The Politics of Orcs, The Empire, and Death Eaters OR…Why Jodie Whittaker Becoming the Doctor is the Right Thing We Need Right Now.

Bill Maher might upset or delight you, but I’d like to use a distinction he made concerning a cultural divide in North America that I feel is bang on.

Granted, there is profanity and he doesn’t lean to the left (rather runs past the left and into new, liberal territories) and he stands against his country’s current President. He might, therefore, upset; let me than summarize his argument[1].

There are two types of camps when viewing culture: those who thought the 1950’s were cool and those that thought the 1960’s were necessary.

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The 1950’s people viewed America as stable, everything worked, everyone was in their right place, no one was on depression medication, a man and a woman could make a family, if you worked hard and did your part the system worked, church was important because it provided the control a central story, and things would get better and better.  The 1950’s was about status quo.

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On the B side, the 1960’s people saw a need for change with a deep belief that not everyone was included.  This is the age of Free Love, Martin Luther King Jr., and ERA. It is a re-examination of how systems, language, religion, and art sought to exploit the majority and elevate an established minority.  The 1960’s was about upheaval.

Scattered through Canada and the US is a line:

do you think the 1950’s was the height of America’s problems and the 1960’s the solution to that problem

OR

was the 1950’s the height of North America being the best and the 1960’s is when everything good came crashing down?

 

Which brings us to the stories we tell and watch and write and read: who are our baddies, the ones who need to be stopped.

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For those who love the 1950’s, they read Harry Potterand find comfort: here’s a poor boy, through hard work and determination, fights against such Death Eaters as Political Correctness, liberal bullies, and elitism.  And for those who love the 1960’s, Harry Potter is the one who befriends Mudbloods, questions crooked authorities, and raises his wand in protest when injustice takes place.

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For those who love the 1950’s, Star Wars is about rebels trying to bring back the Old Republic and democracy.  For those who love the 1960’s, it’s about fighting against the old, established Empire who seems to ONLY hire humans.

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For those who love the 1950’s, Lord of the Rings is the last stand against the encroaching evil who seeks to do away with their culture and religion and morality.  For those who love the 1960’s, Orcs are the machine heads who seeks to exploit the environment and all of the people who do not fit the monolithic standard of Sauron.

Trump or Hillary[2]is Voledmort.  Or Palpatine.  Or Sauron.

In these stories, evil is very Evil.   I mean, Orcs are pretty much are monsters.

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If you are an Imperial Officer in Star Wars, you have to surrender yourself to living in monochromatic colors, black metal, and only hues of gray.   As an officer, one couldn’t wonder if one of them asked, “Are we on the wrong side of history?  I mean, everything about us- from fashion to interior design- it’s just really, really evil looking.”

Or Death Eaters.  None of them ever looked neutral.  In the Battle of Hogwarts, I would have liked to see one of them wear a light blue or orange hood…just by mistake, not getting the e-mail that everyone was to wear solid black while destroying a school for children.

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This is why Snape is always being fingered as evil no matter how innocent he might be.  You’d think Dumbledore would pull him aside and encourage, “Just add some color.  A splash of red or purple.  You’d be surprised how this could cut down on all of the kids convinced you’re a servant of absolute darkness.”

My point is that evil is in primary colors; good is equally obvious.  Just by looking at someone, you can tell which camp they belong to.  This, of course, spill over into the lines drawn by culture between the lovers of the 1950’s or the 1960’s.

An example of this can be found on the Christian satire website Babylon Bee.  At first, I didn’t get the humor it didn’t seem all that Christian.  I then realized that it is not a Christian satire about politics, but a political view about the Christian church (Republican)….then things made more sense.

Here is an example of what of this kind of thinking:

https://babylonbee.com/news/let-the-hate-flow-through-you-cackles-cloaked-hillary-clinton-at-campaign-rally

Us Vs. them.  And before those who are pro-1960’s are absolved from this kind of thinking, the Babylon Bee was shaped by The Onion only with a more Humanist, Liberal perspective.

And if you’re that rare group of people who have been labelled Generation X, you might want to escape this binary polarization by simply stating, “Well, I don’t like either the 1950’s or the 1960’s.”  If so, please round up and pick a side: North America has suddenly turned binary unless one actively fights against such a tide.

Right now, there is an impulse to see the world of your friends against all of the Death Eaters.  It effects our posture, our language, and our engagement.

 

 

The Bad Word Test

Let’s pretend there’s someone in your church or on your block or in your coffee group or will be attending a Christmas meal with you and they, you know, will say a malediction.

Depending on if you’re a 1950’s person or a 1960’s person, there are bad words.  Let’s say your friend uses the bad word(s): “White Male”, “Patriarchy”, “Equal Opportunity”, “New Canadian (American)”, “Alternative Lifestyle”, “Victims of the Immigration System”, “Black Lives Matter”, and so forth.    The other side has a list as well: Any ethnic slur, anything seen as exploitative, any phrase that reinforces patriarchy or class distinction or gender inequality or stereotypes or any other harm.

Let’s pretend this word or words are used right in front of you.  What do you do?

As a Christian minister, we have our “go to” speech: “I would correct them firmly, but with love.  I would let them know they are wrong in their word choice and offer them examples of a better way to speak.  My tone would be kind, warm, and positive.”

Yet if you think you’re talking to a Death Eater, this process can get derailed.  You might believe you’re coming across as Dumbledore, but you’ll have the vibe of an altogether different character in Harry Potter.

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This is Dolores Umbridge.   Horror writer Stephen King claimed she was the greatest monster in recent fiction.  Here’s his quote:

 

“This one’s a slam dunk. A great fantasy novel can’t exist without a great villain, and while You-Know-Who (sure we do: Lord Voldemort) is a little too far out in the supernatural ozone to qualify, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts does just fine in this regard. The gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter. One needn’t be a child to remember The Really Scary Teacher, the one who terrified us so badly that we dreaded the walk to school in the morning, and we turn the pages partly in fervent hopes that she will get her comeuppance…but also in growing fear of what she will get up to next. For surely a teacher capable of banning Harry Potter from playing Quidditch is capable of anything.”[3]

 

For Umbridge, she was right and everyone else at Hogwarts was wrong.  She was sent to improve things, get the school back on track.  She corrected while smiling, mostly.  Appearing to be sweet and kind, she is such a searing source of condescension…which makes her all the more evil.

