Sunday, October 25, 2015

Love's Legacy in Leadership

"I wasn't supposed to be here."

This was the refrain we heard again and again on Friday night, as present and former Augustana Residence Life staff gathered in a Camrose church to remember Mark Chytracek and pay their respects to his family.

This feeling of displacement was a common sentiment; I myself had planned to transfer to the much larger University of Alberta after a year or two, and other people had similar stories: one young man transferred from engineering at the U of A to math at Augustana based on scholarship availability. Another fellow moved into residence at the urging of his friends, despite his misgivings. A current employee had thought he was on a bus to a campus in Canmore until he realized they were heading north and not west, and had no idea of where Camrose even was.

However we had arrived there, we had made connections, we had laid down roots, and we all felt compelled to contribute to the community we had discovered; a community that felt like family, and the heads of that family were Mark and Brandi Chytracek.

When Audrey and I and our friend Angie had first arrived at Bethel Lutheran Friday night, it was emptier than we had expected, with none of Mark's family in attendance. Rob, a classmate who had worked with Mark for 25 years now, assured us that they were coming, but they had been asked to attend the basketball game at Augustana that evening. I knew Mark had been a vociferous booster of our Vikings, but was still a bit surprised, until I heard the details.

First of all, Rob explained, the visiting team had respected the home team's wishes and allowed them to switch out the traditional white jerseys of the home team for the mourning colours of black. Then the announcers explained that a plaque had been placed on the wall in the southeast corner of the gym, depicting both Mark's animated support and his willingness to challenge officials on calls that were not of the highest standards of observation, rules knowledge and contextual understanding:

Well, if that doesn't bring a lump to your throat, give my regards to the other replicants.

Brandi, her children Jonathan, Amanda and David, and other family and friends arrived before too long and we gathered in the sanctuary. Once everyone had assembled, Rob, now the senior Student Services official, smiled sadly and said, softly, "Welcome home," words most of us had heard whispered in our ears while being hugged by Mark when we had occasion to return to campus.

Next, he explained how he had approached Mark with the idea of creating a challenge coin for the Residence Life program, and asked everyone who had one to come forward and form a large circle,with those who had not yet received theirs in the centre. One by one, they came forward, received the coin and a big hug from Rob (Mark was an infamous hugger), and moved to the outer ring. He also explained how Mark had given away many coins after encountering Res Life alumni on the street or in the grocery store, and would need replacements after having given them his own.

Afterwards we sat, and one by one, people came forward and told their stories, almost invariably with that element of surprise that they had come to Camrose, or stayed longer than expected at Augustana, or had been accepted for a Residence Life position. None of us, it seemed, were supposed to be there.

A young man spoke of how much he had grown at Augustana, but nowhere more than under Mark's tutelage, and at no time so much as when Mark said they were creating an Aboriginal Student Advisor position, and wanted this person to apply for it. When he resisted and said he didn't have what it would take, Mark told him, "I know you do, I can see it in you, and I just want you to trust me until you can see it for yourself."

A young lady told her story about joining the program mid year, after the training had been done in the summer and the other Res Life had had a chance to bond. Mark called her into his office to ask how it was going, and dismissed her glib assurances that things were fine, saying, "it's okay, I know it is hard coming into the middle and I really want to know how it is going." She started to weep, saying she didn't know either what she was doing or why she was there, but Mark, in complete assurance and confidence, told her that the girls on her floor needed her smile and her positivity, and that was why she had been hired.

One person talked about his resistance to moving on campus, being a native Camrosian, summing up his attitude with "Me and people? Not such a good idea." But he came, reluctantly, and applied to Res Life, and that is where he really started learning. He paused in his recollection, as many that evening had, but not to weep. After reflection, he said, "I grew up with a lot of hate in my life." I was shocked; this individual didn't seem any more out of step with humanity than I had been at that age, but he continued. "Mark was one of those people that showed me it didn't have to be like that, that there was a better way, and I will always be grateful for that."

I hadn't come there to speak, but having heard so much, I felt compelled. I wish I could remember what I said, but it seems everything went from my heart to my mouth, with very little involvement from my brain, and I can recall only vagaries.

I can tell you that the struggle to keep my voice under control was even greater than it was delivering my father's eulogy, and I did not always succeed, and that I could barely make out the faces of the people I spoke to through the tears. I thanked the other speakers, and Brandi for sharing Mark, and his family for living in a dumpy dorm wing for much of their lives so we could feel like a part of their family.

