Friday, July 30, 2021

6 Billion Earths & the Creator

 O Lord, our Sovereign,

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.

    Out of the mouths of babes and infants

you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

    the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

    mortals[a] that you care for them?

Psalm 8:1-4 NRSV

A group of astronomers at the University of British Columbia appears to be intent on blowing our minds, reporting that on the basis of their using NASA's Kepler space telescope there could be as many as six billion Earth-like planets which could host life in our galaxy alone. That is, like, cosmic, man. This is both exciting and humbling, from my perspective. I have no problem with the concept that we are not alone in the universe and that as well as other intelligent life there could be superior beings. If the Trump era has taught us anything it is that applying the term "intelligent life" to humans can be a stretch at times.

From a Christian perspective I'm content that the God who has entered into earthly existence in the person of Jesus, the Christ, could be equally inventive in other solar systems and planets. Christian writers have mused about these possibilities, including CS Lewis in his sci-fi trilogy.

The prospect of six billion inhabitable planets puts the hubris of a a few billionaires circling the Earth for an hour or so at a time in perspective, doesn't it?  Perhaps our interplanetary cousins have visited, seen what a mess we're making of this gem and decided to pass on meaningful contact!

In the meantime, we can look at the night sky during August and take it the Perseid Meteor Shower with a sense of awe and wonder and gratitude to the Creator al all. 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Jacob's Pillow, Past and Present

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  And the Lord stood beside him[ and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 

Genesis 28:10-16

 Recently I came upon an article which made reference to a dance retreat centre in Massachusetts called Jacob's Pillow. The property was first settled by Europeans in the late 18th century and the zigzagging road to the hilltop became known as Jacob's Ladder. And a prominent rock was called Jacob's Pillow.

I find this quite enchanting -- what a "dreamy"  name for a dance centre -- and of course both of these names are references to the story in Genesis about conniving Jacob, on the lam from his angry brother Esau, who has an auspicious encounter with angels and God which change the trajectory of his life.

So often I see references and allusions to the bible in different spheres of life which bring to mind the book by the late, esteemed Northrup Frye called The Great Code in which he argues cogently that it is almost impossible to have a full grasp of Western art, music, and literature without some understanding of Judeo/Christian scripture. For his title Frye draws on William Blake, whose painting of Jacob's Ladder is above. 

In our time we are increasingly aware that this dominant narrative has minimized the stories of other, including Indigenous, cultures. It may well be that Jacob's Pillow had a First Nations title long before settlers arrived. Still, it is intriguing that this biblically-rooted name has persevered, even though many might not appreciate where it came from. 

                             Jacob's Pillow Dance founder Ted Shawn reclining of Jacob's Pillow Rock

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Oka Crisis and Beans

This morning I heard an encore CBC Radio Q interview with filmmaker  Beans is a 2020 Canadian drama film directed by Mohawk  filmmaker Tracey Deer which explores the 1990 Oka Crisis at Kanesatake. Deer lived through these traumatic months  as a child, and the film looks at the events through the eyes of Tekehentahkhwa a  girl whose nickname is Beans. It was gripping to hear her recollections about what unfolded, her bewilderment and fear along the way. 

The Oka Crisis, also known as the Kanesatake Resistance or the Mohawk Resistance at Kanesatake, was a 78-day standoff (11 July–26 September 1990) between Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian Army. 

It took place in the community of Kanesatake, near the Town of Oka, on the north shore of  Montreal. The crisis erupted because of the proposed expansion of a golf course and the development of townhouses on disputed land in Kanesatake that included a Mohawk burial ground. Tensions escalated after an exchange of gunfire resulted in the death of police officer Corporal Marcel Lemay. Eventually, the army was called in and the protest ended. The golf course expansion was cancelled and the land was purchased by the federal government. 

I remember sitting alone early that first morning in July 1990 listening to a CBC Radio report which included the sound of gunshots and I had no idea what to think. As the days progressed I came to realize why this land was so important to the people of 
Kanesatake and I was dismayed by the open racism of so many in Quebec which included threats of violence. 

We lived in Northern Ontario at the time and this was one of a series of events which awakened me to the inequities regarding Indigenous peoples in Canada. And we had moved to Sudbury in 1988, only two years after the United Church offered its first apology in Indigenous leaders. I began reading, listening, attending events which changed my outlook, which had largely been one of indifference. 