Why?  Because deep down in her heart, she believes the students and faculty are the baddies and she is the last, good, righteous one who has been sent to fix everyone.

This is the problem with living as a member of the Rebellion, the Fellowship of the Ring, and/or the Order of the Phoenix- no matter how nice you come across, the people disagree with you who live with will be seen as the problem.

The People of the 1950’s and the 1960’s both believe they are on the side of Democracy, however whenever you see an opposition to your ideals as a problem, a barrier, and a threat then you no longer function as a defender of Democracy.

Simply put, Hogwarts was not defended by a vote and the Empire was not taken down by filling out ballots.  One cannot see others as the problem to the world AND allow them to be part of a Democracy.

 

 

“Okay, You’re Now My New Best Friends”

I love Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and, sometimes, Star Wars.  The power of these stories is that they give us so many tangible metaphors for redemption. And we will, for a long time, use these stories to navigate our sense of morals.

However, might I propose a newer metaphor during our current, political climate:

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Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who.

This is the first time in the 50+ years of this show when the main character, a Time Lord of many different lives and bodies, have turned into a woman.  There has been a storm over Jodie Whitaker taking the role, labelling it as a “PC genderfication reboot[4]”.

Although I do think Science Fiction is getting a little crazy with the rebooting of the past, tried, and true franchises, I don’t think you can apply this to Doctor Who.  The show has always been about change, about doing something new: you cannot reboot something that is intrinsically dynamic.

I wasn’t sure I’d like Whitaker as the new Doctor, until there was a moment she owned the part.  For me, it was during an advertisement before the premiere aired: it was her, looking at a group of strangers, and asking, “Okay, right now: can we be our new best friends?”

That worked for me.  Perhaps because I’m a longtime and that my inner 10-year-old desperately wants to be the Doctor’s best friend.  Primarily, though, it establishes the heroic quality of Whitaker’s Doctor: she introduces herself by friendship.

Yes, there are still baddies in the Universe. During the premiere of the new season, we meet one but what is different to the “Us/them” is that the Doctor, on several occasions, invites the baddy to stop their plans, to turn away, and to quit the harm the creature is inflicting.  Of course, the villain doesn’t listen but undoes himself in the end by his own devices and by one of his would-be victims.

She is an alien, a part from the places she visits eternal “us/them”.  She does take sides, but not until she first considers the issues and the morality of each new place.  There is always an offer for friendship, but it must be on the terms of changing for the good and not the binary “you aren’t an enemy”.

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It’s a classic Who image: the outsider who steps in the middle of two sides, defining the good that is absent from the cycles that perpetuate the conflict.

She is inclusive while maintaining a sense of good triumphing over evil.  Her inclusion is not at the expense of morality, rather it is its engine.

At least, that’s as far as we can see from the pilot. However, if there’s more of this kind of message it’s why, perhaps in today’s climate, she is needed most: a figure who is able to enter as an outsider to all of our embroiled fights.

For those who are stuck in the 1950’s or the 1960’s, our new heroine is a time traveler.  Correction: a time and space traveler.  Someone who can investigate where is the good and rid the world of exploitation.

Now, did the other stories miss the boat on being inclusive?  No.  It’s there at Hogwarts and Middle Earth and the rest: but the Doctor goes out of her way to have this in her story.

I propose that this might be the new model- Whitaker’s Doctor- as we configure what our worlds and lands need.  And perhaps, if we’re lucky, this new Doctor might visit Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and the Star Wars Universe.

If not, we can only imagine.

[1]For those who love primary sources, here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzUd8YrFJCk

[2]Are we still talking about her?

[3]https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/vkz0n/til_that_the_novelist_stephen_king_said_that/

[4]https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/05/entertainment/doctor-who-preview/index.html

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A Street Vendor Dressed as a Cat Selling Sweet Potatoes in Tokyo

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A few months ago, I learned that there was a man who dressed as a cat and sold roasted sweet potatoes on the streets of Tokyo.

 

https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/in-japan-theres-a-popular-cat-man-selling-sweet-potatoes/

 

The first I saw of it was a video of the man selling sweet potatoes without words or noises, just  soft, happy music in the background.  The video showed him as the only one in a long street, taking care of a single pedestrian who needed warmth, joy, and sweet potatoes.  The video showed the customer sufficiently served by a man in a cat suit.

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He does this, according to the link, because of his love of cats and his belief that those who love cats, whomever they may be, will have their day redeemed.  He gives free food to children and those who are hungry, believing he is doing something greater than just making money.

Does this sound crazy?

Sure it does…if it doesn’t work.

He is trying to appeal to everyone’s inner child and if he just makes more adults on the streets of Tokyo, angry and put out and committed to their pretenses.  You can hear the outrage, the protest of those who might encounter this Quixotic pursuit of joy mixed with sweet potatoes.  Or the disgust, people shriveling up their faces because something is “just too weird.”   We, as humans, are passionately and stridently committed to our view of normal that this might be too great of an assault on such a pretense.  It could have gone disastrously wrong.

But if it does work…isn’t it worth it?

If someone’s day is redeemed because of a man in a cat suit serving him sweet potatoes then it makes all of us consider the idea of wearing cat suits to our work, meals, and when we do errands.  Heck, I considered it when I first saw the video!  I was working in a supportive role at a church (a very nice and friendly one), but I was doing a lot of grunt work.  The whole day I was setting up tables and chairs, the thought struck me: “What if I did this same job, resembling a cat?”

I didn’t because I wasn’t convinced it would have brought redemption to my world.

But there’s that fine line where what we can do for each other is either redemptive or just adds to the pretense of our world.  The line is discovered through the tacking of listening, reflecting, and community.

And for those who need to see the original video, here it is:

 

 

Autumn and Dementia

Today, on September 21, it’s snowing in Edmonton.

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Typically in the north, a snow fall in the September or October isn’t too unusual.  It happens, it reminds us that Winter is coming, and that it goes away the next day. However, the freak snow fall hit last week; it’s snowing again today.  When it snows once in September, it feels like it’s an accident; when it snows twice, it feels like a conspiracy.

