flags. We took it a bit far and, at the end of the night, he was yelling things like, “I’ll steal your soul!!!!!”   We had to apologize for that later because it bothered some campers. At the time, it sounded like a fun idea.

So I moved to Canada and took this tradition with me to a nearby summer camp close by to our northern, rural parish.   One night, when all of the youth groups in our area were getting together to play the game, Crean Capot (my Jr. High aged next door neighbour) gave me the idea of adding races/tribes to the game. I got mad at him: “Crean, why did you give me an idea that is SO good five minutes before we’re to play this game!?!”   Later, I was able to incorporate his idea.

But that is the point: the Black Gong always changes, always can be something new.

Three years ago, I came to Edmonton and became a serious senior pastor.   I thought my summer camp days and Black Gong rings were behind me.

Something wonderful then happened. Last fall, the director of Pioneer Camps in Sundre[3] invited me to be the speaker of one of their youngest camps.   He asked me, quite off-handed, if I had any ideas for camp games.

Actually…

So we played the Black Gong again.   This time, I was encouraged to tie it into the evening campfire stories.   The setting of these stories was a mythical land that was in ruins, the only thing that could heal the land was ringing the Black Gong.   When the Black Gong rang, an allegory of the Gospel was told (A mighty king dies and forgives a group of selfish people and then rises from the grave for the purpose of leading anyone to the new kingdom).   The game took hold and suddenly words like “missional”, “fellowship”, and “alliances” took on a whole, new meaning.

The groups were cabins, but given races/tribes into this fantasy world. Pirates, elves, monsters, knights, and scientists were all teams.   In the campfire stories, the races formed an alliance to ring the Black Gong so this inspired many of the cabins to think that way as well.

My wife helped out with crafts and the campers made their Black Gong costumes, dressing up for the game. My daughters were campers, joining the throng at camp.

The last night of camp was the game.   2 hours for campers ages 6-10 years.

Originally, the Black Gong was going to be a garbage can lid. However, one of the staff members- a Fine Arts Major- found the ring pathetic and wanted it to be a deep, sonorous ring. So he spent the week, on his off hours, building a mammoth construction.

Along with his work, another male cabin leader found a horse’s skull in the woods[4] and painted it, mounting it on a stick. His cabin were the monsters, so they covered their bodies in markings done by ash and paint. He led them to battle with the horse’s skull called, “Gary.”

In a costumed frenzy, the camp waited for the wranglers to bring out the Black Gong on horseback. However, we couldn’t pull off the pageantry because the Gong was way to heavy.   So a horse marched out and the construct was gently drug to the center of the camp.

The game began.

Quickly, three of the boy’s cabins found the goal of searching for stations difficult.   Some cried. Tire from a full week of camp, the mental gymnastics of pulling flags AND trying to ring the Black Gong was too much.

I snuck up on a parlay in the forest, as three cabins formed an alliance.   “Look, we’re just going to pull flags. That’s it! It’s time to be scary!”   The boys all cheered. Later, when asked how this worked, a leader shared that the boys no longer were crying or tired: the game was fun again.

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This created a big, scary engine for now an army of about 30 monsters were against anyone seeking to ring the Black Gong.   Led by a horse skull named Gary, these monsters stomped, charged, and chanted there way through the camp. The boys were great and loved throwing themselves into the role of that camp’s monsters.

My eldest daughter’s group made a couple of alliances with other cabins, all helping each other ring the Gong.   They’d communicate to each other where the other stations would be, trading magical items and giving warning where the flag pulling monsters might be hiding.

Some cabins worked by themselves; others jumped from alliance to alliance.   Slowly, most of the cabins got four tokens and needed the final fifth station.

We brought back The Floating Head of Red Death, but tamed the character down to just “Red Head”.   He originally was going to pull flags and kidnap leaders, but we figured we had way too many villains in the story: so he handed out flags and tokens to cabins struggling with the game.

Red Head sent all of the teams to the last station, a leader hidden deep into the woods of the camp right at the boundary’s edge.   I tried spying what this run in looked like, but couldn’t go that deep.   All of the camp, I heard, was there, looking for the final station: including the flag pulling monsters.

The scene in my head reminded me of an end to some epic comedy from the 1960’s that ended in a chase or a pie fight, Henry Mancini playing music in the background and Peter Sellers striding around amidst the mayhem.

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Five teams got the five tokens and rung the Black Gong, bringing order back to the land of chaos.

The game ended, the campers went to bed, and upon the next morning, their parents came to pick up their kids.

Debriefing the game with the staff, a boy cabin leader shared his frustration: “I got the idea of the game as a living, breathing allegory of the Gospel.   We got to share God’s love with everything.   Things don’t get better until His story is told.   Got it. However, I wish there was a rule stopping people from just pulling flags.

