Bao

This is part of SSUC’s March Spiritual Gathering Series
which seeks wisdom found in 2019 Oscar nominated films. 

Bao centres around a middle-aged Chinese woman living in Toronto. After her husband shoves three freshly-prepared bao (dumplings) into his face and heads out for the day, our protagonist watches as one remaining bao sprouts arms and legs and begins to burble like a baby.

What follows is a chance for this woman to experience all the joys, fears, and sorrows of motherhood. As her child grows, gets hurt, learns new things, and eventually begins to rebel and try to fly the nest with his fiancée, his mother – in a last-ditch attempt at holding on to her dear child – devours him.

While the experiences depicted may be specific to Chinese cultural nuances and intricacies, the themes are universal if, as viewers, we can step outside our own perspective. Our cultural signifiers might be different, we may or may not show our love through food, we may or may not see our own culture represented, but basic human emotions of protection, love, care and home are an experience that spans each of us as humans.

This moment where mom devours her dumpling boy is emotional. The first time I saw this, I gasped. I was taken aback. In an animated film that lasts 7 minutes, we might expect to laugh or to escape with some light entertainment…but this scene hits hard. This moment, as we can see by mom’s immediate reaction to what she’s done, is raw and human; it’s the pain of loss.

I think it’s left up to us whether this moment represented a real-life argument gone wrong, a mother’s attempt to protect her son and keep him at home, or the acceptance of the irony that there was no way she could’ve kept her son safe without losing him.

If our expectations of another don’t allow the kind of freedom

  • that lets a child leave home, or
  • that lets others outgrow the labels and silouettes to we put around them*, or
  • that lets another forge their own path, even if it means diverging from the one we expected,

then this moment in the film is saying to us that our expectations are consuming the ones we care about. We might as well eat them up.

*Mark Nepo, in his book The One Life We’re Given, describes this love in this way:
“We’re too quick to name or label people we meet without taking the time to experience the spirit they carry. And we seldom allow for those we know and love to transcend the name we’ve given them. Then, when they outgrow the silhouette we’ve put around them, we’re surprised, and even see their change as a betrayal.”

Thanks to Domee Shi’s amazing animated short, Bao, we are able to ask ourselves:

  • What might happen when we loosen our grip on our all-consuming expectations…of ourselves, of others, of our aspirations?
  • Where can we see that we’ve been holding on too tightly?
  • What might happen if we give each other the chances we all need to be whole?

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

This is part of SSUC’s March Spiritual Gathering Series
which seeks wisdom found in 2019 Oscar nominated films. 

Bob Merrill and Jule Styne wrote a song for the 1964 Broadway musical Funny Girl that Barbara Streisand sang…and the first verse goes:

People, people who need people
Are the luckiest people in the world
Where children needing other children
And yet letting our grown-up pride
Hide all the need inside
Acting more like children than children

To be human is to recognize that we need each other. And depending on who we are, our upbringing, our temperament, this is variously easy or difficult.

I, for one, when I have a question about where to find something, recommendations about food or a service, or whatever…my first instinct is to research by myself and come up with an answer. I’m always shocked to learn that other people just put this need out there…on social media, with friends, with total strangers… “Hey, I need this. Anyone know anything?”  That is not my go-to. That doesn’t occur to me unless someone says: “You know people, ask them.” Oh yeah.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a 2018 film, with two Oscar nominated actors, that portrays this idea so well…perhaps tragically. Melissa McCarthy is portraying Lee Israel, a real-life biographer who when demand for her kind of writing dries up, turns to fabricating and selling letters from famous authors. As much as this movie chronicles Lee Israel’s stumbling into this criminal enterprise, it’s really a film about a stubbornly independent person being forced to admit—very much against her will—that she needs other people sometimes. But she’s so unpracticed at it that she fumbles her way through even the simplest relationships and interactions.

At one point, Lee is caught off guard by the gently romantic overtures of a bookseller named Anna. And we see just how ill-accustomed she is to receiving human kindness, much less responding in kind. When a conversation becomes too personal, too kind, too emotional, Lee quickly cracks a joke or turns the conversation into a sort-of business transaction. Anything to avoid the fact that another person might have a place in her life. Anything to avoid feeling vulnerable. To quote Lee Israel about breaking up with an ex: “she wanted me to listen to her talk about her feelings, and get closer to her friends, and crap like that.”

She has no friends…other than the new one she’s made in Jack – an equally lonely and pained character. Both of them on the outside looking in…a perfectly desperate situation that allows them both to seek meaning and purpose in less than healthy (and legal) ways.

What would have Lee’s life been like had she the people who supported her through her ups and downs? How might her decisions have differed if she’d been given support and love from family, friends, and her extended community? A different life – and not the same movie, for sure!

