Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Gratitude for the Legacy of Father Charles Brandt


Father Charles Brandt—a priest and modern-day contemplative—on the steps of his hermitage overlooking the Oyster River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo by Grant Callegari

It is early morning with its quiet coolness. I walk out the old logging road. … The logging road along with other trails through the forest is where I practice walking meditation. I do not think of the road as leading anywhere. It is the road to nowhere, the path on which I journey and have been journeying for a lifetime. Although it is the path to nowhere, in reality it is the way to everywhere, because it enables me to enter into communion with the whole community of beings.

—from Self and Environment by Charles Brandt

This quote from a book by Father Charles Brandt begins an excellent article from 2018 in Hakai magazine called The Oracle of Oyster River. At that time Father Brandt was 95 and had been living as a Roman Catholic hermit on Vancouver Island for decades. I've written about him several times, mentioning that I visited him at his riverside hermitage more than 25 years ago while in Victoria as part of a national committee for the United Church of Canada.

 I first heard about Father Brandt on an episode of the the CBC television show Man Alive. I tracked him down and asked if I could visit. I was fascinated by his combination of contemplation as an eco-Christian, and the activism which compelled him to organize neighbours who worked together with a logging company to restore the habitat of the river. He was hospitable and gave me a tour of his workshop, where he restored antiquarian books, and the chapel within his hermitage. Father Brandt was also a fly fisherman and I imagine that this was as much a part of his spiritual practice as the liturgy of the chapel. 

I saw last night that Father Brandt died on Sunday at the age of 97. Last year I blogged that James Wood, a journalism student who had attended Bridge St Church, then moved to Vancouver Island as a reporter, tweeted that Father Brandt had worked out a legal agreement with the Comox Valley Land Trust to have his 27 acres on the Oyster River protected in perpetuity while the hermitage would continue to be used for that purpose. I commented then: 

The term used for the agreement is "covenant" which I like because, well, it is so biblical. Covenants in scripture involve God and a person or people in a relationship which is like a contract or more. While I doubt there will be God-talk in the language of the covenant I like the implicit presence of the Creator whom Father Brandt honours in his worship life and activism. Who knows, there may be a rainbow involved.

It's wonderful that only a month ago Father Brandt had been recognized  with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Museum of Nature. He was healthy enough to respond to the news in a gracious and thoughtful manner. 

I will be grateful for the rest of my life for the witness of Father Brandt as a true Groundling, a person of Christian faith whose eternal hope began in this earthy and Earthly lifetime. This hermit had a broad influence on the people and the environment around him.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Rationalization, Then and Now


We have now watched the first two episodes of the CBC television series called Enslaved. As the title implies, it is about the centuries-long slave trade which forcibly removed 12 million human beings from their homelands in Africa to become the property of slave-owners in the Americas. An estimated two million of these people didn't survive the perilous journey across the Atlantic because of disease or starvation or shipwreck. 

The host of the episodes is actor Samuel Jackson (yes, the Pulp Fiction star) who is an American of Gabonian descent. He travels back to Gabon, the country of his ancestors, where he is made a member of the Benga clan. 

                          Samuel L. Jackson and Benga Elders

The second episode is called Rationalization and portions of it explore the way European Christians justified trafficking in human lives, keeping their prisoners in deplorable conditions and engaging in depraved cruelty.

Jackson and a host visited what is now known as Elmina Castle in Ghana, a 15th century fortress where slaves were gathered before boarding ships. There is a church at the focal point of the central courtyard where slavers would worship a God they presumed would endorse their trade. The documentary also mentions the first pope to officially allow slavery. 

It got me thinking of the things I've rationalized and justified through the years, sometimes with the notion that God approved. Repentance of our sins of omission and commission is important. Having the prayerful humility to have a change of heart and mind is essential, otherwise we are worshiping false gods rather than the God of compassion and redemption. 

Enslaved is streaming on CBC Gem. 

                      Elmina Castle and the Church in the Courtyard

Monday, October 26, 2020

Religion and Universities

I am a graduate of Queen's University, for my bachelor's degree and the University of Toronto for my master's. As part of that first degree I took several courses at Queen's Theological College, which was part of the founding of of Queen's in the mid-19th century. Even though this seminary was my father's alma mater I chose to attend Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto for my masters of divinity degree. Our son Isaac attended United Theological College which is part of McGill University. There is a long history of Christian denominations founding or being affiliated with institutions of higher learning. Excellence in education and educated clergy were vital to the ethos of these expressions of Christian faith. 

