Emily’s Weekday Wonderings
Rev. Emily Gordon is on maternity leave from November 13th, 2017 until mid-March 2018 check our blog for updates.
February 14, 2018
Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day
At first it might seem contradictory having Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day this year – a marking of the start of the season of Lent, often reduced to the idea of giving something up (such as chocolate), and a day that has become synonymous with the idea of romantic love as reflected in consumption (chocolate). And yet, if we think about what Lent and Valentine’s Day are really about, they might not be quite so far apart after all.
Let’s start with Lent. In English, Lent can refer to the church season, but it also connects to an Old English word lencten meaning “spring (the season)” and associated with the word for long, because of the days growing longer. In French, Italian, and ultimately Latin we see connections to the word for “slow” – for those of you who are musical, you just need to think of or lentement (or lente) can mean “slow.” A very similar word, however, comes from the Latin for “lentil” and came to take on the sense of “lens” (I guess this is due to the shape of a lens being lentil-like). So we can bring the idea of a lens, and how we see things, to the idea of Lent as well. Where does this get us?
Lent is a season for slowing down and seeing what is around us.
And Valentine’s Day is a day where we recognize the importance of love – not just romantic love, but all love. The love of friends and family (by birth or by choice), the love of others, and the divine love that rests within and connects us all. When we recognize something we might celebrate it, whether through gift-giving (which is nice but not the most important part of the day), or through words and actions (calling a friend, hugging a child, smiling at a stranger), or through reflection, meditation, and thanksgiving for that love that flows through each of us.
So on this Valentine’s Lent day, I wish you time to slow down, look around, and give thanks for the many varied ways that we experience love in our lives.
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
January 18, 2018
Lullabies and Hymns for us all.
During last September’s interview, I was asked what Bible stories I planned on sharing with the baby first. It’s an interesting question, but over the last month, I’ve been thinking that another question was more urgent – what hymns did I plan to sing to the baby? During the Songs & Psalms series in late October and early November, we spent time thinking about how music is a window into the sacred. Sometimes people create an arbitrary separation between sacred and secular, when actually all music can speak to the larger questions about life, touching our spirits and not just our ears. So we spent some time hearing lyrics to songs that were not written primarily to be shared in a church, and exploring the meaning they offer our faith (and you can hear those sermons online if you are interested). Since then, I’ve been thinking about the other side of that relationship – the ways hymns and refrains that we sing together in church then spill over into the rest of our lives, as we find ourselves humming the tunes, or remembering words or phrases.
The first time I was changing Neil, I found myself instinctively wanting to sing something to try to comfort him. The lullaby that jumped into mind was “Hush Little Baby,” but as I started singing it I was quickly dissatisfied. First of all, I found myself unable to remember what “Papa” will buy after the looking glass should break. But then, I wondered what kind of a message the song was giving: be quiet and we’ll buy you things. And when something goes wrong with those things, just buy more things…
Well, it started me thinking about what’s behind what we sing, and the next song I chose was “O Beautiful Gaia” from More Voices. A hymn about the beauty of the earth, the Canadian landscape, and our call to responsibility. The hymn is also beautiful when sung slowly, perfect for a lullaby. What makes a hymn a good lullaby? Or, for everyone not seeking lullabies right now – what makes a hymn a song that can stay with us, and feed our spirits during the week? Here are a few thoughts: a tune that can be remembered and sung again; words that can be remembered (the repetition in “O Beautiful Gaia” or “Peace for the Children,” which we sung Nov. 12th, is perfect for this); and ideas that have both a certain depth and a certain simplicity. With these three elements a hymn or refrain can be carried with us into our daily lives, grounding us in times of worry or anxiety, comforting us in times of sadness, expressing our moments of joy and thanksgiving. Spending some time finding the hymns that speak to us can enrich not just our worship together but also many other moments in our lives.
Take “Peace for the Children” for instance. This hymn expresses a deep hope, a deep longing, for the world – that we might experience peace. We also hear about the role of our faith in this longing (“Following the path of One of Peace”) as well as our own personal responsibility (“We work for healing, we work for peace”). Because we can call ourselves followers of Jesus, who is called One of Peace, we are called to work for peace. Peace comes out of wholeness, coming together, our effort. It is something active that we are called toward. As I sing these words to Neil, I can tell him “we know the One of Peace as Jesus. As you grow, I’ll tell you about him.” And for now, I can hope these words and these notes bring peace – “Peace for our little Neil, peace, peace. Peace for our little Neil we pray.”
With blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
January 15, 2018
Thought for the day:
Recently, I unexpectedly followed a lead to an article in the Lifestyle section of Fashion magazine – The New New Age: “Spiritual But Not Religious” by Katherine Gougeon. What caught my attention, and I wanted to share, was a quotation from Lillian Daniel, a minister in our sister denomination in the USA, the United Church of Christ: “Religious tradition should be like sandpaper against a culture that is constantly asking ‘How can we meet your needs?’ It should require something of you. Any idiot can find God in a sunset. Finding God in the woman sitting next to you whose baby cries during the entire sermon takes grit.”
Have you thought of religion this way before? I think our faith should both be something that feeds and nurtures us, and something that challenges us and makes demands. Where do you find God in the midst of the requirements of community?
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
November 9, 2017
On the afternoon of October 28th we had a prayer workshop. We wondered about questions such as: Why do we pray? How do we pray? And, what is prayer anyway?
Often we think of prayer in very structured terms, such as The Lord’s Prayer, a prayer at the start of a meeting, prayer in worship, praying the rosary (in the Catholic tradition), or saying grace before a meal. But what if we pay less attention to the words that are used or not used, what if we set aside formal instances of prayer, and instead look at prayer in much larger terms? What if prayer is not a set of words, but an approach to life?
Here are some characteristics of prayer that emerged in our shared discussion:
• Paying attention/openness
If we think about characteristics such as these (although I am certainly not offering this as a comprehensive list), then it becomes clear that prayer can happen in all kinds of places. For instance, a couple of examples of possible prayer moments for me include journaling, or going for walks. Someone else might name a prayer moment as going for coffee with a good friend, when the conversation and connection can move somewhere deep. Prayer can happen with words or with silence, with movement or with stillness.
I invite you to think about these characteristics. Does this list make sense to you? Where are you already experiencing prayer in your own daily life? Are there any other ways that you’d like to “practice” prayer – focusing more on listening, paying attention, connection, grounding, and thanksgiving?
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
October 20, 2017
On Sunday, we began a four week worship series called “Songs and Psalms.” Music fills our lives in so many ways, whether it is the radio in the car, streaming music online, soundtracks to film and television, playing in a school band, singing in a choir, or attending concerts, ballets, musicals or operas. Every week, our worship is filled with music. And it’s not just because we like music, it’s because music is an important part of our faith.
If you open the Bible at about the middle, chances are you will end up in Psalms – Psalms are at the very centre of our scripture. Although many of the psalms are attributed to David (who the stories tell us was a lyre-playing shepherd before becoming King of Israel), scholars mostly think that the book of psalms is primarily a collection of the hymns of their day, used by the community worshiping together. The psalms are filled with all sorts of things we find in our hymns as well – expressions of thanksgiving, attempts to describe God’s goodness, lament and sorrow, celebration of beauty and hope. Sometimes the psalms are a bit more human than we’d like them to be but they can also be filled with beauty. There is even a whole set of the psalms that are about the importance of songs and music as a way to worship (some of which we’re hearing during our series). Of course, psalms aren’t the only place music and song appears in our scriptures – songs are sprinkled throughout the stories, whether songs sung by Miriam and Moses in the Exodus story, or songs sung by Mary and others in expectation of and response to Jesus’ birth.
Sometimes we are tempted to separate the church and our faith from our communities and day to day lives. It can seem easier to have neat boxes, to label some music “sacred” and some “secular” and see them as different. However, I think the stories of our faith remind us that this is not the case. Any song we sing with honesty and joy can be an act of praise. Any song that speaks to the deepest human emotions, whether love, sadness, anger, or celebration can offer insight into the meaning of human life, one of the most important questions at the core of faith. So let’s embrace all the music we hear, from the song of a bird, to the pop music at a café, to the music we turn to when we are alone and to the music we share in worship together – knowing that music speaks to the heart and reaches outward, connecting us with each other, which is in itself holy.
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
September 21, 2017
Blessing of the Animals
On Sunday was the second Blessing of the Animals service that I’ve held since I arrived at Leaside. Presteign-Woodbine also has a tradition of Blessing of the Animals services. This year we had 25 two-legged people and 9 four-legged people take part. I hope next year even more people join us, whether or not they are accompanied by a four-legged (or other number of legs) friend.
What is going on when we share a blessing? I believe that a blessing is not about adding something new or conferring favour. Instead, when we speak a blessing we are expressing our belief about something that is already true: God’s loving presence which embraces each of us, all people, and all things – whether animals, plants, or other non-living parts of creation. A blessing recognizes the goodness that already rests within. The stories of Jesus are full of accounts of him recognizing the potential, the goodness and strength, what our scriptures call the faith, that already exists in the people he meets. When we bless other things, we practice recognizing that potential, that pre-existing goodness.
If a blessing doesn’t change things, if a blessing isn’t necessary, then why bother? While a blessing doesn’t change this divine truth, it is important to be reminded of it. All too often we either feel lonely and unloved, or are forgetful of the sacred that exists in others and the world. In both cases, we need to be reminded that we are not alone, and that others offer us insight and an image of the divine.
This is one of the reasons we have services like the Blessing of the Animals, or the Blessing of the Bicycles that we had in the spring. This is one of the reasons we celebrate baptisms, and why we end our weekly worship with a blessing.
You are loved. You are precious. And so are all people, all animals, all of creation that you encounter this day and throughout the week.
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
September 19, 2017
Hurricanes and How We Respond
A couple of Sundays ago, during our prayers I made an effort to name the different places that had been affected by Hurricane Irma. Of course, most of the media attention focused on Florida. After all, a lot of our media attention in general relates to the United States. They are our close neighbours, have a much larger population than we do, and are a significant economic, military, and political power. We have to be careful, however, that we don’t allow ourselves to miss those whose voices are not as easily heard, and yet who are experiencing just as, or even more, devastating effects, often with fewer resources to respond. So the prayers a couple of weeks ago included Anguilla, Barbuda (where almost 60% of the population is now homeless), St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, the Virgin Islands, The Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Haiti.
Now as we hear about Hurricane Maria reaching the status of a Category 5 hurricane, we hear of hurricane warnings posted for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat, and a tropical storm warning issued for Antigua and Barbuda, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Martin, St. Lucia, Martinique and Anguilla.
What can we do? In addition to prayers, and intentionally paying attention to all those who are being affected by extreme weather, we might choose to respond to emergency appeals. You might have a preferred organization to support, or you might choose to give through the United Church which works with many global partners. There are a number of ways to offer support for emergencies at home and abroad including those affected by Hurricane Irma.
We might also think about the larger issue of the ways extreme weather, and climate change more broadly disproportionately impact those who do not have the resources to respond of the richest countries, and who are contributing relatively little to climate change. This calls us to respond both through personal action (how do we make daily decisions that will tread more lightly on the planet?) and through advocacy (how do we encourage politicians at all levels to work towards addressing climate change and environmental issues?). As I said on Sunday, this is not just an environmental issue. It is not just a political issue. It is not even just a socio-economic issue. It is an issue that is central to our faith, to the question of how we live faithfully in the world today.