“I had a young cabin. I’d sit them down and they’d cool off. I’d pitch the idea to them about playing the game. They’d agree. We’d stand up to find a station, when all of a sudden a group of monsters would come along and I’d spend 20 minutes trying to get my cabin back from scattering.   Then we’d do it over again.   We never made it past the first station.”

Sadly, there’s freedom in the game. Sure, we could make all of the cabins work together and seek to ring the Black Gong; but then something would get lost in the discovery of the game.   The fun would be lost. There has to be a risk, a choice.

“And,” I explained to the young man.   “It’s still an allegory for the church.   How many of us know of Christians or whole churches that have given up on God’s mission for their neighbourhood?   Instead, they exist to pull other Christian’s flags. They found that sharing God’s love and telling His story was too difficult. Or it didn’t get what they wanted. So instead, they existed in a “for/against” view of Church.”

The boy’s cabin leader was a friend of mine and so when he nodded, I knew her knew of some Christians that sought to only pull people’s flags.

When I reconnected with my girls about camp, the cited that the Black Gong was one of the highlights of the camp.   My eldest daughter’s favourite component was forming alliances. “You can’t do these things alone,” she said.

“Other than the game, what was your favourite part?” I asked.

“Oh, the horses. Now if you could play the Black Gong on horseback, that would be amazing.”

Hmmmm….

 

 

[1] When I worked at a camp in Northern Alberta, we had to change it into “High Science” items.   The back story was that these items were recovered from an advanced civilization, but perceived as magic by primitive cultures.

[2] Example would be the “Horn of Chaos”: whomever blew this, an enemy team would be stuck hopping on one foot while making a raspberry sound.   Another example was the “Flask of Hmmmm” which was just a Tupperware with lots of flags (or pennies or bibs).

[3] http://pioneercamps.ab.ca

[4] Pioneer Camp is a horse camp, otherwise this would need a back story.

 

 

Attention…AHHHHHH…Attention!

stressed-dad            I became a parent to a beautiful, baby girl.

I passed the news around, receiving congratulations until a friend of mine shared an extremely honest insight.

“I was scared to be a dad,” he said. “Scared to death. I told myself that if I could just survive the pregnancy, than I could manage the rest.” He looked straight at me. “Do you know what it’s like being a parent?” I shook my head.

“It goes like this.”   He took a deep breadth. “Birth. AAAAAAAAAAAHH!!!!!! Infancy. AAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!! Kindergarten. AAAAAAAAHHH!!!! Jr. High, teen years.   AAAAAAHHHH!!!! Driving. AAAAAHHH!! Finals, High School, dating.   AAAAAAHHHH!!!! Graduation.”

The whole room looked at him as he flushed beat red. He gasped for air. At that moment, I thought his illustration had concluded. I was going to say-

“AAAAAAHHHH!!!! College. AAAAAHHH!! Graduation.   AAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!! First career. AAAAAAAAHHH!!!   Marriage.   Grandkids.   AAAAAHHHH!!!! They move back home.   AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!! They become home owners.”   Then he gasped for air. Panting near the floor, he uttered in a quiet whisper, “You get the idea. I can’t go on.”

Immediately, this resonated with me. As soon as my daughter was born, I was scared for her. Scared she wasn’t getting enough to eat or that she was getting too much to eat; scared for her future; scared for her heath; scared about the outside world; and, sometimes, scared for no reason.

It is easy to be very fearful for our children. Is the world we live in a harmful place? Certainly. Doesn’t it seem like things are stacked against our children who need to make healthy, rational decisions? Yes. And isn’t today’s reality feels so much more darker than yesterday’s memory?   Absolutely.

But God is still much more powerful than whatever scared us.

The Bible says, “Perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).”   This passage used to confuse me because I once held that the opposite of love was hate. And shouldn’t perfect love cast out all hate?   Wasn’t God against hate? Why is perfect love going against fear, when hate is it’s real enemy?

But then a friend of mine shared with me an insight. She explained to me that she couldn’t survive as a parent while being fearful. She crunched up her eyes, balled up her hands into fists, and crouched over. “You can’t be a parent and be this way. You won’t be able to respond to your child.” She then opened up her eyes and hands, straightening herself up. “You have to live with your hands and eyes open in order to be a parent. You cannot be afraid and love your child at the same time.”

Fear and love cannot exist together: one cannot take the hand that is clenched with fear.   God is the perfection, the one whose love drives out our fear that empowers us to love others around us. But how do we get in contact with his perfect love?

Through prayer.   Henri J. M. Nouewen asserts that prayer is the means which God unclenches our hands and teaches us how to have them open to others and unto him. In prayer, we spend time with God’s perfect power that is bigger than what we fear and, more importantly, He begins to rub off on us. Jesus lived with life open handed and we can too by learning how through prayer.

