citizens and unicorns

I know there are a great number of progressive churches in Vancouver: over twenty of them specifically welcoming of the LGBTQ community. (can we not find a clever acronym? That always sounds like a complicated sandwich) My Fellow happens to attend one: St Andrews Wesley United: the huge grey church beside St Paul’s hospital. This is the outfit that does the candlelight services and the jazz vespers.

The first thing I notice about the church are the cherubim sculptures behind the altar. They look EXACTLY like my Fellow, give or take some wings and flowing blonde hair. It cracks me up every time to see him sounding the cymbals and playing the lyre naked for us all. For such a big grand church complete with liturgy, communion, choir, and a fantastic pipe organ postlude, it is very homey and welcoming. It could use some more young people, but the congregation is quite varied. The sermon is articulate, inclusive and relevant without being self consciously PC. The Sunday school is fun and today there is a jam sale after the show! I am particularly taken with the apricot vanilla…

Largely, I have found church boring, offensive, and full of half assed art. I haven’t been a church goer since the year 2000 when I was denied membership at Point Grey Community Church because I could not state, “homosexuality is sin”. They would not even agree to disagree; they kicked me out despite my passionate attendance and many hours of volunteering. Though I consider myself a spiritually active Christian, I would say that theatre has been my church. But even theatre can be boring, offensive and full of half assed art, and theatre really has no excuse. Both institutions suffer from two things: humanity and lack of funding. But, when church or theatre works, it is transcendent. It is worth the weekly attendance for those moments of glory. I have really needed to get back into church; it is part of my faith construct. I have been busy. I have been lazy. I have been holding onto a grudge. The Christian church embarrasses me so often I get afraid to call myself a Christian. But I can’t let the bullies win. The Christian church is my church too. Not attending and then griping about it is like griping about the mayor but not turning out to vote. (I really like Gregor by the way, and not just because he looks like Ben Hur.)imagesUnknown

This Sunday I go on my own because my Fellow is off saving lives. It gives me great pleasure to see a hundred rather distinguished looking white headed church goers stand up in their austere pews and howl like wolves. My side of the church has to stand up too, wiggle our bums and pretend to eat logs like corn cobs: the beavers. The children dance in front of us as killer whales and bears. Tsawaysia Spukwus, a drummer and speaker from the Squamish Nation, is our guest in church this week and she leads us in a welcoming song. I have to admit, I am surprised that almost everyone participates, gleefully. Why do I assume ol’ Jack over there, in his grey suit and sweater vest would not want to howl like a wolf? Maybe nobody asks him to? Maybe the last time he howled like a wolf he was twelve years old running through the woods with his cousins playing “kick the can” past dark? Why am I so shocked that Ms Martha beside me, well into her eighties, is shaking her hips with abandon? Maybe because she hasn’t been socially “allowed” to shake her hips for the past forty years? Maybe she hasn’t put those hips to much use since her husband passed away half a life ago? Maybe she just got a hip replacement and is quite pleased she CAN shake her hips at all?

Rev. Dan Chambers gives another solid sensual sermon about the spiritual power of music while my daughter skips off to sunday school. After the service and the cookies and coffee, I attend a membership meeting on behalf of Fellow and I. Nora patiently draws pictures while the prospective members sit in a circle munching on egg salad sandwiches and talking about the new Apostle’s Creed and the gender inclusive Lords Prayer. While we meet, Jenn (a church presider/job description: kindness) notices her and scurries off to find her a stack of fabulous books to read.

Our meeting is interrupted by a loud young man with a mental illness of some kind. He reels in with extra large light blue eyes peering out from his dark toque, scrawny and swerving, prophesying about the decay of our society’s spiritual awareness and the rise of narcissism. His caregiver hovers near enough to gently guide him to the back room but Dan nods and listens to the young man for longer than I would. He turns an awkward moment into a rather beautiful one by giving the young man the moment to be heard. I am disturbed by my own impatience. I am disturbed to see someone so young afflicted with illness but I am also disturbed because much of what he is saying is true. Is he unhinged because he has the eyes to see all of the sorrow all at once? I wonder if we call our prophets mentally ill or if we call our mentally ill, prophets. To warn people of calamity due to their spiritual bankruptcy is not the easiest job and it likely requires some madness to have the courage to do it. Either way, the young man sighs with a kind of relief when he is heard. Dan thanks him for the reminder. Our meeting is delayed by 2.5 minutes. Who cares? Dan carefully speaks about this church being a place where all people are welcome and all people are safe. Maintaining both can be difficult sometimes.images

