Alan Kirker

Sermon

August 21st, 2020 by

My father, Reverend Dr. E. A. Kirker (1926 – 2004) was a United Church of Canada minister. One particular sermon of his originally delivered in August 1995 on the topic of bitterness may provide a balm or salve when assailed by this emotion’s corrosive effects, as it has for me. I have transcribed it below, and if it resonates with you, please share it, or whatever part of it, and credit my Dad, as I have titled him in boldface in the picture link at the start of this paragraph.

My Dad was born in a royal port. In his case Annapolis Royal, or Port Royal, as it was once known, while I came out the shute as the little black-haired asian-looking “wild man from Borneo” as he had put it, perhaps redirected in the Bardo from Tibet to our more needy parts of the world, up there on the slope of the Royal Mountain, or Montreal, at the Montreal General Hospital.

My Dad’s passion was flight, and  WW2 provided the opportunity for him to earn his wings at CFB Greenwood as the co-pilot of a “flying boat”, the PBY Canso (so named in Canada, after the Strait of, but was the same aircraft as a PBY Catalina). His aircraft was tasked with coastal patrol around the Bay of Fundy, looking for German U-Boats. Persistent memories I have are the times we enjoyed together as members of the Montreal Soaring Council in Hawkesbury, Ontario, where we would often drive to from downtown Montreal for summer weekends during the sixties and seventies and where we had a trailer parked.

Often, because my Dad was a certified glider pilot instructor, his otherwise peaceful sermon-inspiring flights that he so looked forward to would be preempted by line-ups of Saturday students begging him for a half-hour instruction flight that they could proudly record in their logbooks. These times, I took the role of flight control officer – actually more of a timekeeper with a stopwatch in the club trailer parked by the field – and logged the days’ flights; glider name-number, tow-plane name-number, pilot name, tow-plane pilot name, passenger (if any) name, take-off and landing times, that sort of thing. If there weren’t enough hands on the field, I would also help “run wings”. This important task was often assigned to trained, safety-conscious teenagers who could run like the wind and first hold up the glider’s wing as the tow-plane taxied, then signaled to the tow-plane pilot that the tow-rope was taught and he would juice it, and then run alongside the glider, grasping the wingtip until ground-speed was sufficient to keep it up on its single-wheel landing gear by itself, while the tow-plane, either a Piper Cub or a Cessna L-19, roared, pulling it down the grassy runway. On some occasions, I would ride with him, in his favourite two-seat glider, the Czechoslovakian work of beautiful flush-riveted aluminum art, the Blanik.

He passed from our space-time back in late 2004, but keeps in regular, often hunourous contact. Here are screen captures from a serendipitous and un-retouched (apart from overall brightness and gamma adjustments)  10-minute infrared video panorama recorded in September 2017, where he sky-writes himself as a projected, grinning voxelated image, aged a few years but unmistakably him, in the clouds from the great beyond. Watch the entire raw footage of the Conestogo Bridge 360 degree infrared pan.

Dealing with Bitterness

If you have traveled to the east coast during this or an earlier holiday season you may have noticed something unusual about the trees along the ocean shoreline. Gnarled and weather-beaten from constant battling with the elements, often stunted from lack of sustenance in the rocky or sandy soil, these trees seem to lean landward. Yet they are tough, resilient, durable, resisting all that storms do. Why? Or how? I’m told it’s because they have developed their deepest roots on their windward side.

How deep are your roots? So long as the sun is shining and the breeze is gentle, all is well, but when the storm clouds gather and the harsh winds blow, and hopes are deferred and dreams shattered, those without deep roots on the windward side simply collapse in bitterness.

Few emotions can affect one’s physical and mental well-being as readily as bitterness., Leslie Weatherhead, the English preacher and psychologist, told a young woman whose parents objected to her proposed marriage. After an engagement lasting ten years, her fiance was killed in a car accident. With hopes and dreams shattered she became deeply embittered. Physical symptoms appeared. She was unable to see except by holding up one of her eyelids.

Dr. Weatherhead, whom she sought out for counseling, helped her to understand that there was nothing organically wrong; the closed eye was simply an indication of her unwillingness or inability to face her situation. It was as if her mind was saying to her body, “You must bear this bitterness for me”.

