Sunday, November 19, 2017

Motivations, Not Origins - Justice League, Reviewed

Justice League, the long-awaited, somewhat dreaded cinematic interpretation of DC Comics premiere super-team, features some divergent takes on some of the characters it introduces, most notably Aquaman and The Flash. Aquaman is no longer a clean-cut square in orange and green fish-scale tights, but a long-haired and rebellious loner, at home neither on the surface nor under the sea, but oozing personal confidence and no small degree of sex appeal. Flash is not a fully matured man of science, but an Asbergerian teen dealing with both physical and social awkwardness as he comes to grips with his own considerable abilities, literally tripping up when he can least afford it. In some ways, the Flash's progression can perhaps be seen as a reflection of these first stumbling steps of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Time-Warner's answer to the far more successful and satisfying Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Everyone, is entitled to some missteps. Also, every studio, every creator, every manager of character-based intellectual property. Justice League, though flawed, corny, and in most ways inferior to what we are now accustomed to seeing from their competition, is an entertaining film that gives some long-established and much-beloved characters a chance to plant their feet and regain their balance after staggering out of the gate with an initial slate that was weaker than anticipated.

This is by no means intended as a slight against Wonder Woman, as either character that was the best of of Batman Vs. Superman, or the movie that successfully defibrillated the DCEU. Justice League makes great use of the momentum and positive energy built up by WW and builds upon it with a team motif.

In fact, one of my favourite things about JL is that an opening scene makes the Amazons of Themiscyra look even more badass than they did in their initial appearance in Wonder Woman. There is a genuine sense of risk, sacrifice, dedication and most of all, teamwork, as Queen Hippolyta leads her sisterhood in a knock-down, drag-out game of keepaway. It is a desperate struggle to keep one of three matter-transforming alien supercomputers known as maguffins - I mean, Motherboxes - out of the hands of Steppenwolf, the leader of an invading army of parademons, and say what you will about director Zack Snyder, but the man knows how to direct an action sequence.

Due to a family tragedy, Snyder was unable to complete the filming, and new DCEU colleague Joss Whedon (on deck to write and direct the upcoming Batgirl movie) was called in to finish the job. Whedon also wrote some new material for the film, earning himself a a screenplay credit, and, I suspect, humanizing the characters somewhat. I'm not sure we will ever know, however, as he is a good team player, and no one else is willing to go on record yet as saying, “This here was Snyder’s bit,” or “That part was all Whedon.” For my money though, Whedon’s thumbprints show up in the fractious formation of the team, the snippy comments and whimsical asides, but also in the reverence for the lives of innocents, something a lot of viewers (myself included) felt was missing from both Man of Steel and BvS.

For all the improvements though, Justice League still wears its flaws way out on its skintight sleeves where everyone can see them. As beloved as these characters are, you are never allowed to forget that their owners are in fact corporate, profit-driven entities, not artists. Nowhere is this made more evident to me than in the brutalist approach to product placement for Mercedes-Benz, highlighted by a pre-movie advertisement featuring the principal characters, just in case you miss the cars in the film itself.

And there is no chance of that: Bruce Wayne's roadster, a sleek silver coupe that is at least as distinctive as Bruce Wayne’s other ride, lingers lovingly in the viewfinder, the three-pointed star logo forming the focal point of the shot in a way that the bat-symbol worn by Ben Affleck can only hope to match. And while it makes perfect sense for a billionaire to drive such an ostentatious ride, seeing Gal Gadot step out of a Mercedes sedan as Wonder Woman’s alter ego felt far too opportunistic, at least to me.

At a crisp running time of two hours, there isn't a lot of time to introduce and develop three new characters (Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg), so some of that has to lay by the wayside. But fear not! They are each getting their own spin-off films, something which does not arise from intriguing heroes presented on screen that the audience is clamouring for more of, but is instead mandated by corporate fiat. The major beats are all touched upon though, as different as they are from their origins in the comics.

The weakest link is probably Cyborg, the only character in the batch whose origin I read off the spinner racks as an adolescent (1980, Teen Titans Vol. 1, #1), and he serves as both expositional reference and a Swiss Army knife for the plot. Commandeer a one-of-a-kind vehicle? You got it. Physically Interface with Kryptonian technology in two fewer attempts than it takes most of us to correctly insert a USB plug? No sweat!

On the plus side though, updating his origin to incorporate the Motherbox is a smart play, and adds a degree of discomfort that the body-horror of a full-body prosthetic just doesn't carry like it once did. Instead, Cyborg complains of having a language in his head that he does not speak (creepy!), and which undermines the confidence of his teammates.

From a nerd's point of view, there are a few points to discuss as well: I took a personal dislike to the more armoured appearance of The Flash, especially around the neck. And how is that supposed to get crammed into a ring for a future movie for heaven's sake? The tv series with Grant Gustin wins this one. And Aquaman's pentadent really does look more like a hayfork than a symbol of office. Also, I know Bruce Wayne likes to get his hands dirty and invents a lot of his own tech, but the idea of his wrenching up a transport vehicle the size of a C5 Galaxy is a bit much, even for me.

Bear in mind there are ten credited writers on this movie, bringing to mind the old jape of defining a camel as ‘a horse designed by committee’.Story-wise, there really isn't all that much to Justice League, and Steppenwolf is neither a sympathetic or particularly intriguing villain despite being portrayed in motion capture by Ciaran Hinds of HBO’s Rome and Game of Thrones. But does any of that really matter?

Justice League, in both the comics and the movies, is about teamwork, as it should be. It is about strength through diversity. It reinforces that one person, even Superman, cannot do it all, and that maybe the best man for a job is a woman. It blends together both legendary superheroes with somewhat lesser known (Cyborg) or less popular (Aquaman) ones. It mixes established Holllywod actors (Affleck) and more recent discoveries (Gadot) with relative unknowns (Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller).

If not for the overarching corporate need for a larger mythology and ongoing narrative to drive sequels and spin-offs, a Justice League story mightn't require much of a plot, or any villain at all, frankly. Is it so hard to imagine a story about a group of disparate but gifted people coming together to overcome a natural disaster? Isn't the meat of such a tale to be found in the interactions between the principals and not in the blows and banter shared with their adversaries?