He asks us to cite an image that speaks to us: a metaphor for God. I am first up. I think to myself, “well, everyone is going to say either Father/Mother or shepherd – those are the “purple” metaphors, so I’ll go more obscure.” I blurt, “God as a chicken.” Everyone looks at me cock-eyed. I continue, feeling a little foolish, “The metaphor for God as a chicken-” Dan interjects to help out the confused, “-as a loving mother hen” I continue, “-sheltering chicks under Her wing…speaks to me because it is one of the feminine metaphors for God and it’s homey and comforting and as a mother I get it.”

Next up is Bertha. She’s adorable. She’s probably in her seventies: dressed to the nines, does not mince words. She’s a black jazz singer from the States. Anyway, she launches into a lengthily monologue about the impossibility of putting a face on God and her many discussions with her children about the importance of prayer and going to church. Bertha always takes up significant air time, but she’s charming as hell and funny. In the past Nora has even remarked, “Do you think Bertha talks for too long?” (we have been having discussions lately about “wrapping up” stories) And I have said, “Sometimes people get lonely because we don’t respect our elders in our society. It’s nice for them to have a moment where they feel people care about what they have to say.” And Nora gave a far less patronizing view, “And maybe what they have to say takes so long because they have lived so long they have a lot of wise things to say?” Yes. Yes indeed.

Beside Bertha is Tyffany with two ys. She can’t think of anything right now.images-1

Beside Tyffany is a South Asian man, Raj, who speaks about God being synonymous with Universe in modern speak. He values ecumenical dialogue and references connection to science. Following him is a delicate man with black fingernail polish half eaten from his nails: Brian. Brian talks about connecting with God in nature and how great poets and musicians seem to have found this way to spirituality as well. Next up is a man shaped as a perfect square: Bob. Bob is a “recovering Catholic” who safely called himself an atheist for years and now yearns for a connection with God on his own terms. He talks about learning from people outside his own upbringing. He points out the fact that there are at least four different visible ethnicities in this circle and how beautiful is that?

It is at this point that I am feeling particularly foolish for bringing up the whole chicken thing. I want to insist that poultry is not the backbone of my faith…but I resist. Next up is Bob’s friend or partner? Penelope. She is a panda. Very quiet. She has said nothing and has been so still I am actually surprised that she speaks. When she does, she has the voice of a child. Penelope says, haltingly, small, “When I think of God. I think of mythical creatures. I think of the unicorn.”

Dan repeats, making sure he’s got it right, “A unicorn?”

She nods.

There is a sudden intense silence in the room as we all hold our breath. I can’t look at anyone. I don’t dare. I am so glad Fellow is not here because I could not resist laughing if I felt his body freeze with restraint. God as a unicorn. I think I saw that in a pride parade once. This is all I can imagine: Jesus on a unicorn, riding a rainbow. Between this, the reeling prophet, and the howling wolves, this has been a very odd church day indeed.

But then…I was the one who said God is a chicken.

During inhale and inner monologue – Dan has been saying something appropriate and kindly inclusive of the unicorn. He is a master diplomat, not because he’s manipulative, but because he truly is gracious. What do I know of unicorns? Maybe it is a symbol for her of freedom and inclusion? Maybe it is a metaphor for the unseen? Maybe as a child, like Laura’s Glass Menagerie, the unicorn represents something safe and kind and soft and pure from childhood? Maybe during difficult times this unicorn flew her safely away to a better place? Who am I to judge this person’s personal metaphor for God?images-2

I read the new apostles creed. It begins with, “We are not alone, we live in God’s world.” How many people around this circle and in this church are alone outside of it? If one can’t speak about unicorns here, where can they?

Dan closes with a thought about the value of good citizenship: how we’ve lost that importance in our society. This catches my attention. My new opera Off Leash is about this. We focus very much on our “rights” as citizens, but do we focus on our “duty?” So easy to sit at home and sign an on-line petition and share a Facebook post about the homeless…It reminds me of the day Nora asked me what my favourite thing about Fellow was, and to my surprise I said, “He’s a good citizen.” He volunteers. He gives blood. He serves several charities. He literally helps people in need for a living. He teaches. he tithes. He composts. He parents. He supports the arts. He takes extra care with friends who need a little love and support. He votes. He becomes a member. That’s almost as rare as a…




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