July 24th, 2024

By the Way: With open hearts

By Medicine Hat News on July 8, 2017.

I recently retired after almost 40 years in ministry. A couple of recently retired friends came to cheer me on. After years serving various churches, I noticed each of them has been challenged to redefine their identity. I will face that challenge, too, because our work, whatever it is, tells others things about us, what to think of us. How often do we ask someone new about their work, saying “And what do you do?” For now, you’ll catch me working around my house, catching up on a few years of putting off tasks!

There are many questions of identity in the air just now, as we mark 150 years of this country called Canada. Identity has become controversial these days. How do we identify our gender? Not so simple any more. If we are members of a First Nation, what place does Canada hold in our identity? If we are religious, is it so straightforward to say “I’m a Christian” or “I’m Muslim” and be fully understood? Recently, a congregation in my denomination surveyed millennials who work nearby about what they think of Christians and “the church.” That church despaired to learn that the “Christian” label was perceived very negatively, suggesting judgmental attitudes on almost every topic you can think of. Yet that congregation has pioneered some important outreach to the hungry and homeless in their city and hosted the first “gay straight alliance” in our denomination for decades. It is a compassionate, generous place! But any label carrying part of our identity is open to misinterpretation, based on the human tendency to generalize from previous experience or worst case scenarios in the news.

One night I returned from a long trip to find my car wouldn’t start. Stuck in the airport parkade, I approached a janitor for help. “Miss, it will be too expensive to call a tow truck in here. I will get some friends to help.” He disappeared. In a few minutes a car full of Sikh men, going off shift as airport cleaners and security guards, pulled up. They got my battery boosted in no time. When I offered to pay them for their trouble, the driver looked at me kindly and said, “Madam, it is our honour to help you.” I’ve never forgotten their kindness. It reframed my impression of turbaned workers wherever I meet them now. It was a lesson in the open-heartedness I meet in Jesus. Jesus constantly challenged his followers and his critics to welcome with generosity those too often labeled as somehow unacceptable — people whose jobs or gender, ethnicity or circumstance put them on the fringe. Here’s hoping that open hearts towards those whose identities differ from ours can mark Canada’s next 150 years. Whether you’re a follower or a critic of Jesus, an open heart helps you discover the best in the people around you. Give it a try.

Rev. Dr. Nancy Cocks is recently retired from St John’s Presbyterian Church.

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