Blessing, Rev. Emily Gordon
September 07, 2017
Back To School
Well, this is the week when most students have started back at school. One of my friends texted on Tuesday that she was “drowning” amidst all the first day of school forms and lists of things to buy for her two children. On the radio over the past couple of weeks, I’ve listened to conversations about packed lunches, starting kindergarten, and the socio-economic implications of homework. This past Sunday, we had an opportunity to name places and people for our prayers, and all those going back to school (students of all ages, as well as teachers) became part of our prayers.
Back to school – it’s a reminder of the changing of the seasons (which the weather is trying to remind us of as well) and of the passage of time. For some of us it might carry nostalgia, for others it is an immediate concern. This season is also a reminder of the importance we place on learning, and with it on the idea of growth.
Learning has an important role within our faith as well. Those Jesus met most often called him Rabbi, which means Teacher, and Jesus taught with sayings, stories, and actions. Those that followed him, we call “disciples” and talk about being called ourselves to be disciples of Jesus. The word disciple comes from the Latin disciplus, which means learner. So a core idea within our faith tradition is that we are learners, and this is a life-long calling.
If we think of our faith as a call to ongoing learning, there are different areas that we are called to learn about (ourselves, others, the sacred in the world, how to live), and different qualities or values that are given emphasis (such as listening, openness, uncertainty, asking questions, imagination, paying attention). How do we live in a way that allows us to continue to learn, and to foster values like these in our lives?
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
August 17, 2017
What’s on the bookshelf?
In a Weekday Wondering reflection I wrote in June, I considered the idea of diversity, and how we often fall short in our day to day lives. I mentioned my own awareness of how limited the diversity within my reading choices can sometimes be. This summer I have added three quite different books to my reading list in order to read more recent by First Nations and Indigenous writers:
Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Simpson (2015). This book is given the subtitle or description “Stories and Songs.” For those here during our Canada Day Hymn Service, we heard a short excerpt from this book as one of the readings.
Walking the clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, edited by Grace L. Dillon (2012). It might be the case that we more commonly turn to Indigenous authors on topics obviously related to their experience, or environmental or political subjects. Sometimes when we move to genre fiction, diversity can seem to disappear. This book collects science fiction from Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal Australian, and New Zealand Maori authors.
A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby (2016). Our congregation values the idea of being affirming as an ongoing process individually and as a congregation. Over the past few years I have become aware of a significant gap in my own personal learning – the First Nations understanding of being Two-Spirit. I was happy to learn of this recent autobiography, both a story of personal experience and I hope an opportunity for me to learn more about being Two-Spirit.
So, why am I mentioning part of my summer reading list? If one of these books has caught your attention, you might be interested in reading it – and you certainly can. You might know that Tanya has developed an excellent library for families with books for children, youth, and adults on topics related to Christianity, world religions, affirming, values, and parenting. Anyone is welcome to sign out a book of interest at any time.
Recently I’ve been thinking we should expand the library. Why not create a small collection of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis writers, as one step in our journey towards right relations? Why not create a small collection of books that will support our ongoing work of being affirming? What about a small collection for writings on Christian faith and world religions? Perhaps these three books can be a start. If you might be interested in helping to build our library (whether by donating books or by helping to organize, plan and shelve books), please let me know.
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
August 9, 2017
I was recently walking to the bus stop when I passed by a superhero. Well, it was a youth wearing a Superman t-shirt, but that is almost the same thing. You might know that our congregation has regular appearances from a superhero or two as well… We have a real cultural interest in superheroes. So many of the big blockbuster movies are part of the Marvel universe or the DC universe. This year alone we have: The Lego Batman Movie; Logan; Power Rangers; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Wonder Woman; Spider Man: Homecoming; Thor: Ragnarok; and Justice League. And that’s not even looking at television or other media. So, why are superhero movies so popular?
In some ways superhero movies hold at their very heart the tension all of us experience in some way, which we bring to our faith as well – it is hard not to look at our world and see everything that is going wrong, and yet we cling to the hope that good can win. For our superheroes, just like for all of us, we see that this success is not straightforward, and there can be great costs in doing what is right. Superhero movies can even lead us to bigger questions (can violence ever truly end violence, or does it just create more? What happens when too much hope or responsibility is placed on a single person or group of people, and how does this distort our society?)
A battle between good and evil is not only the ongoing motif of superhero & supervillain, but also an ancient image from our faith. This idea is called “Christus Victor” – an idea that through resurrection Christ emerges victorious, having defeated death and the powers of evil. This understanding presents the cosmos in terms of a great battle between forces of good and evil, which we are swept up in as human beings. Christ as the ultimate superhero. Of course, there are problems with this image of how the world works, and it is certainly simplistic to group things, actions, or people as “good” or “evil.” All sorts of other ideas about God have important roles within Christianity, and there are many different explanations for the crucifixion of Jesus, as well as understandings of the meaning of resurrection. Some harmful, others inspiring, but all in some way inadequate. And yet, the battle between good and evil has incredible power in our cultural imagination, appearing in art and entertainment in countless ways.
Our faith calls us to see the complexity in the world, to move away from simplification and categorization. This is an ongoing process, calling us to question our assumptions about how the world works, the way we place other people into categories, and to an openness about other ways of seeing the world. At the same time – I love the fun and excitement of a good superhero story. It can be wonderful imagining my preferred superpower, or that it is possible to defeat the villain, if only for a time.
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
July 28, 2017
After meeting with a family about baptism in August, I found myself stuck in traffic on my way home, and listening to the news. Unfortunately the news was about Trump’s policy announcement via twitter to exclude transgender people from military service. Here is the rough information I gained from the news story:
Currently perhaps 2500 transgender people service in the US military. That’s a significant number given how recently Obama made it permissible to do so.
The medical cost to the US military might be roughly 8 million a year. The cost to the US military for Viagra is roughly 42 million. The Pentagon yearly budget is over 600 billion.
My heart breaks for those roughly 2500 people who are directly experiencing uncertainty and fear as a result of this announcement. It can be easy to be caught up in numbers, outrage, or complacency (after all, that sort of thing doesn’t happen in Canada) and forget about the people whose lives and careers are directly affected. Not just those currently serving, but all those who might have been thinking of serving, or even those transgender people who would never be interested but still hear in this a message of being unwelcome.
Of course, like some many things related to Trump’s approach to administration, we don’t know what the result of the twitter announcement will actually be. Will anything change? Is this a case of “smoke and mirrors” to distract from other issues? Even if it is, it is still something to lament that people can be singled out and excluded for their identity.
It’s not uncommon to hear people wonder about the importance of being an affirming congregation. Does it really make a difference? But every time we raise our voice in welcome, every time we are clear that we will not be an exclusive space it matters, because so many churches and so many countries do not make this choice. What else might our commitment to being affirming call us to do?
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon
June 23, 2017
Diversity (Babies, Faith, and Canada)
This week I’ve been reading a book by Jena Pincott called Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy (spoiler alert: as a true chocolate lover I skipped ahead for the answer, and it seems there’s some research that suggests this may be the case because of chocolate’s ability to moderate stress). For those of you who were at church last Sunday when I shared that I am pregnant, my reading choice probably isn’t surprising.
I’ve also been reading a blog post on The Almost Indian Wife called “How Can You Teach Your Biracial Child To Be Proud Of Who They Are”. Her first point is the need to surround your child with diversity. She writes, “You can do this by showing diversity in their books, food, friend groups, school, movies, and more. This doesn’t just mean their own culture. They need to be exposed to multiple cultures because it creates an environment of acceptance rather than intolerance.” I really appreciated her attention to learning not just about your own culture(s) but many others and, while I have a personal stake in this, I think this applies to all of us.
Intolerance means exclusion, suspicion, judgment, and all sorts of other attitudes and values that run counter to the love of neighbour and stranger that is at the heart of what our faith teaches. The next step forward is tolerance – the idea that as long as someone doesn’t get in our way or hurt others, they can believe and do what they want. With acceptance, we begin to value diversity rather than just allowing it to exist. In many ways, diversity is a value that rests at the core of our faith, our identity as a city, and our understanding of Canada. Recognizing and celebrating diversity is at the heart of who we are. As an affirming congregation, we try to celebrate diversity in its many forms within our congregation and community, working to ensure that all people know they are welcome here.
At the same time, I know there are many ways I personally am falling short at celebrating diversity. Most often for me this comes up when I think about the books I have been reading, and the TV shows or movies that I have been watching. Whether it’s my own limited knowledge, my love of the familiar, or the genres that I turn to most often (fantasy, steampunk, mystery, alternate history) I know diversity is lacking in the authors I read, and the characters I encounter. One of my goals this summer is to read more diverse authors, so that I can learn more about cultures, religions, traditions, and experiences that are different to my own.
Do you have a goal for encountering and celebrating diversity this summer? It might be continuing what you are already doing, or trying something new. It might be books you read, movies you watch, festivals you attend, new cuisines you want to try eating or cooking… It might be attending our 6 week worship series July 16-Aug 20, or our summer TED talks group, both with opportunities to reflect on topics including Islam, Buddhism and Atheism. Whatever it is, I wish you much learning and enjoyment, and I’d love to hear about it.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
June 17, 2017
Celebrations – Canada’s 150
I’ve explored the idea of birthdays and anniversaries when we’re talking about people, relationships, or congregations, but what about when we’re talking about countries? This year as we mark Canada’s 150 I’ve been wondering what it means to celebrate it. Recently I’ve been thinking about it a number of different ways.
History – while there are many events and people to celebrate in Canada’s past, there are also many things we need to recognize were wrong. Examples include mistreatment of First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples, in many ways including residential schools and the ‘sixties scoop.’ Other instances include the treatment of various immigrant groups throughout our history, from Chinese workers building the railway, to internment camps, to current instances of Islamophobia. How do we celebrate all that is good in our country’s past and present in a way that does not ignore the instances when our country has done harm?
Arts and Culture – In order to celebrate this country, it seems to me that we need to support Canadian talent and creativity, as well as the Canadian economy. In an age of globalization, there are many ways in which we name a value on being Canadian, but do not support the country with our spending habits or leisure time. I’m not sure if you heard about the CRTC decision earlier this (Canada’s 150th) year.
Here’s the summary: The CRTC issued its decisions to renew the broadcasting licences of Bell, Corus, and Rogers — and it gave them a big break on “Programs of National Interest” (PNI). PNI is a subset of Canadian programming defined as drama (including comedy, animation, and fictional programming aimed at children), long-form documentary, and certain awards shows that showcase Canadian talent. PNI spending minimums were initially set based on historical spending by each group, which had to be recalculated when ownership transactions — like Bell buying Astral and Corus buying Shaw Media — changed the group’s composition of services. The WGC co-commissioned research to see what the PNI for each group today should be, based on historical averages. The results were that Bell should be at 8% of broadcasting revenues, Corus at 9%, and Rogers at 5%. Instead of imposing those, very status quo requirements, the CRTC slashed the percentages to the lowest common denominator: 5% across the board. The potential impact could be over $200 million less for PNI over a five-year licence term. If you are interested in taking action on this topic, you might want to sign one or both of these petitions:
Petition to save BravoFact and MuchFact (programs that support Canadian short films and music videos, and are likely to be cut first)
What does it mean to express pride in and celebrate our country at the same time that we reduce requirements to support Canadian programming?
I think that celebrating Canada’s 150 requires us not to be complacent but to do what we can to make this country an example of what is possible. This means naming and celebrating what is good, while also naming and changing what is still lacking. What are other ways we might do this as individuals, as a congregation, as a country?