A few years ago, every year I’d do a race in the Autumn.

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Autumn is precious in Alberta, mainly because it is so short, so beautiful, and so fragile.  In High Prairie, I participated in a 10k run every Autumn to support our volunteer fire fighters.  It was a beautiful run, shooting through the dappled sunlight, the brisk wafts of icy air, the crimson and bursting gold of the leaves, and the last bits of summer being dumped out from the bottom of a jar.

I think of Autumn now as I journey through my own parents’ departure.  My father, about 5 years ago, suffered three massive strokes that left him without speech, most of his motor functions, and the ability to understand most communication.

My mother, a few years ago, began to show signs of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s: moment of aphasias, memory loss, confusion, and experienced “twilighting[1]”.   She is now in hospice care for those who are struggling with dementia; my father is in a separate home for stroke patients.

 

 

Autumn is their season, as Summer is quickly leaving them.  The leaves are falling and the ones that remain are changing shape and color with the promise to join their falling brothers and sisters.  Warmer days are a rarity.  Snow shows up, then retreats with the promise to return.  Winter is coming.  And Winter will be long.

It’s a season of kindness because those with dementia do not just leave.  It’s a slow departure, as the heat slowly leaves the land and the frost comes up over the plants.  Harvesting happens, with an awareness that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. With your parents who have dementia, they lose names and memories and skills slowly.  Still there, just not as much.

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My mother believes I am a pastor in Flint, Michigan.  She grew up in Flint and the cold of Canada reminded her of her childhood setting. During this past year, when I would do my weekly call, she would talk more and more about Flint.  At first, whenever I talked about the various adventures of our family, her reply would be, “Oh, that’s just like in Flint when I was a kid…”. Soon this became an odd expression because-specifically with my kids 21stCentury experiences- they were nothing like her days in Flint.  Confusing and, it seemed, like she really wasn’t listening to me.

A wise fellow from one of my congregations heard about this and gave me a piece of golden insight: “With relatives who have dementia, don’t correct them.  Just affirm. They are no longer present enough to be corrected; they are only somewhat here.  They are leaving.  And what do you do to guests who are leaving you?  Affirm.  Thank them for the visit.”

Later, my brother visited her and revealed that she believed I was in Flint.  Memory erasure, in many dementia patients, works backwards.

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There’s an Akira Kurosawa film my brother and I forced ourselves to watch when my dad has his stroke called “Rhapsody in August.”  In this film, a family is watching their grandmother slowly start to go back to her childhood, marking by the Allied bombing of Japan.  The film ends with her running into a violent rainstorm, leaving behind her family to return to her childhood home before the nuclear devastation.

This is her Autumn.

Our beloved ones leave us slowly, memory by memory working backwards towards their Spring.

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Autumn is kind, but it’s also cruel.  In Canada, Autumn is when you just have finished building your porch, you bought a new firepit, you got in shape with your cycling, and you developed a rhythm in going to the community pool with your kids.

And then it snows.

Quickly, you’re scrambling to get your lawn chairs in storage, coil up your hoses, and shut off your outdoor water supplies. School starts, the days get shorter, and grass no longer needs to be mowed.  Worst, all of us have some sort of yahoo who lives in Palm Desert or Long Beach or Tuscan, posting pictures from their phone taken from the weather network boasting that they live two miles from the sun.

Winter is coming and none of us are ready.

 

 

Winter is a point of pride in Canada.  When I moved to Canada from California, I felt there was this strange bravado towards how cold it got.  I’d have coffee with old farmers who would chuckle, “Just wait until it gets cold!”  And then they would laugh without any breaks for an impossibly long time.

In my mind, I would scream, “I just want to go through a winter to prove that no one died and it wasn’t as horrible as they made it out to be.”

My wish came true.  I’m now facing my 13thWinter.

A snow fall can happen in the summer here in Alberta.  It’s rare and strange and feels like a betrayal.  Old timers will tell you: “I’ve seen snow fall every month of the year.” It’s a strange badge of pride.

Death in the young is like snow falling in the Summer: it happens, it just shouldn’t happen.

But Winter coming after Autumn feels like a promise made good, like an inevitable extension of the season.  Winter means Christmas and Christ’s birth and the setting of a new calendar- which are all good things.  Winter is also when things slow down completely, freeze over, and light fades.

As a pastor, I’ve visited people who are in the hospital dying.  An older man who lived his life in service of his community, his church, and his God was asked if he was scared of death.  “Nope,” he said.  And then he described his time in the hospital as a prolonged Advent.  “Not too many days left until Christmas!”   When he passed, his funeral had every single hymn one could sing about Heaven.

Winter is inevitable.  You can either fight it or embrace it.  I knew a mechanic from South Africa who wore shorts in the winter, in the snow.  We’d ask him why he wore shorts in the snow and he’d reply, “Is it snowing?  Hadn’t noticed.”

Embracing Winter is what Autumn teaches us.  There’s a wonderful Twilight Zone episode where an old woman is visited by Death (who is played by Robert Redford, so you can imagine where this is going) and he gently takes her away.  She leaves, finishing her slow journey.

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Snow in September teaches us the reality of all of our slow good-byes.

“Pebbles and marbles like things on my mind
Seem to get lost and harder to find
When I am alone I am inclined
If I find a pebble in sand
To think that it fell from my hand.”  Phish

[1]Twilighting is a term used to describe when someone with dementia suffers from more and more of their symptoms later in the day.  In the morning, they are refreshed and their strength can hold things together.  The longer the day, the more difficult it is to remember, to march through the day with memory gaps, and harder to keep remembering basic things.  The result is the level of confusion takes its toll at dusk, when the individual is their most tired.

The Sharing Tree – An Ecological Children’s Story

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This is with apologies to the late, great Shel Silverstein who wrote “The Giving Tree”.   I lifted some of his public domain pictures from his book’s illustrations.  

Once upon a time there was a tree and she loved a boy.  She called the boy’s name for a long, long time.  Finally, he heard: “Come boy!  Play on my branches.”

