Monday, June 27, 2022

Canoeing as Spiritual Practice?


We attended the Bruce Cockburn concert in Belleville back in April, a make-up for his COVID-cancelled 50th anniversary tour across Canada. Even though Bruce walked onto the stage slowly, using a cane, he still had his musical chops and some of the songs reminded us that along with being a superb guitarist the lyrics for Stolen Land, If A Tree Falls, and If I Had a Rocket Launcher, demonstrated that his was a prophetic voice through the decades, and a Christian one to boot.

One of his encore pieces was instrumental, a portion of the soundtrack for the film Waterwalker by another Christian, the late and great Bill Mason. The NFB film is a poetic reflection on wilderness, the gift of Creation, and the canoe, which Mason considered the perfect watercraft. In the same decades we were Cockburn fans we learned from Bill Mason about the craft of canoeing and canoe tripping through his instructional films. In Waterwalker, which is nigh on 40 years old, Mason upholds Indigenous spirituality and sneaks in some Christian reflections about "walking on water" to make a difference in a world suffering from human degradation.

Master canoeist, artist, author and filmmaker Bill Mason’s painting of his red canvas cedarstrip canoe.

Yesterday was National Canoe Day  a day coined by The Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough following a CBC campaign that, in 2007, declared the canoe one of the Seven Wonders of Canada. While we we didn't get out on the water (although we did go for a swim before church!) we have been out many times since the beginning of April, including Saturday morning. We are early risers which is often the calmest time to be out there, whether in a canoe or kayaks. We tend to start the season in our canoe and move to kayaks as the temperature and water warms. 

Saturday we were alone on the Moira River, at least as far as humans, but the world around us, above us, and beneath us was alive with creatures and there was a sense of the holy to the experience. I think I should write an essay about the spiritual experience and benefits of self-propulsion in a small craft on the water, which is a strongly Canadian experience. We have taken many people, including grandchildren, out in canoes and I can't think of one who didn't love it. 

While our rigorous canoe tripping days are over (we had lots of adventures in earlier years) there is a sense of pilgrimage and paddling a watery labyrinth to that experience. I came across this advertisement for a pre-pandemic canoe trip that describes it well. 

Canoe Tripping as Spiritual Practice: Deepening the Waters of Faith

This AWL workshop will invite a group of ‘spiritual pilgrims’ into a 4 day (3 night) interior canoe trip at Massasauga Provincial Park, led by spiritual and trip guides Tanya Dyck Steinmann and Mark Diller Harder. This is both a physical and spiritual journey. 

Pilgrimage, Wilderness and Solitude are key themes found in scripture and our lives. The natural setting of an interior canoe trip creates space for participants to deepen their faith and reflect on their own spiritual and life journey. Our learning comes in paddling and living together in community, as we slow down, unplug, listen to God’s voice and allow nature to be our teacher. The trip will include guided reflections, spiritual practices, group conversation and extended times of silence – all this within a setting that challenges us physically and astonishes us with its beauty. The hope is that we encounter God in wild and unexpected ways.

Waterwalker is available to watch online, and you might check out Youtube versions of the Cockburn songs while you're at it. 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Wrestling With Scripture... and Possibly Bears


children being eaten by bears as punishment for mocking a bald man, germany, 15th century

 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!”  When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

                                     2 Kings 2:23-24 NRSVue

This morning we will participate in worship with the congregation in Trenton which is our church home. During the service scripture will be read, probably by a member rather than Pastor Isaac and then he will preach a sermon which reflects on that text or texts. These bible readings are usually from the ecumenical lectionary, the three-year cycle of scriptural texts which include a Hebrew scripture lesson, a psalm, a gospel reading, and a passage from an epistle. 

Few (any?) United Church congregations include all four readings but virtually all include scripture, even if they don't follow the lectionary. Yes, the infamous Rev. Greta Vosper dispensed with bible readings in her services, but she was an anomaly.

The bible is essential to our life together, even if it is both wonderful and weird, illuminating and baffling. The United Church doesn't pretend that every word of scripture is equal to every other and we concede some stories and even entire books are not just problematic they are horrifying. 

Yesterday I saw a tweet by the weird medieval guys with the image above, and the caption which I've included. I wonder if they knew that this is likely the depiction of a shocking story in the Older Testament about a testy prophet named Elisha who responds to taunting children by invoking the wrath of bears? Yikes! As someone who is increasingly folically challenged I appreciate the sensitivity but not the response. 