I explained how much Mark's death had devastated me, despite not being in frequent contact with each other. I asked how many others had struggled to explain their relationship with Mark: employer, mentor, teacher, coach, example, friend, brother, father, colleague, confidante.

I expressed wonder that one man could have such a profound effect on so many people at such a formative part of their lives that 8 colleagues from my time with Residence Life a quarter century ago would be in attendance. I remember I said that Mark didn't teach me to care, but taught me how to do it well.

I described the home and life that Mark and Brandi and their children shared with us during their 17 years of living on campus as less of a job, and more than an example, but mostly as a ministry; a masterful tutorial on examined and loving and respectful living that influences me to this day in how I interact with others, and no one more than with my wife and children.

I described Mark as a lens that focused love, and how grateful I was to bask in that warmth, even for a little while.

(Just writing the words now is turning me into a soggy and misshapen mess, and I am perhaps finally beginning to understand why so many great writers drank as much as they did.)

After the speaking was done, we gathered together to share some food and fellowship, and relate some recollections in a happier state of mind. There were still tears, but fewer of them, and leavened by the accompaniment of laughter, which I know Mark would have loved.

I suggested that we Resident Assistants of an '80s vintage should get a photo together, and they agreed that this was probably a good idea. There are already plans afoot for an RA reunion where hopefully those who couldn't come to Mark's memorial from all across the country and the globe could perhaps do so, and also hear that whispered, "Welcome home."

The pain is hard to bear, but not hard to explain. When Dad died, he was in poor health and declining faculties, even though 79 was still too soon for him to go. With Mark, a man preparing to retire in the next couple of years but who died just weeks short of his 57th birthday, it is an injustice of Olympian proportions. That a man who gave so much of his life to others should not get to spend a decade or three with his beloved wife in retirement is ghastly, and criminal, and unfair.

Mark's memorial should have been another 25 years from now. We should have heard tales about the travels and adventures he and Brandi experienced after a lifetime of noble service His grandchildren should have been among his eulogists, explaining how inspirational he had been in his faith, and in his actions and in his beliefs. The iniquity of his sudden passing is galling, and the solace we draw from the tears and laughter in the tales of those whose lives he touched, going back to his earliest days at Camrose Lutheran College, is a stringent balm to what all of our hurting tells us is The Truth, and The Truth is this:

None of us was supposed to be here today.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sight, Sound & Structure - Steve Jobs, Reviewed

Quick! Here's a 656 page book about Apple mogul Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson, which covers his being adopted, his complex and often contested relationship with his daughter, as well as his enormous contributions to the world of technology including (but not limited to) one of the first computers designed for home and not business use, the first personal computer with a mouse, the the iMac, iPod and iPhone. A genius with products who was almost as good at alienating those closest to him. Got it?
Great! Now, can you please turn that all of that into a movie with a two-hour run time?
Oh, and don't forget the business side of things! How he started Apple computers with his best mate Steve Wozniak, left Apple after clashing with board chair John Scully, but returned later on to rescue the company from insolvency and turn it into a technology juggernaut. Oh, and he also was mostly responsible for starting Pixar, but maybe let's not mention another movie studio, okay?

Aaron Sorkin, who was given a remit similar to what you just read for the movie Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle, has a fair amount of detractors. They say he writes stuff to make people feel smarter than they are, with impossibly clever and often preachy dialogue all designed to be shot while people walk through hallways and corridors, as they did in The West Wing.

If you ask me what I think about Aaron Sorkin, I will tell you that The West Wing is one of the three best shows ever to air on television, and anybody who can make a movie about a website and two lawsuits into a compelling drama (as he did with The Social Network) can write anything he damn well wants, and I will want to take a look at it.

If you have read anything about Steve Jobs (and I have not read Isaacson's book), you have probably come away with a picture of an intelligent, insightful but often adversarial man whose confidence and impatience bordered on megalomania. Isaacson's book bears much of this out, and Sorkin's screenplay presents a man obsessed with control and possessed by a need to change the way people use technology.

It is appropriate that Steve Jobs the movie is a bit like Steve Jobs the man: highly structured and with a narrative that makes the most sense in retrospect.  Sorkin's screen play is set moments before three important product launches that Jobs is presenting: the Macintosh computer in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1999.