In short order, what I appreciated most about Justice League is:
  • These beloved characters felt like they were properly treated, some for the very first time (yes, even sexy hipster Aquaman who causes my wife to sigh audibly).
  • Every one of them gets an opportunity to look cool.
  • Almost every one of them gets to be vulnerable too (the Mark of Whedon? Possibly.).
  • The focus is on saving the innocent, not just beating up bad guys.
  • When the bad guys do get beat up, it looks great, as do most of the action sequences.
  • They don't make too big a deal of the fact that Steppenwolf, hardly a legendary villain from the comics, has a far more frightening boss who we can be assured we will meet in a future installment.
  • Where many comic adaptations muse about how to become more 'grounded' or 'accessible', Justice League leans into the larger-then-life aspects of its source material, resulting in perhaps the comic-bookiest of comic book movies to date.
  • Best of all, despite the fact that the spin-offs and sequels are a mathematical surety at this point, I felt like I was watching a complete movie, and not just a trailer for the next installment (I'm looking at you, Batman v. Superman)

At this point, I would normally attempt to assess how much relevance or appeal Justice League might have for the non-nerdy audience, many of whom will be encountering some of the League’s charter members for the very first time, but you know what? The ‘Trinity’ of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is so beloved and well-established in popular culture that almost everyone has a longing for and a vested interest in their positive portrayal.

Like this film’s iteration of The Flash, the DCEU has taken its share of slips, stumbles and downright falls in its early days, from an overbearing and unnecessarily dark tone to some brutal mischaracterizations. With Justice League, the rehabilitation of this universe which began with Wonder Woman continues apace, and like Superman’s chest symbol, the hope continues to endure.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Day to Remember

We strive to go out every year for our Remembrance Day observances, and we also try to vary the experience. This year we attended a shorter, indoor service, but it was still memorable.

For no real reason, this year we decided to go to the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Military Museum, at the Prince of Wales Armories. Despite driving past it a number of times while the girls attended Victoria School next door, I had never crossed the threshold until this past Saturday.

It's a gorgeous building which I wish we'd had more time to explore, especially the museum. We did get a few minutes to check out one of the galleries before we were all summoned to the lectern at one corner for the brief ceremony.

We went to the Butterdome one year and heard the Lt. Gov., we could have gone to City Hal and heard an address from the mayor or the garrison commander, but this year we were at a tiny museum with 50-60 people and no speakers we knew or recognized. We weren't familiar with the Legion officer who officiated, nor the lady who sang the national anthem, and that was just fine. The address, though brief, was heartfelt and earnest, but seeing the museum exhibits from the First World War made the whole experience that much more memorable.

The day before, Audrey and I had read an account in the Edmonton Journal of the life of Cecil Kinross, a Victoria Cross winner from Lougheed Alberta who had fought with the 49th Battalion of the 'Loyal Eddies'. It's a tale of high highs and low lows, like so many. Kinross had single-handedly charged over open ground a German machine gun nest at Passchendaele, killing six enemy combatants. He destroyed the gun and kept fighting until his wounds made continuing impossible, earning Britain's highest award for military valour as a result.

Later on, a British soldier recognized his face in a London pub and drew back Kinross's greatcoat, revealing the bronze decoration. The Canadian found his money was suddenly no longer accepted at the establishment.

But the one surety of war is that it consumes, ofttimes condemning those it does not outright destroy, and like so many, Kinross was a troubled man after the war. He eventually was forced to sell his farm and moved into a small hotel in town, becoming a familiar patron at the tavern. The quiet man would become argumentative and demonstrative when drunk, one winter going so far as to remove his shirt and dive into the river one winter. It's not as tragic a tale as many, but still a bitter end for a man who displayed such heroism, and from fairly close to home.

So I was astonished to see the miniature versions of his decorations, including his VC, on display at the museum.

The medals were in a case close to a poster another 49er had carried all the way back from Belgium after the war.

The poster announces the liberation of the city of Mons, Belgium; a liberation later credited to the American army.

After 4 years of occupation, the city returned to a semblance of normalcy and long term prosperity, even after being heavily bombed in the war that followed the War to End All Wars. Still, one has to assume that things could never be precisely the same afterwards, like Kinross. War consumes.

The debate about how to honour the sacrifices of those who served without seeming to glorify war. is unlikely to subside anytime soon, but perhaps one way to avoid jingoism and dangerous brands of nationalism is to focus on the cost of our wars, and not just in lives lost, but those tragically reshaped by maimings or PTSD, or a simple inability to relate to people outside the battlefield.

When the Remembrance service was complete and the crowd began to disperse, I made a point of walking past a young family: a couple in their 20s, with a boy no more than five or six, and a young girl under three. The children had a hard time remaining patient, the girl in particular; after all, she was far too young to understand either the occasion or the somber mood, and only knew that two minutes is an impossible time to remain still, let alone silent. 

On my way past, I caught the dad's attention, and the mum looked up too as I said, "Listen, at this age it is so tempting to just let them sleep in, but I'm really glad you made the effort  to come today, and I'm really glad you brought them."

They beamed at me thankfully, but it's true; it is important we remember, publicly, and that we demonstrate our commitment to these observances to those too young yet to understand them.

It is unlikely we will ever run out of wars, police actions or peacekeeping missions to sacrifice Canadians to in our ironic pursuit of a more stable world filled with lasting peace, but still - lest we forget.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Return to the Orbital Shipyards

It will probably not come as a surprise to many who know me that I have a relatively astonishing number of miniatures about the house, both painted and less-than-painted. Last winter I resolved to take some action about the unpainted ones and obtained a full new set of paints. But then spring came, and things got busy and my epic procrastination skills kicked into high gear and besides that, Fallout 4 wasn't going to play itself now, was it?

But a couple of things happened as the autumn approached: the first was a fortuitous trade between myself and our old mate (and oft-published RPG author!) Colin as he passed through on his way to Cold Lake in the September. He had been given a number of model starships by Mongoose Publishing in exchange for additional work he had done, and which he had confessed were never going to be painted. He generously accepted a trade of my copy of Tannhauser, a wonderful game that ranks among the best looking I've ever bought, but which hasn't seen play in perhaps 5 years.