So the boy did.  And he loved the tree; the tree loved him.

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The boy grew older and the tree gave the boy an idea: “Tie a swing onto my strongest trunk and swing.”

So the boy tied a swing to the lowest branch.  “No, not that one.”  And then another.  “No.”  And then another.  “No.”

“Why can’t a tie the swing to the lowest and easiest branch?” the boy asked.

“It won’t be safe for you or me.  Find my strongest and highest branch: that will work.  It is what it is,” she answered.

So he did.  And he swung for days and days.

He left.  And she waited.

He came back as a young man and noticed the apples on the ground.  “These are good apples.  Maybe I can sell them?”

“Yes, boy,” she said.  “But don’t sell the apples on the ground.  Climb and pick my branches.  The higher the apples, the better they will sell.”

“But that’s too high and too much work.  Why can’t you drop your best apples?”

“It doesn’t work like that.  The harder the work, the better the apples.  It is what it is,” she said.

“Anyone ever call you bossy?”

“I’ve heard that once or twice,” the tree said to the boy.

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So he did what she said and found out she was right.  So he sold the apples.  And came back every year.

Until one year, the apples were too small to sell.

“Don’t you love me?” the boy asked.

“Of course.  But I need to be pruned.  Cut my branches at the base when it’s Fall.  Next year, my apples will be the better than ever.”  The boy scowled.  “And pick up your garbage.  It’s getting into my soil.”

“But that’s work,” the boy protested.

“It is what it is.”

“Anyone ever call you bossy?”

“I’ve heard that once or twice,” the tree said.

He did what she said and the apples grew next year better than ever.  The boy sold the apples and left for a long time.

And the tree waited.

Years later, the boy came back as a man.  “I need an adventure,” he said.

“What you need to do is cut my branches, pick my apples, and make a boat.  Then sell my apples to people along the river.  That will be your adventure.”

“But that’s work!”

“It is what it is.”

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“Anyone ever call you bossy?”

“I’ve heard that once or twice,” the tree said.

So the boy did what she said and spent several years living on his boat.  He saw all of the land that surrounded the tree.

Years later, he returned to the tree.  “I have a family now.  They want to live somewhere. When I was a child, I climbed your branches.  Maybe…”

“No,” the tree said for she loved the man.  “Families don’t live in trees.  Chop down my trunk and use it to make a house.”

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“But that’s-” the man said.  “…It is what it is.  Yes, ma’am.”

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So he made a house.  Raised a family.  Grew old.

One morning, he walked over to the tree that was now a stump.  “You have nothing left to give,” he said to the tree.  “I want to play again, like I did as a boy.”

“You can’t play anymore, you’re an old man.”

“I want to sell apples and make money,” he said.

“No more apples to sell.  Now there are markets and superstores.  They will not buy our apples.”

“I want a boat, so I can go on another adventure.”

“You have a wife, children, grandchildren, and the land.  Everyone needs you.  Don’t go.”

“I need, I need…”

“You need to sit,” the stump said to the man she loved.  “You are tired.  It is what it is.”

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“I will sit,” the man said and he did what the tree told him what to do.  “Anyone ever call you bossy?”

“Yes,” the tree said.  And she was happy.

The Sublime Forest: It Is What It Is and It Is What Isn’t

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This is a picture floating around in I-Space. It’s a digital reconfiguration of a pretty well-known photograph.  Here is the original:

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The original is from Point Reyes, California. It’s called the “Cypress Tree Tunnel”. However, I have no idea who made this digital manipulation.  It’s absolutely breath-taking.  Whomever did this- THANK YOU!  I would love to credit you with this work, as a fan and as someone who, when seeing this, his mind was blown.

This reminds me of the concept “the eyes that can see”, borrowed from many faith traditions.  This concept simply states that there is reality and a reality behind the reality we, at first glance, perceive.

Writer Wendell Berry argues, “There are no unsecured places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”

My daughter, when she was seven, put this concept as, “It is what it is and it is what it isn’t.”   Let me tweak that: “It is what is and it is what isn’t seen yet.”

It is: our physical world.

It is what isn’t seen yet: the interior world, the world underneath our world.

Trees bear this image.

Coastal Redwood trees, under the surface of the ground, have a complex network of roots.  No tree stands alone, but is connected to their tree family.  This root system is so strong that you could chop down a tree and it will grow back by the support, aid, and nourishment of its roots.  All hidden, all buried within the soil.

The roots of a Weeping Willow tree are shallow, but long.  They can grow up to three times the size of its branches, spreading out its arms and legs just below the top soil.  I’ve seen a Weeping Willow slowly rip apart sidewalks and streets, the slow work over years of growth, cutting through cement as if they were made of butter.

Birch trees are the polar opposite to Weeping Willows.  Shallow, thin roots.  They thrive in cold climates, thriving when their roots are in frozen ground. Standing like lean businessmen in a crowded elevator, Birch trees need cold, moisture, and lots of other Birch trees. All of their growth is above ground, in relationship, related to their forest.

Certainly, oh gentle reader, you can see the metaphor of the exchange between our inner lives and our outer lives, reflected in the nature of trees.

Psychologists describe this interchange as the introvert-extravert tension.   Introverts gain energy from solitude, from quiet withdrawal; they spend energy in the company of other trees.   Opposite to them, extraverts burn energy in solitude but gain it in community.

I am a newcomer to Anglicanism, which borrows from Catholic traditions.  I find it interesting that Catholic prayer find itself steeped in this tension.

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Thomas Kempis’ classic “Imitation of Christ” emerged around 1418, written in Latin and became second in popularity to the Bible. It is a road map on how one can change from being selfish, angry, lusty, and mean into the very good image of Jesus Christ.  It’s a “How-To” on monastic living, finding joy and pleasure in the world of solitude. It is a for one who wants to dig in the dirt, get to one’s root system.

Kempis shows the way for the European monastics of the beauty in withdrawing from community, building up little introvert cloisters, and drinking deep from quiet waters.

A professor of mine once quipped, “The only problem with reading the desert fathers is that none of them had kids. They tell you to spend three hours contemplating the Trinity and yet they don’t know what it’s like when a three-year old is nattering at you.”

