Saturday, December 03, 2022

Jesus Christ, the Baguette, or Naan, or Tortilla of Life?

 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. 

Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, 

and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 6:35 NRSVue 

When I spent time kicking around Paris as a nineteen year old I was hungry most of the time. Thank God for baguettes, the quintessential French form of bread, which was readily available and inexpensive. For me it was the "staff of life", or at least fuel for a lanky kid from Canada. 

Sadly, the baguette is under threat in its homeland with plenty of literally pale imitations which are mass-produced and don't follow the traditional ways of fermentation. This is supposed to be slow bread, lovingingly brought to fruition, but even in France these methods are disappearing. An article in the New York Times addresses the apparently controversial announcement by UNESCO that the French baguette is worthy of  heritage status: 

 PARIS — It is more French than, perhaps, the Eiffel Tower or the Seine. It is carried home by millions each day under arms or strapped to the back of bicycles. It is the baguette, the bread that has set the pace for life in France for decades and has become an essential part of French identity. 

On Wednesday, UNESCO, the United Nations heritage agency, named the baguette something worthy of humanity’s preservation, adding it to its exalted “intangible cultural heritage” list. 

The decision captured more than the craft knowledge of making bread — it also honored a way of life that the thin crusty loaf has long symbolized and that recent economic upheavals have put under threat. UNESCO’s choice came as boulangeries in rural areas are vanishing, hammered by economic forces like the slow hollowing out of France’s villages, and as the economic crisis gripping Europe has pushed the baguette's price higher than ever.

Christians honour Jesus' description of himself as the Bread of Life and share in the communal meal during which we affirm that the bread broken as part of the eucharist or communion is Christ's body, broken for us in sacrificial love.

Ruth made bread today for communion in our Trenton congregation tomorrow, as she had done for decades in several communities, and our home is redolent with the aroma. She considers this as a gift of service and as a personal statement that the bread for our sacrament should be aromatic and flavourful, with generous pieces. As a baker she couldn't accept the symbolism of tiny cubes of spongy white bread as representative of Christ with us and in us. Jesus is not insipid or meagre or bland.  The bread of that momentous first/last supper was unleavened, but Jesus is the Risen One, and our mystical leaven. 

In early October we attended the lovely wedding of a couple where the groom was a child when we first one of the congregations I served  At the reception his younger brother, now working as an engineer, reminisced unprompted and with a sweet look on his face about the flock of kids who after communion services would descend on the leftover bread in the church kitchen and how much he enjoyed it. One of the members of our worship committee was scandalized by this, but Ruth was delighted to nourish these eager sparrows.  

Jesus Christ, the Baguette, or Naan, or Tortilla of Life?

The Advent 2 psalm is 72 but the lectionary reading leaves out verse 8 which contains Canada's motto. Some thoughts about water and rivers and a painting in today's Groundling blog

Friday, December 02, 2022

When the Rains Come Down and the Floods Come Up

 The wise man built his house upon the rock

The wise man built his house upon the rockThe wise man built his house upon the rockAnd the rains came tumbling down
The rains came down and the floods came upThe rains came down and the floods came upThe rains came down and the floods came upAnd the house on the rock stood firm
The foolish man built his house upon the sandThe foolish man built his house upon the sandThe foolish man built his house upon the sandAnd the rains came tumbling down

“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock. 

 “But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.”

                                   Matthew 7:24-27 The Message

Do you any of you remember this chorus from the days before the flood? Rather appropriate turn of phrase, don't you think? This was a vacation bible school song from the sixties, complete with actions.

 I'm not sure what foolishness kids were going to get up to, other than rambunctiousness. Jesus did invite us to be prudent and forward-looking in the way we live and consider the future. 

On Monday the Conservative government in Ontario passed Bill 23 which included a lot of foolish things, including limiting the role of Conservation Authorities to assess where homes should and shouldn't be built when the rains come down and the floods go up. In addition, our premier broke a promise he made publicly on several occasions not to tamper with the Greenbelt, a protected area which includes vital agricultural land and watersheds. 

Brad McNevin, CAO of Quinte Conservation, issued a statement condemning this bill which includes this "read it and weep" assessment: 

The Quinte Watershed contains many wetlands, of which one hundred are Provincially Significant, and they all play a vital role in storing atmospheric carbon and support groundwater recharge which helps to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Bill 23 has reduced that Provincially Significant Wetland number to one. That means wetlands, which also contribute to offsetting water and reducing flooding, improving overall ground and surface water quality, and providing a home to Ontario’s important species (many of which are at risk) could now be targeted for development.

