Text: Isaiah 60:1-5 (“Arise, shine, for your light has come!”)
Does anyone else here remember the 1986 Canadian rock hit “I’m an Adult Now?” This past Wednesday as I contemplated writing a Reflection for Epiphany and putting it in the context of my ancestry, the title “I’m An Adult Now” came to my mind.
So, I revisited the song and learned more about the Toronto-based group “The Pursuit of Happiness” that sang it. I learned that Moe Berg, the songwriter and lead singer of Pursuit, was born and raised in Edmonton. I was also reminded that many of the lyrics of the song are not exactly “Sunday-morning friendly.”
Still, I like the song and I stuck with the title. It is connected in my mind to a saying of my late father — that the people of his generation, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” had done a poor job of protecting the health of the earth. So, he was cheered by the thought that the next generation would use its vision and energy to fix things. By the next generation, he meant people like me, the Baby Boomers.
Unfortunately, the heyday of the Boomers has long come and gone; and now I occasionally hear others say words like my father’s: that while we Boomers failed to fix things, today’s youth are magnificent, and they will surely find a way to stop war, pollution, and poverty.
I hope so. All I know is that I’m an adult now, and not a young one. So, I pray that today’s young people will use their creativity, vision, and energy to build a world that is more sustainable and just than the one bequeathed to them by the Greatest Generation, the Boomers, and Generation X.
But even when I was a teenager, I was skeptical of the idea that older generations had failed and that it now fell to young people to make things right. While it can be useful to divide the population into named generations, they don’t constitute conscious entities. Generations don’t get together and make decisions
When I was young, there was no Boomer summit at which we decided to let the world population grow from two billion to seven billion; or to burn a couple of hundred billion barrels of oil to see what would happen to the climate; or to unleash a digital revolution that would put all the world’s knowledge and culture in every pocket. These things just happened, willy-nilly.
I would be thrilled if we could collectively solve problems like weapons of mass destruction, climate change, or poverty. This has been a dream of social reformers ever since humanity was first yoked together by European conquest and commerce 500 years ago. But so far, all attempts to create that level of consciousness and power have failed.
Instead, we gather in small communities to pool our knowledge and energy. This congregation is an example. We don’t have a lot of power. But as community members we can understand and act more effectively than we can as individuals . . .
Today I’m not only aware of my long-held status of adulthood; I’m also aware that, following the death of my mother on December 28, I am now an orphan. This is a status that many of us here today share; although once you’re over 50, can you really call yourself an orphan? My father-in-law John and mother-in-law Cecile are alive, so there is still a generational buffer above me. But with the death of my father Clare 10 years ago and the death of my mother Mary last month, I have now joined the ranks of the orphans.
In preparing for a Memorial for my Mom, which will be in Toronto next weekend, I have cast my mind back to the forces that formed her and my father. Both were greatly impacted by World War I.
Ten years before my mother was born, the man who would become her father, Mackenzie Rutherford, was wounded in France where he was fighting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After spending a year recuperating in a hospital in England, he worked a desk job for the British Forces for the rest of the War.
Like many of the millions who were caught up in The Great War, the horror of the experience turned my grandfather against imperialism — whether that of Britain, France and Russia on the Allied Side or that of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey on the Central side — and this pushed him to support radical social change.
When my grandfather died in 1970, my cousins and siblings scoured his bookshelves to see if we wanted any of his books. The one I took was a pamphlet from 1919. Published by the BC Federation of Labour in Vancouver, where my grandfather lived after WWI, it was titled “Who Are the Russian Bolsheviks?” To my surprise, it was a pro-Bolshevik publication, which my grandfather had preserved for 50 years.
But despite this brush with radicalism, in the early 1920’s my grandfather returned to the farm country east of Toronto where he had grown up, married Grace, my school principal grandmother, bought a farm, raised a family, and never lived in a city again.
My father was also shaped by World War I. None of his immediate relatives fought in the War. But his most influential teacher was a veteran of the War.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Tillich was a German Lutheran, who became one of the most well-known theologians of the 20th Century. After World War I, he helped to form the Fellowship of Socialist Christians in Germany. Tillich has the distinction of being the first non-Jewish academic to be fired by the Nazi government after it took power in 1933. So, in 1933, Tillich moved from Frankfurt to Columbia University in New York City, which was where my father encountered him in 1948 when he was taking a Masters of Theological Studies.
Understanding why my father took post-graduate studies in New York before his ordination also leads back to the War. At the outbreak of World War II, a group of 65 United Church ministers wrote a letter to The Observer criticizing the church’s support for Canada’s entry into World War II. They stood with the only Canadian MP, J.S. Woodsworth, the former Methodist minister from Winnipeg, to vote against Canada’s entry into the War in September 1939. Like my grandfather Mackenzie Rutherford, these ministers had been radicalized by the horror of World War I.
But their stance did not come without consequences. Most of them were removed from their pulpits. One of them was Rev. Dr. Oak who was fired by his church in downtown Toronto. From there, he accepted a call to a United church in a hamlet east of Toronto where my 16-year-old father was a member. Dr. Oak was a pivotal influence on my father. Not only did he inherit his library when Dr. Oak died in the 1950s, he also received encouragement from Dr. Oak to spend a year studying in New York City, which happened in 1948/49.
And that was where my father encountered Paul Tillich.
When my father died 10 years ago, I inherited his many books by Tillich. In one of them I found preserved a cover story about Tillich from Time magazine in 1959. In it, Tillich talked to the reporter about his experience of World War I.
In 1914 at age 28, Tillich joined the German army as a Lutheran chaplain. He said that in 1915 “a night attack came, and all night long I moved among the wounded and dying as they were brought in — many of them my close friends. All that horrible long night, I walked along the rows of dying men, and much of my German classical philosophy broke down . . . I well remember sitting in the woods in France reading Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra,’ as many other German soldiers did, in a continuous state of exaltation. This was our liberation from oppressive religion.”
My parents were born into the grief-stricken but hopeful aftermath of World War I. From my maternal grandfather, they inherited a sense of the horrors of imperialism and a hope that collective social action could fix the world. Through my father, they inherited the influence of a radical Toronto minister, who was exiled to rural Ontario, and a radical German theologian who was exiled to New York City. From both sides came an awareness of the intractability of war and greed and of the hope that humanity might find a way out of this mess, if only it could unite.
Epiphany is a Greek word that means an illuminating discovery. Today we heard an excerpt from Isaiah that is about the joy revealed by God’s light.
The revelation that came to both my maternal grandfather and to Paul Tillich in 1915 was that their British and German imperial misrulers had led them into senseless slaughter and that there might be a way for ordinary people to forge a world beyond empire that would finally make Isaiah’s dream of joy a reality.
My parents were born into a world stuck between these two epiphanies — that empire was destructive and that an international movement could free humanity from the evils of war, greed, and poverty.
Today, we still live in a no-man’s land between awareness of the sins of empire and the possibilities for liberation. While no generation has yet figured out how to move from one to the other, we continue to struggle in hope.
My parents did not grow up in the utopia fought for by radicals after WWI. But they were continuously touched by God’s Spirit; and so are we. Our lives are marked by many ecstatic epiphanies and moments of liberation; just as they are also marked by times of confusion and oppression.
One hundred years after World War I, we continue to struggle to understand the world and effect change in our lives, neighbourhoods, and world. This is a struggle that people like my grandfather, Paul Tillich, and my parents did not live to see completed. But it is struggle for Love and Justice that gives our lives meaning, purpose, and beauty.
And what could be better than that?
Thanks be to God. Amen.