As Canadians we so rarely allow ourselves heroes. We save our adulation for people in their dying rather than pausing to give thanks for them when they are with us. We are getting better. We almost allow ourselves to give thanks for Romeo Dalerre, Katrina LeMay Dolm or Ric Hansen. But these folk are too few and far between. The very public and disgraceful display of Peter Newman and Brian Mulroney do little to help the public discourse on public figures we admire. Terry Fox is different. Terry (someone we refer to with the familiarity of his first name) is someone we love. With few exceptions (except perhaps Tommy Douglas and Cardinal Leger, interestingly, both pastors) there are few Canadians in the last fifty years to whom we are so attached.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Terry’s run for cancer research. Three million children in 10,000 schools will join in a run in Terry’s memory and to contribute to a fund that has raised over a third of a billion dollars in the last 25 years.
We often have trouble in our church communities dealing with community heroes, calamities or villains, for that matter. We often find it awkward for some reason to think about the events in our world that everyone else is talking about. Many of us cite examples of churches that have seeded the sacred to the secular. When Karl Barth said one should preach with the Bible in one hand the newspaper in the other. Many of us have observed and are afraid of an imbalance. Just because talking about current events and issues is different it does not suggest it is impossible.
The Sunday morning after Terry Fox died I was on a summer holiday in a worship service that was inordinately packed for a summer Sunday. Terry’s passing was mentioned in the prayer but no where else in the service. About halfway through the sermon a women in the congregation got and in a deeply torn and grieving voice challenged the preacher as to why he was not speaking to us about Terry. Without waiting for an answer she stormed from the service. The minister (one of the most gifted preachers I know) had probably not yet arrived at the point of his message touching on Terry, but the pain of the woman in her loss (face it, Terry’s loss was a collective loss) was too much for her to bear. This scenario unfolds often in our churches on Sunday morning, but without anyone bothering to interrupt the proceedings. The silence of the church on public issues (never mind justice, evangelism or social concerns) is deafening. We confuse separation of church and state (essential in every culture) with an abdication of the prophetic (a topic for another day) or a lack of pastoral concern for what we are all going through in everyday life. Many of our church folk exit the building emotionally and spiritually when the issues of the day are ignored while we slavishly keep to the preset teaching plan. I am not suggesting Sunday should be devoted to the last horror from the newspaper. I am suggesting we can no longer afford to be duplicitous in a collective ignorance.
There are several ways to address this that may be helpful. I have tried each of these with various effectiveness. The call to worship and pastoral prayers are clear and right places to re-contextualize and to respond to events around us. I have often seen the use of moments of silence (not nano moments but actual clear spaces of time) to reflect on an event and find that asking people to stand for that near the beginning of the service is especially helpful.
We need to let people grieve or recover. More importantly we need to declare that in the midst of war, hurricanes, the death of a loved one, famine and other fearful things that God and his people are “a very present help in times of trouble”. We need to recall Peter’s words to Jesus, “Where else can we go Lord?” or the Psalmist in Psalm 116 who cries, “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice”. I have also set aside a prepared sermon for a Sunday to preach on a more pressing topic (at times started a series on suffering as with 9/11 and the Tsunami). For practical reasons a simple and clear comment at the beginning of a sermon is often more helpful than changing the entire talk. A comment combined with the offer to pray with people after the service points us back to the care of God and opens up discussion and prayer amongst one another when we are most in need of it.
So thanks be to God for Terry Fox and others like him. Thanks also to the Lord for His presence in times of trouble and for the prayers of encouragement from God’s people when we so sorely need it in these difficult times. May we by the Spirit and scripture discern our response to these difficult days and find God’s perspective in them.