The second was the cooling of the weather, when a middle-aged man thinks of hobbying. These two items prompted a revisiting of the game A Call to Arms: Star Fleet Battles, and I called Admiral Earl to arrange our first proper 1000 point game. Prior to this we had played group games at G&G and a couple of 2-on-2 matchups, but in truth, the game is made for fleet engagements. Earl expressed some concern at his inability to multitask, but like a game fish, he rose to the challenge and picked up the proffered gauntlet. Early in October we gathered with 5 ships apiece, including a dreadnought on each side, to do battle around a nameless planet and its nearby asteroid belt.

The dreadnoughts USS Endeavour and IKV Sword of Kahless square off.
It took us a while to get set-up, and a little longer to re-familiarize ourselves with the rules, but in the end we were far more conversant with them than when we started, and we had a great time to boot.

Admiral Woods lines up a shot on my flagship.

My Klingons drove his Federation lapdogs from the quadrant without the loss of a single ship (but that is certain to come back and bite me in the hinder, especially since we found out afterwards that the rule which made his DN so difficult to use effectively has been removed from the game!) but to his credit, Earl did not let that stop him from accepting my offer of a rematch, this time in an even larger engagement -1500 points. I gave him a half-dozen Federation craft from the windfall I had received from Colin and we agreed to meet in a months' time.

And so it was, at last, time to paint once more.

It's all coming back to me now...I used to do this!

I elected to start small in a fairly literal sense, beginning with the shuttlecraft which we had just begun using in the game. Armed with a small container of antimatter and remotely piloted from a launching ship, these suicide shuttle can be a weapon of last resort, but they can also be used to move crew or cargo between ships, or serve as objective markers. They have very little detail to speak of, thankfully, but are mercilessly tiny, each one sitting on a base slightly smaller than a dime.

Space taxis galore! Not exciting, but useful.

I have a couple of Enterprise-style heavy cruisers on hand already and intend to have a small Federation fleet at some point, so I did two of them in Galileo-ish livery and the other five as Klingons. That should be more than enough for the nonce.

Moving on to capital ships was a harder choice in some ways; unlike the Federation designs, which move the nacelles and secondary hulls around willy-nilly to add some variety to their silhouettes, the Klingons are essentially all variations on the classic D7 battlecruiser design. Since this is one of the best-looking spaceship design ever as far as I am concerned, this isn't too much of a problem, but it can make differentiating between friendly ships a bit of a tactical challenge.

In the end I elected to use the rules for scout ships, which would mean using two different D5 variants, but giving me a good excuse to vary up their colour schemes a little bit. I overbuilt as well, giving me some assembled and primed ships ready to work on whenever the mood should strike me.
One set basecoated, the next ready for priming.
It felt good to get out the files and clippers and superglue again after a long absence. The D5S and D5WD went together like a charm, the 'wings' holding the nacelles almost clicking into place. I don't know how their construction differs from the other cruisers I built, but the subsequent wings felt like trying to glue together two pieces of paper...edge to edge. In the end, an excessive amount of glue and a few squirts of cyanoacrylate accellerant to hold it place won the day. They may not be pretty but at least they should hold together, as the Klingon engineers like to say. At least the tiny frigates were single piece castings!

Sadly, this construction spree has meant the end of my last bottle of Dark Angel Green spray paint, something not available in Canada now for over a decade. Ah well, at least these final six ships will be up and running a little faster because of it.

Like most armchair admirals, I like a relatively high degree of uniformity amongst the vessels in my command, for esthetic as well as practical reasons. I kept the green basecoat from the rest of Task Force Karn'j, but painted the striated panels on the wings purple instead of blue to make the scout ships stand out, as they have slightly different rules.

The escort frigates Katar and Kukri
At the risk of making them less imposing to the point of cuteness, I also went a couple of shades lighter on the smallest ships, the E4 frigates.

The D5S Scout cruiser is a slightly smaller version of the ubiquitous D7, but in all honesty I quite like the look of the D5WD Drone Cruiser with its third nacelle.

The D5S scout cruiser Revenant and D5WD new drone cruiser T'khondroga

I'm also unsure about the glossy varnish I used this time around, and may end up dusting them with dullcote in order to make them less shiny. What I am sure about, however, is that I am glad to have them done, and cannot wait to get them on the tabletop! The two cruisers and one of the Frigates gives me the needed 500 points, and I have enough primed now to take me all the way up to 2000 (at some point).

It feels great to have finished a painting project for the first time in a long time, despite how punishing it was to my eyes sometimes. (I'm squinting at you, tiny shuttlecraft!)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Peak Pop Culture - Thor: Ragnarok, Reviewed

I pity the person whose first exposure to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Taika Waititi's Thor:Ragnarok; there is a real risk of someone looking at, oh. let's say, next year's Infinity War and asking, "Hey, were did all the colour go? And the dialogue? And why does it sound like everyone is just saying lines?" Some directors refresh a franchise by perhaps moving the goalposts, but Waititi has redefined the sport.

Coming from a series of low-budget New Zealand comedies like the brilliant What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi probably seemed like a risky choice for a multi-million dollar event move like the third installment of Thor. But where someone like Kenneth Branagh sought to reframe Thor as a Shakespearean family drama with larger-than-life characters and fantastic settings, Waititi instead displays an uncanny knack for seeing ways in which the intrinsic weirdness of being a mythologically-inspired space-Viking (or flat-dwelling vampire) could play out amongst real human interactions.

And he does all of this while bringing together a number of Abramsverse Star Trek alumni (Chris Hemsworth, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch) and a couple of big names from Lord of the Rings (Cate Blanchett and Karl Urban (again). Between this and a sprinkling of excellent cameos on top of the obligatory Stan Lee, and you have a movie which is at once hilariously self aware and completely indifferent to itself.

Thor quickly moves to resolve Loki's usurping of Odin's throne from the end of The Dark World, but this turn of events unleashes their sister Hela, the Goddess of Death, portrayed by the ever-amazing Cate Blanchett with equal parts lethality and sultriness. A battle on the Bifrost leaves Thor stranded on an alien planet surrounded by wormholes, centered on a gladiatorial arena and overseen by the Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum in what may be his Goldblummiest role to date. Valkyrie, a fellow Asgardian captures Thor for the Grandmaster, and the God of Thunder is sent to the arena.