Remember the cross?   The moment when all of human history changed? The moment when Jesus was surrounded by all those who hated Him and sought His destruction?   Was his hands opened or closed?

We can only be like Jesus through prayer, through God working in us to open our hands to love instead of clenching them in fear.

What Disneyland, Doctor Who, and Chang Taught Me about Characters OR Why I Look Forward to the New Doctor Being a Woman

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My girls were of the age to enjoy Disneyland. I mean, really get it: after the ages of tiny bodies befitting toddlerhood BUT right before the cold, dark aloofness of adolescence.

We charged down south of the border from Canada to LA for three days of both parks (California and the Original).

At the end of the first day, we bought one of our daughters a “Character Autograph Book”.   With this book, we hunted all of the costumed characters.   Along with the rides and the food and the ambience, we worked together as a team to find anyone/anything that represented Disney’s Narrative Universe.

Our most redemptive interaction was Captain Jack Sparrow. We took the faery over to Tom Sawyer’s Island and he rode with us.   We had an unusually long interaction with him which included him giving a hug to our girls, encouraging them to continue in playing their classical music, and a comment about the acceptability of running around with chocolate on your face.

This interaction was so warm and friendly, I felt like we should have invited him out to lunch. We didn’t: he had to plunder on other shores.

Still, whenever we met other princesses or cartoon characters, I’d ask, “Were they as nice as Captain Jack?”

But the hunt made us wild, always on the lookout for bright coloured…anything.

After three days, we headed home.   On the morning of our flight back to Canada, I was lagging behind my family.   Suddenly, I recognized a face walk by me.   My brain scanned and it came up as the actor Dr. Ken Jeong who played the character “Chang” on the TV show “Community”.

It could have been that it was 5:30am or that I had spent the entire week hunting for characters, but a fever rolled over to me.   I shot to my family and declared, “Chang!   Chang!   Chang is in the airport! I just passed by Chang!”

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“Are you sure you just didn’t think you saw Chang?” my wife asked lovingly and patiently.

I’m pretty good at facial recognition and pinning people to names. Plus, I heard him speak to his assistant and it did sound like Dr. Ken Jeong.

I calmed down and realized that this was a fellow who was just looking to catch a plane, not a Disney character that expected to give out autographs to all guests at the park, and then my excitement settled back into reality.

My wife and I did love the show “Community” and Chang was a funny character. He was the show’s kind-of villain, but buried deep was the virtue of wanting to belong, wanting to fit into a group.

Characters from stories do this in our life: they embody an idea, a virtue, a vice, or a mood.   Chang would do anything to belong; the real life Dr. Ken Jeong was just a guy who wanted to make his flight.

Disneyland is full of virtues dressed up as characters:

Cinderella was longsuffering,

Merrida was…well, brave;

Peter Pan was playful;

and Captain Jack Sparrow was nice (according to my kids, who haven’t seen any of the movies).

In Christianity, this is very common. My brethren in the Orthodox tradition call this Iconography: using artistic symbols to embody a desired virtue.   The writers of the New Testament do this, in the case of St. John who writes, “God is love, to know God is to know love.”[1]   St. John is not reducing God to an abstract concept, making Christianity just an intellectual religion.   Rather, he is arguing that the virtue of love is so much a part of God’s mission to the Earth that to understand the virtue of love is to be what God is like.

Fandom is like this as well.

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Doctor Who has always been a symbol of alien kindness, a great warrior who could use violence but restrains his power for the sake of using only words. Armed with only a screwdriver, he fixes worlds when others seek to destroy them.   Kindness is his agenda, hopping from place to place.

While I was on my Disneyland trip, the news came out that the 13th Doctor was going to be played by a woman.   I thought nothing of it until I got back to the maelstrom that hit the i-net.

“There goes the show!”, “The Doctor must NEVER be a woman!”, “So PC!!!”, “Why does everything have to change!” and the like.

Can the Doctor be a woman?   A fictional character that demonstrates alien kindness, the warrior restrains power for the sake of using only words?   Can a woman wield a screwdriver to stop an army?
No one seems to be arguing over Jodi Whittaker’s acting ability, but her gender.

Sadly, Sci Fi fandom offers two types of heroines.   Either the strong, fierce, violent type (who uses force to win) like Xena.

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Or the damsel in distress, the screamer kind-hearted woman who is powerless to evil.

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Like Dale Arden, from the Golden Age Serials.

But can a woman pull off a strong kindness?   In real life, women do this everyday.   I have women in my life who are strong but kind, who restrain their power for the sake of benefitting their world, and who can do well with a sonic screwdriver.