Each premiere features Michael Fassbender depicting a man whose control issues have pushed those around him to greater heights while simultaneously distancing him from those who should be closest to him, like Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his marketing head and aide de camp Joanna Hoffman (Cate Winslet), and his estranged daughter Lisa (three amazing actresses).

Jobs life seemed to be inherently dramatic, so each presentation has some wrinkle in the present time, such as a glitching demo, as well as an unresolved issue from the past, like Wozniak's demand of public acknowledgment of the work done on previous computers, or John Scully asking why everyone thinks he fired Steve Jobs.

Some of these ghosts of the technocrat's past are depicted in flashbacks; scenes in the garage where Apple Computers was born, the boardroom where he and Apple parted ways, or the restaurant where he convinced Scully to leave Pepsi for Apple, but many more of them are simply imparted by the actors.

Fassbender does his typically brilliant job of immersing himself in the role. There is not a trace of Magneto, his accent is effortlessly and almost eerily American, and Sorkin's fast paced, quip-laden dialogue bubbles out of his mouth like spring water over a rocky streambed. This guy is one of my favourite actors, and he gives a bravura and unblinking performance of an incredibly gifted yet amazingly flawed individual, almost daring you to root for him, and yet you feel compelled to do exactly that.

Given Sorkin's affinity with Carol Lombard-style newspaper comedies of the 1930s, you would expect Jobs' girl Friday to be a plum role, and it is. Cate Winslet affects only the mildest of accents and portrays an intelligent woman striving to balance her role as an employee with her responsibilities to help Jobs see the human elements of his life that he is either incapable of or unwilling to recognize. Winslet's characterization of Hoffman doesn't have an arc so much as it has a tipping point, and she plays it with marvelous restraint for the majority of the picture.

The real shock to me, though, is Seth Rogen, a sharp guy who has struck comedy gold playing goofy losers. He studied tapes of Steve Wozniak giving tours of the Apple facility in Cupertino and met with the man himself, imbuing his portrayal with compassion, but balanced precariously on a foundation of pride and indignation. At one point, he declaims, "I'm tired of being treated like Ringo when I know I'm John," and you know this is coming from more than just a sense of pride, its sourcewaters are a place of confusion and perceived injustice. He gets a couple of brilliant pieces with Fassbender that are almost painful to watch, as Wozniak's good-natured humanity breaks upon the shore of Jobs unflinching pragmatism, and I wouldn't even be surprised to see Rogen get a Best Supporting Oscar nod for his work here, as brief as it is.

The last bit of acting I want to point out is Jeff Daniels, who, after his turn on Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom, feels like he was created primarily to serve as a vessel through which flows awesome Sorkinese dialogue. As board chair John Scully, he has the most multi-faceted role, having to interact with the title character as his mentor, father figure, confidante, adversary, and eventually rival, and does a wonderful job with it, mixing admiration with exasperation, wisdom with anger. His scenes with Fassbender are simply electrifying.

Visually, Steve Jobs doesn't really feel like a Danny Boyle movie until the third act.  Unbeknownst to me, they shot each act differently, moving from 16mm stock to 35mm and finally to digital, representing the technological shifts inherent to each epoch of Jobs' life. The first two acts, brilliantly performed, are shot very traditionally, with little of the flair and creativity we have come to expect from the director of Slumdog Millionaire or, for that matter, the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics.

In the third act, it all begins to coalesce, as Jobs is haunted by flashbacks to previous scenes, and a story he tells gets depicted on a wall behind him that runs out to the infinity point of the shot. And there is no denying that he can wring a ton emotion from his scenes, especially the final confrontation with Wozniak in the auditorium prior to the iMac launch, with cameras moving from wide to close and incorporating cut aways to three other characters and a number of extras portraying awkward Apple staff who wish they were anywhere else.

The biggest surprise of all though, is just how emotionally affecting the story is.  Jobs has a reputation for being intellectually brilliant but emotionally underdeveloped almost to the point of disability, and this comes across multiple times in the film, as unflinchingly as Fassbender's performance. As a father, watching him struggle to define the relationship with his daughter Lisa is frustrating and hurtful to bear witness to at times, especially in his interaction with her mother and high-school sweetheart, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston). Likewise, when Jeff Daniels as John Scully says he was warned against becoming Jobs' father figure, the pathos feels both prescient and significant.