It is in this arena that Thor encounters his fellow Avenger the Hulk, as well as Korg, a Kronan with a rock-like hide who provides equal parts comic relief and exposition. All Thor must do to triumph is survive a fight against one of the strongest creatures in the universe, win over two people who hate him, escape servitude and figure out how to get off of a hostile planet and return to battle Hela, who grows stronger the longer she remains in Asgard.

Did I like everything about Thor:Ragnarok? Yeah, well, nah, as Korg might say. Some long-established characters are dispensed with fairly early on in an almost cavalier fashion, which I found regrettable, and the absence of Natalie Portman's character Jane Foster is barely addressed at all. This is offset to some degree though, by some excellent fanservice for those who enjoy either comics or Norse mythology.

As you may have heard, the movie is a laugh riot, working just as well as a comedy as it does as an action adventure. Improvisation was encouraged on the set, resulting in dialogue that feels loose, easy and very natural, and which also gave us more scenes with Korg, played by Waititi himself and based on the massive but delicately-voiced Polynesian bouncers of his homeland. In terms of tone, Ragnarok takes its queues less from Shakespeare or the eddas and sagas, and more from films like Midnight Run and Big Trouble in Little China.

Hemsworth has demonstrated tremendous comedic potential before but here is finally given the chance to really make us laugh, but never at the expense of the integrity of the character. Also, he put on 20 pounds of muscle for the movie and looks absolutely enormous in some of the shots.

Ragnarok has a lot of fun pointing out the innate silliness of the tropes of comic books and comic book movies, but its all done with a clear love for the genre, and the pokes are balanced out with a handful of strategically placed smaller moments the emphasize the intrinsic humanity of these god-like beings.

The best example of this is probably the interaction between Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, which for me, is one of the most realistic depictions of siblings onscreen since Simon and Simon. There is also a greater range of emotions for Hiddleston to play with, rounding out Loki's naturally conniving nature with a couple moments of genuine surprise and some fairly touching scenes as a son and a sibling.

Cate Blanchett is a better villain than we have come to expect from the MCU, and hopefully this will see them turning the corner and moving away from two-dimensional, unrelatable baddies. A decade-and-a-half since playing Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, Blanchett's Hela has a lot going for her: the woman scorned, the overlooked sibling, and conquest-hungry would-be ruler. No one has told her that she is pushing 50 either, because she carries herself with all the intensity of that elf-queen while still holding her own end in several knock-down drag out fights in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Best of all, she tempers it with a veneer of modernity, sass, and dark humor.

The best thing about Ragnarok for me though, is just how bold it looks. The colour palette is vivid and inventive, and every setting from the fire giants' land of Muspelheim to a fight inside the Bifrost to the streets around the arena of Sakaar is dialled up to 11. Instead of the uniform, practical and humanocentric armour and costumes that have begun to look ubiquitous in modern sci-fi and fantasy films, the helmets, outfits and protective gear of the denizens of Sakaar look like they came from an actual comic book, probably drawn by Jack Kirby or maybe Steve Rude. The filmmakers appear to be less worried about how practical these outfits are and more concerned about how they look, and what they tell the audience about who is wearing them. And it's about time! The psychedelic colours, asymmetric spaceship engines, and unwieldy weapons are all a breath of fresh air.

A strong 80s vibe permeates Ragnarok as well, from the heroic fanfares in the  synth-heavy soundtrack to the Nagel t-shirt that features prominently for a while.It also marks the rare and effective use of LEd Zeppelin on not just one, but two occasions, which is clearly cause for rejoicing.

In addition to looking and sounding bold, Waititi also uses Ragnarok in a bold manner, one intent on  upsetting the status quo, in clear violation of the age-old comics and franchise mandate of "when you are done with the toys, put them back the way you found them". Eric Pearson, who wrote a number of the beloved Marvel One-Shot shorts, has crafted a screenplay that cleverly addresses mysteries from past movies while careening along on a madcap road-movie/buddy picture of Olymp- sorry, Asgardian proportions, but takes Thor's story in some bold new directions. Many of these angles have been explored in the comics, but some seem entirely new, and for a character who has often struggled in terms of his won definition, this is by no means a bad thing.

Unlike the last installment, Thor: Ragnarok will undoubtedly many viewers wondering what's next for the God of Thunder (and many of his new companions), and thankfully, as I write this, Infinity War is only (checks watch) 181 days away.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

A Glass of Gravitas - Tasting The 50 Year Glenlivet

I regret that I lack both the sophisticated whisky palate and sufficient articulation to accurately convey the sensation of tasting an extraordinarily rare scotch that costs $26,000 a bottle.

But I will do my best to share the experience itself at least, as it was singular (as one might expect).

Like most people, I get a ton of promotional emails, probably in the neighbourhood of a dozen or so a day. I don't know why I noticed  one from Wine & Beyond on Oct. 6, but it had "Win a Chance to Taste the 50 Year Glenlivet" right in the subject line. Intrigued, I checked it out decided to complete an entry form.

In addition to the standard name, email, and assurance you are of legal drinking age, there was a text box where they asked you to explain why you were entering the contest. I said in all earnestness that my tastes tend more towards beer than spirits, but I do have an appreciation for history and craftsmanship, and the idea of tasting something as old as myself (having turned 50 earlier in the year) was intriguing.

On the 23rd, I was delighted to receive an email informing me that I was a semi-finalist. The drawing of the final 8 would take place at a scotch tasting that Friday with up to 24 other people, which the email assured me meant my odds of winning were at least 1 in 4 (although my math had it at a slightly more generous 1 in 3).

On Friday night I was warmly welcomed by Mike Moorhouse, the Field Marketing Manager for Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd, who market and distribute a number of brands in Canada. Mike offered a fan of randomly numbered tickets, and I drew number 15. He put the smaller portion of the ticket into a box, and invited me to help myself to the charcuterie, which was delicious.

Soon enough all the respondents had gathered, and there were only 11 in total; 9 men and two women. Most of the men appeared to be over 50 like myself, but there were a couple of fellows in their thirties, and I don't think either lady was over 40. Most importantly though, my odds had increased considerably - now only three attendees would go away disappointed.