Community is powerful. The lack of it is just as powerful to make an impact in our lives and in the direction it takes. When it comes to building and strengthening connection, we each are immensely powerful. We all have the power to offer connection and community to others: community built on the reality that we’re all necessary, unique, and powerful to add our small piece to the puzzle. Wouldn’t it be great for every person to know they are part of something that looks after one another and ensures that no one has to go it alone. What an immense power to be able to give that gift to another.

Of Hearings and Heartbreak

Update: November 7, 2018

Toronto Conference, Rev. Gretta Vosper and West Hill United Church have settled all outstanding issues between them.
Rev. Gretta Vosper will remain in ordained ministry at West Hill United Church.
We acknowledge the faithful work of all of those who have been involved in this process.Read the full statement from Gretta here.

This week, the United Church of Canada began to hear arguments to decide whether the Rev. Gretta Vosper will be placed on the ‘Discontinued Service List – Disciplinary’, their euphemistic way to defrock and excommunicate a minister. Even as of last week, even Gretta herself wasn’t clear about the scope of the hearings. The first week of the hearing is meant to establish just that. Will the hearing allow the panel to reconsider the the now-two-year-old ruling of Toronto Conference that she was “unsuitable” as a minister, or be limited to simply addressing the “consequence” of that ruling and in essence only be determining her ‘sentence’; or will the power of this panel lie somewhere in between?

There have been others, as well as Gretta herself, who’ve written on the confusing and dangerous equating of unsuitability and effectiveness, something never before done in the denomination. There is the ridiculous fact that though deemed unsuitable, West Hill United Church, with whom she remains in a called pastoral relationship, continues to be very pleased with her leadership, making her extremely effective and suitable. Likewise, Gretta’s views on doctrine and how these were encouraged to evolve in her life-long relationship and training in the United Church, have never been a secret. As a published author, her views have long been public. Even her responses to the review’s theological questions have been public on her website. Gretta’s work has always garnered both positive and negative reaction, however the value of her work and approach to church and spirituality is affirmed by many within the United Church and around the world who seek her counsel, mentorship and inspiration. She has opened the church to new theological conversation that need to happen, and that many across the country are indeed pursuing with great rewards. She and many of us wish that the Toronto Conference, the General Council Executive, and the church as a whole would be as willing to engage mutually in these important conversations.

I will speak very personally now. Living in the Toronto area in 2009, I was at a crossroads in my ministry within a different denomination. I had been bringing what I would have then called a ‘progressive christian’ approach to ministry for ten years and I found myself for those few years, feeling like I was banging my head against a wall. What was spoken about in book studies, wasn’t what could be preached from the pulpit. The understandings that were a given in theological training and biblical scholarship for almost a generation were still seemingly ignored when it came to the practice of ‘worship’. How could the church encourage this scholarship, yet remain unchanged in its rituals, its language, its songs and its liturgies? And what impact was this having on clergy like me who were sharing new thinkers, writers and theologians with excitement, but in essence told, only Monday through Saturday please. This disorder was making its way through clergy I knew, through me, and through the church as a whole. Why wasn’t anyone willing to be honest about all this? Why were we not collectively saying what we mean and meaning what we say?

This is the context in which I first met Gretta, in her books and in person at West Hill United. She above all lived and encouraged integrity in theological and pastoral leadership. She exemplified a transparent church leader, saying in short that there’s nothing to hide; that as we learn more, we share more; as we have more conversation about the evolution of our faith, our understandings, our biblical and church history, the more we grow together – lead where it will. It was Gretta Vosper who allowed me to see that a pathway forward was possible – maybe not in the denomination I’d been serving, but certainly in the open and always questing/questioning United Church of Canada. Without even knowing it, Gretta helped me make the decision to apply to be admitted to ministry in the United Church, knowing that at this crossroads, I could find space here to lead, to teach, to grow and to learn with integrity. This is one of Gretta’s great legacy’s she is giving the United Church: the evolution of spirituality, christianity, and ancient belief systems is possible; to be rooted in this faith yet grow from it and branch into new places is possible; to be relevant for 21st century multi-disciplinary thinkers and do-ers is possible. This I learned and continue to learn from Gretta.