I can't tell you how truthful or accurate this movie is; while I respect the accomplishments of Steve Jobs as an innovator, frankly, his failings as a human keep me from being either a fan or an apologist for him. But I can tell you that Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin have made a movie depicting one man's life during a time of tremendous transition in the way computers interact with everyday people, a transition that Steve Jobs had as much to do with as maybe any other single individual.

Steve Jobs's story makes for an intriguing and compelling couple of hours in the cinema.  Not just for computer geeks or students of business, it is a complex story about a complicated man, told in a surprisingly straightforward and emotionally engaging manner,  and which I can recommend to just about anyone.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Pariahs & Patriots - Bridge of Spies, Reviewed

A movie can be the ultimate test of synergy; you can have all the right components (in theory), but if they don't work well together, you can end up with a mess.  Bruce Campbell (of Evil Dead fame), has a famous example he called 'The Greenlight Game' which he used in response to the question, "Why do you make so many bad movies?"

Bruce Campbell: Okay, you're a big Hollywood producer and I'm gonna pitch a film to you. You tell me whether you're gonna green light it and make the movie or pass.
Poor Sap: Okay!
BC: Okay! It's based on a best selling book by Michael Crichton. We've got Frank Marshall directing, we've signed Laura Linney, Dylan Walsh, Ernie Hudson, and Tim Curry to star; are you interested?
PS: Yeah!
BC: Wait, that's not all! We've got the cinematographer from "Lawrence of Arabia", Jerry Goldsmith is doing the score, and Stan Winston is doing the effects. Still interested?
PS: Yes!
BC: So you're greenlighting it? You're giving me the money to make this movie?
PS: Yeah!
BC: You're sure?
PS: Yes!!!
BC: Congratulations! You just greenlit "CONGO"!!!
With Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg collaborating for the first time in over a decade, I was already interested in their cold war potboiler Bridge of Spies, especially with both men being legitimate history junkies. Knowing that Joel and Ethan Coen had a writing credit made me even more intrigued. But some reviews claimed it was slow-paced, that there was little sense of jeopardy; could it be the Congo Effect at work once more.

I have been in a terrible headspace since learning about Mark's death, Audrey and I were several months overdue for a date night, and Cineplex is changing the way Scene points work in a couple of weeks so this was going to be our last chance to sit in VIP luxury for a mere one thousand points, so we said 'damn Congo!', took the plunge, and I am glad we did.

Tom Hanks plays Brooklyn insurance attorney Jim Donovan, selected for the questionable honor of representing Rudolph Abel, accused of espionage, in order to assure he is given adequate legal representation.  Donovan does so, at significant cost to himself and his family, but his idealism and his efforts end up giving him the legitimacy to very unofficially negotiate an exchange of Abel for captured U-2 pilot Gary Powers.

Are you going to enjoy Bridge of Spies? It is hard to say for sure, but let me list the three things you may want to have on hand to maximize your odds:

Patience - From a plot perspective, almost nothing happens throughout the entirety of the second act and into much of the third; much of the onscreen interaction is devoted to unravelling a Gordian knot involving spycraft, statecraft and stagecraft, and the payoff takes a long time to come. It is a languid style of filmmaking far more in keeping with the 1970s, but apparently no one told Spielberg that "they just don't make 'em like that any more", or if they did, he simply didn't listen.

Perspective - A friend's teenage son recently asked him, "What exactly was the Cold War, anyways?", a question he found decidedly difficult to answer from a standing start, as I imagine we all would. The cheerful and victorious veneer of glasnost and perestroika make it all to easy to forget just how different things were at the time the Berlin Wall was erected, and it still seems hard to believe. Seeing Donovan's son watching Civil Defense movies in school about how to survive a nuclear attack ("Duck and cover!") is a great way to remind those of us who lived in this time of uneasy detente, but I don't know if it will be sufficient for people who only know of U2 as an Irish rock band.

Principles - Here is the key element for me: when given the duty of representing Abel, Donovan does so to the very best of his ability, perturbing others in the justice system who are only looking for a perfunctory defense so they can get straight to the hanging with as little delay as possible. Since Abel refused to cooperate with his captors, the CIA, come to Donovan and bluntly ask if he has been told anything, and then chide him for his adherence to attorney-client privilege.