Blessings, Emily Gordon
June 15, 2017
Celebrations – Leaside United Church’s Birth Day
When we celebrate a birthday or anniversary, we recognize the value in the person or relationship we are celebrating. Birthdays and anniversaries refocus us on people, and remind us of the passage of time. When we celebrate the birthday of a church (like the 92nd birthday of the United Church of Canada on June 10th, also the ‘Birth Day’ of our new Leaside United Church), we are celebrating all the people who make up that church – in the past, present, and future. For me, that was part of what was so wonderful about our Birth Day party on June 10th. You could walk one way and see the bouncy castle full of children, walking another direction would lead you to our Arts and Crafts Gallery with contributions from people aged 5 up to… well, a lot more years than that. Groups of adults gathered in the sanctuary to watch the youth video, or outside to sit and chat over pieces of cake. In so many ways, it was a celebration of people – past, present, and future.
Birthdays and anniversaries allow us to celebrate where we have been, and imagine what is ahead. They are a time filled with possibility, and can become opportunities to recommit ourselves to what we feel is important. This is part of what lies behind the idea of the “birthday wish” when someone blows out their candles – thinking about what is possible in our future. Birthdays can become times of resolutions and personal commitments – to accomplish something before your next birthday, or to remind yourself of something that matters. Certainly for our new congregation, this is the case, and this birth day provides the opportunity to imagine new things and remind ourselves of our values and commitments as individuals and as a congregation.
It has been a wonderful past year, and as we approach the summer we approach a more restful season in the life of the church. If you are away this summer, you might be spending time renewing yourself with relationships, time in nature, or time discovering new things. If you are in Toronto, you might also be enjoying nature, and the many festivals of our city. You might also want to pay attention to some of the fun and different opportunities for worship and reflection happening at Leaside United Church.
Worship to Note:
- July 2 we will mark Canada Day with a hymn service, Canadian music from past to present
- July 16 – August 20 will be a six week series “Are You There, God?” Each week, during worship we will be listening to a talk, and having an opportunity for discussion. Themes will include: Is religion good or bad?, Islam, Buddhism, Atheism, Uncertainty, and Reclaiming Religion. We’ll be moving the pews for this 6 week series to create a space for conversation. This is the perfect opportunity to invite a friend who isn’t a regular church goer, but might be interested in exploring larger ideas around religion.
TED talks summer group:
We will also have a 6 week TED talks summer group (with icecream) on Tuesdays July 11-August 8 and Wednesday August 16 from 3:30-4:45. The videos will be different from the ones we view on Sunday, but will complement the themes. This means you can just attend the group or just attend worship, but for those able to attend both it should be even more enriching.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
May 26, 2017
Some of you know that I have been asked to be the Worship Coordinator for the Toronto Conference AGM this year, so I am currently up in Midland, Ontario not just thinking about the business of conference but also all of the worship logistics. I will be back on Sunday (and what a wonderful Sunday it will be!) but in the meantime, I wanted to share two things:
The first is that this year Toronto Conference is making the decision about whether to be affirming as a conference. This does not mean all congregations would be affirming – that process would still be the responsibility of each individual congregation, as it has been and still is for us. It would probably act as an encouragement for congregations to consider this as something important to consider. When we become an affirming congregation, we make a commitment to be expansive in our welcome and in our community. While I was at the festival of homiletics, one of the preachers said “sometimes I think it is easiest for us to be friendly and helpful to strangers… who stay strangers.” When we don’t know someone it is easy to be nice, to offer a superficial smile or temporary help. The harder task is creating a welcome that means strangers are no longer strangers and we continue to grow as a community together, changing with each person who walks through our doors. Definitely harder, but certainly more meaningful.
I also wanted to leave you with a few words from the conference worship (and we’ll see a few more on Sunday). It’s the advantage of having the minister in charge of the worship – inside access! This is a prayer from the Service of Remembering, a service that honours congregations that have closed or amalgamated in the past year, people who have died within the presbyteries, and offers other space for grieving for the suffering present in our world.
present in the birth of galaxies and the dying of a star,
as constant as the changing of the seasons,
we give thanks for the lives of people and congregations
that have offered hope and inspiration,
shared love and compassion, and worked for justice and peace.
Be with us in our remembering, so that we may be moved
to continue this work of justice, peace, and love,
living into your presence with courage and in hope.
May our actions honour those before us,
and make the world better for those who come after.
We pray in the name of Jesus, sign of suffering love and sacred hope,
Blessings, Emily Gordon
May 20, 2017
There are so many highlights from my week from the Festival of Homiletics,
from moving and memorable sermons, to a range of lectures and workshops,
to time with other preachers. Here is one little highlight, from just one
Nadia Bolz-Weber asked: what does it mean to say “do not be afraid” in a
world where danger is real? And said, “Maybe the opposite of fear isn’t
bravery, maybe the opposite of fear is love.”
Blessings, Emily Gordon
May 9, 2017
Next week (starting May 15) will be one of my study leaves, as I head down to the Festival of Homiletics for the week. If you aren’t sure what Homiletics means, my Chambers Etymological English Dictionary explains that it is “the art of preaching.” It comes from the Greek word homilia (an assembly). While we usually use the word “Sermon” (which has Latin roots) or “Reflection,” the academic discipline is called homiletics – and yes, that was one of the courses that I took while preparing for ministry. The word Homily refers to a “a sermon explaining a passage from scripture and providing practical guidance rather than discussing religious doctrine.” Does this idea resonate for you? Is the idea of practical guidance rather than big picture discussions appealing? I think my sermons have different directions that they take, but I try to keep connected to the every day, to the question of how we live in the world right now – and why that matters.
I was excited when I read that definition of homiletics as the Art of Preaching, because I enjoy anything that reminds me of the creative. What changes when we think of what we do, not just as a practical matter but as an art? Art takes training, and practice. With time there is an ease of movement, a grace to what happens. Do we see that in the words we speak in the office? Or in the way we move in more physical jobs? If we look back to where we were when we began, do we see how we have developed, how our palette that we worked with has grown and changed?
In some ways, the word “art” is also a reminder of the role of taste. The art work that I stop at in a gallery and linger over is likely very different from the one you choose to admire. Similarly, you may find there are days when the words of my sermon speak to you closely, offer an insight that was needed or a new idea to ponder. You may find there are days when the sermon seems to be speaking to someone else, to not be what you need – and yet, the person a few pews away has been moved. When we gather as a community to worship together (as any time we gather as a community), we remember that we are not only there for ourselves, but for all those around us. We hope we might receive what we most need, and that our presence may be a part of what those around us need.
As I continue the journey of becoming skillful in this art, I hope that all of you will have times when my words and approach help you to be moved by the spirit, and that there are times when this does not happen, so that others might be moved. I do hope you will talk to me about it. Where are your questions? Where are you connecting, and where not? My grandfather used to say he was happy when someone came up and told him they disagreed with his sermon – that meant they were listening, engaging with the topic, and developing their opinions. I feel the same way – so let me know!
Blessings, Emily Gordon
April 28, 2017
Just a couple of quotations used in my sermon last Sunday, as we thought about the importance of bodies, being an Affirming congregation, and disability theology. The text we were exploring was John 20:19-29 (Jesus appears to the disciples, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion). I should mention that whether or not you think this story literally happened (and whether or not it matters to you), the gospel writer was trying to convey a Truth with it (as so many stories whether or not they literally happened contained Truth). For Nancy L. Eiesland, this story presents an important truth about the nature of God, as well as the importance of all our bodies. Here are some of her words from The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability:
“In the resurrected Jesus Christ, they saw not the suffering servant for whom the last and most important word was tragedy and sin, but the disabled God who embodied both impaired hands and feet and pierced side and the imago Dei [the image of God].”
“Jesus, the resurrected Savior, calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their own salvation. In so doing, this disabled God is also the revealer of a new humanity. The disabled God is not only the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that full personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability.”
“the presence of the disabled God makes it possible to bear a nonconventional body.”
(We might think about all the different ways our bodies are non-conventional. Disability or differing abilities is one example, as can be gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race…)
And now, a story from Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World, with another perspective on the importance of the uniqueness of our bodies:
“When I first came to Christian faith in college, people I barely knew made a habit of telling me they loved me. They were Christians too, and I guess it was their way of welcoming me to the family. I did not mind, exactly, but since they barely knew me I was not sure what they were talking about. . . . I decided to find out, so the next time one of the Christians said she loved me, I asked her why.
She made a surprised face, like I should already know.
“Because God loves you!” she said, throwing both hands in the air. “I love you because God loves everybody!”
This may sound small, but I decided that was not enough for me. I did not want to be loved in general. I wanted to be loved in particular, as I was convinced God loved. Plus, I am not sure it is possible to see the face of God in other people if you cannot see the faces they already have. What is it that makes that face different from every other face?”
How do we love others in particular, not just in general?
Blessings, Emily Gordon
April 20, 2017
I am reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s 2009 book An Altar in the World, and this morning I came across these words:
When I hear people talk about what is wrong with organized religion . . . I almost never hear about the intellectualization of faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list. In an age of information overload, when a vast variety of media delivers news faster than most of us can digest – when many of us have at least two e-mail addresses, two telephone numbers . . . the last thing any of us needs is more information about God.
She also writes:
Duke ethicist Stanley Hauerwas finds most Christians too spiritual in the practice of their faith. Christianity “is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian,” he says, “but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is avoidable.” In our embodied life together, the words of our doctrines take on flesh. If one of our orthodox beliefs has no corporeal value, if we cannot come up with a single consequence it has for our embodied life together, then there is good reason to ask whether we should bother with it at all.
Well, we don’t use language of “doctrines” or “orthodox beliefs” all that often in the United Church – but if we simply think about beliefs and “values” which seems to the more common language we use, the point still stands. We run the risk in what we do of making faith a matter of our thoughts rather than our bodies. It is this concept that creates a separation in how we see our time at church and our time in “the rest of our lives” or as some say “the real world.” Whether we are more conservative or more progressive in our beliefs, in both we have the tendency to make it a matter of what we think. On Sunday morning, we might listen to a sermon and then think about it during the week, but does it shape us? Is it expressed in what we do, and who we are? Where is our faith expressed in our bodies?
This is an important question as we wrestle with what it means to be Resurrection People, people who are changed by the Easter story. On Sunday I talked about this in terms of recognizing new life, and working for the peace that Jesus lived for (and because of how dangerous his vision of peace was, died for as well). On Sunday, I drew on some of Konrad Raiser’s description of a Culture of Peace, where he names characteristics including openness to the other and to the unexpected, being rooted in a spirituality that affirms life in community, a commitment to justice and truth, a struggle against the “manifestations of fear and anxiety which often enough distort the perception of reality and thus nurture conflict or even violence”, and a radical hope.
But, how do we embody being Resurrection People? Where does it move from ideas we discuss to something that shapes the way we live? We don’t need more information, but more lived experience.
This coming Sunday, we have two different opportunities to explore this. The first is our celebration of 1 year of Leaside United Church being an Affirming Congregation. As we recognize this with our words and hymns, we also carry with us the question of how we live this. Do we simply say we welcome all, or do we live into this in what we do, where we spend our time, how we approach things or people we do not understand? How is this expressed in where are bodies are, and what we do with them?
Another opportunity to think about our faith as a matter for our bodies rather than simply our intellects will be a labyrinth walk. The labyrinth will be set up before and after the service (9:30-10:30 and 11:30-1:00), with directions for those who are new to labyrinths. There is a labyrinth that you can walk, as well as a finger labyrinth you can trace. With the labyrinth, there is only one path in to the center, and back out. We do not need to engage our mind in making decisions, or fill it with beliefs. Instead, we can engage in a practice of our bodies, dwelling in movement and rest, experience rather than intellect.