From 100 significant wetlands to one!

In recent days several media reports including a joint investigation by The Narwhal magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper have revealed that developers have been purchasing land in the Greenbelt right up until September of this year, even though it supposedly couldn't be exploited for housing construction. Bill 23 changes all this and will make these contributors to the Conservative Party even wealthier. 

The same can be said about the development of multi-laned Highway 413 through agricultural and environmentally sensitve areas. And on Wednesday Bonnie Lysyk, the Auditor General for Ontario, issued a report which says that this government ignored its own experts when it decided to prioritize building eight highways, including Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass. The report also contends that as the government reduces environmental protections even more it isalready mismanaging them, from flood risks to protected land and invasive species. Ironically, Ford responded that Lysyk "stay in her lane" in her work. 

We have a lot of foolish and sneaky people -- it's mostly "old boys" -- who are supposedly running the crew in this province, and frankly it scares the hell out of me. Should some of these guys be sent back to Sunday School, or perhaps the confessional? For the love of Creation and Creator, who is looking out for the generations to come? 

So, what do ravens, crows and John the Baptist have in common? A dubious Advent connection, you say? Check out my Groundling blog today

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Radical Gospel Through the Eyes

                                                                    Sheltering -- Timothy Schmalz

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, 

for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

Hebrews 13:2 NRSVue

 Timothy Schmalz is a Canadian sculptor who seems to have developed a special relationship with the Vatican. Several of his works are now in prominent places around Vatican City, including his latest called Sheltering. A figure on the ground is covered by a blanket placed by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove -- a pigeon by another name. All of them address the human plight and God's tender regard for "the least of these."

Another is called Angels Unawares and depicts migrants in a boat looking toward...what, a new land, hope? 

Pope Francis, left, watches the unveiling of the new sculpture “Angels Unawares” on the occasion of the Migrant and Refugee World Day, in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, on Sept. 29, 2019. (Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo via AP)

I had a conversation with Timothy a few years ago when he first came to prominence through a sculpture now known as Homeless Jesus. It was cast a number of times and installed in various cities, often on the grounds of churches. On a couple of occasions snow covered the sculpture and because it is life-sized concerned people phoned police often enough that they issued public reassurances that this wasn't an actual human being. 

Out of our conversation Timothy generously sent me a model of Homeless Jesus which as I write is perhaps half a metre from my keyboard. In the photo below I'm holding it my hand for scale. Despite its proximity I stop seeing it which is often the reality with people on the margins of society. We notice them when they are considered intrusive or troublesome or upsetting. 

An article in Religion News Service offers: 

In “Sheltering,” Schmalz said, he chose not to feature Jesus but instead to make “the Holy Spirit the hero of the sculpture.” “I didn’t want Christianity to get in the way of the Christian message,” he said, explaining that the dove, as a universal symbol of peace and spirituality, could be more approachable to non-Christians. 

While homeless people and birds are common sights in cities, he said that bringing the two together offers a message that usually escapes urban dwellers, often buried in their phones. “The actual homeless person is not shocking people,” Schmalz said, adding that if his sculpture can capture the increasingly volatile attention of people, “then it’s a great use of artwork.”

In the same article Schmalz says that he's bringing his creativity to Pope Francis’ green encyclical “Laudato Si”, translating the text into something that can be read through the eyes.

                                                                           Homeless Jesus 

What if we opened ourselves to being "wind-borne" Christians, through the work of the Holy Spirit? My Groundling blog today

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Women Talking & the Comfort of Scripture


Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9

The Arts and Books section of Saturday's Globe and Mail has a full-page article about the new directorial vision of Sarah Polley in the film adaptation of Miriam Toew's intriguing novel, Women Talking. It's about Mennonite women in South America who hold a secret meeting about leaving the oppressive community in which they have suffered various forms of abuse. The exceptional cast for the movie includes Rooney Mara and Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Frances McDormand. Wow. Little wonder that it was a crowd favourite at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

The writer of the piece is Johanna Schneller, always deft, and in conversation she explores how Polley found her way out of the difficult, sometimes nightmarish world of a child acting star (Road to Avonlea) into a balanced, creative and collaborative life as a writer and director. If you can access this piece it is well worth reading and quite hopeful. 