FBI Agent Hoffman: We need to know what the Russian was telling you. Don’t go all boy scout on me. We don’t have a rule book here… 
James Donovan: I’m Irish, and you’re German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing… one, only one. The rule book . We call it The Constitution, and we agree to the rules. And that’s what makes us Americans. It’s all that makes us Americans, so don’t tell me there’s no rule book…and don’t nod at me like that, you sonuvabitch…
It's a great soapbox moment for Hanks, still my generation's Jimmy Stewart, and he does it without grandstanding, but with an undercurrent of indignation that really resonated with me. Viewers who consider themselves pragmatists at heart may find themselves wondering what all the fuss is about, so there you have it.

It's a well paced, well shot (courtesy of D.P. Janusz Kaminski), bit of old-fashioned moviemaking, with some great dialogue courtesy of the Coen brothers, and a surprising amount of gently funny moments as well. It is all drama and no melodrama, and there are very few moments you can pull out with any certainty and say, "That will be the clip they show when Mark Rylance (Abel) gets his name read as a nominee at the Oscars."

Rylance and Hanks are the only actors with any foundation for an acting nod, Hanks mostly because, well, Tom Hanks.  Both men approach their roles with quiet calm, disappearing into their respective parts, anticipating more than reacting, which I think is much harder to pull off, but Hank's confidence and Rylance's stage experience carry the day here.

Likewise I think Spielberg and Kaminski can expect Directing and Cinematography nods, and probably a screenplay nomination for the Coens, and when you add that all up, you can probably expect to see Bridge of Spies listed as one of the 9-10 Best Picture nominees at the end of January.

There is a tragic undercurrent to the narrative, that three decent and loyal men, trying to do right by their countries and their ideals, run a tremendous risk at being made outcasts. Donovan gets shunned by the same executives that prompted him to take up Abel's defense, Abel is suspected of rolling over for the Americans and Gary Powers is vilified for not going down with the ship. The real story in this film is not what happens, but how it happens, and the cost to those involved for standing by their principles in order to make it happen.

I'd hate to think that this is the reason 'they don't make them like that anymore', but it makes a person wonder.  In the meantime though, Bridge of Spies is two hours well spent if you are a fan of either recent history or established values.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Honoring a Mentor, and More - Mark Chytracek

I learned this weekend that Mark Chytracek, who was a big part of my life while at Augustana University College, passed away from a sudden heart attack Friday night. The depth of my grief may seem surprising, considering we had only laid eyes on each other a handful of times in the last decade or so, but in terms of men who have had an impact on my life, Mark was probably second only to my father. His unanticipated passing has left me gutted.

Mark and Brandi Chytracek

Post-secondary education is a formative period in our lives, and my life was certainly no exception.  I took a year off before starting at Camrose Lutheran College (as it was known then), and was working 32 hours a week at the airport as a pre-board screening officer while taking a full classload. It was manageable, if not enjoyable, but I was planning to transfer over to the University of Alberta in 1-2 years anyhow. In truth the only reason I was working so much was to keep up my car payments, and the only real reason I needed a car was to get to work. This realization left me determined to get more out of my college experience, so I applied to the Residence Life Program, and after being hired by the outgoing Director of Student Services at the end of the school year, I met Mark at the Resident Assistant (RA) Training Retreat that summer.

Truth be told, I felt a little out of place amongst many of the passionate, fired-up young people I met there, but Mark made double-sure that everyone felt welcome, everyone had a chance to contribute, everyone was valued. His wife Brandi, a teacher, was in attendance for much of the weekend, and I learned very quickly that what they were trying to create on campus was less of a staff and more of a family.

You see, Mark and Brandi (and eventually three children) actually lived in a wing of one of the student residences, so the Residence Life program was about a lot more than just employment to them, and as a result, being an RA became more than just a job to most of us.

Mark`s training program was fairly intense, but an enjoyable experience despite all that, using a lot of storytelling and roleplays to help us, as student leaders, to create an environment of of respect.  Being a dry campus, there was an emphasis on being firm with students caught with alcohol and the like, and I know Mark`s role would have seen him bear witness to a fair amount of students leaving school under less than ideal circumstances.  I also know though, that he was also the god of second chances for many people, and that he went to bat for those whom he felt could make the most of such an opportunity.

In three years of working with Mark, I never heard him raise his voice in anger, even though I saw him get terribly frustrated at times.  I never saw him lash out and then apologize, despite being confronted with behaviour that sometimes bordered on the insane. Mark may have expressed disappointment with a behaviour or an incident or a policy, but I don't think I ever saw it crystallize into an ad hominem or personal grudge; Mark was the one who taught me how `hate the sin, love the sinner`was supposed to work.