The Glenlivet's Western Canadian Brand Ambassador, Keith Trusler, guided us through an introductory talk about The Glenlivet, Scotland's oldest licensed distillery. Despite his possessing an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of scotch and dealing with rare and exotic beverages on a daily basis, his manner was easygoing and genuine, without a hint of pretension. He reminded me of Island Mike a little bit, only perhaps just a little more Tony Stark-looking.

Keith took us through 4 exquisite whiskys from The Glenlivet, named after the valley or glen through which flows the river Livet. We tried their Founder's Reserve (a non-age statement whisky), the 15-year-old, the 18-year-old, and lastly, their single cask. The placemat listed some of the details and tasting notes for each one, but Keith made a point of saying not to conflate age or price with taste, especially with taste being so subjective and particular. He also encouraged us to add some water to the stronger ones (the single cask was over 60% ABV), saying there are many in Scotland who like their whisky at about 20%. All the whiskys were delightful, but the 15-year-old was probably my favourite.

When the last drink was sampled, it was time for the draw. At $1000 per ounce, Mike and Keith were not permitted to fudge the drawing and give everyone a taste, so everyone paid rapt attention as the box was shaken.

I'd had a great time, and steeled myself for the possibility that I might be one of the three disappointed souls, but my ticket was the 7th one drawn!

Tonight I returned and joined a slightly smaller group, all of whom were in good spirits (you should excuse the expression). Keith had already unlocked and opened the handmade wooden cabinet each bottle of the Winchester is shipped in. So much more than a simple 'box', this container is like unto the Ark of the Covenant, wherein the receptacle is a true reflection of the glory of the contents.

The bottle itself is also unique and handblown, topped with a heavy stopper centered around a smoky piece of Scottish quartz sometimes called a whisky stone. When the wooden cabinet doors are opened, the bottle is gently moved out of the shadows of the box.

Despite the considerable amount of anticipation, everyone was in awe of the presentation, snapping pictures of the the bottle and the box it came in. I was no exception - after all, in all likelihood, I was never going to taste anything this rare or expensive in my lifetime, so I wanted to be sure to document as much of it as I could! I 'm certain everyone else felt the same.

Even without tasting or smelling the contents though, Keith's explanation had made it clear just how exceptional the liquid really was. Consider the following:

This whisky was laid down in 1964, only a year after the Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive, and the same year that the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.

Since the time when the master distiller supervised the filling of two 500 liter casks made of American oak, the Vietnam and Korean Wars were fought, the Soviet Union fell, and a man walked on the moon.

Given how long it takes to become a master distiller like Bill Smith Grant, no one who lays down a cask for 50 years can expect to drink the finished product. Grant was no exception, dying in 1975 at the age of 79, a decorated veteran of the first World War. In a way, every glass is a legacy.

Perhaps most telling in this tale of rarity though, is what's known as "the angel's share". No matter how well sealed the barrels and how climate controlled the environment, there will always be some degree of evaporation, perhaps 2-3% per year. After half a century, almost 90 percent of the distillate has vanished into thin air. The space that could have produced thousands of bottle of 21-year-old scotch (at upwards of $250 a bottle) will instead yield only a hundred bottles of the 50-year-old.

Once everyone had arrived, we filled our plates with shrimp and cheese, and sat down for another tasting, again working our way up through progressively older scotches, heightening our palates and building our already considerable expectancy.

This time Keith toured us through the 12-year-old (the bread-and-butter of the distillery!), the Nadurra Oloroso (nadurra is Gaelic for 'natural', reflecting the unfiltered and undiluted character of this whisky), and the 21-year-old (now the second-oldest scotch I have ever tasted).

We took our sweet time (as one should), and one of the other attendees brought along some extra-dark chocolate which he shared with the group. Keith suggested the Nadurra as a good pairing, and it truly tasted like Christmas in my mouth for a moment: spicy, fruity, aromatic, offset and smoothed out by the bitter and rich chocolate.

At last it was time to taste the Winchester itself.

No one in the room, not even Keith, had tried it, or anything remotely like it, before. As we all took deep sniffs from the Glencairn-style glasses, someone suggested taking turns, but Keith was opposed to the notion, again keeping the momentousness in check. "Look, at the end of the day, it is still a scotch; be careful not to overthink it, and just enjoy it," he instructed so after a group toast and clinking the glass of the gent seated next to me, we took our first sips.

I took about half of the glass, perhaps a 1/4 ounce, into my mouth, chewing gently. It was sharp, but not hot like a lot of aged single malts I'd tried. The initial flavour was one of sweetness and fruit, followed by a toffee-like swell and a strong, deep finish where the oak made itself known. Again, it is hard to describe and I lack the tools, but the impression I took away was one of a sumo kimono: silky smooth, but big, bold, and strong.

When Keith asked everyone what they were getting from their glass, I uncharacteristically ventured a guess, saying it reminded me of a spiced pear. He stuck his nose into the glass, and took another small sip. "Like a dessert thing? Like a poached pear sort of thing?" I nodded while he gave it some though, eventually saying, "Yeah, I can totally see that."

We took each other's pictures while drinking it, and the chocolate-bringer actually streamed his sipping on Facebook Live. Keith checked his own social media feed and chuckled at all the envy and cursing his post was generating. Clearly, everyone in attendance understood how phenomenally lucky and privileged they were to participate in this event.

With our glasses now empty, Keith reminded us that the experience was not over. "If you smell your glass now," he said, "the alcohol is mostly gone, so what you are smelling now is the wood. It's like sticking your head int he empty cask after holding this spirit for 50 years."

I dipped my nose in a took a whiff, and whether it was the power of suggestion or not, the oakiness was almost palpable, and minutes later when I tried again, it was even more prominent, almost reminiscent of lumber.

No one was in a hurry to leave, and Keith generously provided another sample of the Nadurra, which was more enjoyable when cut with a few drops of water, as he had mentioned. Conversation persisted for a while, but once the last glasses were emptied, people began to gather their coats. The Winchester was packed up in preparation for a trip to Calgary for a similar event, after which it will reside in the tasting bar, where intrepid souls can sample it at $500 per half-ounce.