In recent years traditional denominations have been closing seminaries (QTC is an example) while the colleges affiliated with more conservative Christian groups have grown and sought status as universities.Trinity Western University in BC is one, and Redeemer University in Southern Ontario is another. Both of those schools have faced public scrutiny because they have rules for students, faculty and staff regarding sexuality, including same-gender relationships, which some argue are not consistent with the laws of the land. They, in turn,  would both contend that they have respected human rights and have acted within the law but are applying their own Christian charters. 

In some other circumstances these expectations have led to students feeling that they are not welcome at the institutions. In some cases expulsions and firings have resulted, which are then contested as human rights violations. 

These conflicts have come to the fore again in Ontario with the Ford government's announcement that Canada Christian College, a fundamentalist Christian school, will soon to be granted university status. This is outrageous, in my opinion, and a move which is based more on political back-scratching than on academic credentials. The president of CCC is Charles McVety, a nasty bit of business who is anti-LGBTQ and was strongly opposed the sex-education curriculum in public schools, which was removed by the Conservative government before being largely reinstated. I feel that the only reason CCC is being considered for university status is currying favour with the conservative base which helped Premier Doug Ford get elected.

                                               Doug Ford and Charles McVety at Canada Christian College

Last week Ford congratulated former Premier Kathleen Wynne for being a trail-blazer as the first woman in the role, as well as being the first LGBTQ person as premier. With almost his next political breath he offered support for an institution which holds regressive views on women in leadership and actively opposes inclusion of LGBTQ persons. Wynne stood in the legislature shortly after the announcement and pointedly asked: 

Why this government would extend the mandate of the most publicly and vocally homophobic man in Ontario? Why, in the name of all that is decent, would this minister validate the hateful, vicious, racist and homophobic rhetoric of Charles McVety by extending the reach of his Canada Christian College?

Why indeed. There is really nothing in the academic record of CCC to warrant this change in status from college to university, and it's disturbing theological and human rights perspectives should disqualify it as well. I pray that the government will back away from this endorsement. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020



Breathe on me, breath of God,

fill me with life anew,

that I may love what thou dost love,

and do what thou wouldst do.

We've been reminded that there are multiple pandemics unfolding on our planet in 2020. The most obvious is the virus called COVID-19, a term which didn't exist a year ago. At least 42 million people have contracted COVID, although the actual number may be twice that, or more. Those who are seriously ill have a variety of symptoms, including extreme difficulty breathing. As the numbers of infected people is on the rise again globally there is considerable concern that there aren't enough ventilators for those who will need them. 

During the past few months we've also been aware of the outcome of the climate crisis pandemic. In the Amazon region and in the western United States there have been massive wildfires consuming forested areas. These unprecedented fires darken the sky with smoke and force humans indoors because breathing is too difficult. 

These grim realities which are truly global lead to anxiety and fear which also make it difficult to breathe at times. 

I thought about all his when I saw the title of a book for children called Breathe: A Child's Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time. It appears to be part of a series of books helping kids to understand the seasons of the Christian year, and Pentecost is a time when the Holy Spirit, the ruach or pneuma -breath-- enlivens us as people of faith. I don't have a clue about how this is addressed, but I like the idea. And I felt better just looking at the cover with it's illustration of a child blowing dandelion fluff into the breeze.

We probably know the expression "let's take a deep breath here!" an invitation to calm oneself in the midst of a challenging situation. The Holy Spirit invites us to take that deep, restorative, cleansing breath. Yes, it can be difficult to catch our breath at times, and our challenges are monumental. Prayer is a form of breathing, and we can pray and act for healing on this good, God-blessed Earth. 

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

As the in-breath grows deep,
The out-breath grows slow.

Breathing in makes me calm;
Breathing out brings me ease.

With the in-breath I smile;
With the out-breath I release all tension.

Breathing in I know I am alive;
Breathing out, in this present moment.

Breathing in, there is only this present moment.
Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.

Breath Meditation -- Thich Nhat Hanh 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

When a Fool Rushes In

Tomorrow morning I will lead the in-person worship service at Trenton United Church and it will be recorded for those at home and elsewhere who want to watch. The events of Rev. Isaac's schedule have resulted in my leading two of the six services since we resumed. 

I was given permission to speak about a topic which is current and from my perspective should be addressed openly. It is Medical Assistance in Dying or MAID, what is sometimes called assisted suicide. It is legal to request MAID in Canada because of legislation passed in 2016. 

Consciously ending one's own life is a profoundly important decision and one fraught with emotion. Some Christian denominations and other faith traditions condemn it as a violation of the gift of life and consider it a sin, even evil.. When the MAID  legislation was introduced  Roman Catholic bishops in Alberta warned that those who chose this way of dying could be denied a Christian funeral, which to my mind is a ghastly and cruel threat to families dealing with grief. So much for compassion. 

