When Kim and I got engaged in 2015, we put a lot of thought into the timing of the wedding. Having become engaged in November, we decided to have the ceremony one year later; we scheduled it to begin at 6 pm, which in November would be after dark; and finally, we held it on Saturday November 12, 2016, which was the middle of a long weekend.
That 2016 ceremony is connected to a series of Sunday reflections of which this is the fourth of seven. We called the event “A Wedding Ceremony in Eight Movements,” with the first seven movements touching on the seven Roman Catholic sacraments and on the seven circles of light in the spine, which are called chakras in Hindu philosophy. The eighth movement, which we titled “Go into the Sacredness” after a hymn written by one of the two celebrants, the Rev. Chris New, was a communion-like ritual of sharing grapes. We hoped this ending would bring the gathering down to earth after the journey we had invited it to travel with us.
In the event, Kim and I loved the wedding. More than 200 people came, and we were interested in the divide between those who said they too loved the unusually long ceremony, which ran for more than 90 minutes, and those who found it off-putting.
When we were first engaged in 2015, we discussed the kind of wedding ceremony we wanted. I mentioned a 1996 book called “Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing” by Carolyn Myss. In it, Myss draws connections between the seven Roman Catholic sacraments and the seven Hindu chakras; and I had followed this schema in 2012 when I led worship at a three-day event for ministers new to Saskatchewan at the Calling Lakes Retreat Centre. Kim had also read and appreciated Myss’ book, and so we decided to centre our wedding ceremony on its ideas. Then, we spent the first seven months of 2016 exploring one stage of spiritual development each month.
The fourth of the seven stages is marriage, which is the one we are discussing today. Not only was this movement central to the ceremony, it felt crucial to me as a person who had long struggled to ground myself in the three lower stages of the spine and to let the energy of the three upper stages flow downwards. Marriage is where the upper and lower stages meet, and the place where both grief and love come to the fore. For someone like me who struggled in particular with the second and third stages of life, and which we discussed over the last two weeks with a focus on Confirmation and then on Communion, it felt extra important.
Marriage is about self-acceptance in the face of both the wounds and blessings of our family; it is about finding self-worth in the face of both rebellion against and acceptance of the traditions into which have been placed; and it is about self-respect in the face of our dependence on the source of Love we call God.
The key barrier to self-respect is grief. To be capable of love, we need to accept life in its fullness, which includes both the things we like and those we don’t. To accept things like our personal mortality and a world that includes war and environmental destruction requires grief.
Kim and I had first bonded over grief. We had met on May 20, 2015 in her church Southminister-Steinhauer United at a meeting of the Edmonton Progressive Christian Network. When the Rev. Nancy Steeves, who was presiding that evening, asked us to split into groups of two to discuss our changing images of God, Kim and I paired off; and after five minutes, we were both hooked.
In that initial discussion, Kim told me about the death of her partner Gordon McFadyen, someone with whom she had been in love for 20 months and with whom she had bought a house in Lendrum the year before. Sadly, Gordon had become sick in January; he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March; and he was dead by early April. I had learned about Gordon’s death in a Presbytery email because he had been a United Church minister in the 1990s; and if I hadn’t had a conflict on the evening of his memorial, I would have attended it at SSUC in April.
Kim was still grieving this shocking loss when we met even as she had resumed her search for friendship and love.
Her grief work reminded me of my own – how, for instance, in 1982, I had grieved both the failure of my youth to heal childhood wounds and the inability of the Left, in which I had been intensely active for five years, to either keep its members sane or to make much of a difference to this troubled world.
I decided it was unlikely that the Left or any other social force would forestall the multiple disasters that flowed from endless economic growth, population explosion, and the spread of computer networks. Nevertheless, I was still alive; life was filled with innumerable moments of natural and human-created beauty; and there was no telling when social crises might finally overwhelm our little sector of the world.
After a big expression of grief in 1982, and on several other occasions over the next decades, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and kept searching for a better life.