The film Beans hasn't been on my radar but now I would like to see it. --if Mr. Bean would move over I might have greater success finding it!

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Gospel According to Facebook

 Over the past few years the global social media platform called Facebook and one of its founders, Mark Zuckerberg, have found themselves under scrutiny because Facebook is used, purportedly,  to promulgate hate speech, foster conspiracy theories, and even to influence the outcome of elections. There are issues about the privacy of users and misinformation about COVID vaccines.  Zuckerberg and his minions are artful dodgers when they are called on the carpet of government inquiries, although the Z in Chief has looked quite sweaty at times.  

It's curious that something that began as a way for college students to connect, became so popular that it was abandoned by young people because it was deemed "mom-book" and is used by businesses and organizations world-wide, has these other sinister lives.

Churches and a variety of religious organizations have used Facebook for years, and I know that when our son Isaac was a youth minister it was an effective way to communicate with teens and Sunday School teachers. 

Credit...Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, via Getty Image

It appears that Facebook is doubling down on the connection between their platform and faith groups, from individual congregations to denominations, Jewish synagogues to Islamic mosques to Buddhist meditation leaders are exploring the possibilities. It's noted that there are more Facebook users -- roughly 3 billion -- than there are Christians or Muslims. Facebook is reaching out to faith groups to form partnerships for online presence, an intriguing trend which has been accelerated during the pandemic when so many religious groups went online for the first time to stay connected, including worship services. According to a New York Times article: 

Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ. 

Last month, Facebook executives pitched their efforts to religious groups at a virtual faith summit. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, shared an online resource hub with tools to build congregations on the platform. “Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection,” Ms. Sandberg said. “Our hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well, or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith,” she said.

While this is being promoted as a way to be connected virtually, and to evangelize, there are also possibilities to "monetize" Facebook to financially support faith groups. Hmm. There does seem to be a "deal with the virtual devil" unfolding here, but I'll confess that I have never been a Facebook user, ever, which probably puts me in the company of a dozen other humans living today. 

We'll see, won't we? Just so you know, I am never bowing down before the Dark Lord Zuckerberg, even though my every moment is now being tracked!

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Moral Dilemma of War on a Sunday Morning


It's Sunday morning and for an increasing number of congregations in Canada this means that members will be physically gathering for worship thanks to easing restrictions. I am thinking about the description of a moral dilemma in Malcolm Gladwell's current book The Bomber Mafia which is about the aerial bombing strategies which developed during WW2. The Allied air command moved from strategic bombing to carpet bombing, from choosing specific military and industrial targets to supposedly crushing the morale of German, then Japanese citizens by razing houses and killing civilians. A bombsight device for planes was developed by a brilliant engineer named Carl Norden , a Christian, who felt that his invention would allow a precision in hitting targets which could minimize the loss of human life, but there were conflicting views on what would be most effective. Unfortunately it was never as effective in combat as it was in testing. 

The incident which comes to mind is a mission by a squadron of enormous bombers which was assigned to take out the core of a German city. The crews were instructed to sight on the broad steps of a church, this on a Sunday morning when congregants would be attending worship. One pilot, a Christian, balked at this assignment but was reminded of the consequences of not complying, so he flew the mission. 

The descriptions of what happened in Japan were even more chilling. Before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than 60 Japanese cities were carpet bombed under cover of night. The planes were dropping incendiary devices delivering the new invention called Napalm. Japanese homes were made of wood and the interiors had bamboo and paper screens. The devastation of Tokyo resulted in more than 100,00 lives lost and as many of half a million civilians killed across the country, this before the use of atomic weapons.Did these conflagrations hasten the end of the war and ultimately save more lives than were lost? 

Gladwell makes a point of telling the grim story from the perspective of the moral and ethical issues. He employs biblical stories on a couple of occasions, including Jesus' temptation by Satan when he is taken to a high place and offered the kingdoms of the world. I found this approach intriguing and sobering. What does war do to us individually and collectively? He even introduces the notion of cult-like behaviour inculcated in those who "just follow orders." 

Near the end of the book Gladwell notes that today the emphasis is on precision bombing which can be done with chilling accuracy, perhaps a vindication of Norden and others who were part of the so-called Bomber Mafia brain trust. In the end though, our human propensity to solve our differences by killing each other, then finding more powerful and efficient ways to do so is absurd -- could we say, diabolical?

Okay, not a cheery start to the day, but food for thought!

