View from the pew

Published October 1, 2011

It is the first time in many years that I have some free time on a Saturday morning. The email says they are going to gather on the beach for a few minutes of silence to protest proposed
oil tanker traffic on the coast. Having entered the blessed state of retirement, I turn up.

Last year, they tell me, 400 people protested the disastrous oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico. This year, they are hoping for 1,000.

We number about 50.

We stand in silence and a photo of us-a line of cutouts silhouetted against the ocean horizon-makes the front page of the newspaper the next day. I am the fourth shadow from the left.

The sand smells good. I haven’t stood on a beach to smell the sand in my own city for years. People and dogs and kids are all having fun. Amazing.

The next morning, Sunday, I find myself sitting in a pew in an unfamiliar church. I am being challenged by a liturgy I thought I knew inside out.

I listen in a new way. I hear over and over again the message of good news and hope…in the face of sin.

Suddenly I’m back on the beach. The people standing in that silent line are afraid that we have ruined the planet. We’ve all heard the list of horrors. The scientists lead us in repeating the litany every day-the planet is ruined “…through our fault, through our fault, through our most grievous fault.” We are all living with the guilt.

So, it turns out, the sin’s fairly clear. Everyone feels it pressing the life out of us. The liturgy got that one right.

But where is the hope that this liturgy keeps proclaiming?

If we pray hard enough, will God suddenly appear and replace all the fish, remove the carbon dioxide, re-freeze the icecaps and end global warming? Nobody expects that. There are consequences to what we have done and we must face up to them.

That doesn’t feel like hope. And certainly not joy. But that’s what the liturgy goes on and on about.

I’m back on the beach. While some of us solemnly stand up for the environment, kids are playing with dogs, couples are sunning themselves on blankets and others are loving the sound of the water lapping at their feet. Are they naive? Living in denial? Or is their fun a sign of something that comes from a much deeper place?

And then it dawns on me. No matter what we do to the planet, it will not have the slightest impact on the love and power of God which we know through the magnificence of creation. Even the worst sin imaginable-destruction of our environment-is nothing in the face of this primal goodness. Knowing that, we can live in joy and hope and yes, forgiveness.

Paul wrote that “…nothing can separate us from the love of God…” and then he lists the disasters of his day made impotent by God’s reigning love. Now it’s our turn to be surprised by joy and to proclaim that none of the disasters of our time and of our making will have the slightest impact on God’s love.

Then the liturgy came alive and I could have wept with joy. The solid state of gravity, the irrepressible processes of evolution, the mind-boggling beauty and immensity of the universe all whisper to us that our sin has lost its power. That Christ reigns. That even at the grave we are called to raise our voices. “Alleluia!”

Suddenly God was everywhere. The environmentalists on the beach were God calling us to take responsibility for our actions. The children and dogs on the beach called us to experience the deep joy of living in God’s boundless goodness. And then the liturgy gave expression, power and enactment to both. What joy! What hope!

If this is life in the pew, bring it on.

Canon Harold Munn is mentor-in-residence at the Vancouver School of Theology.


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