When Kim and I began to date in June of 2015, I was struck by the similarities of the paths we had followed. We had both married and divorced. We had both found love and heartbreak in new relationships. We had both pursued individual and group therapy. We had both been fed by mystical experiences in nature. We had both stumbled into the United Church in 2001 and followed many of the threads the denomination had put in front of us. We had both read Carolyn Myss.
And so, the period from spring 2015 to our wedding in November 2016 felt like a delicious honeymoon. But a problem arose for me on the week we were married. On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump became the President-Elect of the United States
I considered Trump to be a fascist, although like many people I also hoped his surprise victory, the three-month gap between his victory and his inauguration, and the pressures of the office would constrain him. Unfortunately, Trump only seemed to get worse; and his somewhat accidental rise to the most powerful position in the world meant that my inchoate fears of 1982 became more concrete. Although I was glad to have lived for nearly five decades in relative stability and prosperity in Canada, I imagined Trump’s victory as the beginning of a period in which the human project would disintegrate.
The coming of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago both adjusted and confirmed this trajectory. On the positive side, Trump’s disastrous and horrifying response to the pandemic meant he was narrowly defeated in the 2020 election. On the negative side, Trump’s role as US President during the pandemic meant that COVID-19 evolved into a never-ending disease, which has led to millions of death, and which will undoubtedly lead to millions more. Because of the mis-leadership of Trump and of so many other racist and ignorant rulers, the pandemic has both persisted and increased social disunity.
But so what? you might ask. Perhaps my perception of the rise of racist, sexist, and anti-democratic forces is more of less accurate. But even if that were true, what does this have to do with either my marriage or my work as a minister?
Our wedding ceremony seemed to work for me. I felt more grounded, more connected to the flow of life, and much, much happier. At the same time, after the wedding and after Trump’s victory, I encountered the first real conflict in my role as minister of Mill Woods United Church. Several prominent families left the congregation; many others expressed frustration at how frequently I mentioned Trump and Trumpism; and givings to the church declined to the point where both Bryan LeGrow and I took unpaid leave from our work at the church in 2018.
Things have improved since then in terms of givings, involvement in church activities, and in my ability to sometimes find balance in an era that militates against it — although the past 22 months of the pandemic make this difficult to know. Also, there is my impending retirement, which means this church will get a new chance to reinvent itself. I look forward to seeing what comes next for Mill Woods United this summer and fall, and over the upcoming years.
And even though the success of racist and sexist politicians continues; even though climate disaster is becoming more evident; and even though other social issues like population explosion and exponential growth in electronic networks continue to challenge us, the equanimity I gained in 1982 when I grieved my youth is still available to us, I believe.
Marriage continues to be a powerful blessing that mimics the miraculous transformation of the simple ingredients of water, soil, and plants into wine. The Christ-like path of death and resurrection is one we can still follow even if the church is a mere shadow of its former self. The hope and love we celebrate every week at Mill Woods United are still within our individual and collective reach, I believe.
In 1982, I struggled to come to grips with the inability of humanity to create a more rational and sustainable path for itself. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed innumerable moments of grace, joy, and love since then, and I am sure I will experience innumerable others no matter how long or short my life is.
Sometimes, I may be encouraged by the actions of governments; more often, I expect, I will be disappointed in them. I will support young people when they build movements in favour of diversity, internationalism, and rationality. I will continue to love many moments and to glory in what life offers us, despite intractable social problems.
And who knows. Maybe this will be the last sermon in which I will say the words “Donald Trump.” Stranger things have happened, eh?
What I do know for sure is that I have been blessed to work as the Minister of Mill Woods United for the past eight years; that my marriage to Kim is an endless source of growth and love; and that this moment is yet another in which the Love we call God is supporting us, calling us, and leading us home to endless blessings.
May we continue to grieve deeply, to hold each other with respect and care, and to enjoy the many blessings of love, come what may.
May it be so. Amen.