I had said prior to the event that even if I found myself in a position where I could buy a bottle in the future (say, having won the lottery or some such), I didn't think I would. Now I'm not so sure, and it is less the taste of the whisky and more the sense of rarity and legacy and history that fills each glass which I find compelling.

We all thanked Mike and Keith for a wonderful evening, made our way from the tasting room. On the way out of the liquor store, I ended up shaking hands with three former strangers, with whom I'd had the privilege of sharing a truly unique experience. I'm tremendously grateful to Wine & Beyond, as well as The Glenlivet and Corby Spirits and Wines for making it happen, and for Mike and Keith for making it as memorable and enjoyable as it was.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Same Ingredients, New Recipe - Stranger Things Season 2, Reviewed

Against all reasonable judgement, Glory and I watched the second season of Netflix's nostalgia/horror pastiche Stranger Things in its entirety this weekend. For a lot of people, that will be unsurprising, but it's been a while since any of us had done binge-watching that seriously, we didn't start until suppertime last night, and we still got the shopping done, homework finished, yard raked and Christmas lights put up as well.

Audrey and I came to the Stranger Things party late last year, so there was little point in reviewing it then. In fact, I'm pretty sure 90% of the people reading this who might be interested have probably already watched it, or at least committed to doing so. But for anyone remaining on the fence, allow me the indulgence of sharing my observations and impressions (spoiler-free, natch!).

The story picks up a year later, three days before Hallowe'en 1984. Things have returned to normal in Hawkins, Indiana: Chief Hopper is maintaining order, The Party is still tackling middle-school adversity together, and a new crop of secretive government types have repopulated Hawkins National Laboratory. But a lot has changed too; Mike still pines for the return of Eleven, Joyce Byers has a new fella (played by Sean "Goonies" Astin!), and a mysterious stranger has taken the high score on Dig Dug at the Hawkins arcade.

Obviously it does not take too long for things to go off the rails here, and the Upside-Down slowly and insidiously makes its presence known is a series of odd feelings and agricultural phenomena. Will's connection to this hellish other dimension asserts itself as anticipated, and soon everyone is battling evil from within and without.

If I have a complaint about the second season, it would be that the story itself hasn't changed a lot from the first season, and a lot of the same beats repeat themselves. Are our young heroes still tormented by bullies? Yes, and then some. Are there a couple of gory surprises in store? You bet. And is anyone surprised when the Byers house begins to look a the art installation of a crazy person? Not particularly.

Having said that though, season 2 is still a worthwhile endeavour for those of us who came to care about these characters a little over a year ago. Most of the components have stayed the same, but the Duffer Brothers have them interacting together in different combinations now - it's like taking the same flour, eggs and milk, but making cake with them instead of bread.

Eleven's primary dramatic foil is Chief Hopper, who we saw leaving Eggos at a dead drop in the woods in the epilogue at the end of last season. Not to take anything away from Winona Ryder and her well-deserved resurgence, but Millie Bobby Brown and and David Harbour provide almost all the thespianic chops this season, and there is powerful emotion in their interactions.

Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who appears to be a member of the only black family in Hawkins, gets quite a bit more time to shine this season, not only in his scenes with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) (now with incisors!), but also with his younger sister. Most significant though is what happens when new student Maxine (Sadie Sink) enters the mix, especially when the other principals are 1 year further into puberty.

All the nostalgia is still there, and we children of the 80's will have a lot of fun struggling to recall all the soundtrack artists (so happy to hear Oingo Boingo onscreen again that I don't even care that the album came out a year after Season 2 is set!), remembering the arcade games (hell, remembering arcades), and marveling at the styles of the decade.

Likewise the nerdy references, ranging from movies, to scientific terminology, to, in one notable case, a full screen close up of an entry from the original AD&D Monster Manual (glee!).

Scenes are spread around a bit more equitably this time around, resulting in maybe a sliver less exposure for the young lads on their bikes, but its probably better to have too little than too much. Plus, having established themselves in the first season, there is a little less need to have them prove themselves when the weirdness shifts into high gear.

Still, it's strange that nine episodes in, my favourite character is probably high school senior and reformed douchebag Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). He doesn't really steal the show, but he is possibly the second most progressive minor in the show, and the reasonableness of some of his responses make them all the funnier.

There are a few changes that occur along the way, but I can't help but feel that in some ways season 2 is clearing the decks for a third season (which the Duffer Bros. say they are already working on), and perhaps beyond. So the bad news is, we may be in for even more of the same.

The good news is, we may be in for even more of the same! And if you liked season 1, you owe it to yourself to check out season 2.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pulpitations: Hologrammatic Truth

It was my church's third anniversary of being an Affirming Ministry, committed to equality and inclusion for all sexual orientations and gender identities. We held an Affirimiversary party last night in the form of a drag show -  a Dragstravaganza, in fact. I had no idea what to expect, but all in all, it was a pretty entertaining experience.

Today the committee took care of the church service, allowing our still-solo minister to have a well-deserved morning off. This meant another sermon for me, and this morning our committee chair, who was also serving as worship assistant, asked me how I was doing.

"Not great," I confessed. "I don't actually enjoy doing this, I enjoy having done it, if you know what I mean. Everything leading up to the actual doing is kind of unbearable, honestly."

It's true. I agonize over my choices, removing and replacing whole blocks of text, and prior to delivery, I get the clammy palms, sweaty brow and tumbling tummy associated with intense nervousness. 

This sermon was a toughie for me, as it included a piece of text I hadn't yet reconciled for myself.

"But I wouldn't trade it for anything," I continued. "I get a lot of support from everyone, which is very gratifying, it's just a bit draining."

Soon enough, the readers had presented Psalm 31, Acts 7:55-60, and John 13:3 -14:14 (pasted in below for the theologically inclined), and it was time to get up an present my own variety of scriptural insights, morality tale and call from complacency, with a dash of political current events to boot, and hope it went over well...

The Price of Truth

I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend as much time thinking as I used to. I mean, I still do more than my fair share of daydreaming, staring into space, ruminating, woolgathering, and what have you, but the times when I take a difficult idea or thorny concept and really, you know, ponder it? Those have been on a downward trend since my university days.

It’s one of the things that I am most grateful for in terms of being in the lay worship leadership program here at St. Albert United. A couple times a year, I am required to sit down with some scriptures and try to wring something insightful out of them that I can share with others. I mean, I don’t have to, but I know y’all can read them by yourselves, so I have to get my value-add in there someplace, right?