This is one of those wonderful moments when art catches up to reality.   It’s hard because unless you’ve experienced these virtues in real life they will seem alien to you because television, historically, hasn’t offered the Doctor’s set of ideals to that many women.

And yes, Doctor Who was a role model for me-as a boy- of what it looked like to be an adult man. And now, others are having a go with the subtle message that what makes the Doctor great is available for anyone to downloading.

Downloading your hero’s virtues…hmmm…

When in Disneyland, I decided to buy a ball cap with the signature of Indian Jones on the front. Subtle, sneaky: I felt I could wear this around my neighbourhood without causing too much of a scene. Indiana Jones, as a boy, embodied a sense of adventure and exploration, someone who entered into new, scary places for the purpose of saving people.

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I’d like to be that; I’d like to be Indiana Jones.   Be a real life person who’s fictional heroes rubs off on him.

 

[1] 1 John 4: 7-8

Alberta Has It’s Own Scent: An Interview with Eric J. Kregel about His New Novel “Exhaust From the Tin Woods”

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In a small coffee house just on Whyte Avenue, the Edmontonian writer Eric J Kregel takes a break to answer a few question about his new novel “Exhaust From the Tin Woods”. It is important to note that this is a self-interview, so essentially Eric J Kregel is talking to himself.   Basically.

Q-

Your novel, “Exhaust From the Tin Woods”, can be found in the Steampunk genre of Science Fiction/Fantasy.   You seem to be resistant to place your novel in this genre. Why? Did someone from the Steampunk world universe hurt you in your past? Why the ill feelings?

 

A-

No one, I think, likes being labeled. When you label someone or something, you confine it and limit it .   It’s a form of control.   Having said that, I am a fan of the genre and, yes, if you had to pick a genre, the Steampunk universe fits the best.

 

I do like the genre. As I understand it, its based off of the “what if” premise.   What if women were given a more empowering status in the Victorian world? What if Charles Babbage’s Analytic Device was embraced, copied, and used throughout the British Empire? In short, what would it look like if Victorians had computers?   What if the American Civil war, the Mexican/American war lasted longer or turned out differently? What if Canada treated its Common Wealth relationship with the Queen a bit different?

 

Implied in all of this is a greater sense of optimism.   I truly believe, today (2017), the Science Fiction/Fantasy Universe has over-used the model of dystopia in place of dramatic tension.   Stories are no longer interesting because it’s considered that as long as you place the heroes/heroines in a world where “everything sucks”, you don’t have to do any of the hard work of plot structures, struggle, and tension.

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Steampunk is a return where heroes/heroines can ask, within a fantastic world, “What do I want? What do I really want?”   I love that.

 

The genre of Steampunk was one I had to learn. I mean, my favourite writer is Charles Dickens and he became a great guide into this world.   But the idea came first, then it became-through playing with it in my head-more and more Steampunk.   I gobbled up William Gibson, Emma Jane Holloway, and Cherie Preist.   What I like about the genre is that it’s very open to hitchhikers and folks who want to come along with their own versions.   It’s a wider table than most.

 

Q-

So what is your novel about?

 

A-

It takes place in a Steampunk-ish world of Northern Canada. There’s a school in the woods that is looking to harmonize technology with science with culture with ethics.   The students- recently turned adults- go this school to learn, but also discover something horrible going on in the forest surrounding them.   Glass spiders, wolves with human faces stitched over their originals mugs, distorted creatures, and a mad scientist roams the wintered woods.   These forces represent chaos, exploitation of science with nature. Of course, there will be a collision of these two ideals and the stakes are Canada.

 

Q-

Why Canada?

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A-

Oh, this story couldn’t be told in any other setting.   And not just Canada, it had to be Northern Alberta.   Alberta has it’s own scent, it’s own landscape. I’ve living in Northern Alberta for 9 years and I kept trying to compare it to somewhere else in the world. I couldn’t.   When I would have friends from the States visit, they tried but couldn’t label it as well.   So the woods are a big part of the story.   So it could only be in Canada.

 

Q-

Anything freak you out in this book?

 

A-

Yes.   One morning, when I was writing and then sun hadn’t come up, I was trying to figure out how Cat and her fellow students could be captured.   I put her outside of the school, at night, as dark as it was in my living. Suddenly, an idea bubbled up and burst forth in my conscious mind.   It was the sound of a baby crying in the woods.   So the scene took Cat to be lured into the woods to find this sound of an infant. She came around the bend to find a wolf with a human’s face over his own.   The wolves, in order to lure humans, can make baby sounds.

 

This idea made me squirm in my couch as I hammered out the rough prose. I mean, it’s primordial isn’t it? If we have knowledge of a helpless infant, our body and instincts take over, right?   Evolution wouldn’t think this far in advance, so it would have to be the work of some human science. Who would make creatures that would want to lure humans and understand their psychology so well as to graft this skill into it’s hunters.