Of course, these are only two starting points to an embodied, lived faith rather than seeing religion or spirituality as a matter of what we think. How do our beliefs and values become embodied?
We say we care for creation, but do the daily choices we make reflect this? We say Jesus ate with all people, regardless of their social or economic status, their popularity, their health, but when do we reflect this as we eat? We talk about Jesus as Word made Flesh, a reminder of the divinity that exists within each of us, but how do we appreciate our bodies and value the bodies of others?
Blessings, Emily Gordon
April 13, 2017
On Sunday after the service, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with the youngest member of our congregation, baptized last fall, who had spent the service enjoying the area set up in our Sanctuary with a rocking chair, dolls, and board books. After hearing of his new appreciation of dolls, I heard he enjoyed the board books too. “Are you a reader?” I asked him. He waved his arms in response. “Yes,” his mother replied, “we read together a lot.” While he might not be quite at the point of appreciating a story as a story, there must be something almost universal in our love of a good story, whether spoken, read, or watched (although we’d probably all name different stories). Jesus told many stories to those who came to ask him questions and listen to him teach. “What are you doing eating with those people?” someone grumbled, and Jesus said, “Let me tell you a story. Once there was a man who had two sons…”
Why am I writing about stories this week? This week, Holy Week, is the time in the church year when we live with the biggest Christian story. The story begins with Jesus parading into Jerusalem, surrounded by palm branches and people shouting “Hosanna.” The story continues as he shares a Passover meal with his disciples, breaking bread together. The story continues as he follows this with prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, when his disciples are asked to wait – to stay with him. Instead, they fall asleep.
These are the stories we heard this past Sunday, Palm Sunday, and we heard that phrase “the story continues.” Our temptation is not to listen to the whole story. We love the music and flowers of Easter. Often we are ready for the ending, the celebration. It’s easier to take a piecemeal approach to our faith – choose the best bits, what resonates most and lifts our hearts. We wouldn’t do this to another story, only watching the ending of a movie. It wouldn’t have any meaning without the loss and learning that happened before. We also wouldn’t only read the beginning of a story. And yet, we often do this with our faith, skipping to the beginning (Christmas) or the “end” (Easter) without spending time with what comes in between (whether it’s Jesus’ life and teaching, or whether it’s Good Friday).
So this year, remember the story continues. Join us as we spend time with it on Friday and Sunday. Spend time with us as we remember that this story still continues – we still see the themes appear and reappear in our world today, and we are reminded again and again that love is stronger than hate, hope stronger than fear, life stronger than death.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
April 4, 2017
When I was on my internship, one of the things that I did was support the Pastoral Care Team at that congregation. The church was part of a community where many people knew each other well. As a result, the pastoral care team visits were very social – a visiting of friends. While this is important, when we’re visiting in a faith context, there needs to be room for something more as well. So, one of the things we practiced at one of our meetings is listening. Listening, really listening, sometimes called “active listening” is something we don’t do all that often. Usually when someone is talking to us we don’t bring all our attention to what they’re saying. We might be thinking: why are they telling me this right now – is there something behind it? Or, that reminds me of something that happened to me last week. Or, I’m hungry, isn’t it time for lunch. Or, the to do list. Or, an article we read recently.
There are any number of things that we are thinking about when we should be listening, and usually they are about ourselves rather than the other person. Sometimes this can make us a good conversationalist – with the ideas, memories and stories flowing between the two people. It is unlikely, however, to make us good listeners, listeners who will leave space for the deeper conversation, the hidden excitement or worry, the pain, longing, and worry that rests below the surface. This kind of listening requires us to be present, to pay attention, to pull ourselves back. Often it means practicing not jumping in or asking questions to quickly. Almost always it means letting go of details and facts, in order to pay attention to emotion and spirit.
On Sunday, Rose Ann led us through a practice called lectio divina. Lectio divina means “sacred reading.” It’s an approach to scripture based on a state of listening. Rather than immediately jumping in with our questions, our desire for facts (did this really happen?), our intellectual analysis, or being distracted from listening by our to do lists, we are invited to listen “with the ear of the heart” (as the Benedictines instructed) for the divine wisdom that is speaking to us, through a word or phrase from the scripture.
What do we hear when we really listen? What do we learn about someone else? About scripture? About ourselves?
Blessings, Emily Gordon
March 30, 2017
This is the week of Canada Reads. This year the theme is to choose the book that all Canadians should be reading right now. It’s an interesting question to ponder, whether or not you are following the discussions and debate of the Canada Reads panelists, or intend to read any of the books on the list.
Of course, the theme is premised on the notion that reading can be transformative – and that works of fiction or memoir can inspire change, offer insight, nurture compassion, and ultimately make the world a better place. Do we approach our reading this way – particularly our reading “for pleasure” whether fiction, poetry, biography, or history?
Laura Schocker in her 2013 Huffington Post article “6 Science-Backed Reasons To Go Read A Book Right Now” highlights research that has suggested positive benefits of reading, from potential mental wellness advantages such as destressing and helping lower levels of depression, to benefits related to aging such as keeping your mind sharp and reducing the risk of Alzheimers’s, to what I might term a spiritual benefit of developing empathy. While Sarah Begley begins her 2016 article in Time: “It’s well-established science that reading boosts vocabulary, sharpens reason and expands intellectual horizons. But the latest round of research on the benefits of literature focuses on how it improves not our IQ, but our EQ.” There are even people who now offer “bibliotherapy”.
As a life-long lover of literature, it’s wonderful to hear that this might not just be something enjoyable, but something that’s good for my health. As someone who hopes for a life-long process of being a part of making the world a better place, it is exciting to hear the premise of this year’s Canada Reads competition, and conversation engaging the relationship between literary merit and important topics of our time. As living into the Christian faith, it’s also not surprising. Our scriptures are premised on the notion that words, language, and stories are transformational. In our first story of creation (Genesis 1 not Genesis 2 – that’s a different story), we heard that creation happens with words, and chaos is transformed by language. The gospel of John begins “In the beginning was the Word.” Language, speech, story, are at the beginning of everything.
On Sunday, when I joined the children for Sunday School, we heard about how Jesus told stories to explain what is important, to answer questions, to offer visions. Stories are powerful in part because they say more than one thing, they invite you in to engage and interpret, to become a character, to be transformed. It was fun to do this on Sunday, just as each week it is good to do this with you, as we listen again to the stories of our faith in scripture and our lives, and prepare to be transformed.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
March 14, 2017
What do we do when we encounter a passage from scripture that we find challenging, problematic, irrelevant or just confusing? On Sunday, I suggested that when this happens there are 3 main approaches we can take: accept it; reject it; or wrestle with it.
Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages, and it might be that there’s a right time for each. It’s easier either to simply accept or reject scripture rather than to wrestle with it. Sometimes we need that simplicity, and either find comfort in the words of scripture or take time away from scripture (and perhaps also the church as a whole). Our lives have their seasons, and these approaches are a part of these seasons of our spiritual lives.
Most often, however, I think we’re called to the more difficult work of wrestling with scripture – and not just as individuals but as a gathered community of faith. David Jasper, in his book A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics, gives a short very simplified description of Midrash, an ancient tradition of Jewish interpretation: “The Jews did not so much seek meaning in words, but rather saw in words a form of conversation, which is endless and reaches no conclusion, unless it is finally enclosed in the silence of God with which everything begins and ends. . . . There is never a moment when you can stop and say conclusively, ‘Now I understand this,’ for this is not the purpose of reading, and even to presume to make this claim would constitute a misunderstanding. . . . What is important is not any conclusion that we may reach but rather the struggle itself.”
Wrestling with scripture. I had promised a sermon title “How?” and then the question hardly came up directly – but indirectly it was everywhere. How do we approach scripture? How do we wrestle with scripture? How do we find meaning? How do we respond to the love we hear again and again?
It’s about having a conversation, asking endless questions, remembering what we know is important, being willing to change our minds, and doing this together, part of a conversation that started long, long before we were born, and will continue long after we die.
If you would like to try wrestling with last Sunday’s challenging scripture passage, you might try using the worksheet that was available for the service (this file also has the scripture passage and introduction) and listening to the sermon if you missed it. You’re always welcome to let me know what you agree with, what you disagree with, and what you are still wondering about.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
March 9, 2017
Here are three insights or questions related to last Sunday’s sermon:
- What is the difference between a quiz, a test, and a temptation?
A quiz is something that offers evaluation of our knowledge or insight into what we are like, but with little risk. In school, quizzes might be given to help students realize what they need to practice more before an upcoming test or exam, or to make sure they are paying attention. We often come across quizzes in magazines or online that promise to reveal what House we would be sorted into at Hogwarts, what animal we are most like, or our personal fashion style. A test also offers insight into our knowledge or character, but there is clearly something at stake. In school, tests are a significant portion of our grades, and we can pass or fail. In life, when we are tested, we discover how capable or how inadequate we are – and the implications can be significant. A temptation might be considered a category of test. Temptations are about character and values, and they have an emotional weight. To give a usually inconsequential example: if I did not enjoy eating chocolate, I would not describe myself as tempted by a box of chocolates. I note that this is inconsequential, because so often our use of language about temptations is reduced to an idea of “guilty pleasures” that relate to what we are eating and drinking, rather than all the other aspects of our lives. However, I think temptation has weight, some significance, relating to body, mind, and spirit. This is my current thinking on the three terms – do you agree?
- When are we tested?
Often the times when we are tested are the times when new things are happening, whether we consider them joys or challenges – a new job, a new child, a marriage, the end of a relationship, the death of a relative, the loss of a job. What does this mean for Leaside and Presteign-Woodbine, as we look forward to a new thing? What will be revealed about who we are, when we are inevitably tested?
- What are the temptations we face in our culture today?
We aren’t likely to feel tempted to try to turn stones into bread or believe that we will be able to rule everything if we stop worshipping God, so what are the modern day temptations that we might be facing individually and as a society? Here are five suggestions that I made on Sunday:
Do you agree? What else should be on the list?
Blessings, Emily Gordon
March 2, 2017
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is a day when we are reminded of the cycle of life, our own simplicity and connection to the earth. In Biblical language, we say: we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In scientific language, we might talk of molecules and atoms rather than dust – the basic components of existence, which connect us with other living beings, everything on earth and throughout the galaxy. We remember that the air we breathe has been breathed by other people, animals and plants, a few hours ago and millennia ago. We are all dust, all star dust, made of what has combined and recombined in everything that has been and everything we call life.
We carry this humble knowledge with us through Lent. Sometimes the tradition is to give up something for Lent, but we might instead think of doing and being something instead. This Lent, I invite you to join me in taking this season of Lent as a time for reflection and renewed commitment to living faithfully and authentically.
If you would like to do this by receiving a daily email during the season of Lent with a reflection, poem, or prayer, please let me know.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
February 22, 2017
On Sunday the official sermon title was “Finding Home in Forgiveness and New Relationship” but the key word was forgiveness. You might want to listen to my sermon to hear some discussion of the “old story” idea of sin, and whether the concept is still relevant when we no longer believe the old story.
Rev. Emily Gordon Sermon Sunday February 19, 2017
You might also want to listen to my sermon to hear a few thoughts about what forgiveness is not (staying in harmful situations, for instance) and what it is (a gradual process, about remembering what is most important, finding opportunities to grow, etc.) I also mentioned a website called The Forgiveness Project, which has many real stories related to forgiveness. After the service, I had several different conversations with members of both Leaside and Presteign-Woodbine – and I’ve had a couple emails as well. One of the emails pointed to an article that just came out in the Toronto Star related to forgiveness.
