As we move more deeply into the season of Lent the changing landscape of our lives presents us with dilemmas. This week we heard Dr. Evan Wood present the landscape of addiction and a drug overdose crisis. Jesus had a habit of saying, “You have heard it said…” and then quoting a teaching from the tradition. Then he would say, “But I say…” and he would offer a new way. Come gather, and let us seek new and faithful ways through the changing landscape.
Reflection by Rev. Will Sparks
When I was serving Northwood United Church in Surrey some years ago, out of the blue, and elderly couple arrived in church with their son who was a few years older than me. I had never met them, so I approached them afterwards and discovered that it was Marnie and Ross Connal, recently moved in to an assisted living place close to the church. I soon learned that Ross was a retired minister, and I made a note that I should go visit them.
Soon afterwards I found myself in their little two bedroom suite in the facility sharing tea and learning so much about them. They had started out in ministry in Kitamat! Really, I said? When?
The 1950s! Really, I said? My grandfather was the city engineer who laid out the new town of Kitamat back in the 50s and he and my grandmother were founding members of the United Church in Kitamat. Wilber and Louella Sparks. Marnie and Ross knew that, and proceeded to tell me story after story of the important roll my grandparents had played in the life of this brand new minister and his wife and soon his infant children, settled way back of beyond in the first grand adventure of their lives in ministry. They told me about meetings that took place in my grandparents living room because the church was not fully built yet and Grandpa was chair of the new Official Board of the Kitamat First United Church which always makes me chuckle. Back in the 50s all kinds of churches were built and named the ever hopeful name of First United as if this was going to be the first of many in the little town of Kitamat.
I remember leaving that visit quite moved, because I had never known my grandfather. He died when I was still an infant. Early onset dementia at the age of 59. I learned more about him in that one visit than I ever had, because they knew him as a community member, elder, friend, mentor. Ross had slept in their spare room because he couldn’t go back to the manse at Kitamat Village across the water on stormy nights.
A year or so after this visit, Rev. Ross Connal passed away, and I again visited Marnie in their little place. She had another surprise for me. They had been going through Ross’s things and had come across this compass. She wanted me to have it. It was my grandfather’s.
The young and inexperienced minister Ross had to travel up and across the narrows from the Indigenous Village of Kitamat where the manse was located up to the new town in a 14 foot tin boat, and here he was with no map. no compass. No experience. Grandpa took him aside and said, Ross, if the fog rolls in and you get disoriented, or if you blow off course and get lost, you need a map and compass. And he taught Ross how to use it, and he gave Ross the compass that he had been given by the Pacific Coast Mountain Rangers when he had served in the reserves. He said “Here. You need it more than I do these days.”
The compass. As we are making our way through the season of Lent we are kind of riffing off the title of our Musical, “Anything Goes” and asking the question, Does Anything Go? Really? In the ever changing cultural, and moral landscape of our lives, everything seems to be changing. What used to be normative socially, culturally, even legally is changing. What used to be ok, is no longer ok, and things that used to be taboo now seem to be ok. How do we navigate our way faithfully? Are there unchanging principles that we can fall back on, or do we have to just make it up as we go?
We may think this is a new question, or at least more things are changing and more rapidly than ever. And we are in a time of rapid change, but I can’t help think those around Jesus might have felt similarly when he was with them on that mountainside remembered by Matthew, and started listing off to them long held rules with the words, “you have heard that it was said in times past, ‘you shall not murder…’ but I say, if you are angry with your brother or sister, you’ve got something to work on. And you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery… but I say pay attention to what is going on in the heart, not just in the behavior… And again you have heard it said ‘you shall not swear falsely… but I say don’t swear at all… don’t threateningly use God’s name to back up what you say. Just let your word stand for itself… And you have heard it said… but I say…”
You see what he is doing here? He is taking long standing behavioral norms that were cast as behavioral rules, and saying, that is what you have heard, that is what was handed you, but you need to decide. You need to take the ancient practices, principles and norms and figure out what is right in your life, in your world, in your time and place, and, to be precise, in your heart. That is where the calculation is made. It is not enough to say, that is the rule, or that is the law, and simply say, behave. Follow the book. We have to think about what is right, what is true in our context, and decide. And that makes life messy. That adds an element of uncertainty. That takes what used to be black and white and introduces a whole realm of grey into the mix.
This week during our Lenten Speaker Series, Dr. Evan Wood led us through the current landscape of addiction, drugs and the policy and treatment currently at play in that realm. And there are people who believe that we just need to prohibit use and enforce that prohibition. The war on drugs. And there are others who believe that we simply need to take the legal hands off and let the market do its thing. Legalize the whole thing. And in between these poles there is a huge grey area of regulation, prevention, and treatment. And that is a messy nuanced place where you trying to balance what works and what feels right and what makes sense under the circumstances. And in that place, you will try stuff and it might not work, and so you change your approach. But what I heard is that neither polar positions work and both create huge suffering.
Beyond the ideas of full legalization which puts it in the hands of the unregulated market, and full criminalization which puts it in the hands of unregulated criminal organizations, there is a messy uncertain place. But that is the place where we figure out what reduces suffering, what brings healing, and in our language, what love requires. We listen for the timeless grace of God to speak and tell us where we must go to reduce the suffering and heal the broken. That is the messy place where we seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly. That is the field beyond the ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing where we are called to go.
My grandfather gave fresh-faced Rev. Ross Connal a compass to help guide his way, and then he taught him how to use it. You don’t follow a compass to get home. It doesn’t even tell you where you are. It just orients you to an unseen magnetic pull in the world. And from there, you figure out where you are and which way you need to go next, step by step, adjusting as we go. And for us, for followers of Jesus, our orienting magnetic pull in the world is not a book- even the bible, or a set of rules- even the 10 commandments, as much as these things might be helpful touchstones. No, our magnetic pull is the power of love alive in the world. And we discern that pull from here (heart) and from here (mind), and from here (community), in struggle and dialogue of it. In every unfamiliar or puzzling piece of terrain in which we find ourselves, we discern the magnetic pull of love and ask ourselves, where to from here? It will be messy. We will not get it right all the time. But as the anthem put it, “We pour out our miseries, our lives our struggles, God hears a melody. Beautiful the mess we are. The honest cries of breaking hearts are better than a hallelujah. Amen.
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