His matter-of-fact approach to matters like this, and his appreciation of the importance of grace in our lives, meant that Mark is also one of three people I credit with bringing me back to faith, after a period of spiritual dormancy and cynicism. He and Brandi were active in their church, often serving as youth leaders, but never proselytizing, never judging, never bible thumping. Secure in their faith, comfortable in expressing it, but respectful of the beliefs of others, their belief was an important part of their lives that they simply didn't feel the need to make a big fuss about.

Mark lived responsibility, and made other people want to do so as well. I remember him talking about being in the Costco parking lot shortly after a terrible child abduction incident had been in the papers, and seeing a man struggle with a young child. He headed over there quickly and purposefully, and saw some other men doing the same thing.  The man in question, who did turn out to be the child's father, was initially indignant, but Mark apologized for the confusion and explained his motivation while many of the others nodded, and the dad ended up thanking them for getting involved.

Mark positively impacted the lives of countless students and employees, myself included, often seeing things within us we couldn't see for ourselves.  I asked him for a letter of recommendation after graduating, which he gladly provided, and in which he wrote, "During his year as President of the Student's Union, I was impressed with Steve's manner in dealing with difficult and/or uncomfortable situations. His ability to respond to people in a genuine way is a real gift." A gift I hadn't given any conscious thought or focus to, but which I have since tried to make the cornerstone of my interactions with others.

I watched Mark and Brandi, a young couple with young children, raise two families at Augustana over the years: their own, and the generations of students whose lives they touched. Working with Mark meant meetings in his dormitory apartment, sometimes holding a baby while he and Brandi sorted something else out, or sampling chili for a long weekend's football game. The gentle give and take between them, the teamwork where leadership could shift contextually, and the fact that they could disagree passionately on matters but still work constructively towards a solution without animosity; these all helped me form a picture of what a successful married life should look like.

When Audrey and I were living in Toronto, Mark was in town for a conference, and came over one evening to visit; I can't remember how it came about, but I am so glad it did.  We caught up over a beer and had a few laughs, and Mark asked how married life was treating us, as we had only gotten married  4 years prior.  Things were good, and I told Mark so, but I also made a point of thanking him for that, and telling him that he and Brandi had a bigger role in modelling what marriage and family life could be than anyone in my life except my mother and father.

I think he was a little embarrassed, but he also knew I was sincere, and took the compliment graciously, as he always did.  Had I not, I probably never would have had the opportunity, life being what it is, and I would now have an additional reason to be sad.

In college, as now, humour was the lens that let me make sense of the world and connect with other people, Mark and I were both huge fans of comedy and the way it let you explore uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the world we live in, and he loved to laugh.  I loved to make people laugh, so perhaps it was inevitable that we would get along as well as we did.  Mark laughed easily and generously, the contagious kind of laugh that doesn't care how it makes the wielder look or sound, and encouraged anyone in earshot to join in, even if they didn't know why.

At the end of RA training, there was group work that needed to be presented back to everyone, and I was nominated as our spokesperson. I cannot recall either the topic or the manner in which I delivered it, but I tried to make it funny and memorable, and thanks to Mark, I did.

I can clearly picture him,  shoulders heaving as he wheezed with laughter, his reddened face slick with tears, one hand clutching his aching ribs, the other held palm up in a traffic cop's 'Stop' gesture and shaking his head in the hope that I would give him a chance to catch his breath...but of course I couldn't, could I?

His reaction probably had as much to do with the clinical levels of sleep deprivation endemic to such retreats as to anything in particular I was saying or doing, but I loved him for his laughter all the same.

A few years later, when Audrey and I got married in the campus chapel, Mark was there, and came to the mic at the reception to relate the tale of how I had once felt compelled to sit, suddenly and without warning, in a dishwasher, at one of Rob F's legendary spring break hot tub parties. He didn't ascribe this to a state of inebriation (though he might well have), but more an indicator as to my sense of whimsy and impetuousness. Mark's delivery was earnest and loving, which got everyone laughing, including himself, probably from watching me trying to withdraw my head into my tuxedo jacket like some kind of turtle.

It's hard to write this, knowing the opportunity to hear that laughter again is forever lost.