In Anglicans (again, borrowed from the Catholic tradition) we have Collects: organized prayers that collect our thoughts and prayers into an arrow, bringing us back to our intended purpose.

There are many Collects: for the Incarnation, for nature, for the Word of God, for worship.  All seeking interior truths.

However, many of them are quite like Weeping Willow or Coastal Redwood prayers: to strengthen the interior root system.

However, I imagine there are emerging real life Collects referencing our relationships, our communal rhythms.  Such as:

 

Dear God in Heaven,

         Praise be your name. You are the Mother-Hen who takes care of us, the Father who protects us, and the constant friend.

         I make my intended prayer to you stating a simple truth:

         My husband is an idiot….

 

Or:

 

To You who all hearts are open and desires known:

Please have my kids please be quiet for twenty minutes.  I promise, I will take this time to clean and make dinner.  I won’t fritter the time away.  I promise…

 

These are the Birch Tree prayers: spirituality found in community, in family.  God is the God of the monastic but also of the domestic, writer Nikos Kazanzakis urges us.

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The joy monastic tradition must have felt when St. Tereas of Avila came to the scene.  A Spanish nun, extravert extraordinaire, she penned “The Interior Castle”.  The castle is a journey inside ourselves, symbolized by a castle.  Yes, it was a book for those to tend to our own root system but the rooms to her castle seemed to always be about processing relationships and communal life. Every room in the castle could be tied a problem found in community.  Living with God means living with others.

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Idealists tend to let their worlds take root under the surface of things; communalists branch out wide enough and are strong enough to shade reality with their truths.  Both are needed, bot work together.  Without deep roots, spruce can fall when the weather turns warm; Willow trees can break apart the world because of all of their layers upon layers of introspection, meditation, and worrying.

 

 

But let’s get back to this bi-fabricated world view, seeing the world above ground and beneath ground.

Here’s my question: would it be “OK” if we could delve into people’s thoughts and mediations and inner-worlds?

As a Whovian, I’ve always chuckled when I’ve seen Star Trek. Here’s my great chuckle: Praise be the gods that the Holo-Deck isn’t available to me!

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If I had a Holo-deck and let my fantasies run wild and it would be just my private session, what kind of madness would be unleashed in that black checker-boarded world?

My writing is enough madness I’m willing to unleash to the world, but it’s often times edited, proofed, polished, deleted, and combed over so my crazy silver and purple streaks have been whittled away.

As an Anglican, there are public prayers and private prayers. The private inform the public (and visa-versa) but should never be confused.

Let each other’s inner-dragons lie until we can, as a community, feed them.  Or slay them. Or befriend them.

The picture is still a gift, even though it might be an impossible image.  It reminds us that for every branch or apple or trunk, there are roots buried deep under the soil.  Invisible, but nonetheless shaping the forests we walk amongst.

 

 

St. George: Eric’s New Gig

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This is an odd bit of joy.

My experience as a Baptist and Evangelical Pastor has shaped me to leave/enter a congregation in much the same way, despite the fact that every church is unique in their own imprints.  The usual story is that I am contacted by a church based on a resume I sent them, a reference made, or some third party makes an introduction.  They have been without a leader for sometime and usually seek a different kind of leader than the one that they had previous to my pastorate.  When I get there, I settle for a few months, listen to the stories of my predecessor, and hold back the reality that things, pretty soon, will be much, much different.

This is the way of the congregational led, anabaptist, evangelical world.

Not so with Anglicanism.

My new parish will be starting September 4th and, after a long wait, will be…

St. George’s Anglican Church in Fort Saskatchewan.

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If this sounds familiar to you-then you’re right-it is where I first was placed as an intern when I first started this adventure back in November.

I will be their interim Deacon-in-charge.  This interim season will be no less than 6 months and no more than a year.  The plan is that during this time, I will be ordained from Deacon to Priest.

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This congregation was a place of great joy and healing, as the people received a fairly hurt intern who had a very long backstory.  I learned the ropes of Anglicanism there and really jived well with the vision set by Rev. Chelsy.  As an intern, I wasn’t biting my tongue and holding back my words, pining for the day I could be in charge of my own parish so I could “finally do things right”.  Quite the opposite: there was a concrete vision being given by people who were getting on board and it was a pretty inclusive strategy.

I now mean what most priests/pastors say when I begin with the words: “We will be continuing the vision.  We’re on our way to becoming a neighbourhood church, a place of cooperative ministry and leadership, and a people who follow God’s mission.”

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These are good people who have benefited from a strong leader.  Rev. Chelsy, ironically, will be the assistant priest at Christ Church (another familiar name: it was the location of my second internship).   Still in the area, just in a new neighbourhood.  It is an honour to be asked back and I am very excited to continue with the parish’s story

For those who pray, please keep me in mind as I start this new chapter in the Kregels journey.  Also, if ever in the Fort, look me up.

You can read about it in the Synod Scene:

http://www.edmonton.anglican.org/newsletters/94/display

 

Synergy

 

Synergy:syn-er-ji//noun: cooperation of two or more people or things to produce a combined effect that is greater than the sum of their separate effects. 

Once upon a time, there was a youth pastor, Arty Williams, who ran a Summer Camp.  His church’s insurance required him to have at least 1 adult to 8 kids for his program, yet only his girlfriend and roommate ran the youth group.  When asked where he was going to find the other staff, his answer was the same, “I don’t want to trust in my own strength.  God will bring the staff.”

On the morning of the camp, his senior pastor met Arty in the parking lot to only find his girlfriend and his roommate as adults on the bus.  Sadly, the camp was cancelled.  When Arty met with the elder board, he informed them he never made any calls, never visited any of the Bible studies of the church, or even invited any of the parents to the camp.

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An older gentleman summed up the board’s feelings concerning Arty, “I know you didn’t want to use your strength but God’s, yet I think it’s okay, every once in a while, to break a little sweat for the kingdom.”

This describes on extreme view on God’s Mission: He’ll do it all, we just have to sit back and watch.

The other extreme is that the goal of following God is to make everyone go to church, whatever it takes, and make them into people just like yourself.  The one who makes the most Christians is the best at following God and the church with the most converts…wins.