Bitterness is also contagious. Someone feels wronged and soon family and friends take up the resentment. The other person retaliates in word or deed and quickly two widening circles of people are involved. The seriousness of the alleged offense grows in everyone’s mind until it is grossly distorted and exaggerated.

I remember how two families in one of my earlier congregations were in dispute involving their children. Eventually I was able to help them resolve the problem only to find that one the mothers remained bitter, and no reminder of the harm she was doing to herself and others would placate her. It turned out that she was suffering from deep resentment toward her husband, one which the dispute with the other family simply brought to the surface. But once recognized, accepted and talked out, the bitterness gave way to a new relationship.

It must be said, however, that some people seem to enjoy their bitterness – or at least find satisfaction in it. Perhaps it is the pride that comes of feeling that as victims they are somehow special. You know the type: men or women who think that everything bad happens to them. This “dirty deal complex”, as psychologists term it, results in such folk gaining attention which becomes a way of restoring their self-esteem.

The fact is, however, the world closes in on bitter persons. Friends who are “turned off” soon turn away until, unable to find anyone to listen to their complaints and grievances, embittered people grow sour on life itself.

This surely is the most difficult kind of bitterness to deal with: to turn against life, thinking that you have been singled out for harsh treatment by God.

Yet even scripture records stories of people who felt they were victims of divine retribution. Naomi, for instance, who saw both her husband and son die. So sure was she that the Almighty had inflicted those tragedies she told her friends to friends to call her Naomi no longer but Mara, a name which means “the Lord has dealt bitterly with me”.

So with King Hezekiah. In our First Reading we heard him recall his feelings in a time of illness. “In the noontide of my days I felt I must depart… Like a weaver I have rolled up my life… All my sleep has fled because of the bitterness of my soul”. Then the mood changes, for he survives and begins to see things from a different perspective: “Lo, it was for my welfare that I had such great bitterness. But thou, Lord, has held back my soul from the pit of destruction”. Or as this might be translated, “You have loved me out of the pit of bitterness”.

So it was for Job. Afflicted in body and soul he asks the age-old question, “Why? What have I done to deserve this?” In the end he comes to understand that God is greater than any personal misfortune. His sufferings fall into the background, and his struggles cease. Because Job has experienced the divine presence and heard the voice of God, his bitterness of soul dissolves.

Then there’s the apostle Paul. Paul knew from personal experience how people have a way of nursing their resentments, brooding over the insults and injuries they feel are directed at them. So at the top of a list of things which must go from the life of a Christian Paul put “pikria”, the Greek word for “long-standing resentment”. Thus we hear him saying to the Esphesians in our Second Lesson: “Get rid of bitterness” (Good News Bible)… Instead be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another as God has forgiven you through Christ.”

Yes, consider Christ. Throughout his short life Jesus encountered situations which evoked the whole range of emotions: anger, fear, despair, loneliness. But bitterness? Never, even when the world seemed set against him and his disciples deserted him. Why? Surely it was because his life was so deeply rooted on the windward side, so completely lived in the full awareness of God’s presence and power, that he was able to draw on the deepest well-springs of spiritual strength.

Friends, we, too, need roots that run deep on the windward side of life, for the storms can be severe, the testing-times intense. Who has not had some experience that has not left a taste of bitterness?

“Bitterness paralyses life; love gives it power”, wrote Harry Emerson Fosdick. “Bitterness imprisons life; love releases it. Bitterness sours life; love makes it sweet again. Bitterness sickens life; love heals it. Bitterness blinds life; love annoints its eyes.” God grant that our eyes may be open to perceive this truth, and our souls to receive it.

E. A. Kirker, August 1995.

Congregation

August 15th, 2020 by

A congregation is a large gathering of people, often for the purpose of worship, and a church is a religious organization or congregation or community that meets in a particular location.