I was asked this week if and/or how I would respond to the questions of ordination today. The fact is, I still believe we shouldn’t have to. In so many fields of study, we do not hold to ancient understandings in light of new scholarship, and although these questions couldn’t be classified technically as ancient, they were created variously from 1925-40. In the evolution of thoughts and ideas, this is ancient. When I was admitted to the United Church, ten years after my theological training and ordination vows, I was instructed (whether sanctioned or not) that I was to answer the questions under the rubric of ‘essential agreement’, a lately much-debated phrase often used in the United Church. So in answering these questions when I was admitted, I answered them with the understanding that I was defining the meanings and metaphors. When asked if, for example, I “believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…”, etc. I was counselled that I was in faithful company to answer based on the understandings that I came to the theological subjects of sacredness, care, community, mutuality, accountability, etc. that were given shorthand expression in these ancient formulas. Was this the right thing to do? As a newcomer to the culture of the United Church and with confidence in its ‘big tent’ philosophy, I wasn’t worried (especially considering I was extremely honest about my theological views in my admission interviews, and welcomed enthusiastically). In today’s context and environment, the response to these questions raises different issues and has a different impact.

Asking how I would answer these questions now is not a productive thing for me to spend my time worrying about. Why? Because I (and so many of us) have moved beyond the language and world-view that these questions imply. This summer’s General Council 43 could recognize this too. Although there is no immediate change being proposed, there was a successful move toward re-evaluating the questions of ordination and commissioning for a new time, or in their words, that “the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee will be directed to engage in a study on modernizing the theological language we use for the agreements required in the ordination, commissioning, admission, and recognition of ministry and to report back to the 44th General Council”.  See the GC decision here. I believe that the church as a whole recognizes that there are issues in having candidates for ordination, commissioning and admission use language that dates back at least 80 years. What this says to me is that any questions concerning one’s interpretation of this antiquated language ignores the fact the highest decision making body of our church has decided that study and modernizing is necessary. It would be unwise and, I would say, irresponsible, to base a crucial decision such as “effectiveness”, “suitability” or placing a valuable member of our clergy on a discontinued service list which would in effect end her career based on language the church itself has deemed needing study and updating.

I am heartbroken that the church has drawn in the sand, unwilling to see the danger, the poor and unjust precedent and generally non-compassionate action that they are taking in proceeding with this hearing. Never mind that an inspiring and much needed leader’s career, livelihood and reputation has been damaged and threatened, this action says to many in the United Church, including me, that we aren’t welcome. The theological rigor and openness to evolving thought and faith for which this denomination has been known is no longer welcome. This is a month that, for Gretta and West Hill, is about a hearing, but for all of us it’s a month of heartbreak.

I stand in full support of Gretta Vosper remaining in active ministry within the United Church. I stand in full support of her continued and effective leadership at West Hill United Church. I stand in full support of the United Church being open and welcoming enough to embrace theological diversity that includes Gretta Vosper and those like her. I stand in full support of the community of United Church ministers and lay people whose evolving faith and understandings have been encouraged by the ethos of the United Church and who still belong and find space within it.

Christopher New

Words to Live By

A few years after Southminster United Church began meeting in the Vernon Barford school gym in Edmonton, a community church began in River Heights School in Saskatoon. They became a part of the United Church, grew into a vibrant congregation with strong leadership and strong outreach into their city, and eventually settled into a church building. As time went on, changes came and building sold, MVUC evolved into a committed core of progressive spiritual seekers meeting in the lounge at St. Andrew’s College at the U of S. Over the years, there were connections made at conferences and retreats, and one year ago, some exciting conversations began about a possible partnership between MVUC and SSUC. All of that has led to this still-vibrant community partnering as a satellite community of SSUC, called SSUC-Saskatoon.

One noticeable feature of MVUC’s gatherings at the College were the huge depictions of their Mission, Vision and Values which sat up front on the gigantic mantelpiece. The community worked very hard to distill these values and make them the centre of all they did. In our new partnership, we honour these commitments in a new banner that graces the north wall of our gathering space. As we’re rooted in a common quest, these words will stand among us to create a deep and powerful connection as one family, meeting in two locations. Join us as we spend the next several weeks exploring each of the themes represented in these words.

What’s in a Name (Part 2)

In case you missed it, read about what prompted us to begin marketing ourselves externally as
“SSUC: Spiritual Seekers United in Community”. Read What’s in a Name (part 1)

Who are Millennials? 

Millennials are the generation born somewhere from the late 1970’s until the late 1990’s. There’s much debate about what defines this generation, but some of what makes them unique is that they are marrying later; are upbeat about their economic future, despite the fact that almost 60 percent of them do not have full-time jobs and are likely living at home; are heavily into social networking; and communicate almost entirely through smart phones. 59 percent of millennials with a Christian background are not attending church, and some eight million in North America will leave the church before age 30. According to Rachel Held Evans, millennials, more than any other generation, will not choose between science and religion, but want spaces to doubt, to wrestle with questions about meaning, sexuality, science, beliefs and understandings, without committing to a worldview, an institution. Instead wanting matters of spirituality to be more than a set of beliefs or rules to obey, but rather a lifestyle to live, values to pursue, and a conduit to make a positive impact on their world.

What has the church always done?