On this extreme, it is the brow beating and hyperactivity that makes people into Christians and saves the world.  God can help out, so long as he sticks to the plan.

Either extreme shall make one nuts.  Either side, you’re all alone.

No, God works in community and in relationship.

“It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what the Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community,” writer Lesslie Newbegin asserts.

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If what God left behind was a community to change the world, then why do we either think we have to make it happen or stay in isolation, a lonely despair waiting for “God to do something…anything.”

The solution is that God is already at work and wants us to walk alongside Him, to cooperate and participate.  To share in the invitation of following Christ…with Christ.

Karen Wilk wrote an amazing devotional called “Don’t Invite Them to Church”.   “The disciples experienced the power of with. I think that’s what loving our neighbors is all about…The risen Lord showed up, not in the temples, but in cemeteries, on beaches, at home gatherings, and on the road.  He ate a lot of fish and bread.  Sometimes I wonder if the church has made everything too complicated.  What if we all just did what Jesus did: walked alongside, listened, empathized, told the story, broke bread?”

He is the God who shows up with those who follow Him and is there before they come. It is a blessed synergy: God’s activity and our partnership.

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The presence of God is found with those who follow Him, not in data, celebrities, digitally recorded sermons, books, exclusively in church buildings, or products.  When people cooperate with Christ, the glory of their witness shines.

Kind of like John 17: 20-23, “I pray not only for these but also for those who believe in Me through their message.  May they all be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me.  I have given them glory You have given Me.  May they be one as We are one.  I am in them and You are in Me.  May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.”

Grace is Like…

Years ago, I brought my 4 year-old daughter to a camp I spoke at and she listened to one of my messages.  I attempted, in my message, to communicate the style of Jesus’ teaching.  He rarely used a lectern or formally taught, but would be walking with his disciples and point to things near them, stating, “The Kingdom of God is like…”   I did this in the chapel and, comically, ran out of things to point at.

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“You see,” I concluded.  “You’ve got to leave the chapel to find the God-metaphors in your world.”

A few days after the camp, my daughter woke up and came to the kitchen for her breakfast.  I poured her some cereal and went to get some milk.  She pointed at the bowl and declared, “The Kingdom of God is like cereal…”

She expected me to finish the sentence. This, my friends, is a metaphor for parenting.

Christ loved metaphors and used them to reveal himself to the people around him.  Such words like “sanctification”, “incarnation”, “propitiation”, and the like would be drowned in legal language and scientific babble if not surrounded by metaphors such as coins inside fish, a lost son, a mustard seed, and other such tales.

This is especially true for the abstract notion of God’s grace.

Let me give you, gentle reader, some metaphors:

 

The Grace of God is like…

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The Marx Brothers.

In these old movies, there is a perfect plot going on that you would find common to most stories from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. Baddies are in charge, the goodies are being persecuted, and everyone takes a break to sing a Broadway-like song. Then the Marx Brothers enter and everything was turned upside-down.

The proud are humiliated, the innocent are empowered, the lovers united, and there’s more singing (but the songs are now strange and possible parodies of something else and totally unique to the Marx Brothers films).

Margaret Dumont was in a lot of these, always looked shocked, aghast, and disgusted by their anarchy.  There’s a rumour in Hollywood that she wasn’t acting, but her career with the Marx Brothers was a prolonged sense of genuine outrage.  Why did she coming back for the next film?  No one knows, but her outrage seems to only make their humour only funnier.  They were breaking all of her rules!

There are times, in their movies, when the humour defaults to the hostilities and limited perception filters of their time.  Yes, some of their scenes make us rightfully cringe as a 21stCentury movie watcher.  However, the base idea of the Marx Brothers is essentially grace.

James 4:6 asserts, “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’”

You cannot be proud, be in control, and be right and, equally, be able to fully grasp, exude, and relate to God’s grace.  Why?  Grace will always be the Marx Brother to your status.

Writer Philip Yancey argues that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more; equally, there is nothing you can do to cause God to love you less[1].  We like the last bit- we’re loved no matter what.  However, what about the first?  That if I live a way where I see myself with the criteria that God sees me, then I don’t play the game of earning my status, levels of superiority, or control?

Another writer, Richard Rohr, says something similar when he says that the opposite of faith is not doubt but control.  According to this passage is James, we don’t understand grace when we seek for things to be under our control.

When we are in control, God lovingly sends us the Marx Brothers as a grace.

 

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The Taste of Berries.

Another writer, Frederick Buechner, describes God’s grace as the taste of berries[2].

You don’t earn the taste of berries.  You could be the greatest Dad in the world that morning, making your kids breakfast and picking a flower for your spouse…and the backyard berries will taste every so sweet.

Or you could be an absolute animal of a being, burning down orphanages, using shopping carts without returning them to their port, and discarding garbage without separating them.  And the backyard berries will taste equally sweet.

The metaphor helps me because the state of grace one has is not about who eats the berries but about the berries themselves.

If, by the grace of God, I am loved by the Almighty, then it is less about me and more about the goodness found in the Spirit of God.  This worth is not my own, but given from Above.

 

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A banjo.

As a child, I was instructed in the piano. I hated every moment of it.  For 7 years, I took lessons and played and suffered. Left alone, I had to just make noise on the piano.  My parents just listened for something, anything.  If it went quiet, I’d get a holler.

The clarinet was the same story.  That lasted a year.

Then, in University, I worked with youth ministries in an Evangelical Church.  I was told that ALL youth pastors could play the guitar.  I needed to because, let’s say, we’re sitting around a campfire in the woods I shouldn’t just talk to the kids, I needed to start playing music and turn it into an organic, spontaneous church service (a la Calvary Chapel).  And I hated the guitar when I was learning it.

One day, I good friend gifted me his banjo. I played with no ministerial or familial demands.  The machine existed just because and for no other reason than to be enjoyed.

I plucked and claw-hammered and frailed on the machine way back in 1996.  I still play it today.  From that state of grace, I have led worship at camps and church services (when asked), but I have also used it as my machine of grace.

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As a young man, I wrote on the front skin of my banjo: “THIS MACHINE SHARES GOD’S GRACE.”  The words are a loving parody to Woody Guthrie’s words “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISM.”  I figured God’s grace was closer to my heart than politics.