 

It was details like this that made my book, as a write, come alive.

 

Q-

A lot of your characters are women.   How hard is it to write women characters?

 

A-

If I had to write a character whose only sense of identity was a woman, then yeah-it would be hard.   However, I have voices in my head. These voices, who needed to come to the school in Alberta, were mostly female voices. I heard them talk, got a sense about them, and then put them into the story.   Luckily, my brain can filter and sift through these voices, otherwise the fictional world would become something so much bigger than just a good tale.

 

For Cat, the main heroine, I had this voice in my head of this daring, flirty, good natured voice that my common sense, when I lingered with this character, described as a female version of Jack London.   Suddenly, she came alive and I wanted her in this story.

 

That’s how I write female characters. I’m sure, they’re people I know or knew at one time.   If I dug deep into my sub-conscious, then I’d probably catch them as memories.   But that’s what makes fiction so great. These real people change, evolve into something belonging to the world of the story through the simple means of forgetting, growing, and imagining.

 

Q-

What would you like your reader to come away with after reading this book?

 

A-

I think if people fall into the adventure, horror, wonder, romance, and progression of the book and enjoy themselves, then the book has served well.

 

Deeper than that, “Exhaust from the Tin Woods” is all about the idea that when you are serving others, helping others, trying to do right to the world then everything can be integrated- faith, science, reason, relationships. It’s when we’re self- serving, when we’re full of exploitation is when our world becomes specialized, fragmented, and lonely.

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You can find the book on Amazon: 

https://www.amazon.ca/Exhaust-Tin-Woods-Eric-Kregel/dp/1988327415/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1499782879&sr=8-1&keywords=exhaust+from+the+tin+woods

A Night at The Opera

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On October 24, 2007: my wife and I enjoyed the Opera.

Yes, you read correctly that first line: the words “enjoyed” and “opera” peacefully cohabitated together in one, coherent sentence. And what’s even more baffling, I would recommend everyone to run out and enjoy the nearest Opera.

As a boy, my first exposure to the world of Opera was my old man who loved the works of Richard Wagner.  As a result, whenever he drove us anywhere- church, to the beach, or from a friend’s house- our soundtrack was either “Ride of the Valkyries” or “Siegfried’s Death March”.

As a result, I grew up with a psycho-symptomatic association with Wagner and carsickness. I struggled, for years, with vomiting from long trips in our van and, for some reason, overtures from “The Tannhauser”, “Tristain and Isolde”, or “Die Meister Singers” always played in the background.

As a teen, carsickness passed but was replaced by a snobbery that excluded all music except for Heavy Metal. I would tell my brother, “You know, musically Led Zeppelin, I think, surpasses the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Really, what’s the difference: Bach or Pink Floyd?”

This too passed and was put to death one Valentine’s Night when a friend of mine, in College, invited me to watch Wagner’s “Parsifal” on his TV (and yes, I had no date to turn down and, yes, this option beat my present plans involving a James Clavell book and a 2 Liter bottle of Pepsi). I watched the Opera on a 13 inch TV, complete with bunny ears and coffee stains, in a cold, quiet dorm room and wept.

My old man was on to something: there is something a bit more going on with Wagner. And no carsickness.

Possibly my love of Wagner fell in about the same time when I fell in love with dark, violent Norse myths (again, I was free on most of my Friday nights in College), I don’t know. I loved these stories about dragons, gold found in rivers, gnomes, gods, sacred horns, and beard men sitting in Halls drinking lots of beer. Norse mythology, in College, was a mix of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, a Heavy Metal concert no Baptist would dream of setting foot in, and the lyrics to any melancholy love song from the eighties written by either Morrisey or the Cure.

It was great!   And then I graduated from College. Dated. Fell in love. Got married. And put these things behind me.

Until, a few months ago, the Edmonton Opera Company donated about two dozen DVDs to our town’s library. Catherine and I had shut off our TV for the Summer, so we were struggling for things to do in High Prairie that don’t involve shooting animals. So I thought, why not watch an Opera?

First was “Porgy and Bess”, which met all of my expectations: the boy doesn’t get the girl, it ends in moral confusion, everything is doomed, great music…just like Wagner! Then we rented “Love Elixer” and “The Magic Flute” and I was perplexed. I mean, what was this? They live at the end? And everyone falls in love? Can you do that? Can a Composer let his characters off like that? No murder? No loss?

I had stumbled into Buffo Operas, which meant: light comedies. Yes, instead of laments and battle cries, there were love songs and playful numbers and romance and happy endings. It was like a curtain had been thrown back and light cascading on a new world, revealing there’s more to life than pain and death!