There are now proposed amendments to the legislation from four years ago and in the midst of a pandemic we may not be paying close attention. I wrote about this recently and noted that the United Church has responded to the legislation in a way that I can support, for the most part. 

I feel that there can't be a simplistic and rigid response to Medical Assistance in Dying. Neither denial nor threat help. A decade ago I would have told you that I opposed it, largely to protect the vulnerable, including those with disabilities and the elderly. Every life must be valued. While those concerns haven't gone away, and I strongly support providing palliative care for the dying, I realize that there are circumstances when MAID is the compassionate choice, one which respects the wishes of the sufferer.  

I can't claim to be an expert on this subject, so I come to this humbly, and prayerfully. This may be a case of a fool rushing in, but I have endeavoured to become informed, and I'll do my best. I do feel that MAID needs to be addressed honestly and openly, Our faith is embodied in the person of Christ, who died an untimely death and whose resurrection gives us hope. Surely this can help us as we consider what we desire at the end of life. 

You're welcome to join us tomorrow, in whatever format you choose!

Friday, October 23, 2020

Pope Francis & Same-Gender Unions



Angelo Carconi/EPA, via Shutterstock

I don't think that it's an exaggeration to say that millions were stunned earlier this week when Pin a new documentary Pope Francis advocated for civil same-gender unions. This is not the same as same-gender marriages blessed by the Roman Catholic church but it is a huge departure from anything expressed before by a a pope. Upholding his previously expressed support for children of God he said “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”

Of course there are conservative Roman Catholics and other conservative Christians who will be stunned by this because it is antithetical to their conviction that homosexuality is a sin which must be condemned rather than condoned. For many within the Catholic church this is a step which they have prayed for and worked toward. And for those of us who are part of denominations which have moved beyond this to the acceptance and support of Christian marriage for LGBTQ2 persons this is encouraging news.

Human rights organizations are grateful for Francis' stand as well. There are still countries where LGBTQ2 rights and protections are virtually non-existent. In a number of African nations neither state nor church supports LGTBTQ2 persons, let alone allowing marriage. In some of these countries there is persecution which is actually supported by right-wing religious groups in the United States. In Russia and Poland there is persecution as well, and Franklin Graham, a supposed Christian leader in the US has expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin for Russia's harsh laws. 

Some critics are dismissing Francis' support as bringing the Catholic church into the 1990's, and to a degree this is true. In 1992 I attended the United Church General Council in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where there was a break-through debate on same-gender unions within our denomination. I was part of the working group which wrestled with what should be presented to the broader court and it was a heartfelt and demanding discussion. We genuinely wanted to discern what was faithful as Christians and reflective of the gospel. This was reflected in the subsequent discussion amongst commissioners or delegates, even though it was emotional. 

Even though that was nearly 30 years ago, we can't dismiss what Francis has chosen to support today. There are more than a billion Roman Catholics around the world and we can pray that this is the beginning of a new direction for the denomination. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

What Does "Pro-life" Mean?

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, 

it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck 

and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Matthew 18:6 -- Jesus of Nazareth

 This evening there will be a second presidential candidates debate, if it can be called that given the wild first attempt.  Perhaps the microphone mute will make a difference, and perhaps pigs will fly.

It is hard to imagine how so many Americans continue to support Donald Trump as a viable option for president, given the disaster of the past four years. And it is shameful that without the supposedly Christian vote he wouldn't have a prayer. Millions of conservative Christians, including Evangelicals and Roman Catholics will vote Republican because they perceive Trump as a pro-life candidate. meaning that he is opposed to the ready availability of abortion. There is what I consider an obsession with this single issue, even though the rate of abortion in the United States has declined over the past 50 years.

It's important to be aware that there are coalitions of Christians including both Evangelicals and RCs who oppose Trump's re-election because they feel that being pro-life is not the same as being anti-abortion. Many of them do not support ready access to abortion. But they point out that incarcerating migrant children, building a border wall,taking a hard-line immigration policy, and supporting the death penalty are not "pro-life", if the teachings of Jesus are taken seriously. Some say that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans to COVID-19 because of government ineptitude, with many of them vulnerable elderly people, is not "pro-life" either.

We've just learned that the US government cannot find the parents of more than 500 apprehended migrant children, which means that they have been effectively orphaned. I can't describe how disgusted and angry this news makes me. This is a moral failure and human rights violation which should be opposed by any decent American. 

Jesus condemned those who would do anything to threaten the safety of vulnerable children, and suggested harsh punishment for this sin. It's one of the most condemnatory statements Jesus made. Those who purport to follow Christ might do a little bible study (Trump certainly won't) and repent of their foolish ways.