Near the end Schneller offers: "And though her film doesn’t flinch from darkness, it ultimately made Polley feel hopeful. The characters have a saying: 'Whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is honorable, whatever is excellent or worthy of praise, think about these things.' Polley now repeats that to herself every day.

Strictly speaking, this isn't a saying. It's scripture, a powerful exortation and prayer included in the apostle Paul's letter to the congregation in Philippi. He may have been under house arrest in Rome and near the end of his life by execution yet despite the darkness he upholds the light. I don't mean this to be a criticism or a quibble. It's just that there is a context for these words which give them even greater depth, even though they can stand alone as a positive mantra. 

I too find them deeply meaningful and I have committed the passage above, which contains those words, largely to memory. When I am awake with the demons de jour in the bleak hours of the night I often repeat them, along with the first verse of Jesus Loves Me. 

God knows that scripture is too often tortured and twisted to suit the sensibilities of those who want to shame and control others. The women in Women Talking are finding their way through and out of a religious community in which men have used scripture to their own ends, yet violated some of Jesus' most important teachings. 

There is the irony that Paul was characterized as a misogynist for decades but in recent years scholars have noted that he often speaks with respect and affection about women who have taken on ministry roles, including in Philippi. 

I look forward to the release of the film and those phrases from Philippians will continue to be a comfort to me. 

Why did the turtle cross the road? To find its way into my latest Groundling blog which considers how we honour biodiversity in Creation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Giving Tuesday...and Wednesday?...and Thursday?

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, 
if we do not give up. 

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, 

let us work for the good of all and especially for those of the family of faith.   

                                  Galatians 6:9-10 NRSVue

 I can recall the early years of what was called Black Friday in the United States, the day following American Thanksgiving which became the retail version of The Hunger Games. Canadians watched news clips of crowds literally trampling over each other to get the best bargains as stores opened. Eventually retailers on this side of the border fought discounts with discounts and we too had Black Friday sales and pre-Black Friday sales even though this has nothing to do with a holiday in this country. Black Friday begat Cyber Monday for all the electronic deals.

Now we have Giving Tuesday, supposedly the day we expiate our bingeing sins by donating to whatever charities and causes manage to capture our attention. I can't be critical of organizations, including faith groups, for reaching out to prospective donors for support. We're told that charitable giving has declined over the past couple of years and we are aware that inflation is chomping away at money for the basics of life, let along our disposable income. According to a CBC piece about a recent study: 

Canadian charities are facing "unprecedented strain" due to a projected decline in donations and an expected growth in demand due to the pandemic, according to a new report. 

The Giving Report 2022, released on Tuesday by a group called CanadaHelps, says one in four Canadians, or 26 per cent, expect to use or are already using charitable services this year to meet basic needs. One in four Canadians, or 25 per cent, expect to give less this year than they did in last year, the report says.

My inbox has already been flooded by Giving Tuesday requests, including a couple by the United Church,  and  there are promises that my gift can be doubled, or tripled. I have no doubt that there will be many more "asks" by the end of the year.

 I imagine we'll respond to certain situations -- the crisis in Somalia is front of mind. In many respects, though. we take a "slow but steady" approach, giving throughout the year to our congregational family and a number of organizations we support, some of them Christian ministry related, some justice oriented, others environmental. When Premier Ford attempted to buy our votes with license sticker rebates earlier this year we gave that money away to several causes as special gifts.

Could we be more generous? Always. Even in these anxious times we are aware of our manifold blessings and we consider it an act of practical faith to focus on abundance rather than scarcity. While Giving Tuesday is okay, choosing to be purposeful in our giving all through the year is an essential aspect of what it means to be people of a generous God and followers of Jesus, the Christ. Generosity is a spiritual practice, discipleship, a way of life. 

Wouldn't it be great if we were falling over ourselves, at least figuratively, in response to the needs evident all around us? Here is a prayer from the United Church for this day:

O God, the season of waiting has begun.
We wait with gratitude for the gift of love at Christmas.
As we strive to find gifts to express our appreciation for those who make our world and lives better
may our gifts have more meaning;
may our gifts share your vision of love in the world.

Giving Tuesday is our opportunity to look beyond the sales flyers and promotional e-mails and see a new way forward, a way for healing and connection.
We live in a world of consuming,
a world where the person with the most toys wins,
and yet, you offer us a way filled with grace.