The banjo reminds me of the passage in Ephesians 2:8, 9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9= not by works, so that no one can boast.”

God is the greatest gift giver  we might ever know and the LORD invites us, as Christians, to share in this spirit of gift giving.  Not because we must or are told to or will get yelled at if we don’t or because we want to build our own empire, but because it’s a way of sharing in it’s goodness.  There is a joy in sharing of grace.

This is God’s grace.

[1]What’s So Amazing About Grace?  Yancey, Philip, Zondercan, 1997.

[2]The Alphabet of Grace. Buechner, Fredrick, Harper One, 1970.

2018: My Week At Summer Camp

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I have just returned from an amazing week at Inner-Varsity Pioneer camp.  My daughters were campers; my wife led crafts; and I did the big games and the storytelling for the nights while leading Bible classes during the day.

Last year, I brought back an old game from my days as a youth pastor, the Black Gong.  You can read about it here:

https://ericjkregel.wordpress.com/2017/08/11/the-black-gong-returns-what-this-summer-taught-me-about-living-in-a-redemptive-community/

The leadership of the camp wanted to do something a little bit different, so we went with a new metaphor and a new game and a new story.   I wanted the kids to experience the ever-presence of the Kingdom of God, seeing that it doesn’t reside in a particular building or only within a specific kind of person.

The working definition we had for the Kingdom of God/Heaven was: it is wherever, whenever, and by whomever follows Jesus as King.  

This theology is from Leo Tolstoy (“The Kingdom of God is Within You”) and perfected by N.T. Wright.  However, it’s all over the four Gospels.

But how you do translate that into a game?  A game for 6-10 year olds?

One night, my struggle with an image was so intense that I had to take a break.  I played the game “Forbidden Desert” with my wife.  Suddenly, as I looked at the pictures of alien ruins and all of the sand, I got the idea that the campers come into ruin of a lost civilization.  They’re dying of thirst.  So they make a thing that promises to get them out but instead the thing transforms the ruins into a living, actualized city filled with people and everything they would need to live.

The challenge wasn’t location but perspective; are we willing to see that God is here, God is present now?

Sometimes when it comes to telling stories to children, I get lazy.  I take references and names from pop or past culture and put them recklessly into my stories.  My daughter’s bedtime stories have Alf, Daleks, the Blue Meanies from the Beatles, and so forth all making cameos in their tales.

I did the same for this camp.

The lost kingdom was named “Skaro” from Doctor Who; the stations where they got supplies were called “Groucho”, “Zeppo”, “Chico”, “Harpo”, and “Gummo”; the thing to get them out of the desert was called the “Aedefecium” (borrowed from Dr. Umberto Eco); and the baddies were the “Gwar” Monsters.

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“Gwar” is a heavy metal band that dresses up like monsters and shoots things into their audience during live concerts. I’m not a fan, but I have enjoyed a video or two sent to me by friends.   Honestly, I just loved the name and meant, by no means, as an advertisement for the band.  If anything, I’d rather have kids read Umberto Eco or watch the Marx Brothers…but that won’t be happening anytime soon, if at all.

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The Gwar Monsters were supposed to be a simple plot device in the game: the kids would be searching for things but the Gwar Monsters would give them chase, creating an urgency to the game.

The first night was a relay race where kids got into refrigerator boxes and traveled through Gwarland: the grass, we claimed, was full of disease and radiation and, quite possibly, invisible hot lava.  The only thing that would protect you from such nastiness would be…cardboard.  They believed us for gaming purposes and the Gwar Monsters would stand in the middle, being living obstacles for their game.

(I got this idea from my days at Granada Heights Friends Church, back in my days as a youth director in California.)

The Gwar Monsters were a hit!  Their success, so big, that the next night the kids couldn’t play the game because they were chasing the Gwar Monsters.  Enamored by having a visible enemy, they threw soccer balls at these staff member’s heads or they would hurl an insult, only to retreat back to the safety of wood’s tree-line.  Kids would run, tackle, poke, and wrestle these leaders dressed in twigs, moss, and body paint and they couldn’t stop.

The Gwar Monsters, during every meal after the game, were the rockstars at the camp.  Like if a Beatle walked into a Baptist church around 1964, the three leaders would walk into the camp and their names would be shouted by campers, begging to sit at their table.  The fixation with being an enemy translated into Gwarmania.

It didn’t help things that three staff people playing the Gwar Monsters were kind folks, highly magnetic in their personalities, and great hams.  They laid it properly thick and the kids ate it up like chocolate cake frosting.

We decided not to invite back the Gwar Monsters for the final game (mainly because we wanted the kids to play it).  They had to go to the five stations to find parts of the Adefecium and the build it in the middle of Gwarland.  Then: Gwarland would be magically transformed into the living glory of the Kingdom of Skaro.

One of the staff members had a vision for what the Adefecium should be and that was a cross that could only be assembled the right way, with the right dowels and base in it’s proper use.  The metaphor went that we come to the cross not on our terms, but on God’s terms.  We wanted it built in the poison land, in the heart of wherever everything went wrong and was it’s most dangerous.

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The game ended.  We unpacked all of the meaning through the afternoon classes and the evening stories.   When the game was over, a staff person then asked, “What about the Gwar Monsters?”   I was content to say they were vacationing in Vermont and we wouldn’t see them again, but the kids wanted one last confrontation.

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We decided to have a 7am wake-up, where the Gwar Monsters would attack the camp and the campers would defend their homes by pillows.  I cabin leader brought his bagpipe to camp (Wouldn’t you?) and played a war ballad, accompanied by another staff member beating on his bongos.  With the pipes blaring, the Gwar Monsters attacking, and the drums thumping it was absolute pillow fighting bedlam for fifteen minutes until the breakfast bell rang.  The Gwar Monsters were repelled and the camp safe again.

But it didn’t feel complete.  Not wrong, but something was missing when it came to our description of the Kingdom of God.

One of the staff members on the last morning of camp sharing his feelings while proposing an idea: “What if the Gwar Monsters came back, singing one of the camper’s praise songs to God?  What if we showed the campers that Gwar Monsters could be part of the Kingdom of God too?”