The HAMC conduct monthly club meetings, coyly referred to as “church“, not for religious reasons, but for the gathering, congregating aspect and which are said to occur on regular Sundays. I had the pleasure of knowing and becoming a friend of one such member, a fine gentleman, while their club at the time was a local chapter of the precursor Satan’s Choice. He worked with me in a slaughterhouse where I spent three consecutive summers in order to finance my freewheeling party lifestyle in university residence. This experience taught me alot about human character, how to grow a thick skin, and to recognize and deal with the absolute best and worst individuals. Moreover, how one’s intention can really, well, drive things in a good or bad way. The setting was exactly 98% male – thus very low % ppm ambient atmospheric oxytocin – and everyone walked around with an 8- or 10-inch long boning knife, drawn, and several more on a scabbard over a rubber apron, for eight hours and sixteen-hundred hogs each day.

For the following, I will slide right into colloquial, and so fair warning; this narrative deals with scenes of a graphic and disturbing nature. Please do not read on if you are offended by images of gore, or of animals being harmed.

I could not eat my lunch for the first week, in large part because we, along with the guys from Beef Kill, had our own cafeteria, and which in order to get to from the kill floor one had to cross a catwalk-like pass over the “Pit”, the place down below where the hogs were introduced to St. Pete at those pearly white enamel then crimson tiles via the unholy trinity of stun, shackle, and stick. Thereupon the critters began their grim journey up a macabre ski-tow-like-lift dangling from a rear leg, bleeding out, their weakening bodies at first thrashing violently, then twitching, then slackening before reaching stillness at the top, up there in the clouds, where they’d have their single-leg shackles switched for a gam-hook and be queued on our “disassembly” line. I had no choice but to get used to this several-times-a-day traverse or else not eat or socialize with the boys. I had to hold my breath for several seconds to avoid inhaling the gagging, overpowering ammonia stench of the gallons and gallons of quickly decomposing blood, not to mention the hellscape scene, where, if one so wanted they could reach out and shake the cloven front hoofs of these poor creatures as they ascended to that big grocery-store-shelf in the sky, and say “sorry you’re having a bad day – we’ll meet again, next week for breakfast, maybe after church or something”.

After my first week and removing my big, knee-high, floppy-fitting, fluorescent-yellow, steel-toed billy-boots, as I would at the end of each day for many days yet to come up in the locker room, began noticing a sort of translucent, gelatinous mass ground into the bottom of one or the other of my thick work socks. Completely baffled. Until, I caught the chap doing the dirty deed. Dan (a pseudonym) worked on the “held rail” where he took apart carcasses side-lined with medical issues under the watchful eye of a veterinarian. As part of my initial job and to get oriented, a task was assigned that involved picking up tickets issued by these vets from a couple of stations across the floor, and sticking them into a canister to get vacuum-sucked up a tube into one such network running throughout the factory, as in the days before the interwebs, before the emails, even before the facts machine. This time though, Dan was caught red-handed. The bugger had just slipped a pair of hogs’ eyeballs down the back of my boots while I was talking to the vet at the held rail station, and in so doing revealed the source of that annoying gelatinous mass in my sock soles I was discovering at the end of each work day.

I thus resolved that as there was no sort of “crying to mommy” recourse available under such circumstances, I would need to fight back, and fight back I did. By the end of the summer I was called by my nickname, Macho, or Machoman, or simply Mauch, for short. One chap even making a custom-lettered standard-cotton-work-shirt with that emblazoned over top of my embroidered real first name and punch clock number.

This was an ironic nickname because I was a scrawny, one hundred and thirty-five pound twenty year old with pencil-thin arms and neck. Dan, the jolly easterner who had now become a friend and even a mentor in the black art of slaughterhouse horseplay, once suggested I visit the local funeral home, Ratz-Betchel, and get myself a deal on some muscles. I also had a terribly acne-spattered face for many years. A face which, however, had garnered the nick “China” from a foul-mouthed Aussie some years later outside a tour of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, to which the response was, thanks I will pass your feedback along to my lovely Irish Mum, and by the way did you know there’s nary a splinter nor a shard of royal doulton among the whole sorry lot of you crooks? To which he just blinked and I immediately felt awful. The “Macho” naming was in large part due to the  i. simply. could. not. give. one. flying. fuck. about. anything. reckless. attitude I had and that I could give back, sometimes far worse than I got. The specific reason for the Machoman nickname moreover had to do with when as I was just about to embark on a volley of horseplay, I would belt out the opening verse of that same song by the Village People. The guys got so used to it, that by the end of the summer, all I had to do was shout out the opening “Hey, Hey…. Hey-Hey-Hey…” and at least several of them on the floor would carry it from there.