Lots of people toss out the baby with the bible bathwater because of bizarre stories such as these, and worse. Yes, worse -- think genocide. While I'm reluctant to be dismissive of scripture, I would be happy if this Elisha and the children vignette was expunged. Instead it remains, for what it's worth.

I'm confident that we won't hear this passage in church this morning and that we never will. Instead we'll listen for a word of life which will help us live as faithful followers of Christ in the week before us.Curiously -- providentially? -- Isaac will be addressing a passage from Luke in which potential smiting is averted. We'll be listening. 

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village...

                           Luke 9:51-62 NRSV

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Doom-scrolling & The Peace of Wild Things



                                                          Photograph: Ruth Mundy (this morning)

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

                                  The Peace of Wild Things -- Wendell Berry

Yesterday it was nigh on impossible to miss the news out of the United States about the Supreme Court decision regarding women's rights to make their own reproductive choices. After nearly 50 years the Roe v Wade ruling in favour of access to abortion was struck down using what a host of legal experts, including former justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, suggest were shaky constitutional arguments, at best. While this is an US decision, we are aware that when America sneezes, Canada catches a cold, or monkey pox, or some other malady. 

This ruling brought about about a tsunami of responses, from jubilation to outrage. Lots of conservative Christians were ecstatic. I woke up this morning feeling heavy, world-weary, because of it all. As bleak as this news was, it is dwarfed by the reports of environmental disasters, including floods which have displaced 5 million in Bangladesh and a massive drought in the Horn of Africa. 

It seems as though we can't run or hide from these grim realities and more, and we shouldn't try to avoid the realities unfolding around us. Still, before 7AM we were on the calm waters of the Moira River north of Belleville, paddling in our kayaks. Although some would regard this as an ungodly hour it was wonderfully Godly, awash in the sights and sounds of Creation. 

Because the local river levels are so high this year we were able to sneak into a maple swamp which is usually inaccessible by mid-May. At one point we drifted without paddling to listen to a variation on the Dawn Chorus. There was plenty of birdsong but it was the astonishingly exuberant choir of leopard and bull frogs in surround-sound which amazed us. We always look forward to the spring peepers and chorus frogs, the sopranos and altos which announce Spring. This morning the tenors and basses were in full voice and it was wonderful.

We also saw blue and green herons, kingfishers, dragonflies and turtles. By the time we were  back on the landing at 8:30 we both felt grateful and renewed. The Wendell Berry poem The Peace of Wild Things came to mind and while I've shared it a number of times over the years it still speaks to me. 

Was this outing on the river avoidance on our part? I hope not. The painful stuff is still there and requires our vigilance and action. This is required of us as Christians who are responsible citizens of planet Earth, Turtle Island. I still want to delight in God's wondrous world, 

and to my listening ears all nature sings, 

and round me rings the music of the spheres.

This is God's wondrous world; I rest me in the thought

of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, God's hand the wonders wrought.

                                                Moira River --photograph: Ruth Mundy (this morning)

Friday, June 24, 2022

Juneteenth as Celebration and Lament


Last Sunday was the Indigenous Day of Prayer in the United Church but it was also Juneteenth in the United States. On June 19th, 1865, enslaved people in the state of Texas were declared free, even though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862.  This has become an increasingly important day of commemoration and celebration and it is now a federal holiday.

Because Juneteenth fell on a Sunday this year many congregations observed it within worship, with hymns and messages, followed by meals and marches. 

An NPR article describes what would transpire: 

However, many will start the day with a long-standing tradition: worship.

The Lord by Moses to Pharaoh said:

"O let my people go!

If not, I'll smite your firstborn dead,

Then let my people go!"

Go down, Moses

Way down in Egypt's land

Tell old Pharaoh

Let my people go
These lyrics, from The Song of the Contrabands: O let My People God will have a special significance at services this Sunday because they echo the spirit of the holiday. It's a biblical story about the experience of Israel — from Egyptian bondage to their exodus. The enslaved Africans identified with the story. Generations later, this hymn is still sung to remember how it felt to be a slave and to continue to seek equality and justice. 
"Gospel music has been a comfort to the Black community indeed," says gospel singer Tye Tribett, who is performing at the Juneteenth Unityfest 2022 event Sunday. "Its power to harness the ability of hope, aspiration, and faith to give courage over fear during our culture's most difficult times is part of our and the music's legacy."
While Juneteenth is not a holiday in Canada we can acknowledge its significance. There was slavery in the British Empire, including Canada, where we now observe Emancipation Day on August 1st. It was only last year that the House of Commons voted unanimously to officially designate August 1 Emancipation Day. It marks the actual date in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect across the British Empire.
Slavery is a terrible legacy in many nations and slavery still exists in parts of the world. It's important that we remember. The NPR article had the apt title Juneteenth is a jubilant celebration — and a sacred lament.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Bibles, Bibles...Just One More Bible?

