Ugly and Beautiful

Where do we see the holy?
Where do we catch glimpses of grace?
Where is God most present in our world? 

Maybe we think of grand cathedrals, where centuries-old art and architecture reflects the beauty and glory of God. Or perhaps an experience of nature, say a glimmering ocean sunset where the light dances to a tune of divine artistry. Possibly we consider our most precious relationships, the loving look of a spouse or the comforting embrace of a friend that speaks to embodied love and acceptance. God, grace, and holiness are all around us if we just take the time to look.

But rarely will we think of a dirty homeless person rambling in the street. Neither did actor Ins Choi, who wrote and performs the provocative and moving one-person show called Subway Stations of the Cross, inspired by his own encounter over a decade ago with a homeless rambler. I had the pleasure of seeing Choi’s performance this recently at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver.

While lacking a narrative structure - the play is described as an “unpredictable, mashed up meditation on the sacred and the everyday” - the show wasn’t lacking in powerful moments of cultural insight and experience. The play is a series of ramblings as Choi embodies a nameless homeless man stationed on a cardboard mat, with only a ukulele and a microphone/speaker. Barefoot, and carrying a box that turns out to contain bread and wine, the man takes his stage and calls the audience to attention with a raw voice and words that  were probably my highlight of the show: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord/Declare ye the way of the Lord/Chocolate éclair ye the way of the Lord.”

The man proceeds to sing and talk about life and meaning and society in an abrupt, gruff, eccentric and highly creative way. Themes of socio-economic disparity, social stigma, and religious symbols are prominent but also not over simplified. “What can I do for you to love me?” is a question that resounds beyond the character’s actual asking of it as everything from the sparse stage, somewhat random order of themes, and abrupt end speak to our unease in giving value to someone such as this. In our discomfort - this is not an easy or even enjoyable play - we were left to experience the separation - and gift - of worthiness first hand. 

Initially, I was disappointed as the show ended. It was shorter than I’d hoped and didn’t seem to address enough of the actual experience of homelessness - I could have used a bit of biographical narrative from the character. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I appreciate the end. The final scene (spoiler alert) offered an audible and visual display of the messiness of incarnation - the embodiment God in flesh (bread) and blood (wine) hanging from a subway station mic-stand mixed together in a bag. Silence at first. And then the refrain “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” There was dissonance. Audibly it was moving, but visually it was just plain ugly. Maybe even insulting to some. Bread and wine - holy elements! - flung into a mere bag to hang unadorned and plain amidst the mess of a city. Yet from my understanding of what incarnation truly means, visually, it was beautiful at the same time as it was ugly.

Through rambling song and insight, unpredictable and messy though it was, I got a glimpse of ugly and beautiful together.

Ugly and beautiful...incarnation. God with us.

A Poppy and Great Great Uncle Frank

On a recent foray in the community my son asked for a poppy at one of the stores. Around Remembrance Day it’s common for local business to place a donation box and poppy pins for people to donate to the local Legion and commemorate our fallen soldiers. He's been learning a lot about Remembrance Day in grade 1, so he's been noticing various ways remembering Canadian wars takes place, a poppy being one of them. I didn't think much of it.

But as we left the store, the questions began...along with my attempt to provide some clarity to his inquisitive mind:

L: “Why the poppy dad?”

Me: “To remember those who have died in war”

L: Why should we remember?

Me: (trying to keep it simple) “Because they died and gave up a lot. It's sad that they’re gone.”

L: Why is it sad?

Me: (deep breath) “Lots of people die in wars, missing out on a lot in life. And we miss them.”

L: Why is that sad?

Me: (with this question I consider changing the subject - e.g. “Want some candy?” Instead, I dare a response) “Think of the great day we just had as a family? War takes that away for many people."

L: So the bad guys win sometimes?

Me: (Candy anyone!?!) “Well, it’s not that simple. All countries have bad guys and good guys. People die on all sides and it's sad either way...God never wanted us to fight to begin with, but we can't to get along. The poppy helps us remember this and the people in our country who have died because of it."

At this point I think he brought up candy, which I was more than happy to oblige as a new topic of conversation.

I’m not sure if I satisfied his questioning or if I was satisfied with my answering. Our dialogue highlights how difficult it is to make sense of death and war, but not just for a 6-year-old - for all of us.

Great Great Uncle Frank Bergen - RCAF WWII
When war involves our relatives, remembering takes on a whole new tone. I’ve seen many friends online post pictures and stories of family members who served Canada in the military, some dying in the field. For these folks, Remembrance Day is deeply personal. Which brings me to another conversation with my son. The day after he got his poppy he asked me a question after school:

L: “Do we know anyone who went to war a long time ago?”

Me: “I don't think so. Most of our family in the olden days didn't fight in wars. They didn't think it was right, so they did others things (like work in hospitals or forests). Oh wait, I think one of your Grandma’s uncles was in WWII, your great great uncle Frank.

L: “Uncle Frank?”

Me: “Yup.”

L: “Can I talk to him to say thank you for fighting?”

Me: “He actually died earlier this year.”

L: (As only a literalist 6-year-old would respond) “They killed him!?!"

Me: “No, after the war he came back and was a farmer, had a family, and had grown old. He was over 90 when he died."

L: “I wish I could thank him. I'm gonna tell God to say thank you for me” (he proceeds to look up and tell God to pass along the message).

I'm not too sure how to process this interaction with my son. As one who is firmly committed to active nonviolent peacemaking, I always feel a tension around Remembrance Day. But I also realize that my great uncle Frank's decision to go to war left him ostracized by many in his family and community. Mennonites weren't supposed to fight. Social violence was his reward - this was how he was remembered. I don't want that to be how my son remembers. Which is why I didn't discourage my son's engagement with Remembrance Day and wanting to thank his great great uncle Frank. It takes great courage to stand up and fight. And yes, it also takes great courage to stand up and not fight. We need to remember both. War is never as simple as fighting or not fighting, or as simple as good vs. evil. War is complicated. War is painful. And as we reflect on the legacy of veterans and our loved ones, it’s personal.

I wish I could have brought my son to see his great great uncle Frank to say thank you in person. Hopefully God passed along the message...