By Madonna Hamel
While I lived with my dad in Kelowna for a couple of years, before moving to Val Marie, I pitched an idea for a radio series on faith. Not an easy sell. I’ve come up against resistance before, the head cocks to the side, eyebrows raise, there’s an almost imperceptible step backward. Uh-oh, someone trying to bring God into the home of the public broadcaster.
“Apparently there used to be more bars than churches here. Now it seems to be the other way around,” I began. “I thought it might be interesting to pay some visits and get a sense of the different faith practices in the community. Not just churches – there’s a mosque, a Buddhist and a Sikh temple. There’s even that big pyramid up at Summerhill Winery the owner claims is responsible for his successes.”
“Well, we are a community network…”
Then someone invariably pipes in with: “But we already have a religion show on Sunday?”
“‘Tapestry’. Yep. We do. One hour. A week. How many shows do we spend on sports? Politics? Books? I want to talk to people who say they are spiritual but not religious but have to mark ‘None of the Above’ in the religion category of the census. I want to hear why others still go to church even when it might not touch them anymore, or maybe never did.”
I called the series “More Than One Way Home”, which may have offended fundamentalists with a monopoly on “the only way”. But I doubt they even noticed the title (which I stole from Keb Mo). I spoke with Dad’s parish priest, Fr. Pat, squatting over his hibachi, burning last year’s Palm Sunday fronds for this year’s Ash Wednesday dust. He talked about his desire to offer a sense of belonging to everyone. I talked with a bridge buddy, also of my Dad’s, who did his best to pass traditional Jewish practices on to the young, even if he wasn’t sure if he believed anymore. I talked with a circle of brilliant young women from Muslim countries who knew the Koran inside and out, but later weren’t certain they wanted anything I recorded of our conversations on air and asked to go over my script. I also went to psychic fairs, took in yoga classes, spent World Day of Prayer at a mega church, and sat in the Summerhill pyramid under a full moon.
One of my most enriching encounters was with the United Church minister, who explained the concept of “radical hospitality” to me. Every couple of years she manages to bring a prestigious guest speaker to Kelowna and it’s there I met both Marcus Borg and Diana Butler Bass. Butler-Bass studies the sociological aspects of religion. Her book titles, “Christianity for the Rest of Us” and “Christianity After Religion”, belie her wit and fearlessness in approaching religion, claiming that there is a new “awakening” afoot that is replacing theology with experience, connection and service.
Marcus Borg is equally as funny and courageous – it seems the two traits go together, with humour breaking the tension as one plunges deeper into powerful territories. I often consult his book “Speaking Christian” for his breakdown of a religious language that has become hijacked and re-interpreted to fit the fear-mongering key-holders to a kingdom that, for him and many others, resembles nothing like the one described by the teacher called Christ.
I was reading from that very book one morning, drinking coffee in Tim’s when a group of retirees beside me burst into a gale of laughter.
“Oh sorry,” a twinkly woman leaned back to say, “we’re a noisy bunch!”
“You mean you are!” teases a man across from her.
“Look who’s talking!” says another, then gets up and waves his cup over the group, asking if anyone wants a refill.
“You betcha!” shouts three of them, in unison.
“‘You betcha’? You must be from Saskatchewan!” I laugh.
“Hell yeah!” laughs yet another, and slaps his knee.
“My folks are from there. They’re from Val Marie and Fox Valley,” I share.
“All the best people are from there,” says the woman next to me.
“You betcha … And now we’re all here! So who’s looking after the place?” Another gust of laughter.
“What’s that you’re reading, dear,” asks the woman.
I show her the cover and she reads it out. A couple of the group wave it off and one says:,”No thanks. I’ve done my time. Religion causes more harm than good.”
“Yes,” I agree, wishing I hid the book. “That’s what he says. When we choose to interpret its language to fit our own little exclusive club.”
“Don’t listen to him,” says the woman, touching my knee. “He just doesn’t like preachers. Thinks everyone’s out to save him! Like there’s anything left to save!” Everyone laughs at that, including the teased man.
I wanted to explain that “salvation” is one of the words Borg tackles. “Whenever Christianity emphasizes the afterlife as the reason for being Christian,” he warns, “the result is invariably a distortion of Christianity. It becomes a religion of requirements and rewards; the message is “Be a Christian now for the sake of heaven later”. It focuses our attention on the next life rather than on this world. It creates an in-group and an out-group; there are some who
meet the criterion and some who don’t.”
The word salvation is derived from the Latin word for safe and from the Middle English word salve which we use to describe a healing ointment, but also, when we hope to appease or soothe someone, or our conscience. If salvation is a product promised by an institution that asks only that we join the club, how come I’ve never felt anything close to “safe” or “salved” simply by becoming an exclusive member with privileges – even when I had an American Express card for work.
Borg addresses the “product” question this way: “… Our product is salvation as the twofold transformation of ourselves and the world… I think most people yearn for this. We yearn for the transformation of our lives – for a fuller connection with what is, from liberation from things that keep us in bondage.” We yearn for a better world for all of us to live in. That’s Christianity at its best he says. That’s any religion at its best.
I recently got a beautiful letter from a man who appreciates my writing. Two pages long, it ended on “the most important question: Are you saved?” It depends on what you mean by saved, I wanted to reply. If you mean do I accept Christ as my personal saviour, I guess I’m not. I don’t reject Christ. I certainly embrace Christ’s teachings about how to treat each other with compassion instead of aggression, when applied on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. Patience and kindness save me from my self-absorption, my worst self, my inflated ego. But, if I am open to their transformative powers, I am also saved by Buddha, the Mystics, the kindness of strangers and this morning’s spectacular sunrise. I am saved every time I listen to one of Page’s stories about an encounter with a critter in the park. I am also saved when I resist the urge to save others according to my specifications, when all that is required is that I listen intently and with an open heart.
I make a salve by making a paste of saving graces, careful what I use for ingredients. I can easily save the wrong things, treasuring them in my heart the way Mary treasured her son’s mysterious experiences – the sorrowful and the glorious. If not watchful I can hold tight to my chest all the resentments, condemnations, indignations, slights-perceived and otherwise- that make for a pinched and brittle demeanour. If not careful I can snatch free-floating anxieties out of the air and give them a home in my heart to nestle and grow. So I’m saving the good stuff. I’m saving up, not downward. I’m expanding my repertoire of soul-stirring songs to sing and exploring the landscape for more “happy places” to go to.
I just saw Ervin drive by the café. I’ll head over in a couple of days and fill him in on the stories I’ve saved while he was out of town: Mercy the cat died, in a manner befitting her name. Caitlin put a “for sale by auction” sign in the window of the café. We had 21 people at church last Sunday, that’s a record. The road to the Butte is flooded. They showed “Arrival” at the Palais Royale on Saturday, but the sound was bad. No crocus yet, but it’s certain I won’t win the pool – which is up to $100 – because I guessed 20th of April. It went up to 16 C when you were gone! The sunset that night looked like elevator-sized flames leaping from the horizon. I saved some rice pudding for you.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.