A few thoughtful and important questions that emerged in our conversations after the service are:
How do you forgive someone who has betrayed you? What if they are not sorry for what they did or are no longer in touch?
How do you forgive someone who is no longer alive? What about forgiving someone for dying?
Sometimes we want forgiveness to be a matter of the head. We know that holding onto anger is hurting us. We know usually people do not control when they die. We understand someone has to move for work or that relationships cannot always last forever. And yet, even when we can understand something at an intellectual level, we can still feel hurt, angry, betrayed… Forgiveness requires the movement of both the head and the heart. It requires finding a way of letting go of the space of hurt or anger in our thoughts as well as in our hearts, in our stomach, and all the other places our emotions reveal themselves. This is one of the reasons that forgiveness almost never happens instantaneously. It takes time, reflection, and emotional work. Since each situation is different, the time and work needed will be different as well. Often an important part of the work of forgiveness, is sharing your story. You might want to find a time to drop by and talk to me about a situation where you are struggling to forgive someone, or forgive yourself. Just let me know.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
February 16, 2017
Finding Home in Love
Last Sunday, we had a guest speaker during our service – Diana Farrar, author of The Door of the Heart. For those of you unable to make it to the church because of the snow, don’t worry, you may not have been able to attend the wonderful discussion with Diana and her wife Charlotte after the service, but we did record her sermon, and will be posting it on the website soon. Our thanks to both Diana and Charlotte for sharing their story with us. We have a couple of copies of Diana’s book that people can borrow, so let us know if you’d like your name added to the list.
One of the themes that Diana spoke about during the service is vulnerability. There is a vulnerability in the demands of our faith. Here are a few verses from one of our scripture readings: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5: 43-44, 46). Often tax collectors represented those taking advantage of others. At a time when the Roman Empire was in power, tax collectors worked for the Romans to collect taxes from their own people. Tax collectors could also take advantage of their power by demanding higher taxes and keeping the extra for themselves. They represent those who are greedy or self-interested rather than concerned about others, and aligned with worldly power rather than an instance of spiritual example. If even the tax collectors love those who love them, in other words, that’s not saying much. As an aside, it’s worth noting that Jesus connects and eats with tax collectors too – such as Matthew (Matthew 9:9-10) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).
Back to vulnerability. It is a vulnerable place to offer love to those who are your enemies, to push yourself to understanding and compassion for those who you disagree with, or who have hurt you. (We’ll be able to explore the idea of forgiveness a little more next week – what is it? What is it not?) Vulnerability can mean risk – risking being hurt or risking being transformed. Vulnerability can mean openness – not allowing yourself to be closed off, even when that seems safer. Vulnerability can mean honesty – revealing who you are, even the imperfections.
There is a book by Jean Vanier that I return to frequently, called Becoming Human. In it, he names “seven aspects of love that seem necessary for the transformation of the heart in those who are profoundly lonely. They are: to reveal, to understand, to communicate, to celebrate, to empower, to be in communion with another, and, finally, to forgive.” Listen to some of what he says about being in communion with another: “Communion is mutual vulnerability and openness one to the other. It is liberation for both, indeed, where both are allowed to be themselves … To a certain extent we lose control in our own lives when we are open to others. Communion of hearts is a beautiful but also a dangerous thing. Beautiful because it is a new form of liberation; it brings a new joy because we are no longer alone. We are close even if we are far away. Dangerous because letting down our inner barriers means that we can be easily hurt. Communion makes us vulnerable.”
Blessings, Emily Gordon
February 8, 2017
On Sunday, during our sermon, we began exploring our theme for February of “Finding Home.” I suggested three ways we might think of home – our own personal/private home, the home of our congregation, and home in a larger sense such as national identity. We had a chance to think about what it means to try to find home in the sacred. What does that idea suggest? You’ll have to listen to my sermon.
Here’s a little something I had thought about including, but didn’t have time for: While I was in India, we spent a night in Udaipur and while there we visited a Hindu temple. To get to the temple, we walked up a long flight of stairs. Once inside the walls and having taken off our shoes, there was another flight of stairs to climb in order to enter the main temple building. It’s not just in Hinduism that heights are associated with the sacred. We see the same idea within Judaism (Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to be close to God), Christianity (i.e. the soaring spires of Cathedrals), Islam (it was on a mountain that Muhammed received the Qu’ran), Greek mythology (the gods and goddesses lived on Mt. Olympus)… Again and again we associate high places with God, the sacred. For anyone who has stood at the edge of a cliff, or looked out at the view from a tall building, it might simply seem natural to associate heights with the sacred. Just think of how much further you can see. And our very being feels different when we are higher up – it gives a certain perspective.
As humans, we seem to have a natural tendency to associate “higher” with better. We talk about “looking up to” someone we admire, or say someone is “moving up in the world” if they are promoted. Our language easily falls into a hierarchy of high and low (upper class or lower class, higher principles or the lowest common denominator). Even when we see the problems with this model, we don’t necessarily challenge the model itself – we talk about a glass ceiling instead.
When we talk about faith, associating high places with spiritual things can be moving, but it can also be problematic. For one thing, it separates us from the world we live in. One of the reasons high places can feel “spiritual” is because we are “above it all” rather than being caught up in the everyday of living. The problem is that our faith tells us this everyday of living matters deeply, and is a matter of our faith. In the stories of Jesus, we hear that he would go up on a hill to pray, but then would come back down – to heal, to teach, and to eat with those who followed him. Another danger of associating high places with spiritual places is that it supports a world view built on a hierarchy, with notions of heaven (up) and hell (down). It’s a simplistic way to represent the varied choices and relationships that fill our daily lives. It also presents God as something distant, needing to be approached through our actions (whether climbing steps or a mountain, or through our good behavior) rather than representing God as present with us, always.
So, as we find home together, we might climb some stairs – or we might make our way down to a basement or two. Let’s look beside us rather than up or down, and see where the pathway leads.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
January 31, 2017
The Final ABCs of Christmas … (part 6)
Well, I’ve now had the chance to respond to most of the questions we received at our 7pm Christmas Eve service, and hopefully all of the ones with different themes. Here are the last couple of questions:
How can we do better?
How do we free ourselves to be able to live knowing Love is born in all of us – that it is always in us – in the moments that happen as we encounter each other and the wonder of nature?
Let’s start with the question of how we can do better. I think this requires paying attention, practice, and forgiveness. First, we need to pay attention. Think about what you have done or not done, said or not said, that has contributed to suffering for yourself or others. What has been the cause? Where do you contribute to suffering most often? What were you feeling before speaking an angry word? When are you unkind to your body, your emotions, or your spirit? Where might the lack of knowledge contributed to not being informed? As we recognize the places where we long to be better, we can start to find strategies to do so, as well as becoming better at recognizing the times we might need to use these strategies.
The second part is practice. It is not going to be enough to want to do better. It takes time to change our habits and personal patterns. When we recognize what we want to change, we can practice recognizing when we need to make this change (what is the feeling that warns you that you are going to do or not do something that causes harm to yourself or others – is it a feeling of anger or of fear? Is it a feeling of indifference or laziness? How does your stomach, your shoulders, your hands, the rest of you, feel? Then we practice whatever needs to improve. Here are two small instances from my life. Some years ago, when I was angry or upset I would send emails or text messages to express those emotions. These messages did not contribute towards greater understanding or ending the conflict, and often increased the problem. Recognizing this, I have worked to control this impulse, to wait and reflect before sending anything out. While I am by no means perfect, the number of messages sent while upset has significantly decreased, and I know I will continue to improve. As another instance, when my friend came out as asexual a few years ago, I didn’t understand what it meant. I began reading articles and stories about the experiences of people who identify as asexual, which allowed me to modify my own thinking, and hopefully mean that I will not cause unintentional harm in the future. For each of us, the places where we long to do better will be different, but we also need to remember what we are trying to do better at. It is not about doing better financially, or about personal satisfaction, but about sharing love and not causing harm.
The third point is forgiveness, both of ourselves (we can’t be perfect, so we need to forgive ourselves for getting things wrong) and of others (when we hold onto our hurt and anger, it causes us greater harm). Of course, forgiveness requires its own practice. More on forgiveness one Sunday in February.
How do we free ourselves to live knowing that love is born in all of us? I think it has the same three steps, paying attention to ourselves and others, and all the places love is expressed in our world, practicing sharing that love ourselves, and living in its embrace, and forgiving ourselves and others in the assurance of that unconditional, unending, inexplicable love.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
January 27, 2017
The ABCs of Christmas Continue … (part 5)
Here is our second last set of questions from the 7pm Christmas Eve service:
Why are we here?
Why are human beings so cruel to animals?
How do you become satisfied with life when you also feel so disappointed in it all?
What rich and significant questions – ones engaged with the existential questions about our own existence and human nature, as well as practical questions about how to live in a world that is marked by suffering in many forms.
Why are we here? Is this asking why are we gathered in worship Christmas Eve, celebrating the birth of an infant two millennia ago, whose story has transformed history, and changed countless lives? Or is it asking why humans are here, why we exist at all? If you think about it, either one points to the same miracle, the miracle of life. Somehow out of the explosion of time and space, the eons of formations of galaxies and star systems, the cooling of planets, somehow from this start of stardust, life emerged – the realization of the creative impulse, life in all its rich, complex variety. What a miracle. Somehow out of the union of two people, the inexplicable hope for the future, the longings and giving that comes from the very bones, life emerged – a child is born, life in all its rich, complex variety. Why are we here? As an embodiment of divine love, a celebration of the miracle that is too great for us even to imagine, a moment within the dance of the divine life that swirls about us.
And yet, caught up in a wonder that is so familiar we can barely see it, we turn hearts and thoughts to the missteps, the discordant notes, the way as human beings we so easily turn to hurt. Hurting animals and our environment, hurting creation and other humans, hurting those who are distant and so unseen as well as those nearby and seen every day in our communities, our friendships, our families, ourselves. Sometimes that hurt is active, sometimes passive, sometimes born of intention, sometimes indifference. We hurt our planet, our animal brothers and sisters, each other and ourselves for many reasons: indifference, self-absorption, a desire for power, the familiarity of pain. It is disappointing, discouraging, overwhelming, and yet it is not everything. This is the promise of our faith, the seemingly impossible, the unexpected hope: love is stronger than hate, hope is stronger than fear, in our weakness and vulnerability we can reach greater connection, greater strength, greater love. I do not think we should aspire to feeling satisfied, but that we should be inspired by love.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
January 25, 2017
The ABCs of Christmas Continue… (part 4)
January begins to near its end, and we’re still talking about Christmas? On Sundays, our services in January are exploring the theme “In Egypt” and we’ve been hearing about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (January 8 & 15) as well as Moses and the Israelites from our Hebrew Scriptures (January 1, 22, and 29). However, there are more questions offered at our 7pm Christmas Eve service to consider:
How do we keep Christmas every day?
How can what happened 2000 years ago be effective in today’s world?
Why do we continue the story?
To live out the Christmas story, we need to remember that the story means many things and there are many ways to live it out – some of which I am sure you are doing already. Here are some initial possibilities (you might also see my earlier Weekday Wonderings about Refugees):
- The story is about a vision of peace (listen to the angels’ song). Our actions might live this out by supporting nuclear disarmament movements or supporting Truth and Reconciliation work in Canada.
- The story is an encouragement of lifelong learning (think of the Magi). Our actions might live this out by joining a group such as LUC’s Book Circle or Spirit Alive. Our actions might live this out by learning more about the different experiences and challenges of others, such as intentionally reading fiction and non-fiction from countries other than North America and Britain, learning more as a part of our Affirming process, listening to interviews with people from other faith or religious backgrounds, and recognizing our own biases.