There may be someone who played a role in your life like Mark did in mine; if you haven't already, I beg you to let them know.  Don't assume they already do - give them a call, drop them an email, poke them on LinkedIn or Facebook or whatever and make sure.

I don't even know for certain how old Mark was, but it doesn't matter because he is gone far, far too soon.  He was, and would have continued to be, an exemplary grandfather, and would have made one hell of an old man, because he was a hell of a man, full stop. I picture him in a now unrealized dotage, trying to pull off a curmudgeonly Col. Potter from M*A*S*H (one of his favourite shows), but not fooling anyone.

Being a part of Mark and Brandi's campus family was an honor and a privilege, but that tremendous influence on such an important part of my life almost makes it feel I have lost another father. Mark leaves behind a grieving wife and three brilliantly raised children, but also a legacy of service and community that I cannot imagine being equaled; we should all strive to leave as much when our time comes.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pulpitations: Jesus, Job, and The Sandman

You don't really get a choice, per se; there is an accepted liturgy called the Revised Common Lectionary that tells you which Bible passages are used for whichever Sunday, and the minister (or in this case, the Lay Worship Team I am on) bases the service on them.

Looking at the scriptures I would need to craft a sermon around, I became discomfitted to a fairly significant degree.  Compared to my previous outing back in 2013 which had involved the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the meek" etc), the tenth chapter of Mark made for some tough sledding, I tell you:

Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”“What did Moses command you?” he replied.They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’[a]‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,[b] and the two will become one flesh.’[c] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Wow.  So 'anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her', huh? Boy, considering how oblique Jesus can be in his parables, that seems surprisingly cut and/or dried...

The chapter goes on to talk about the very popular and crowd pleasing "Let the children come to me" anecdote, but coming as it does after such stern-sounding pronouncements from Jesus, it almost feels tacked on; a spiritual sorbet to cleanse one's palate:
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
The accompanying text from Job was no party either, describing a man whose resolute faith is tested by God and Satan:
2 On another day the angels[a] came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”“Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.
His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”10 He replied, “You are talking like a foolish[b] woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.
Even those not inclined to theological pursuits can see this is not, on the surface at least, the most uplifting of material to work with, especially for an amateur.  For a brief moment, I considered the possibility that our two regular ministers, privy to the liturgical schedule, had perhaps cunningly timed their own exits to coincide with the arrival of these readings, but dismissed such a notion out of hand as being logistically untenable.

I simply wasn't comfortable going in front of everyone and telling them that divorcing and remarrying was a ticket to the Hot Place.  First, because I didn't believe that to be the case.  Secondly, who am I to condemn people I know and love, people like my own sister, or our late friend Roger? On the surface, things looked kind of cut and dried, but thankfully, I was not alone in this task, and had two other people on my team to help me wrestle with them, especially the reading from Mark. 

We craft the worship service as a team, divvying up prayers and hymns and the various elements, with the rotating sermonator taking a slightly lighter load. We all agreed that we couldn't chicken out and ignore the passage from Mark, as tempting as that might be, and as unqualified as I felt to preach on it. Linda provided some excellent notes from a bible study, and Val, a former minister, helped we work out an angle to approach the topic of divorce.
We also had to find a non-scriptural reading to accompany the Biblical excerpts; sometimes this is a poem, sometimes a passage from a book.  When we got together to share our suggestions, I gave one that was adequate, but let my colleagues know that the one I liked actually came from a comic book.

Linda's ears pricked right up, since her husband is an avid comic collector. "A comic?" she asked. "Which one?"

"It's from 'The Sandman', by Neil Gaiman," I said, a bit sheepishly.

"Oh, everyone's heard of Neil Gaiman..." Linda asserted.

Val, a lady who retired from active church duties some years prior, just smiled and said, "Well, I'm not familiar with him at all, but let's hear it."

I cleared my throat and read:
“Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life...You give them a piece of you. They didn't ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. " 

I can't even describe how gratifying their response was; the moment I finished, both ladies let out a simultaneous "oo" that made me think I might be on the right track after all. They both agreed we should use it, as it brought a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, without diminishing the debilitating effects of both love and its absence. 