So we furiously checked out as many Opera DVDs as possible, culminating with buying two tickets to Edmonton Opera’s production of “Carmen”.

 

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My father in-law, hearing we had just gotten back from Edmonton to see “Carmen”, commented on the tragic end, “Well, that’s what you get when you spend your life selling cigarettes.”

Carmen tells the tale of Spanish soldiers whom, while guarding their posts, are surrounded by beautiful women, all smoking cigarettes. And a beauty, of fiery red hair, comes in the center, seducing all of the men. Yup, her name is Carmen and all of the men want her to throw a flower at them. Don Jose, a solider promised to a chaste and happy girl, gets the flower thrown at him and, when Carmen is arrested for a catfight, he lets her go and agrees to run off with her.

Don Jose, surrounded by gypsies, gets a little wonky and possessive. Carmen, no longer excited about this young man who left everything-the military, a pretty fiancé, a comfortable bed-plays cards to learn, through prophesy, that she and her lover are going to be horribly murdered. Upon this pronouncement, she figures the safest decision might be to dump wonky and possessive Don Jose for the local matador who is accompanied by one of the greatest motifs (Moral: in order to pick-up women, have a really cool musical motif).

The play ends with Don Jose stabbing Carmen for leaving him and hanging around the body for the police to arrest him. I guess, Don Jose figures if he can tie up all the loose ends for the investigation CSI: Seville.

The plot of Carmen is a bummer, but the score was so great that its been used by everyone, from ice skating performances to the Bad News Bears. During the first intermission, I had men humming and whistling and trying to sing tunes from Carmen while in the urinal which brought home a sad reality: you sound like a nut when trying to sing along to Opera if you DON”T know the original language.

Carmen, through the lips of Canadians who only know cereal box French, sounds something like this:

La-Da-Dada-ye-yump-dump-de-dump-dada-de-de-dump-la-la-la-la….

Ya-got-a-goose! I-got-a-goose! I-got-a-monkey-and-a-goose-and-a-dog!

Pathetic. You sound like you’re having a Charismatic moment, speaking in heavenly tongues when all you want to do is put to words the tunes stuck in your head. Still Bizet is a genius for making such catchy, toe-tapping, happy music to such a tragedy as Carmen.   It’s amazing that such a memorable, lively score came from such an unhappy soul as Georges Bizet.

Georges Alexandre Cesar Leopold Bizet was born on October 25, 1839. Many say he was born with the same knack for music, at an early age, like Mozart or Mendelssohn, because he could read and write music at the age of four. He couldn’t have picked a better city to grow up than Paris, for it was the Opera capitol of Europe at the time and his luck even expanded when he enrolled, at the age of nine, in the Paris Conservatory of Music.

After he graduated, he wrote the obscure Operetta “Le Docteur Miracle”, winning him a prize, and the successful “La jolie fille de Perth”. However, that marks the highest point in his career. He had an affair with his mother’s maid that ended in an illegitimate son he could never claim, he married a young woman who was mentally unstable, they produced a son who would later kill himself, and his Operas never took flight.

After a series of failures, “Carmen” was his big gamble. When it opened, audiences were shocked, hot, and bothered by the smoking on stage, the violent stabbing at the end, and the fact that it was so stark of a tragedy. According to opening night, “Carmen” was considered a failure. On June 3, 1875, Bizet died at the age of 37, without ever knowing what a huge success his Opera had become. Today, it is regarded as the paragon of Romantic Operas and is one of the most recognized scores.

 

 

 

 

 

From our small town in Northern Alberta, it’s about 4 hours to the Jubilee Center in Edmonton. Catherine and I beat the mid-week traffic jams to catch Wednesday’s showing of “Carmen”. The Jubilee Auditorium showed this Opera only for three nights: on Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday. In a land known for cowboys and hockey, Opera doesn’t get many takers.

But then again, Opera doesn’t, currently, have many takers. A week before I went, I heard one fellow howl at me the moment he heard I was doing. “Listen, Opera is for a bunch of up-tight, snobby, elitists who’ve got nothing better to do. I go against the grain, no Opera for me!” The sad reality is that a Rolling Stones concert is far more mainstream, more in demand and narrow is the gate that leads to Opera.

We arrived, with my suit and tie and Catherine’s pretty dress to be greeted by gobs of Opera people. Yes, Opera fans are rare birds. The men, mostly in their gray years, were with long hair, colorful ascots, and spouting out quotations from Goethe, Norman Mailor, and American NPR. The women were much the same: hair in either turbans or a black beret, shawl draped, and holding their drinks between only two fingers. Young people were around, from the U of A, all in their prom clothes, making plans to spend all of their lives going to Opera’s on student rush discounts- the life of a hopeless Music Major.