- The story is about God’s preferential option for the poor (the birth takes place in a stable, to a people oppressed by empire, and was shared first with some everyday shepherds). Our actions might live this out by calling on city councilors to increase budget spending on poverty reduction strategies, as well as affordable housing, public transportation and services. Our actions might live this out by purchasing fair trade products and avoiding companies that use unsafe and underpaid factory labour.
- The story is about the sacredness of human life and the importance of children (it’s about a baby being born after all!) Our actions might live this out by learning the names of the children and youth in our congregation, and getting to know them before and after our worship services. Our actions might live this out by being involved in movements to reduce child poverty, or by supporting organizations that help former child soldiers.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
January 20, 2017
The ABCs of Christmas Continue…
Another set of questions from the 7pm Christmas Eve service (the ABCs of Christmas, where Q stands for Questions) related to the role of faith in our culture today – here is a sampling:
How can we make the story more alive for our non-religious family in today’s world?
Why do so many people only come to church at Christmas?
Why does the world today tolerate hatred and poverty and not accept the love shown by Christ?
It is an easy temptation to think that the lack of interest in church attendance is a very recent phenomenon. We have in our cultural memory – particularly those of us in our 60s or older – a vision of the “golden age” of church attendance. Usually the 50s and 60s when churches were built, Sunday Schools expanded, and there were long lineups for baptisms. Of course, what isn’t remembered is that was an unusual blip on the line graph of church attendance. In the era post-WWII there was a return to normalcy, an emphasis on the nuclear family and all that entailed, things such as the baby boom had increased church attendance. This was, it seemed, something that could be relied on in a world that had gone sideways with devastating wars, atomic bombs, and all the rest of it. What we forget, is all the complaints at the start of the 20th century about people not going to church. What we perhaps never new is that as far back as the medieval period, the Catholic church (at the time the church) brought in a rule requiring that everyone give confession a minimum of once a year. Since you were required to give confession before receiving the Lord’s Supper, which was a part of every Mass, this meant the church was concerned about people not even going to church once a year!
So, once we have that context, these questions start to look a little different. It’s no longer about returning to the way things always used to be, but about examining the role religious observance has in living meaningfully. Within Christianity, gathering as a community of faith is usually an important part of faithful practice. Worshiping with others helps us avoid putting ourselves at the center of our spirituality. It also encourages us to hear different voices, different interpretations, different perspectives than our own. Have you come to church recently and heard something new or something you disagreed with? I hope you will disagree with me sometimes! And when you do, let’s talk.
There is a personal responsibility related to these questions though. How can we hope other people will consider attending church if we do not consider it an important part of our daily lives and regularly place other activities ahead of it? How can we hope other people will consider attending church if we ourselves are not able to say why it is important to us (which cannot be that we grew up going to church, or tradition, since this will not be true for others)? What we do and how we talk about our faith matters. We need to be able to answer these questions for ourselves:
Are you able to tell someone else how attending church is life-giving for you?
Do you allow the experience of worshiping together to change you, challenge you, comfort you, encourage you to grow?
Are you comfortable talking about the sacred with others, without feeling that you have to hide your views or enforce them on others?
How do you live into the Christmas story throughout the year, not just at Christmas?
Blessings, Emily Gordon
January 18, 2017
Jesus was a refugee:
What each of us can do today …
Jesus was a refugee. At least, that’s what the author of the gospel of Matthew tells us. What does it mean when we talk about the single most important person to Christianity as a refugee? How does it call us to action about the current global refugee crisis?
Amnesty International , in October 2016, gave 21.3 million as the figure of refugees around the world. This number does not count those who are internally displaced – forced to leave their homes but still within their country. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than half of the world’s refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Half of all refugees in 2015 were children. This is also a justice issue: 86% of refugees are hosted by low and middle income countries.
Here are the 8 points I named about what we personally can do in response to the refugee crisis. You may be doing some of these already, but it is always worth reviewing what we are doing and what we might be called to do differently.
- Articulating our theology, our faith response, to refugees. This starts with being able to say to ourselves and others “Our stories tell us that Jesus, like many other characters in scripture, was a refugee.” We need to be able to say why this matters – and that this is not just a political or social problem, but a matter of faith.
- Prayer does several things – it reminds us that we are not alone in what we do (others are also taking action), remembering that we do not have to feel responsibility for the whole situation helps free ourselves emotionally to take what action we are able. Prayer is also about intention. Praying regularly for refugees reminds us of the situation, leading us to greater education and other action, ensuring that we don’t just set it aside in our lives because there are other things going on.
- Commitment to do something. Amnesty International has a pledge you can sign “I Welcome Refugees”. This is a statement for politicians and world leaders as well as a personal commitment.
- Write letters to government (MP, MPP, City Counsellor, etc.) to encourage that more be done to advance refugee issues, and to hold to account campaign promises, etc.
- Donate or raise money for refugee services in Canada and overseas – both matter.
- Volunteer your time. At LUC, a number of people in the congregation volunteer with the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office. Let us know if you’d like to learn more, and we’ll get you in touch with the person who coordinates our team.
- LUC is sponsoring two refugee families right now, and one of them is arriving on January 25th. If you’d like to help out in making them welcome, be in touch. We can let you know if there are items we are missing for their apartment, or if there are other things you could do to support this work.
- Refuse to support racist, xenophobic, or Islamophobic words or actions. We must not let our language or thinking become defined by fear, prejudice, or anger. This is both about recognizing our own biases and not condoning the biases of others.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
January 11, 2017
On Sunday, during our “Time with the Children”, we talked about the Epiphany story – the arrival of the Magi/Wise Ones/Three Kings/Astrologers from the East (all different terms we use to refer to those guests who show up in the gospel according to Matthew, after following an unusual star in the sky). The story tells us they brought three gifts for Jesus – Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Incidentally this is the reason we think of the number three, because of the gifts, not because the story gives the number of travelers.
Like those stories of the Magi, we had the chance to open some gifts:
- The first gift was for members of the Youth Faith Exploration group that has been meeting this year. Since September, there have been two meetings in addition to the Youth retreat weekend, which wasn’t only for the group but all youth at LUC. There have also been a couple of field trips – to the Aga Khan Ismaili Centre, and volunteering with Eastminster’s Out of the Cold program. Later this month there will be another meeting (this time jointly with the Adult Faith Exploration group), and another field trip to a Rock Eucharist at Church of the Redeemer, which anyone from the congregation is welcome to join. During the first meeting of the Youth Faith Exploration group, the group talked about the Bible, and the many different stories it contains (sometimes ones that contradict each other). This Sunday, we presented members of the group with their own copy of the Bible, as they continue their process of learning, asking questions, and challenging their faith.
- The second gift was from Leaside United Church to Presteign-Woodbine United Church. It was a symbolic gift – a heart. Tanya shared some words from the Sufi poet Rumi: “Come out of the circle of time, and into the circle of love.”
- The third gift was from Presteign-Woodbine to Leaside. As Rose Ann (intentional interim minister of PWUC) said: “The gift is of ourselves.” They presented a board with photos and names of members of PWUC. A chance for us to get to know some of the Presteign-Woodbine faces!
- The final gift was to all of us – a set of beautifully hand-painted question boxes as a part of the Affirming process. These are now around the church (by the office, in the sanctuary, near the Hearth Room), along with paper and pencils. They are an opportunity to ask the questions you might have related to LGBTQ+ topics. As an Affirming Congregation, Leaside has committed to an ongoing journey of learning and welcome. Presteign-Woodbine has not yet taken part in an affirming process, so this is an opportunity for all of us to ask questions and learn new things safely. Any time, please write down a question, whatever it might be. Some examples we heard on Sunday include:
“What does LGBTQ+ stand for?”
“How old are people when they know they are gay?”
“What does the term ‘Asexual’ mean?”
“Why do pronouns matter?”
We will have the opportunity to read answers to these, and any of your questions in future bulletins.
What wonderful gifts!
Blessings, Emily Gordon
January 5, 2017
The ABCs of Christmas Continue… (part 2)
Earlier in the week, I mentioned some of the questions that were offered as a part of the 7pm Christmas Eve service “The ABCs of Christmas”. Here is another question that caught my attention:
How will we retell the story in another 2000 years?
What a fascinating question! If we think about how much the world has changed in the past 2000 years, it is hard to even begin to imagine what it will be like 2000 years from now. Will we continue to advance technologically and, if so, will those advancements continue to be exponential? What will be the most important ways that we create our own sense of identity and connection – local community, national identity, global citizenship, or something else entirely? How will our plant and animal life continue to change? Will the convenience of travel increase, or will a journey taken on foot or by donkey seem more familiar to people living 2000 years from now than it does to us today?
I’m sure each of these questions, and many more, will impact how the story is retold in another 2000 years. As I was thinking about these questions, I also started to wonder: how do we want the story to be retold in another 2000 years?
Thank you for these Christmas Eve questions. I’ll keep reflecting on them next week!
Blessings, Emily Gordon
January 4, 2017
January Theme: In Egypt
This past Sunday, we began to explore the theme for January “In Egypt.” Over the next couple of weeks we’ll hear the part of the Christmas story that relates to Egypt, but we began (and will end) the month with some stories from our Hebrew Scriptures. On Sunday, I reminded us that Egypt is one of the significant places that we hear about in our scriptures – a place that represents much more than just a place. Two other clear examples are Jerusalem, which represents much more than just a city, and the wilderness. Egypt becomes a significant place because it reappears in the stories of our scripture. In the Gospel according to Matthew, it is the place that Joseph, Mary and the young child Jesus flee to after the Magi visit (more about that over the next couple of weeks). In our Hebrew Scriptures, it is where Joseph (as in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and later his whole family end up – note that it’s not just a coincidence the names are the same! We also associate with Moses, but Egypt’s presence in the scriptural stories doesn’t stop there – did you know that the stories tell us Abraham traveled to Egypt too?
Since Egypt keeps reappearing in our stories, it is clear that is about more than geography. Together we talked about what Egypt represents – a place of safety, a place of authority and civilization, a place of danger that must be escaped (the Israelites become slaves that must be set free), a place of “existential challenge” as someone suggested – how do we understand our identity when we are in a strange land, when we witness injustice around us, etc? Egypt, in the stories of scripture is not “home” – it is a place to flee to when home is no longer safe (such as the famine Joseph’s family faces in Genesis), or that must be left in order to return to home.
So I asked these questions:
What does Egypt look like for your congregation or your community?
What is Egypt in your life? Or, when did you spend time in Egypt in your life?
Blessings, Emily Gordon
January 3, 2017
The ABCs of Christmas Continue… (part 1)
On Christmas Eve, we had two wonderful services. At 10pm we had a beautiful service with communion and candles. It was so peaceful as we sang “Silent Night” in the dark surrounded by the flicker of candlelight!
Our 7pm service had the theme “The ABCs of Christmas.” It was an interactive service as we moved through different aspects of the Christmas Story. When we reached Q, it stood for Questions, and everyone had the opportunity to reflect, and to write down questions to offer as part of our Christmas Eve offering. I’d promised I would respond to and reflect on some of these questions as a part of my Weekday Wonderings for the first part of January, so you will see several posts on this topic.
There were quite a range of questions, but one group related to what I would call the practical questions:
- Which story is closest?
- What kind of animals were really in the stable?
- What would the temperature/climate have been the night Jesus was born? When was Jesus actually born?
- Is Bethlehem still an important city today?
- Do the details of the story matter? Are we missing the point?
- How do we know?