In a perfect world, I would have strode into church that Sunday morning with a song in my heart and confidence in my spirit, but having gone to bed about half past three in the morning after another wonderful Geekquinox dinner, I ended up at the lectern a little worse for wear, with a bad case of drymouth and the leftover wheezes from an allergic reaction the night before. Seeing my divorced and remarried sister in the front row was reassuring and daunting in equal measure, and an odd sensation that was, I can assure you. Bound up with the intense trepidation I had regarding the potentially divisive subject matter, well, it made for an intimidating approach to the lectern, and sweaty palms throughout my delivery.

Still, the Lord hates a coward, or at least, so I have heard, so I sidled up and took my best shot at it.

(If you would rather read the sermon than listen (and I flatter myself with the very notion you might be interested in either), they did post the text on the St. Albert United Church web page.)

Overall, it went really well; no one fell asleep that I could see, there were lots of thoughtful nods, a few chuckles in the right places, a tear or two, and, I am reliably informed, a simply massive rolling of the eyes from my wife when I mentioned the Kobayashi Maru from Wrath of Khan.

Gaining confidence and momentum as I neared the end, I finished feeling I had conveyed the message Val and Linda and I had agreed on, but the real test would come afterwards.  Would I be thanked perfunctorily by people on their way home to write angry letters to... well, I don't know who actually. Would those people more steeped in scriptural knowledge than myself simply shake their heads of lament how close I got while still missing the target.  Worst of all, would those in the congregation who I knew had gone through marital breakdowns feel hurt or judged?

Thankfully, all the faces we saw in the receiving line after church were happy ones. Many people thanked Val and Linda and I for the cohesiveness of the service, something we amateurs can find hard to pull off. Some made a point of thanking us for addressing the more difficult of the two readings, as it hadn't always played out that way in their experience. Others thanked us for the research we did, and for taking the time to bring context to a passage that they found trying, or fraught with personal judgement.

Rev. Mervin's wife shook my hand with a wide grin, having heard her fair share of sermons on that text over the years, and saying we had done a great job. Some of my friends in the congregation shook my hand while laughing at the impertinence (maybe even chutzpah) of a comic book being quoted in church, and at my oblique Star Trek reference, and once again it was suggested that perhaps I had missed my calling, probably the highest praise I can think of.

I found myself wondering what Rev. James and Rev. Mervin  would think of it, if they got a chance to listen to it, or what reaction it might have prompted from our late friend Roger, a divorced and remarried minister. In the end, I was satisfied that the spiritual and emotional needs of those who had heard the message had been met, and the family and I soon had to leave church to attend the Pro Coro concert that Fenya and Cantilon were performing at that afternoon.

That evening, a former church board chair called to say he was sorry he had missed me, and wanted to thank me for making him laugh and think that morning, and how he had almost started applauding the way one might after a drum solo when I wrapped up my 'rebuking disciple' monologue in the midst of my sermon.  I told him the truth, that I was lucky have such strong and supportive colleagues in Lay-Led Worship, and that you can accomplish great things when you are on a Dream Team.

"You're on two," he reminded me. "Your family is another great team, and I hope you know how proud they are of you."

"I do," I confessed.

"Well, except for the Kobayashi Maru bit," he added. "I thought Audrey's eyes were going to get stuck up in her forehead, she rolled them so hard."

Most meaningful of all though, was an email I got from someone that I had I emailed the text of my sermon to, after they told me they had difficulty hearing it (probably due to the speed of my nervous delivery!).
As a divorced person, I can’t express to you how meaningful I found your interpretation of Mark’s passage to be.My spouse and I separated in [the mid-nineties], after 20 years together. They passed away [a few years ago], and until then I  lived with a sense of failure – and guilt for not being able to make it work.I have also felt embarrassed, and even now prefer to say that I am widowed rather than admit to failing in my marriage relationship. This has been fed somewhat by the literal interpretation of the Bible, and I assure you that I am not a literalist at all, but it still has an impact on how one sees oneself.Your thoughtful and extremely well-designed reflection was very much appreciated.Perhaps you have missed your calling???
I attended a workshop this past weekend and the facilitator said that he did not see himself as the originator of his stories, but rather as a conduit for them, and this email made me realize the truth of his words. There is nothing I could have come up with on my own that could have affected this person as much as the sermon I was able to wrangle out (with able assistance from my teammates!) from a thorny patch of the New Testament, despite how onerous I found the task to be at the onset.

I am grateful for the opportunity, and also for the great instruction Rev. James gave us when we started the Lay-Led Ministry program.

How humbling to be able to impact people in such a fashion!