On this Giving Tuesday, help us to give freely from the heart!
We pray that our gifts will bring hope to the lost, peace to the hungry, love to the lonely, and joy everlasting.
A way where each of us has a piece of your heart to share with others;
a way where we do not win until we give, and in giving our hearts are filled.

O God, may we be able to joyfully share our gifts with many, with the vision of a better tomorrow;
knowing that when we do so, we become like the magi of old, offering our gifts to the refugee child, the child living on the margins, a child born in a stable in Bethlehem. Amen.

  Ruth Noble, Mission & Service Engagement Coordinator

As I share images of artwork in our home during Advent I need the reminder of the lessons of the birds around us. Please take a look at today's Groundling blog

Monday, November 28, 2022

Peaceful Advent Protest


Greenbelt Protest this past weekend

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth...

Isaiah 11:1-4a NRSVue (Advent 2 reading) 

There is a tradition of themes for the season of Advent which identifies Peace for the second Sunday. I've been musing about the notion of peaceful protest in recent days with examples close to home and at a distance. Over the weekend there were rallies in many communities across Ontario voicing opposition to Bill 23 which will open up portions of the Greenbelt despite promises by Premier Doug Ford not to touch these important agricultural, forest, and wetland areas. From what I've heard and seen these were both passionate and peaceful assemblies, and in some respects voices raised on behalf of the voiceless. It's likely that the legislation will be introduced as early as today.

Meanwhile the testimony for the inquiry into the use of the Emergency Act earlier this year has come to an end. The Act, which is intended as a last-resort response to threats to national safety, was implemented as a response to the occupation of downtown Ottawa and the blockades at border crossings in several provinces. These protesters were entrenched, often belligerent to the point of being threatening, and unclear in their goals. While they have insisted they were peaceful in intent there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. In Alberta some of them were armed and plotting to attack police. 

We should also be aware that there are continuing protests by Indigenous groups against the development of pipelines on traditional lands in British Columbia in the immediate area and in other provinces. These have been, by and large, peaceful. 

Around the world there have been protests in Iran and now in China which are pushing back against oppressive regimes which prohibit public gatherings. Some of the participants have been arrested and in Iran scores have died, including children. 

In Advent we're a long way from Palm/Passion Sunday but that event was also a public and peaceful protest against the "powers that be" only days before Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed by the Roman regime. There isn't much doubt that this procession put Jesus on the radar of authorities. Was the birth of Jesus a form of peaceful challenge to the world order in itself? 

As I say, this is pondering on my part, maybe even meandering! We have taken part in peaceful protests through the years, including marches through city streets. Did they make a difference? It's hard to say. I do feel that as people of faith and followers of Christ we must be passionate rather than passive about what matters for the shalom, the deeper peace intended for human relations and for all of Creation. 

                                              Christ's Entry into Brussells in 1889 -- James Ensor 

I'm offering some "earthy" Advent reflections on art in our home through my Groundling blog. I hope you'll take a gander. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent Patience in 2022


A scene from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation you wonder? Have we time warped back to the Griswold's street from 1989. No, it's 2022 and this is the view of our next door neighbour's place, although you can't hear the music. In the past two years the coronavirus has metasticized into the christmasvirus with an astonishing expansion of their...display. While Ruth laughs at my muttering as we drive onto our court this really is harmless, although when the breeze is blowing and the figures are swaying it is like something from a horror flick rather than a comedy.

This went live several weeks ago when a mild spell had people out in shorts and they weren't alone. To be entirely forthcoming, we have put up Christmas lights and yesterday we bought our tree for this year, although it will enjoy being outside for a little while yet. We are willing to wait because this is Advent, the beginning of the church year, the time of patient, reflective waiting for the coming of the Christ. 

I've written before about the annoyance of members in some congregations I served through the years about our intentional period of preparation for Christmas without succumbing to what is the commericialization of the time of year. As a concession to the pressure we put up a tree early but decorated it week by week to acknowledge Advent. We lit the Advent candles, week by week, and involved people of all ages and circumstances in doing so. 

We are now in a time of instant everything and "patience" is almost a dirty word. Surely, though, there is a place for anticipation in our lives even if it goes against the flow of our culture. 

Today we will gather with others at Trenton United collectively dressed in blue which is the liturgical colour of Advent. Perhaps we can all offer the prayer which was up in the Kingston Penitentiary chapel when I was a chaplain intern there years ago, "Lord give me patience and give it to me now!"