A page from the Abbey Bible, created in the mid-1200s for a Dominican monastery. Considered one of the earliest and finest illuminated Bibles to have emerged from Bologna in northern Italy. J. Paul Getty Museum.

 Bibles, bibles, bibles. I have a lot of them, and I do actually read 'em on a fairly regular basis. I have bibles in a number of different translations and versions, some TV preacher large and floppy, a couple which are compact enough to fit in a pocket. I have the King James Version bible which belonged to one of my grandfathers, tattered from constant use, underlined and with notes in the margins.

So, I don't need another bible, but I may get one. My go-to version for the past 30 years or so has been the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), as you may have noticed when I quote scripture in my blog entries. When it was published in 1989 it became the version which took the best advantage of modern scholarship, including the accurate use of pronouns and while the NIV seems to be the version of choice in evangelical circles the NRSV is widely respected and used.

In May a revision of the NRSV called the New Revised Standard Version (undated edition)  (NRSVue) was published, although the online version has been available for a while now. There are a whopping 20,000 changes, some of them seemingly minor, yet significant for a number of reasons.Here are examples noted in an LA Times article from last December

  • Leviticus 4:8 (and more than 125 other verses with the same issue)
    NRSV: He shall remove all the fat from the bull of sin offering.
    NRSVue: He shall remove all the fat from the bull of purification offering.

The scholars explain that this improves upon an earlier distortion of Hebrew hatta’t. The notion of “sin” has been removed, because they believe “purification offering” more closely reflects the ancient Hebrew word. This revision opens up new biblical conversation and subject matter without taking “sin” out of the larger biblical picture. With this revision, the 21st century Bible now joins the many world cultures in which “purifying” is a regular practice but is less entangled in “sin” considerations.

  • Matthew 4:24
    NRSV: So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacsepileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.
    NRSVue: So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, and he cured them.

The scholars explain: “When context permits, NRSVue avoids translations that identify people in terms of a disability.” This brings a modern sensibility to bear, because we now believe that an illness or symptom is something a person has, not who they are. This rewording is helpful for scholarly, church and public readers. The reference to demon possession … well, modern audiences can make of that what they will, no matter how we phrase it.

Each change illuminates not only how the old and new language speak to us, but also how we filter and frame the texts we consume. As this edition attempts to both modernize and improve historical accuracy, we need to notice some of the stunning cross-purposes in play within and about the Bible in any particular era.

In a time when fewer and fewer people turn to the bible as part of a devotional life (what's that?!) or a compass for moral and ethical living, a new version may seem quaint or worthless. I still think it's important to wrestle with the meaning of scripture for our lives today, individually and corporately. Accuracy is important and can lead to insight. The NRSVue does address passages where accuracy is vital regarding gender inclusivity and homosexuality. A publisher’s note explains that the translation philosophy of the NRSV is to be “‘as literal as possible” in adhering to the ancient texts and only “as free as necessary” to make the meaning clear in graceful, understandable English.

Some errors or inaccuracies can lead to profound errors, while others are curiosities.One example that comes to mind is the sculptural portrayal of Moses with horns by Michelangelo. For reasons which scholars don't really understand Saint Jerome translated Exodus 34:29 into Latin this way, that Moses “et ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies sua,” that is,“did not know his face had become horned.” Should we actually call Moses "Moose?". I don't think so. 

Will I purchase a copy of the NRSVue? What do you think?

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

What's So Good About Gossip?

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

 Ephesians 4:29-32 NRSV

Even though we live on a circular court we are often not "in the loop" about what is happening with our neighbours. They are decent, open folk and we are actually on talking, friendly terms with all of them, we just don't want to get embroiled in some of the drama which unfolds along the way.

The other afternoon most of us emerged to take part in a pleasant outdoor gathering where we caught up with one another after being distanced by the pandemic and weather. Ruth commented afterward that there was some chatter about an absent neighbour who it turns out is into a variety of bizarre conspiracy theories which includes the conviction that vaccines contain government tracking devices. We chuckled because we have no doubt that there is talk about the slightly stand-offish old-timer couple (us) with their weird ways. 

Is there any good news about gossip, I wonder? At the beginning of the month there was an article in the Globe and Mail newspaper by psychologist Susan Pinker about the return to the office as pandemic restrictions are lifted. Her opinion piece was specifically about a staple of office life -- gossip. She seems to feel that it can be a positive aspect of a work environment:

So why go back to the office? 