The truth is that we don’t know most, perhaps even any, of the practical or literal details of Jesus’ birth. Two of the gospel writers – Matthew and Luke – tell different stories about the birth, and although we often try to combine them in the Christmas story we tell, there are details that directly contradict each other, and others that are very different from each other (this was the theme of our wonderful pageant!) The stories also don’t include details such as the date of Jesus’ birth, animals that may have been present, or other details of the setting, such as the temperature and time of year. Although we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, this was a date chosen centuries later, because it corresponded to festivals related to the longest night of the year, which we know falls in December. Although we might dismiss the date, that symbolism matters.
Because all we have is stories, we don’t know which story is closest to what literally happened, but that doesn’t mean that the stories are irrelevant. In fact, while the details might not have any literal factual basis, that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter – all of the details that Matthew and Luke add to their stories are deeply significant!
For instance, in Luke’s story, the birth of Jesus is shared with a group of shepherds in the fields. Shepherds represent two different things: first, shepherds were common, everyday people. They weren’t particularly important – not priests or kings or government officials – and they weren’t even with other people all that often – to tend to their sheep they would often be off on their own, exposed to the outdoors, on the edges of the common life. When the story tells us it is the shepherds who hear the news first, it is a reminder that this birth, the life of Jesus, is for common, everyday people. It is a birth, an act of love, that happens at the edges. It is a reminder that God’s sense of who is important is not the same as the world’s. At the same time, shepherds have a special place within the stories of the Hebrew scriptures. We hear that King David, before he became king, was a shepherd. Just like Bethlehem is connected with David, and thus with royalty, so is the presence of shepherds. It would mean something completely different, if Jesus had been visited by a group of rabbis, or a group of Roman soldiers. So, I would suggest the details matter deeply – but not whether or not they “actually” happened.
(About Bethlehem today – with a present population of roughly 30,000 Bethlehem’s location makes it significant in a very different way. Due to its significance to Christians, its major industry is tourism. In 1995, it became a Palestinian city, and located in the West Bank of Palestine. Nearby are enclaves of West Bank settlers. You can see a few images that touch on the politics here: http://www.bethlehem-city.org/en/politics-64)
Blessings, Emily Gordon
December 13, 2016
The challenges of Christmas are many. Christmas is a time when expectations are high. There are parties to attend, presents to buy and wrap. There are cheerful songs on the radio, and lights on church and houses. Yet, for many of us Christmas is a time when loneliness or grief is most pronounced. A time when we are made more aware of the spaces in our lives – spaces where people once were, or spaces that have always been present and yet now are thrown into stark relief. This month has our longest nights, our first snowfall that binds some with mobility challenges or concerns about slipping into an indoor way of life. It can feel isolating, and even the lights on trees and inflatable reindeer do not drive away the darkness. Even when we are not weighed down by memories and changing seasons, we might still long for just a little quiet and stillness when everything around us is telling us to be busy.
On Thursday, we will be having a Quiet Christmas service at 7pm. You are welcome to come any time after 6:30pm to sit in the stillness and light a candle in memory or in hope. During the service we will have space for all the varied emotions we bring to this time of year: love, grief, hope, tiredness, anger, excitement, despair, joy, and a deep longing for peace.
During our advent wreath candle lighting, we have ended each week hearing the words “We wait and we remember: we are not alone.” We are not alone. You are not alone, whether you are surrounded by people, or in the stillness of solitude, whether you find this time of year easy or hard. As we approach Christmas, take a moment to be still, and remember: we are not alone. Thanks be to God.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
December 7, 2016
Last week, we thought about the need to keep the meaning of Christmas big enough, to not let it be reduced to delicious baking, time with our closest friends or family, and some lights on a Christmas tree. As a vision of what is possible, what the world might be, we need to be ambitious. At times, given the way the world is turning, this ambition feels delusional – and yet, it is necessary. In an image that we heard from Isaiah this week (Isaiah 11:1), our faith calls us to see where a new shoot might emerge, where the unexpected branch might grow. Even as we face fear, anxiety, grief, and despair, our faith demands that we seek the signs of new life that emerge. Our faith reminds us that death, in all its forms, is not the final word.
For the past year or two I have been actively thinking about the question: “What do we want our world to look like?” and its counterpart “How do we, as a church, work to support, to help bring about this vision?” With these questions, faith is the motivation, the driving force for action. For me, what we do is not about the insistence of a certain intellectual belief system, the perpetuation of nominally Christian values, or the continuance of what we call the church. Instead, it is about being driven by the spirit to bring about what our scriptures call variously terms such as the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God” (which are about this world and this life, by the way). It is about working towards a vision so incredible, so powerful, that it can only be described through poetry, through metaphor, through dreams.
How will we work to bring about this vision? On Sunday, we discussed a little about wrong ways of trying this – being too caught up in the details and so missing the spirit of the thing, or allowing differences in our visions to become points of division. Of course, this has implications for our personal lives in the busy Christmas season, as well as for our congregation now that we have voted to accept the amalgamation covenant with Presteign-Woodbine United Church. But the implications don’t stop at the personal or the community. I’ll be returning to this question and look forward to hearing some of your answers, some of your poetry, possibilities and dreams. This congregation, and our new congregation to be, are filled with intelligent, creative, compassionate, questioning and dedicated people – the perfect people to take part in this challenging and wondrous work. I can’t wait to see what we do together next.
For now, we approach Christmas remembering the miracle of new life hidden in our midst: God-with-us, Emmanuel.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
December 2, 2016
So here we are in Advent already. The time when we approach Christmas – waiting and preparing. The word advent comes from the Latin “vent” or “to come” and “ad” or “to”. During advent we are coming toward Christmas, approaching the stories and the wonder of the fragile and beautiful human life and love. During advent, we await the coming toward us of Jesus, the birth of the sacred in our midst. We look not only to the past, but await where this will happen in our lives and in our world. We not only treasure our stories from scripture, but seek where this is happening right now in our lives and in our world. (The Moderator’s Christmas Message this year speaks to this idea; it can be found in the December 2016 Observer – if you don’t get the Observer, feel free to stop by my office and read the message, and consider signing up to get it the next couple of weeks after church).
There’s lots I could say about this past Sunday (and please ask me if you’re interested in hearing my thoughts about whether hoping for something and having hope in something are different) but I want to focus on my claim that I can tell you authoritatively what the “magic of Christmas” looks like, because I watched quite a few of those Christmas TV movies a few years ago. The “magic of Christmas” is getting together with your family on Christmas Eve to decorate a tree, eat Christmas cookies (baked at home of course), and finding your true love – who does not happen to be the unlikeable person you were with at the start of the movie, easily identified because they are too busy with business meetings to enjoy home baking and family time. This is what the magic of Christmas looks like and, besides the soulmate bit, it is not an entirely bad image. But it is also not a particularly big one. It is centered on small relationships, a single home, a return to the familiar (traditions and traditional notions of family). Advertisements offer us another glimpse into the meaning of Christmas, where we reach our happy Christmas ending not through cookies and tree decorating but what is given and received beneath the tree – the perfect gift or present, as well as the perfect party. And while gift-giving can be a meaningful way to express love, it is also not a very big image.
What do we want our vision of a happy ending to be? What do we wait for, long for, prepare for during this time of Advent? What do we want to recognize as the meaning of Christmas? I want mine to be big enough. And so I turn to visions like the words of the book of Isaiah, a dream for peace for all people:
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
November 23, 2016
Long ago, when I was in highschool, one of the essays we read was by Ursula K. LeGuin. In it she compared her storytelling style to a woman in a hunter-gather society, who would forage for food, placing in the bag she carried anything she came across that might be good to eat. She said her writing was like that – maybe she would come across herbs, or some berries, and in they would go, all held together by a bag rather than forced into a narrative arc.
I’ve been thinking these past few weeks how that might be a good description of my ministry. You will come up and tell me something, or give me something – an idea for something the congregation might do, someone who is ill, an issue that you care deeply about, a challenge you are facing, your worry for someone else, your enthusiasm over something that has happened, an interesting article, book or resource… And I put it in my bag. You might not see anything happen right away, but it’s there, nestled against someone else’s story, or worry, or joy. I mull it over, wait for the time to pull it out, connect it to something else, hold it up for everyone to see in a sermon or reflection. Wait for the time to give it back to you with a question or reflection, or to pass it on to someone else. So, if you’re wondering, “why isn’t she doing anything about what I said?” know that I’m carrying your words with me. It may not be that everything follows a clear narrative arc, but that isn’t what life is like. And I’ll journey beside you as you continue to share your insights and questions, your concerns and inspirations. Let’s see what feast appears, as we continue to break bread together.
(416) 425-1253 ext. 25
November 15, 2016
Many of you may have seen the article in the Toronto Star Monday: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2016/11/14/kids-suffer-most-as-toronto-clings-to-title-of-child-poverty-capital.html] that was a stark reminder of how privileged those living in Leaside are. At Leaside United Church, many of us think about how to the address the disparity we see. LUC’s Outreach committee currently organizes volunteers for the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office, supports the Flemingdon Food Bank, and is working on sponsoring two refugee families. LUC also supports the Yonge Street Mission, the Massey Centre, and Eastminster’s Out of the Cold program.
I asked Tanya Wiles-Bell, who coordinates our youth and family ministry, how the children and youth at LUC have been engaging this topic. Here’s what she said: “In September the children learned about LUC’s two Syrian families that we are sponsoring. Since then children have brought in gently used toys to give to our families when they arrive. Our fall theme has been “Many Ways.” We have explored six major faiths to help our children be open to different ways of looking at God and faith. Our youth sponsor low income, single parent families at Christmas. They organize a bake sale (this year on November 27th), shop for gifts, wrap everything and help with the delivery. Our lending library has books about diversity, refugees, indigenous peoples, and other faiths so that families can learn together and have conversations about how they can make a difference. By bringing young people into the conversation around poverty, refugees and other world challenges we pave the way for change.”
I might add that this January, all of us will be exploring the theme “far from home” in different ways – spiritual experience, congregational change, and the reality of refugees (after all, Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus was a refugee).
I’m not just writing a self-congratulatory reflection, however. Yes, there are many ways that LUC is engaged with issues around poverty, but we cannot be complacent in what we do. As the article points out, it is not just a question of having food to eat but about quality of life: “Half of kids in families with annual incomes below $30,000 don’t participate in arts or sports programs out of school hours while just 7 per cent of children in families with household incomes above $100,000 don’t take part.” We don’t want to be relying on a model of charity but living into equity, what our faith names as “justice.”
We need to be an active voice in the promotion of affordable housing, public transit, childcare, and recreation. What does this look like? It might mean writing letters to city politicians expressing your willingness to pay the taxes that will provide these services. It might mean actively supporting (i.e. using) public infrastructure (libraries, community centres, transit, etc) that we don’t need to support, but should so that their importance is apparent. What other possibilities, as individuals or as a church, can you imagine?
Blessings, Emily Gordon
November 2, 2016
On Sunday, we marked Reformation Sunday. Next year the protestant church will be marking 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral – the moment often associated with the start of the Protestant Reformation. Of course, that is a huge oversimplification. The Reformation, as Denis R. Janz writes in A Reformation Reader, “could well be defined as that whirlwind of personalities, ideas, and events in the sixteenth century that led to the disintegration of Western Christendom.” Christendom, however, reformed and moved to a new form in the intervening 500 years, and now once again we look at our world and see the disintegration of Western Christendom.
Turning to scripture, Luther insisted on grace as a gift from God that is freely given – never something that could be earned by our actions or donations, or bestowed by the church. Grounded in this claim, Luther spoke out against excesses, restrictions, and abuses of power that he saw in the church of his time. Values underlying his writing included God’s grace, the need for scripture to be accessible to all, and justice (no longer abuse of power, entrenched hierarchy, or greed holding sway).
