Thursday, 21 March 2013

God Boxes, Tragedies, and Waking Up

Trying to keep God down?
For much of my life, it seems, I was very effective at putting God in a box. A little box. Wrapped in string or ribbon or something stronger. It still is a temptation, especially when things seem out of control. I believed that if I just prayed hard enough, Mum and Dad wouldn't divorce. That God would tell me what to do about this and that.  Problem was, when things fell apart, it meant I hadn't prayed hard enough - and was somehow a failure. 

How could God let this happen or that? Suffering in Haiti. Children dying. Poverty. Wars. When we let God out of the boxes - or rather let go of the illusion that God can be contained - we open ourselves to questions that have no answers.

I'm also aware of something extremely troubling. I'm wondering where I was during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. I mean, I know where my body was, but where were my heart and mind? It feels like a blur. Why weren't we marching? I was north of the border for much of it. Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat on the bus was 1955, and I was 9. So, a bit young, maybe to know much ... But the Civil Rights movement was 1955 to 1968. Why weren't we talking about it in school? I remember the assassination of MLK. I  I was also in Boston during the bussing desegregation. And only in recent times did I realize, thanks to friend Karen from Southie, that the bussing was to poorer white neighbourhoods - not to the wealthier areas.

Where was I during the Vietnam War? Why weren't we talking about it in school? Paul Napper, who graduated with us, joined the US Marines, returned home and died of cancer caused by Agent Orange. I was in the US from 1967 onwards. I don't remember talking about it at the convent. I remember a Mennonite in Haiti who was a conscientious objector and doing service that way. I vaguely remember card burnings and hearing of campus disturbances. But I don't remember praying about it or discussing the politics or justice and injustice. Where were we? Am I the only one in the mists, and others around me were thinking about it and discussing? And - well, we didn't act. I wonder if we would today.

A pastor wrote a letter to other pastors on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, challenging himself and us. He tells how when, early on, he spoke from the pulpit against the war, some parishioners walked out of church never to return. And so, he kept silent. And he asks if we would keep silence next time.

Not only are there almost 5,000 dead in the US military - young men and women who leave behind children, spouses, partners, parents, siblings, friends, comrades. Countless thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, including so many children ('just' collateral damage) in Iraq. The Middle East is further destabilized and Iran is getting stronger... And it was based on lies. Criminal. Tragic. Lies. 

And now - can it be true that there have been so many, many suicides both of personnel on active duty and of those who returned scarred ... ?  Every 80 minutes a veteran of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan attempts suicide in the US.  I want to say surely not - but that would be denial. There was an 80% increase in suicides amongst military personnel between 2004 and 2008. Those who served in recent conflicts are 30 percent to 200 percent more likely to commit suicide than their ­non-veteran peers. Every day 18 to 22 veterans take their own lives, depending on the source of the statistics. WHAT is wrong with this picture?

Closer to home ... there was an article in the Montreal Gazette on February 13th. In two years (2007-2009), there were 566 documented suicides in the Montreal area.  566. More, because some deaths that are suicides aren't classified as such. The Jeanne Mance district, where I worked until recently, had the highest rate at 17.4 per 100,000. 45% of these were people under 45. Mostly men, I imagine. "People in (the Jeanne Mance sector) tend to live a more isolated existence and are more transient than in the West Island... they tend to be childless and unemployed. And poverty is more of an issue ... substance abuse is higher in certain areas ... (Jeanne Mance) ... for every 25 attempted suicides, one person dies. An atttempted suicide is an indicator of someone in need of immediate help."

Now I am awake. I feel as if, in some ways, I was asleep long ago. And now I am even more convinced of the need for small community ministries like Mile End Mission. The Mission is in the Jeanne Mance sector. Everyone needs to belong. Very few people are living on society's margins by choice. Mental illness, life tragedies, poverty, old age ... it is so easy to dismiss suffering - to dismiss PEOPLE, actually - every single person has value. Every person has need of a place to belong, to be seen and valued. Everyone should be helped to have hope, be treated with respect, and loved. 

I love the image of Anton Boisen - every one of us is a 'living document.' Everyone has a story. Every person has a right to tell his or her story and for it to be heard. 

There ARE tragedies out there. It's overwhelming. 

However, we CAN make a difference. I've seen this as an African proverb, and a quote of the Dalai Lama...

So, what does all that  have to do with God boxes? God has long since burst out of the boxes in which I've tried to keep Her contained. I wonder if we're asleep to the extent we try to capture the firefly Spirit and keep Her locked in the bottle, to mix my metaphors? (Sorry, Mrs. Tudor.) I'm sorry I was, in some ways, asleep for so long.  But - it's never too late to decide we don't like boxes for God or ourselves ...  to wake up ... 

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