I start by looking at the passages, sometimes in a variety of translations - New Revised Standard, King James, New International, Lexham English -and looking carefully at the word choices and footnotes. Sometimes a single word is enough to give me everything I need, like when I learned that the word meek, as in ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ doesn’t mean acquiescent, but teachable.

Then I look at the commentary written and shared by others. Sometimes you come across this in essays, other times blog posts, and in some circumstances, even complete sermons - which I can then copy outright and pray no one notices! (Kidding, kidding…)

After that comes the hard part - reflection. Discerning the lesson God wants me to take away from these words, and trying very, very hard to be open to new ideas and different interpretations. It helps to be aware of the privilege, filters, and cultural baggage I bring with me as a comfortable, middle-class, middle-aged, straight white Christian cis-male.

Sometimes the insights I gain, or the manner in which I am able to articulate them, are a little off-beat. This will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one who knows me, I’m sure. For instance, in this week’s reading from John, I realized the following:

The Bible is not a hologram.

Now, I’m certain that a lot of you were already well aware of this fact, but it is new to me. For the rest of us, let’s go back to first principles: does anyone know what a hologram is?

Right, those 3D looking images you see as a proof of authenticity on credit cards and what we used to call ‘paper’ currency. You hold them up to the light and turn them this way and that and behold! You can see part of that wee dove that you couldn’t before!

A hologram is a 2-dimensional object that replicates three dimensional space. That little credit card bird, he looks like a tiny sculpture, floating in space somewhere behind that plastic card, in a field of illusory depth. Manufacturing them is not an easy process, despite the fact you see it on hat -stickers and any other product requiring a seal of authenticity, but this ability to create a space wherein a 3D object can be viewed from multiple angles is not even the most astonishing feature of holograms.

If I tear a painting or drawing in half, I don’t really get two smaller drawings, I get two halves foa whole. If its a picture of a horse, someone is getting the back end of that horse, if you know what I mean.

If you have a larger hologram, and are able to tear it in half, you not only don’t break it, but you can still see the original image, in its entirety, in each half. If we took - hmm, what’s a good name for a mascot of credit cards...Billy! If we took that small sticker with Billy the credit card bird, and made it the size of a sheet of paper, then tore that sheet in half, we would have two Billys. If we tore those two sheets in half, we would have 4, all showing the same thing. It’s astonishing! I’m sorry I lack the hologrammatic engineering skills to have built a working example for you.

On a superficial level, you can find commonalities between the Bible and a hologram:

  • They both create depth (one literal, one metaphorical), despite being stuck in a two-dimensional medium.
  • You can look at them both from a variety of angles, and gain new perspectives, or insights.
  • They are both, in some ways, indestructible; the hologram because of the properties of optical interference through diffraction grating on superimposed planar wavefronts, and the Bible because of capital T truth; the greater truth.
The big difference though, is that a section of the Bible -say, a single verse- doesn’t always reflect that greater truth in the same way. Unlike a hologram, the piece is not an accurate depiction of the whole. And this can not only cause misunderstandings and confusion, but can actually be dangerous.

Consider today’s reading from the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel, which holds, for me, as someone who likes to think of themselves as a progressive, inclusive Christian, one of the most problematic verses in the New Testament: John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Well, gosh, that doesn’t sound very inclusive, does it?

In certain circles, this verse is what’s known as a ‘clobber text’. As in, when discussing the possibility of other, non-Christian viewpoints in terms of going to heaven, salvation, building God’s kingdom or whatever a particular denomination likes to call it, this is a verse that Christian exclusionists will trot out to clobber you with.

That verse, on its own seems pretty cut-and-dried: if you do not believe in and follow Jesus, well, I guess your theology is just not going to pay off, chum. But in the context of the larger conversation Jesus is having, this is the wrong message to be taking away.

First of all, some context: this is Jesus saying goodbye to his followers. Shortly after this final conversation, he will be arrested, tried and. crucified, and he is well aware of this. And yet, Jesus is the one comforting his disciples, who, in true human fashion are trying to make it all about them!

“You’re leaving us? Now? Why? Why so soon? Where are you gonna go? What are we gonna do? And how are we gonna follow you? WHAT THE HECK ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?!?”

To me, Jesus shows no more proof of his divinity than in this moment when he patiently, confidently, and compassionately reassures them. John 14:6, this supposed ‘clobber text’, actually clarifies that Jesus is not speaking to a multitude, but responding to an earnest question about the future, and four words make this abundantly clear: “Jesus said to him”, singular.

He is answering Thomas, the disciple we will almost always associate with doubt, who has heard Jesus say “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas doesn’t know, at least not right away, and says so: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

To which Jesus replies,”I am the way. And the truth, And the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

He goes on to say “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

That’s quite a bit fuller picture than that single verse, isn’t it? The Bible is not a hologram. In fact, the very idea of people using that verse to express the notion of Christian superiority or exclusivity, knowing that the very same chapter begins with Jesus saying that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” gets me a bit upset, if you want to know the truth of it.

Now, from the perspective of a dude with no formal theological training whatsoever, there is a vein of rich material in this first part of John 14 for sermons. There have been volumes written just about the relative worth of faith versus works, but like a lot of people, I am going to squat somewhere in the middle on that one because I personally feel they are interdependent. I happen to believe that labour done with a spiritual component has more impact and resonance than work done for strictly practical or worldly reasons. And that as good as prayer is, it stands a much better chance of moving those mountains when people roll up their sleeves and get to the digging.

Take last night’s Affirmiversary event: a Dragstravaganza! A bit of entertainment and fellowship to be sure, and a bunch of money raised for Little Warriors through the Northern Alberta drag society the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose, to be sure. After all, the mission of the ISCWR is to support charities which provide direct services to the LGBTQ community of Edmonton or those which work to promote an accepting attitude to gays and lesbians in the community as a whole.