500 years later we know the church’s role is changing. Like Luther we might look at the wider church past and present and see wonderful faithful lives and communities but also as instances of excesses, restrictions, and abuses of power. As we see the inevitability of change, we have the question: what values will underlie our own decisions in this time of change. Will we also take the risks necessary to allow faith to be accessible to all and to uphold a vision of justice that is grounded in divine grace, in unfailing love? A question for us as individuals, and as a community.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
Wednesday October 12, 2016
I am sure you will be shocked to hear that the subject of our Thanksgiving Sunday was: Thanksgiving! Why talk about gratitude? Here are some further reflections – all new for those who were here Sunday.
A couple of years ago in the United Church Observer, Mardi Tindal wrote a good article on gratitude as a spiritual practice (http://www.ucobserver.org/opinion/2014/10/soul_work/). She points out that there is scientific research to support the benefits of gratitude as well as deep roots in many spiritual traditions.
As a part of the Adult Faith Exploration group that I am leading this year, I am encouraging participants to keep a gratitude journal – and regularly write 5 things they are grateful for (either daily, several times a week, or weekly). Of course, I am trying to do this as well. Whether or not you are part of the Adult Faith Exploration group I invite you to join us in this spiritual practice over the coming year.
Am I good at writing in my gratitude journal regularly? Well, so far (since we started September 30th) the answer is no. Often I feel too busy, or forget that the week has come around (my goal is to write down 5 things I am grateful for every Sunday)… but even though I am inconsistent it still feels meaningful. In fact, it’s the next thing I am going to do today – only two days late!
PS – Did you know that the word “thinking” and “thanking” have the same roots? There’s an interesting TEDx Talk about the role of gratitude in learning – a topic that connects to education, but perhaps also our faith:
Blessings, Emily Gordon
Friday October 7, 2016
Last week I learned of a special service at Northlea United Church last Sunday in the afternoon – the covenanting service with Lee-Ann Ahlstrom, who began her ministry with Northlea at the start of July. Not wearing robes and leading worship I was able to fade into the background during the service, enjoying the feeling of singing hymns with the congregation around me, and listening to a moving sermon by Rev. Norm Seli on the longing we experience for the sacred, and how turning to God turns us in new directions. He encouraged us to let go of guilt and blame and fear, and instead to see where new possibilities take us.
Of course, I thought of my own covenanting service on May 15th – which feels like a long time ago! I remember that feeling of beginning something new, taking risks together. We shared symbols: Bible, bread & wine, the youth group talking stick, a basin & towel, and a pitcher of water for baptism. We shared communion, that bread broken and shared out among us, reminding us of the connection that pulls us together. We shared promises to support each other, and to work together. We shared possibility, and expectation, and probably some nerves as well. And it was wonderful.
You may have noticed new things, or old familiar things, different approaches and directions… I warned you that I won’t be the same as John Smith or David MacDonald. I have said that I will listen to you, whether or not you agree with me or are happy with choices that I make, I have said that I will care for you, whether or not you feel like you know me well or we have much still to learn about each other. I have said I would encourage you and challenge you. So, talk with me. Reach out to me. Disagree with me. Together let’s see how turning again and again to God turns us in a new direction, to new possibilities but always as a caring community.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
Wednesday October 5, 2016
On Sunday we celebrated a baptism. Whenever there is a baptism, we all take part in a renewal of commitments. Those being baptized, or the parents and guardians if the children are not old enough to make the decision for themselves, express faith in God and commitment to the life-long journey of exploring out faith – from asking questions and reflecting deeply, to striving to live with compassion, justice, and love in the world. As a community of faith, we also make promise to join the family in this exploration of faith, the ongoing work of living meaningful, and in valuing the importance of the gathered community, connecting and supporting one another. In baptism, we become part of that vision of hope and love that inspires us to be most truly ourselves, to live most fully in the world, and to love without bounds knowing that the love that surrounds us is unceasing.
If you (or someone you know) are thinking about baptism, we will have another baptism service on November 27th. Please contact me by the end of October so that we can arrange times to meet in November. For everyone else, note November 27th on your calendar and join us for this sacred celebration!
Blessings, Emily Gordon
Wednesday September 28, 2016
Remembering our previous two weeks – we started by talking about the importance of a starting point of beauty and thanksgiving rather than guilt and fear. Then we turned to creation to seek some of its wisdom, and in doing so remembered that we are not at the center of everything. Last Sunday, we took that starting point, and that wisdom as we turned to the topic of our responsibility. The question we are hearing this Creation Time is “What is creation saying to us?” This Sunday we heard: “Stand up for me!”
There’s not much point arguing against climate change. At this time, we may even have passed the “tipping point” that scientists talk about – the severe effects of climate change are no longer something we can prevent, although the actions we take can, in a small way, help mitigate the scale of the impact. The truth is that climate change will also disproportionately affect those who have the least responsibility (use the least fossil fuels, etc) and have fewest resources to cope. Climate change, then, is not just an environmental issue but a justice issue.
If this is the case, then when we image living with care for the environment, we might also look for the ways that environmental consciousness and social justice intersect. Here are just a few of the ways that we might see the intersection of social justice and environmental responsibility: public libraries; public transportation (the TTC); aspects of the sharing economy such as little free libraries, the Toronto Tool Library and the Toronto Kitchen Library; the Awesome Sale; and many more.
Taking part in a system that strives to support an environmental and social justice vision is frequently not as convenient or easy. The question is, what will those of us who are able to afford the (less environmentally conscious, less just) convenience choose to do? Remember, that each choice is small, each of our efforts is small – but we are not making them alone. As a community, the impact of each of our small choices becomes greater. As a community, we can be a part of a greater vision that is willing to do the hard work of living well on this earth. So join me in continuing those small, yet so important changes in the choices we make and the way we live.
For those seeking inspiration, here is the TED talk I brought up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JI-HzvXk5bk
Blessings, Emily Gordon
Tuesday September 20, 2016
What is the intelligence, the wisdom we seek from creation? We heard a few possibilities on Sunday, and one of them was about where our priorities should be. Together we named the priorities we heard in a scripture passage (Ezekiel 34:11-31) that draws on a familiar (for scripture) image of sheep. Priorities the congregation named included food, water, caring, safety, shelter, love, leadership. For the most part, my list was similar: food, water, shelter, protection, justice. How do these lists compare to your priorities? What else has made it onto your list – and is it getting in the way of what is most important?
One last priority: community. The scriptures imagine a shepherd gathering the “scattered sheep.” Why are the sheep scattered? Is it because some of the sheep disagrees about how to worship, or how to live faithfully? Is it because the sheep had to move for work, or preferred the view somewhere else, or just loved skiing? Is it because really, some of the sheep are pretty annoying, and it seemed easier for the other sheep to just keep to themselves? Regardless of why the sheep are scattered, we are presented with an image that reminds us how important community is, how important it is to gather together and eat and talk and rest and learn together.
Blessings, Emily Gordon
Tuesday September 13, 2016
On Sunday, we had our welcome back celebration and corn roast, which was wonderful (and perfect weather too!) We also marked the beginning of Creation Time. Creation Time is a recent addition to the church year – a chance to focus on the beauty of creation (the world around us) as well as our responsibility to care for creation. The question we are thinking about for this year’s Creation Time is “What is Creation Saying to Us?” This week, we heard “Enjoy my songs!”
Enjoy my songs? Why start with music? What about all the things we need to do to care for creation – recycling, taking action against climate change, opposing dragnet fishing that destroy underwater ecosystems, and so much more? Enjoy my songs?
Of course, it was lots of fun to sing extra hymns, to celebrate the beauty of the earth, and to sing about the music that animals make – from “the old cow just goes ‘Moo’” (in “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir”) to “the bumblebees hum along” (in “It’s a Song of Praise to the Maker”) to “the trees of the fields will clap their hands” (in “You Shall Go Out with Joy”).
Perhaps more importantly, however, by starting with the music of creation, we claim that beauty and thanksgiving should be our starting point. What happens when our responsibility to the earth emerges not from guilt or anger or fear, but beauty and thanksgiving? What actions does it suddenly make sense to take, when we are acting out of love? Of course, the question of what our starting point is does not only apply to creation, but to every aspect of our lives and the choices we make (although, if you think about it, everything we encounter is a part of creation).
Join us next Sunday as we hear our next answer to the question “What is Creation Saying to Us?” in worship at 10:30, and at our Blessing of the Animals service at 12:30 on the lawn.
Do you have a reflection that emerges from Emily’s Weekday Wonderings? Feel free to call (416) 425-1253 ext 25, text (647) 303-6709, or email Emily with further thoughts or reflections, or share your insights on Facebook!
Blessings, Emily Gordon
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
This past Sunday, we heard Psalm 139 in a beautiful translation from The Inclusive Bible. I particularly love the phrasing of verse 14:
For all these mysteries I thank you –
for the wonder of myself,
for the wonder of your works –
my soul knows it well.
How often do we take the time to wonder at ourselves? To truly appreciate how complex and beautiful and wonderful we are?
The line falls in a psalm that is full of a range of possible emotions. Is the psalmist feeling wonder? Sorrow or regret? Afraid? Surveilled? Helpless? Angry?
What I love about this psalm is how ambiguous it is, how human. After all, we feel all of these things in our own lives, and likely also in our own thoughts about the divine. When we see them reflected in a psalm, it reminds us that it is okay to feel all these things. It is not only ok, but wonderful to be fully human.
How do you hear Psalm 139? How do you respond?
Blessings, Emily Gordon
This August we spent the month reflecting on some of the many names we bring to the divine. As we think of each one, we remember that any and every name we bring is insufficient. Yet, at the same time, these names offer glimpses of some larger truth.
How better to seek such truth than through poetry, where we remember that metaphors and similes offer unexpected insight, yet are never the things themselves?
Here are excerpts from my poem reflections. Now, as in general, if you wish to share or use my work, please attribute it to me.
Excerpts from “Meditations on Many Names”
I: My Heart’s Rock
where silence stretches into stillness and our singularity
seems absolute, yet bedrock breaks out beneath our feet,
almost unseen but always present, we name you:
my heart’s rock, my strength
where the infinitesimally small, oh-so-sharp pebble
works its way into a shoe, calling for slowed steps,
to adjust and change, we name you:
my heart’s rock, my teacher
where life’s tundra lies waiting windswept, seeming bare,
stacked stones signal the traveler, these signposts of
the way, we name you:
my heart’s rock, my guide
where our lives flow, throw restless waves of anger and grief
crashing ourselves again and again against
the apparently unmoved shore – yet the shore’s stony surface is worn,
shaped in turn by our salty tears, we name you:
my heart’s rock, my comfort
we love the comfortable, the familiar pain and pleasure
the way things are, as if that is what they are
meant to be
all these times we do not recognize you,
and the shock as bread breaks
shatters preconceptions and preoccupations
shatters planning and preparation
how strange you can be
where should we look?
how will we see you?
when days bake beneath the sun’s heat
the night’s darkness brings cool relief
when spotlights and sunspots blind
the deepest dreams of night bring vision
when we are overwhelmed
the star-swept sky reveals just enough to move
forward, just enough to hold us close
yes, we keep our distance
where it is safe
from the unconditional love that overwhelms
oh, and how
darkness allows us to
strip off the robes of certainty,
approach with our embarrassed questions,
to be wrapped in the blanket of presence
still not knowing
Blessings, Emily Gordon