When we got to our seats for the performance, I thought there must have been some mistake: the ticket gal on the phone said these were good seats. They were in the center of the isle, certainly, but they were in row AA. Catherine and I sat in the front row, middle section.

An older fellow, you looked too much like Ken Kesey to take seriously, leaned over to Catherine and balked, “Best seats in the house! Here (insert cartoon noise) you can see the whole action!   See the cheerleaders, watch the Quarterback fumble!”   This did little to settle her miasmal Operatic anticipation.

The one consolation was that I didn’t have to sit behind Mr. Balloonhead or Miss Peacockhat, however my peace came crashing down when the conductor marched up and took his place…right in front of us.

He was a jolly, round young man from Quebec. He would wave his meaty arms wildly around and, between most of the music’s rests, would make a, “Bah-ha-ha!”, to someone in the pit. I don’t why he did this. Was there something terribly goofy with “Carmen”? Or was he beholden to Bizet’s spell, the sheer giddiness of the Opera taking over this French-Canadian?

The Opera started and the Overture, now famous, danced and bounced around us, battening down any doubts that we were going to have: we were in Bizet’s competent hands. And then the girls came out and I realized I was eye-level with their chubby ankles.

Yes, chubby ankles. There is no ogling at the Opera, for most Divas have bodies that can support their windpipes. The love of the music, the scale of the story, the grandeur of the score…this is what it’s about, with little hope of girl watching. My eyes were chaste and Baptist, as I enjoyed the show.

My neck did hurt, not from watching the going-ons, but from reading the teleprompter that hovered above everyone’s heads like Zues from Mt. Olympus. Since I can’t understand German, Italian, or, in Bizet’s case, French, most Opera Houses now have English translations over the words to the songs. Plus, if you ever get confused, most programs summarize each of the acts. And if you’re still lost, just remember: people die in Wagner, Verdi is hit-or-miss, and if you hear the name Figaro, more often than not, it’ll be a happy ending.

4 Acts and 2 intermissions later, the crowd rose to their feat in applause-I joined them in their fervor. The diva playing Carmen- exceptional. The story- beyond satisfaction. The music- still in my head.

 

 

And now here’s my encouragement: go watch Opera. Don’t be a snob, go watch Opera. If you’re new to that world, don’t worry: most are. And if you want to start out easy, stay away from Wagner.

Stepping Into Someone Else’ Story

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“This is hard for me…”

That’s how I began.   I sat on a small stage facing my church’s gym.   My wife was next to me and my daughters were beside her.

It was the Found Festival that brought me to this stage.   Our church has been a long standing partner with this event and had hosted many artists throughout the years. This festival sought to hide artists and creative experiences throughout our neighbourhood for a span of four days, so people could stumble into something beautiful, amazing, or meaningful.

Our church’s building housed a musician- Lief Ingebrigtsen- who would take clients that would share a thought or a story or a wish, then he would turn it into an improvised song.   His music was be accompanied by a dancer- Rebecca Sadowski- and an artist -Tim Mikula The dancer would move within the song and the artist would paint a piece, describing what had been shared.

I set up our family’s time because I had something on my chest. It was bothering me.   I knew I could say it with words, but this was a chance where it could come out in something beyond just words.

So I took the stage and began sharing:

“This is hard for me.   I feel, as a parent, I spend a lot of my time telling you how to live in a good way but I rarely get a chance to tell you that you’re doing a good job. I’m proud of you and you’re doing an amazing job.   Your mom, I know, feels the same way.”

I described each of my daughters gifts and talents and personalities.

Then the music flowed, along with the dance and the painting.

I can’t describe the beauty of the dancing or the music, for they existed only in the moment.   I do know it sunk in with one of my daughters, who was able to reproduce the song on our car ride back.

I do have the art:

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After the experience of seeing my words become an abstract painting, a dance, and a song, I was full of tears. There are so many things a parent wants and wishes, but words and sentences don’t cover them.

I tried telling all of the artist how impactful this was but I couldn’t.   I just started spouting off theology, which I guess is my coping mechanism as a professional Christian minister.

Here was the idea I tried to say: this was, in many ways, the Christian idea of prayer.

The Quaker writer Richard Foster argues that prayer is our heart’s home, where our heart is free enough and relaxed enough to speak to God. God, being the King of all hospitality, invites us into an intimate space where we can share our requests, our needs, our laments, our dreams, our wishes, and our stories.

In short, the dance and the painting and the music was taking my heart and turning it into prayer.   And seeing as a prayer, I could see what was inside of my heart.

C.S. Lewis argues that we read stories not to learn anything new, but to find out we’re not alone in our struggles, dreams, and stories.   This is one of the reasons why we read books and watch films: we want to find a match inside our own heart. We’re hunting, searching for stories, songs, metaphors, and images that match the buried prayers in our heart.