August 19, 2020. Happy interlude: I was just gifted with a lovely sky-written emoji. Thank-you so much to the Pitts Special pilot, who, like my Dad the glider pilot / minister whom you will meet in the next post titled “sermon”, obviously knows the aircraft better than his own hand. And, thank-you to whomever paid for such a wonderful birthday gift, if in fact it was even for me…

Across town, and way, way, way, if you get my drift, downstairs within a motor hotel called the Coronet, as in crown, there was another place with a pit, a club where ladies danced and took off their clothes. This one was officially titled, yep, you guessed it: “The Pit”. It was there I discovered an altogether overwhelming interest in seeing very scantily-clad ladies wrestle very competitively in a ring they had set-up. I didn’t at all care for the mud or oil, but the sight of the ladies themselves tangled up was enough to force one to wriggle in this ladies’ wiggle-room and adjust one’s trousers several times over the course of the evening. A visit during frosh week with some chums from the uni included a rather extraordinary character who became a close friend during those days, and then in a swirling tidal pool of complexity going, well, we’re not sure exactly which way at this point, turns out was himself raised on a hog farm. He came from the west and went all the way up through uni, studying very hard and partying very little, all the way up to the very top of the world of online gambling, even to gracing the cover of Forbes magazine for all of his efforts. I also saw some crazy bands that summer too, up in the motel’s large and popular concert hall, including Blitz and Goddo, no less. The hall and the strip joint downstairs, were favourite watering holes for many members of the local motorcycle club, the Satan’s Choice.

Horst (a pseudonym) was about seven feet tall with a correspondingly healthy girth, blonde curly hair and was what only, and I do stress only, the ladies would call baby-faced cute.. Perhaps between twenty-five and thirty years of age at the time. We had seen each other on occasion at the other Pit, the one across town, where he had nodded to me. I wasn’t exactly sure if he was a full-patch member of the Choice at this point, but maybe by the end of this crazy canter, he would have been. His job on the kill-floor was at the end of the “head table”, an area of four or five people who carefully stripped each hog’s head of its skin. The head was then handed to Horst, who would first use a giant guillotine to split it lengthwise, then he’d pry it apart with both his massive clutch and gas paws. The brain, which got pulled out and put in one tub, made way for him to reach in and with a surgical precision which would have made my Dad’s friend, brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, green with both envy and indigestion, excise the creature’s pituitary gland with a tiny pair of tweezers. It was then carefully placed on a sheet of wax paper within a little stainless steel tray in a manner so as to have them all spaced out evenly and elegantly like hors d’oeuvres in preparation for a cocktail party. Once a summer or so, a small contingent of lab-coat wearing Asian scientists who were each about a third his size would watch him for a half hour or so and make copious notes on their clipboards.

Horst never engaged in any horseplay. He never spoke to anyone. He was focused and did his job. I enjoyed sitting with him at the lunch table. When I had worked up enough courage I would ask a question or two, such as “What do you think of British bikes like Nortons, Triumphs, and BSAs?” I was interested in his thoughts because I had some crazy biker friends down in the Hamilton area who would rocket around on these sorts of machines and engage in all manner of shenanigans. He replied, after an Elon Musk-length introspective pause followed by an equally lengthy sigh in a very serious tone like an older brother advising his younger sibling “Well, I suppose… I suppose they are ok to learn on”.

I got quite reckless with my kill-floor antics and at one point after repeatedly splashing a chap with my workstation hose each time he’d turn around, he reacted. Badly. He was a nasty, brutish and all of about five and a half feet of solid Slovenian brick crap-house who approached me at my workstation, a drill-press affair I used to clean the excess hair and gunk from between the cloven and now amputated front hoofs of the unlucky animals. I thought he was going to repeat his usual expletive-filled tirade but to my face this time and then the next thing I knew there was a terrible ringing in my ear over top of the now muffled-sounding factory din and I was down looking at his boots only they and everything around were sideways. Fortunately, due to my light physical frame and the slippery hockey rink-like floor, I folded up pretty easily. When I got to my feet and collected my hard-hat as he returned to his station I realized he had drifted me with his mesh glove on, and so my face swelled right up for about a week. This didn’t really seem to have any effect whatsoever in terms of my overall horseplay initiatives, however.

