A friend of mine recently invited me for coffee, asking me to bring my “priestly” self. I wasn’t sure what that meant. This friend had recently suffered a heart attack followed by triple by-pass surgery. He was recovering well but had certainly been through several anxious weeks, causing him to wonder what was ahead for him. Since the age of 12 the church had not been part of his life. He wanted me to help him understand the faith that he had ignored for so long.
My friend’s question “Who is God?” caused me to review the various answers I would have made through my lifetime. I realised that my early answers would have been describing a God whose love was directed to a very narrow portion of the world: to people like our family and our protestant congregation in a small community. Occasionally the focus was a bit wider when my grandmother would see our Roman Catholic neighbour passing by and say “Mrs. Coburn is always so nice and thoughtful, yet she is Catholic.”
The next time my understanding of God was stretched happened when I was 8 years old. A Japanese-Canadian man from Steveston BC was married to an English woman, and forced to leave BC during the war. For 10 months, living in Toronto, he had walked the streets 6 days a week looking for work. No one would hire him. In January 1943 he stumbled into the lunch room where my father was the Superintendent of a small construction crew. After hearing Johnny’s story, my Dad hired him as a carpenter, promising to teach him on the job and perhaps on Saturdays when the rest of the crew were not there. Two of my dad’s brothers were carpenters in that crew, and they took me aside one day and told me what a terrible thing my father had done hiring Johnny. When I reported this to my Dad, he took me to my room, closed the door and said how sorry he was that his brothers had done this. He then told me that as far as he knew God created all people equal, and he said “Don’t ever forget that!”
After 7 years of university studies and summer student-minister experiences, my understanding of God’s love for all people had grown, but not that much. I was a minister on the BC Coast travelling on the mission boat to isolated folks in logging camps, lightstations and First Nations communities. I had never met a First Nations person before. In the village of Hartley Bay there was an active congregation where church services were well-attended each week. On the monthly visit of our mission boat I visited Saturday evening with the organist and choir leader. After we discussed the hymns for the next day Lewis would tell me stories from their traditional history. I didn’t understand them very well, but knew that the Creator was very important in his stories. A few months later I conducted my first funeral in a small village in Rivers Inlet. After concluding what I thought was an appropriate funeral service, my friend William, whose sister had died, whispered to me to remain silent. His mother would take over now. After much wailing and singing, a fire was lit and food, including several pounds of bacon, were thrown unto the fire. William whispered to me that this was to provide nourishment and energy to his sister for her journey to the next life.
Many years later I was able to have a brief visit in Bella Bella with an elder whose husband recently drowned in a boating accident. After our tea and visit seemed over, Margaret brought out a tray of items that were used in their traditional spiritual experiences, which had brought much comfort to her in her days filled with grief and sorrow.
In the past year my understanding of just how wide God’s love is has been pushed even further by the intercultural ministry of this church. I believe it was the 3rd Sunday in September, a year ago, that the scripture lesson was read in Mandarin, (available on the screen in English). It wasn’t read aloud in English.
I realized in that moment that this was one congregation, one family.
This past week we have been reminded frequently of the importance of the Indigenous people in Canada. We continue to be shocked by the emerging stories of children sent to the residential schools who never returned home. God’s love reaches out to the families of these children, and we pray that God’s forgiveness comes to all of us who were part of the communities and culture that allowed this to happen.
So I say to my friend “Who is God?”…… God is our Creator whose love reaches out to embrace all people, regardless of their language, culture, religion, regardless of who they love or what they have done or not done. God’s arms open wide to all people. There is no room for racism. Thanks be to God. Amen.