I agreed.  We planned that during our last meal the Gwar Monsters could make an appearance.  I then was given a strong challenge: “Eric,” the staff fellow whose idea this was and also one of the Gwar Monsters.  “You need to pray for the Gwar Monster’s salvation.  It doesn’t work if you don’t pray.”

I struggled with this.  I mean, Gwar Monsters were fictional characters.  I love Disney cartoons, but I don’t pray that Donald Duck doesn’t come to a nice, compassionate Anglican Church.  I don’t pray that Captain Hook would repent and attend a support group with Darth Vader.

But then again, the kids-on a certain level, believed in the Gwar Monsters.  They knew it was a game, but they also were willing to suspend this belief for jumping into a story.   The camp leader was asking me to enter into the camper’s minds and pray from that point of reference: go into their story so that God’s story could reign.

I then prayed at the beginning of the meal for the Gwar Monsters to enter into the Kingdom of God.

Halfway through the breakfast, the Gwar Monsters carried the Adefecium and sang songs of praise.  They then joined the kids for breakfast in character.  Kids ran up, welcoming them like one does a visitor at a church’s potluck.   Hugs were shared between camper and monster.   The camp ended happily as everyone was included into the Kingdom (even fictional villains).

Everything came together in the Kingdom of Skaro.

(Sidenote: If you want to find out more about the amazing place of Pioneer Lodge InnerVarsity Camp, follow this link: https://www.pioneercampalberta.ca).

 

It’s The End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine

“Keep Santa Cruz Weird” is a slogan to encourage busking in this coastal Californian city but the slogan didn’t make the town weird: it had a long history of eccentricity.

Free summer concerts delight crowds of beach goers and Boardwalk guests Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

In the 1980’s, we were proud of our town because it was the setting of the film “The Lost Boys”.  The city, hugged by mountains and a beach, stood as a solid sliver of art, wildness, and freedom for its citizens.  In the 1990’s, it was where old hippies went as their final resting place.  I saw, one night on an open stage, the band “Camper Van Beethoven” play their music and they created little stir: it was the kind of thing you’d expect in Santa Cruz.

So, in December of 1999, the end of the world mania gripped the west coast.  In the town I was living in at the time- Whittier- people were buying water, guns, canned goods, and generators like there would be-literally- no tomorrow.

A senior gentleman who owned our local liquor store camped atop his roof for an entire week before the new year.  He clutched his rifle and was willing to shoot any looters.  He did this during the Rodney King Riots of LA and found this emotionally satisfying the last time.  No one was hurt, but he still felt a bit more in control of his castle.

My mom’s next-door neighbor filled up his bathtubs and sinks, expecting that when the computer glitch in the system- unable to transition the count from 99 to 2000- would happen, he would have water for his family. He told my mom to do the same thing.

I didn’t do any of these safety precautions.  Instead, I headed to Santa Cruz.

I figured that if the world was going collapse, the computers would stop working, and the end was nigh- I mine as well be surrounded by hippies and socialists and flower children.  When natural disaster strikes, one should pick a good neighborhood.

My older brother and some friends from his days in the Peace Corp were vacationing in Santa Cruz, so I decided to join them to ring in the new year.

We watching the live news feed from Jerusalem.  I can remember the late Peter Jennings droning, “Many…believe that this would be the site where Jesus Christ would return…he is not here…nowhere to be found…these people, evidently, are wrong…again, Jesus has not returned…He is not in Jerusalem…”

After a dinner that couldn’t be beat, we headed off to the downtown of Santa Cruz.   Some free shows were provided, but for the most part people milled around the streets.

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Then it happened.  From stage left behind two dumpsters and an alley, emerged a group of Hare Krishnas banging on drums.  Their beat intoxicating, a steady ta-dum-dum-dum, ta-dum-dum…

All smiles, they led the displaced and dissociated crowd of strangers down the main street.

Soon, we were a mob!  Joining us was a man dressed like a banana, handing out fruit to people.  A group of black clad teenagers marched behind me.  People danced.  Those of us who didn’t know why- the majority- just marched.  Where were we going?  No one knew.

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If you ever wondered- what would a group of people partying who were convinced it was the last night of their lives do?- the application of this thought took place on the streets of Santa Cruz.  It was as if Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Catholic church all worked together to engineer the apocalypse.

We marched.

We got to the end of the street, the masses stared at the city’s clock tower.  The countdown began:

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10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…

 

A silence fell on the entire city.  All eyes were fixed upon the street lights.  Time passed.  Without apology, time progressed to 12:01 and civilization had indeed survived.

In unison, the entire mob booed.  Some shook their fists at the lights.  Others just threw up their hands in disgust.

Commerce, capitalism, debt, time, and computers had all survived Y2K.

 

 

My kids, the other night, asked me if people actually believed that the world would end in the year 2000.  I said yes and this answer seemed silly.

Storytelling is often limited in the first person because you can’t convey the tension when it comes to your possible demise: “And that was the day, a long time ago, I died…”.

It’s hard to tell two kids born well into the 21stCentury that people believed, just maybe, things would fall apart. Why?  They are removed, by time, from the tension of the story.  This can be a problem because in tension is where we find our life’s lessons.

When I think of the Ark and the Covenant, we forget sometimes what was inside this Holy of Holy container.  Three common objects: Aaron’s staff, manna, and the 10 Commandments.

Why did the ancient Jews have to carry that around? Why was that part of their worship?

They did so that they would always remember the tension of their own story.  They, at one time, were slaves of Egypt.  God led them back to their own land through Aaron.  “Don’t ever forget that,” an elder would say.  “And, also, don’t make anyone your slave!  Learn from this story!”

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Manna was what God gave them to eat.  “Don’t ever forget that God takes care of you if you do what He wants,” the elders would say.

And the Law, the rules of good living.  “Keep these, don’t break them.  Besides, you can’t break these Laws!  You can only break yourself against these laws.  Follow them!”

We tell these stories to remind us of their tensions, struggles, and resolutions.   We enter into these stories because they’re good for our hearts and remind us what we’ve inherited.

And we tell stories to find our place in God’s great story.