As one might anticipate for such a brash student, I was often on the receiving end of many tirades and volleys to one point where I had to temporarily change my blood-curdling war-cry from “Machoman” by the Village People to “Don’t You Want Me Baby” by the Human League, with appropriately remixed lyrics. The Portuguese chaps never failed to butcher this one though, emphasizing that first syllable in “… ba-by?” as “… baaaaay-by?” which of course sounded utterly ridiculous. I would be soaked through to the underwear by eleven a.m. and regularly needed to change my white cotton shirt after being bulls-eyed by a lobbed softball of coagulated blood or some such projectile. At one point, to my utter surprise, Horst himself flanked by two others on each slide making a formidable phalanx of human ordnance, came marching down that alley past the furnace and beaters towards yours-truly’s spot in that back corner by the knife sharpening station with a look of grim intent. Upon arrival, members of this posse grabbed my shoulders, upending me, while Horst took me by the ankles and hoisted me way, way up, over top of the giant vat of water and pigs’ feet beside my drill press. I was about to be baptized by this fearsome preacher and his angry elder congregants. I played along though and gave a really good performance only because as this gang were upon me, Horst quickly smiled unbeknownst to the others, and so I knew it was all a show.

Things were really ramping up in the Hog Kill as far as all this horseplay stuff was concerned. I had received several warnings from the foreman. But the boys and myself were looking forward to the upcoming annual “Men’s Picnic” sponsored by the firm, the ladies of course having their own. An afternoon of fascinating variables; all the free beer one could drink, every testosterone-fueled interdepartmental team game you could think of, followed by a delicious full course buffet, all out in the blazing hot Saturday summer sun. Oh, yes, the venue; The Waterloo Rod and Gun Club. Spoiler alert: Horst would wind up needing to give a sermon to this assembled congregation of nine hundred -or so male colleagues.

Outlaw motorcycle clubs have a particular history in Waterloo Region, the details of which are scant due to my arriving here only in the late seventies. In one event the local police chief took extreme measures and raided a Satan’s Choice rival club’s clubhouse with German Shepherd dogs who attacked and bit its members. The story blew up in the press causing many in the community to side with outlaw motorcyclists generally and take the position the police had used unnecessary force as a form of intimidation and public relations which wound up backfiring. The popularity of these groups thus grew with large congregations of “wannabees” materializing around town over the ensuing years, with only rare sightings of the mythical men themselves. These gatherings were often in local coffee shop parking lots leading a friend to affectionately dub one such crowd “The Taster’s Choice”.

In a half-baked attempt to raise my social capital I approached Horst on the crest of a ridge in plain view of all the people gathering in the field at the men’s picnic. With another couple of students, I lit a joint and passed it to him, whereupon in a display of far greater adeptness at such social arts he took the proffered doob, inhaling it completely in two draws before walking off without so much as a nod or a thank-you, as though a linebacker on an NFL sideline just handed a bottle of Gatoraid by a bench-boy.

The afternoon was loads of fun after which everyone gathered to dine across a large array of picnic tables, with the Hog Kill department occupying several of them right in the center of things. In true horseplay form, a food-fight erupted at the table where both Horst and I sat when someone casually flipped their sausage onto someone else’s plate. Things quickly escalated and in under fifteen seconds there was full blown pitching and strafing of sausage, pig tail, wings, ribs, and all the fixings. People from other departments turned in their seats to take in the spectacle. Horst, however, was having none of it. He sat there stoically shoveling from his plate while chaos reigned all around, obviously upset at the childish behaviour of his colleagues. When I next looked at him there was a scoop-sized clot of potato salad perched over his right eye, completely occluding his vision on that side. Quickly, his sunburn began turning a deeper shade of red.

( to be continued …)

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