In each generation, the Christian church has had to decide if and how it would change to speak the language of the time. Whether it be literally translating words and rituals into the language of the people they were serving, or taking stands on justice issues to side with the marginalized, or whether to shift their theological focus, age-old customs and practices to meet a changing world, the way the historical church has had to communicate what it offers has always had to meet people in the reality of their experience.

How are we speaking today’s language?

Throughout its 50 year history, Southminster-Steinhauer United Church has been emboldened to have conversations about the kind of community that would express Christianity relevantly for the south side of Edmonton. It decided from the beginning to be different – to be less focused on a church building and more focused on helping populations who were under served. From the start, the expression of spirituality experienced by this congregation was in how a life and love exhibited in Jesus helped inspire a life and love of community, outreach, justice and communal leadership. Those decisions have had lasting impact in continuing the evolution of how this Christianity could be expressed within the community. In recent years we’ve been expanding the act of questioning and exploring as this community seeks to be inspired by wisdom of the Jesus tradition alongside the valuable wisdom of other traditions and sources. In its public gatherings and studies, SSUC has never been afraid to imagine ancient traditions for what meaning they might have in the 21st century, and if they have none, to leave them in the past. Being committed to inclusivity, we’ve taken steps that help exclusive god-talk language be opened so that we can be focus on how we’re connected by our common humanity and desire to live and exhibit the best of our values.

Spiritual Seekers United in Community: why use that phrase?

Using our acronym, SSUC as both a short form for our name (Southminster-Steinhauer United Church) and as a descriptive phrase (spiritual seekers united in community), we are describing ourselves to our target demographic. We want people who might be drawn to a community of value-oriented spirituality to know who we are at first glance. We wish not to hide the richness of our community, but to shine a light on who we are and what we are about to those who’d be very interested. What we’re learning about these often younger people who are finding their way to us, is that they don’t give us a chance because they are don’t get past the word ‘church’ before they write us off. We know that there are those who won’t give us a second look because they don’t think anything called “church” could possibly be relevant to them. But testimonies of some of our newest members reveal to us that this community is much different and much more than the conception they had of ‘church’.

Let’s think of this phrase as a tool. It gets frustrating to describe the kind of christian you are by having to describe what kind of christian you aren’t. The phrase is one tool that has helped many of us describe what we do together in a positive way rather than saying ‘yes, we are a church but not that kind of church’. It isn’t helpful to have only negative responses in describing who we aren’t rather than a simple positive statement that encapsulates what we ARE. We are spiritual: embracing the long history of spirituality, rooted in the Jesus tradition. We are seekers: not limited and constrained to one interpretation of a tradition but seeking wisdom and meaning wherever it can be found. We are united: yes, connected to a denomination but also united in our efforts to live our values and make a difference together. We are in community: recognizing that we all need to love and be loved, to be supported in our often-isolating world to celebrate our diversity and demonstrate compassion. What a positive and easy way to share who we are and what we’re about – all in four letters: SSUC.

Some results so far…

The phrase spiritual seekers united in community interests our newcomers a lot. We have much more contact with younger adults as a result of their interest in a spiritual community. This way of describing ourselves has helped the Rainbow Connection program describe who we are to the more than 20 young adults who participate on Monday evenings for meditation and yoga, to the 100 children, young adults, and families who come to rainbow connection all age dance parties. We inevitably have conversations with people at those events who ask, “I can’t believe a church is hosting this event! What kind of a church is this?”  How heartening to look at our Facebook followers and know so few of them personally, many representing a generation that we are thrilled to connect with.  How heartening to see newcomers in our Sunday circle who have had the courage it takes to venture here in person – here because they identify themselves as spiritual seekers who want to find community.

Our newly relaunched website (where you’re currently reading this) is mobile friendly. Did you know that over 80% of users view this site on their mobile devices? Just a year ago, our old site would receive about 50 visits per week. The new site is pulling about 260 sessions per week and 2000 page views.

We’re working for our future

The name Southminster-Steinhauer carries lots of important history and is treasured by many who’ve been here for 40 or 50 years. We imagine that this name will remain significant within our community for years to come. One of the things we learn from two millenia of church history is that the beauty of our community, the foundations it is built upon, and the message it has for the world is a great legacy, but only if it remains nimble enough to survive. All of us want our community to continue its important legacy with new generations and new people. To do that, we’ll always need to find effective ways to communicate what’s unique about us. In an age when denominational brands don’t carry much freight anymore, where most of the young adults who connect with us have no idea what’s different about lutheran, anglican, baptist, united or catholic but see us all as “church” while not thinking that “church” has much to offer them, we can evolve, we can be who we are in new ways and in ways that honour the past and the changing present. How exciting to be part of that evolution.

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