But we send a wider message about our work as a community of faith too, especially for our goal as an Affirming Ministry, which is “Working for the full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the United Church of Canada and in society.” There is more to being an affirming ministry than having a rainbow sticker on the door, it means flying that rainbow flag, it means marching in Pride, it means supporting the LGBTQ community right here in St. Albert through groups like Out Loud and PFLAG. It means celebrating our third affirmiversary

And why is it do this, to stake our rainbow flag in the ground and not just implicitly welcome but explicitly invite and celebrate people from sexual minorities? Because of the persecution they have received and continue to receive at the hands of people calling themselves followers of Jesus.

Let me provide you with an example from current events: This Thursday, some 60,000 Albertans will begin picking a new leader for the new United Conservative Party. There are three candidates with a variety of diverse opinions and differing platforms, but the frontrunner feels that students who join Gay-Straight Alliances or GSAs should have their parents notified, regardless of the wishes of the student.

This flies directly in the face of most expert testimonials and statistical data. Kris Wells, from the U of A’s Institue of Sexual Minority Studies and Services, has a horrifying repertoire of stories dealing with youth who are outed before they are ready, who face the threat of scorn, exclusion, or even physical harm at home from those who are supposed to love and protect them.

The leadership candidate in last place talked to UCP members about GSAs being a useful tool to combat poverty and suicide among LGBTQ youth. What did he hear in response from some members?

That this is God’s punishment for them.

Take note: this is not a pronouncement from Biblical times, or from someplace deep in the backwoods, or in the hills of Talibanistan, this is from right here in our own backyards.

And yes, thank goodness, the United Church has taken a progressive stance on inclusivity going way back, and yes, we are an Affirming Ministry and proud to be so, but before we get a separated shoulder from patting ourselves on the back, let’s not forget that it was only, what, ten years ago, that our own congregation had a vote on sanctifying same-sex marriages that was by no means unanimous, and we saw a number of people leave us once we voted to do so. Even our vote to become an Affirming Ministry in 2014 wasn’t unanimous!

But I don’t say good riddance to those who left a decade ago, and I hope the more recent dissenter(s) from three years back are still with us, perhaps maintaining their skepticism but bearing an open mind as well, hearing this important truth: that God’s love is for everyone. Everyone.

Living the truth can be hard. Proclaiming the truth can be hard. Look at Stephen from our other new testament reading today, called to explain himself for telling others about Jesus, but instead of knuckling under, he turns the tables on his accusers, saying that they are the ones ignoring God’s law, and is killed for his troubles.

And who is there to witness this, but a young man named Saul, who I discovered in my research is none other than Saul of Tarsus, but who is better known as the Apostle Paul. Stephen’s attackers drop their coats in front of Saul, presumably to make throwing easier, and proceed to pelt Stephen with stones.

The fact that Stephen’s faith in the truth of Jesus is strong enough that he is willing to lay down his life for it is not even the most astonishing part of this story to me, it is the fact that before he expires, he loudly forgives his attackers.

This feels important to me, because too often, especially in recent years, we tend to demonize those who feel differently from us. In the U.S., the political left and right have become diametrically entrenched echo chambers, not only with each clinging exclusively to the values they have long held, but each with their own paragons, and their own sources of truth.

I don’t think the purpose of our reading from Acts today is to glorify martyrdom, or to suggest that one should be prepared to die for the things they believe in. Taken with the parting instructions from Jesus, it is a reflection of just how much strength can be drawn from God, from the holy place that exists inside each one of us when we serve the truth, when we act in the service of love. Strength enough to persevere in the face of ridicule, in the face of oppression, in the face of unpopularity, and if it should come to that, in the face of death itself. Gods help

Today’s Psalm sounds like it could have been written by one of those kids Kris Wells has had to help out, youth who are trying to live the truth about who they are: “I am the scorn of my enemies, yes even my neighbours; they see me in the street and they shrink away. I hear the whispering of many, fear is on every side.” But even in the face of this, the psalmist’s faith is unbroken: “I trust in you; you are my God.”

The Bible can be a complex, contradictory, non-intuitive, and often baffling piece of divinely inspired work at times, but wisdom can always be found there. Sometimes it is a lot of work to discern it, at least for me.

There are 31,102 verses in the Bible. We heard 38 today, and they have shown us a piece of the greater truth that no single verse, especially one taken (willfully) out of context, cannot hope to. Most importantly though, we heard that final commandment from Jesus that should underscore all our works, as a church and as Christians: “That you love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love one another. Not just those who agree with you, or look like you, or who believe in precisely the same things as you, but everyone. The kingdom of God is not a geographic place, it resides in two relationships: the one we have with God, and the one we have with our neighbour.

Build a better world; a better, more loving, more tolerant, more inclusive world, with room for everyone to experience God’s love. That is what Christ calls us to do. This truth may have a price, but God is there to help us foot the bill

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Let’s ask for a better world, created in the image of the kingdom of God. It’s tantalizingly close, almost within our reach, but love is the only thing that will get us there.


After the service, I got a lot of very positive feedback (which, if I'm being honest, is a big part of why I do it!), and a lot of agreement that John 14:6 can be a tough nut to crack, which was extremely gratifying.

But the first two people to leave after the service didn't feel quite the same. An older husband and wife I didn't recognize, they were in the narthex before Betty and I got there, but the wife turned, hesitantly, and came back to speak with me.

With a mildly European accent I couldn't place, she explained that God doesn't hate homosexuals, just their behaviour, which we shouldn't promote. She felt that the children's story, about a girl with two mommies, did promote this.

I was completely taken aback. Did they not know what kind of congregation we were trying to be? Had they missed the rainbow decal on our door, or the flag just above it? Had they not, I dunno, listened to any of the sermon or prayers?

Smiling, I explained that we were going to have to agree to disagree, that we were committed to inclusion, and I was glad they had come and were able to hear a different message, and that we were able to express our differences in a civil manner.

She smiled and they left, but it was unsettling nonetheless.

Thankfully their absence was soon filled by well-wishers from the congregation, all with nice things to say, and soon after, we were on our way home.

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Acts 7:55–60
In our first reading, we hear about the first Christian martyr, Stephen, called before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council charged with administering justice. Accused of blasphemy for proclaiming the teachings of Jesus, he accuses the council of ignoring God’s law, which enrages them.

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”  But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

John 13:33 - 14:14  
The Gospel reading is Jesus’ farewell to his followers. It includes his final commandment, and the importance of carrying on his works.

Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”