The answer, in a word, is gossip. Getting the lowdown on your co-workers is one of the intangible, non-fungible pleasures of working in a real office populated with real people. Sure, you can get bits and pieces of information through direct messaging, Slack and phone calls, but informal face-to-face conversation is best for finding out what’s really happening. If you didn’t share the same space, how would you know that a managerial position posted by the company is already earmarked for Angie from sales, or which new hire is getting paid more than you – to do exactly the same job?

Pinker cites a study which found "that negative comments made up only 5 per cent of their conversation time. Another 5 per cent was devoted to exchanging advice about social conundrums. And the rest, or 90 per cent of the time, was spent chewing the fat in a general sort of way, with the time split between talking about other people, and talking about themselves."

While she suggests that gossip can be collaborative, binding a group together, she also concede that gossip can be toxic and notes that many religions forbid it. That is certainly true of Christianity. Jesus addresses destructive talk in the Sermon on the Mount and the apostle Paul directs members of the first Christian communities to mind their mouths.

I have seen how wicked gossip can be in congregations and I've been the subject of some along the way. It definitely did not bind people together and it was often absurd and cruel. It often pushed good people out of congregations, never to return. How the gossipers reconciled claiming to be followers of Jesus and being so childishly mean was beyond me. But the truth is, groups of clergy can often be gossipy as well, even though hate being the subject of it.

There were responses to Pinker's piece which disagreed strongly, naming that in their office situations gossip was destructive, and I have to agree about communities of faith. Although, did you hear about?...

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Indigenous People Day as a Call to Action


Forty years ago, in 1982, what was then the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) called for 
for the creation of National Aboriginal Solidarity Day. It wasn't until 1996 that this came to fruition in Canada as Aboriginal Peoples Day, renamed as Indigenous Peoples Day five years ago. The website of the Canadian government describes it this way: 

 This is a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and M├ętis peoples. The Canadian Constitution recognizes these three groups as Aboriginal peoples, also known as Indigenous peoples.

Although these groups share many similarities, they each have their own distinct heritage, language, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.

In my recollection we didn't hear much or do much as Canadians to acknowledge this important celebration and commemoration in the first years. There is now much more attention in cities and towns across the country. Even the Google doodle (below) recognizes the day.

                                                     Copper Thunderbird -- Norval Morriseau, Ojibwe artist 

School kids learn about Indigenous customs and are part of the celebration. I wish this was a national holiday but that may eventually come. It may be that it receives greater attention in schools and other institutions because people don't have a day off. 

This can also be a day of reflection and contrition for those of us who are part of the colonial history of Canada, including Christian denominations which were complicit in the Residential School system which was a form of organized, sanctified genocide. This past Sunday was the Indigenous Day of Prayer in United Churches and was an important theme in the worship service at Trenton United. 

Once again I invite you to read and ponder the first apology of the United Church of Canada which took place in Sudbury Ontario in 1986 as part of General Council. and the gracious response in 1988. I have emphasized a line in the response which can be our commitment: 

1986 Apology to Indigenous Peoples 

Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured. 

We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. 

We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel. 

We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be. 

We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.

 The Right Rev. Bob Smith General Council 1986 The United Church of Canada 

 In 1988, at the 32nd General Council, the Indigenous church acknowledged the apology, expressing its hope that the church would live into its words. Mrs. Edith Memnook, a representative of the All Native Circle Conference, said: 

The Apology made to the Native People of Canada by The United Church of Canada in Sudbury in August 1986 has been a very important step forward. It is heartening to see that The United Church of Canada is a forerunner in making this Apology to Native People. The All Native Circle Conference has now acknowledged your Apology. Our people have continued to affirm the teachings of the Native way of life. Our spiritual teachings and values have taught us to uphold the Sacred Fire; to be guardians of Mother Earth, and strive to maintain harmony and peaceful coexistence with all peoples. 

We only ask of you to respect our Sacred Fire, the Creation, and to live in peaceful coexistence with us. We recognize the hurts and feelings will continue amongst our people, but through partnership and walking hand in hand, the Indian spirit will eventually heal. Through our love, understanding, and sincerity the brotherhood and sisterhood of unity, strength, and respect can be achieved. 

The Native People of The All Native Circle Conference hope and pray that the Apology is not symbolic but that these are the words of action and sincerity. We appreciate the freedom for culture and religious expression. In the new spirit this Apology has created, let us unite our hearts and minds in the wholeness of life that the Great Spirit has given us. 

                                                         Christi Belcourt,  Metis Visual Artist