After spouting this out to the artists, I thanked them. They were our guides during this time and kind ones at that.   We left and talked as a family about our experiences.

Leaving that space, there was a lingering feeling that we weren’t alone.

The Hen and the Sheep

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The storm raged on the Hoffer Farm, sending all of the kids down to the basement for shelter. Before anymore water could leak into their house, the parents decided it best to get them dry, warm, and out of the way from this ice storm.

Candles lit, blankets covered them, and Mara Hoffer led the children in songs they learned in Sunday School as her husband, Daniel, sought to repair the sighting that was ripped away by the wild torrent sweeping across their fields.

Tori, the youngest Hoffer, noticed that her dog, Ghost, was pacing wildly by the foot of the stairs. She broke from the family’s huddle to see what upset Ghost. The golden retriever squealed, scanning the room feverishly with her brown eyes.

“What’s the matter, Ghost?” she asked as she looked in Ghost’s bed. Ghost, recently, had pups and kept them altogether in her bed. Tori counted the pups, discovering that one was missing.

“Smirk is missing, isn’t she?” Tori asked Ghost and the dog simply paced wildly, trying to find her missing daughter.

Smirk could never stick with the pack, always wandering away from the Hoffer family and Ghost’s small band. Even at a young age, Smirk had gotten into mischief by chewing up Mara’s work boot and gnawing her way through the family’s garbage. Daniel Hoffer once said that Smirk was headed for a one way ticket to “doggy heaven”.

He was kidding, but on that night no one laughed considered that possibility.

The swing of a door opening sounded upstairs and Ghost shot up the steps. Tori heard her father yelp and a small crash followed. She ran upstairs and found her father on the floor with the door wide open.

“Ghost just ran past me and knocked me over. She ran outside and couldn’t be stopped,” he said.   “Stay here, Tori. I’ll go fetch Ghost. She can’t be outside on a night like tonight.”

“Come here,” Mara said to her daughter. “I’m reading the Scriptures.”   Tori sat next to her mom, wrapped up in a blanket as the family’s old Bible was read. “O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, thou hast killest the prophets, and stonest them-“

“Why did Jesus say that?” Thomas asked, Tori’s eldest brother.

“Jesus knew that Jerusalem, like all cities, try to do things on their own. They wander away from God’s plan and are miserable.” She continued to read. “…how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens-“

“I don’t understand. Let’s read another passage, mom.”

She stumbled through the Bible at random. “’And Jesus said to them, ‘What man shall there be among you, that shall have 100 sheep, doth not leave the 99 in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost until he find it?”

“I still don’t understand.”

They decided to put the Bible on the shelf and sing some more songs. The storm whipped and howled outside, the children were safe inside, and Daniel had not returned. One by one, the Hoffer children went to sleep with Tori being last, waiting for her dog to return.

The next morning, the children awoke to do their chores. The storm had passed and sunlight returned to their valley. Tori, when she awoke, quickly learned that Ghost had not returned to her bed, caring for her young pups.

When Tori got outside, her father asked her to follow him to the edge of their property. Mounting his horse, they headed across the acres of land they ripped apart by the wind and ice. As the horse slowed to a stop, Tori’s father hugged her tightly and said he loved her.

Quickly, her eyes were drawn to the brown color of Ghost’s coat. She approached her dog, slumped by the side of a tree, still and cold as the ground.

Before the tears, before it sunk in to what happened Tori had to hear it first from her father. “What happened?”

“As far I can figure, Ghost left our house to find Smirk. She found her, but they couldn’t get back to the house. So Ghost placed her pup next to the tree and, with her own body, provided a shield from the ice and the wind.” Smirk quickly emerged from Ghost’s still repose. A quick bark, Smirk ran over to Tori.   “Ghost gave her life so that Smirk wouldn’t catch cold from the storm. She gathered the pup close to her, saving her life.”

Tori shut her eyes and her mouth turned into a square as she inhaled right before she cried.

 

An hour later, Tori returned to the farmhouse holding Smirk. Mara had told Tori’s sibling of Ghost’s passing as they quietly finished up their breakfast.   Tori took her usual seat at the table, never letting Smirk go as she ate.

“Can I get you anything?” Mara asked.

“Can we say grace? I’d like it if you could use that Scripture we read last night in our prayer. The one about the hen and the sheep.”

“Sure,” Mara said. “Dear Jesus, you are like our good friend, Ghost. You gathered us up when we wanted to go our own way. You kept us safe. You died for us. And you keep us close and safe today. Hold us close and teach us not to wander. Thank you for this food. A-men.”

Smirk squealed and Tori pet his small head as she began to eat, trying recall everything that was said in the Scripture about the Hen and the Sheep.