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Vax Compassion & Global Justice



Readers of this blog will be aware that the United Church of Canada has invited its nation-wide flock to contribute toward providing vaccinations and other pandemic support through partner agencies in those parts of the world where the risk is greatest and people are poorest -- they go together. As is often the case, when the United Church makes an appeal 100% goes for relief, with 85% going to that specific situation and !5% kept in reserve for the next emerging crisis. This seems to be a prudent choice.

In addition, the Canadian government is matching donations to the Unicef "Give a Vax" initiative:

Over 95 million vaccine doses have been administered globally through the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility and partners like UNICEF, but millions more are needed. Canadians can make a difference by helping to ensure that life-saving COVID-19 vaccines reach people in developing countries, humanitarian and conflict situations.

On July 12, 2021, the Government of Canada announced that it would match, dollar for dollar, donations made by individual Canadians to UNICEF Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination fundraising campaign, up to a maximum of $10 million.

A fully funded matching fund campaign would cover the vaccination costs of approximately 4 million people. Funds will enable UNICEF to cover the per-person cost to transport vaccines to destination countries, keep vaccines viable by protecting the cold chain during the journey, and training health care workers to effectively administer the vaccines and safely dispose of needles and waste.

The matching fund campaign, called “Give A Vax,” will run to September 6, 2021. Canadians who want to donate to UNICEF Canada’s fundraising campaign can do so by going to or by texting VACCINES to 45678 to donate $10.

Whichever form of donation we choose, this can be an expression of gratitude for our opportunity to be fully vaccinated and to demonstrate our Christian commitment to global justice. 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Praying for Today's Summit on Anti-Islamic Attitudes & Behaviour

                                Four members of Muslim family murdered in London Ontario hate crime 

Today the Canadian government is convening a summit on Islamophobia as a response to a series of violent attacks that killed or injured Muslim Canadians. According to the Globe and Mail: 

Diversity Minister Bardish Chagger says the summit will be an opportunity for Muslim Canadians to express their ideas and insights on how Ottawa can stop these attacks and implement policies that protect their communities. She says there is a need for more work to protect Muslim communities against hate and discrimination fuelled by Islamophobia and the government has worked with national Muslim-led organizations to convene the summit.

 This summit has me thinking about my first encounter with Muslims. At the age of 19 I headed off to Great Britain for a few months with an excursion to Paris for ten days. I arrived in the City of Lights on my own, the obligatory Canadian flag on my backpack. Late in the afternoon I arrived at a hostel which turned out to be for women only and I had no idea what to do next. As I wandered the streets three young Black men approached me and commented, in excellent English, on the Canadian flag -- was I need of any help? They were former Nigerian military officers attending the Sorbonne and they took me to the hostel they were staying in which was for African and Asian students. I was not a student at the time and I was neither African nor Asian, but I was allowed to stay, a Godsend. 

There were bunk beds in my room with several other residents and I was surprised to wake up my first morning to the sight of some of them outstretched on mats on the floor. This was my first encounter with Islam, a religion I have barely heard about to that point in my life (1973). I doubt that I'd ever met a Muslim, at least not by introduction or conscious interaction. As an earnest, fairly evangelical Christian at that time, I wasn't sure what to make of what I was seeing, although I was quickly impressed by their devotion to prayer. They were also very kind to me and helped me navigate a strange city, including making sure that I was fed.

Looking back, this probably shaped my outlook on Islam through the decades. As a United Church minister I participated in interfaith events with Muslim leaders from mosques, including imams and invited some of them to the congregations I served. When Bridge St. United Church and a coalition of congregations and faith groups sponsored Syrian refugee families we worked closely with members of the Muslim community who were, as I was inclined to say, an Allah-send. We broke bread together on a number of occasions and  we were always received graciously. 

While I realize that Islamophobia exists the term suggests that the issue is hateful and aggressive acts toward Muslims, such as cowardly attacks on women wearing hijabs or actual murders. This is a real threat, but I wonder if it would have been better to term it as a summit to address anti-Islamic attiudes and behaviour. There are many people who would never consider overtly violent attacks yet hold attitudes toward Muslims rooted in  destructive stereotypes and prejudices. These attitudes create the societal climate in which hatred festers and manifests itself. Sadly, these views are often held by Christians, those who claim to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace. 

Let's pray that concrete action and the funding to support it comes out of today's summit.