Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Orange Shirts & Prayerful Apologies

This past Sunday we gathered for worship at Trenton United Church and I was impressed and touched by the number of people wearing orange shirts and other articles of clothing.  This was in anticipation of today, which is Orange Shirt Day in Canada. This event began in British Columbia in 2013 and honours the Indigenous children who were often abducted from their families and communities and indoctrinated in residential schools.

 The “orange shirt” in Orange Shirt Day refers to the new shirt that Phyllis Webstad was given to her by her grandmother for her first day of school at St. Joseph’s Mission residential school in British Columbia. That shirt and everything else she had was taken from her. She has lamented “how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”

Here is the description of the school system on the CBC Kids website: 

Residential schools were church-run schools where approximately 150,000 M├ętis, Inuit and First Nations children were sent between the 1860s and the 1990s. The schools harmed Indigenous children by removing them from their families, forcing them to speak English or French instead of their ancestral languages, disconnecting them from their culture and traditions and forcing them to adopt Christianity in order to assimilate into Canadian society. The government has since acknowledged that this approach was wrong, cruel and ineffective, and offered an official apology to the Indigenous people of Canada in 2008.

                                    The Orange Shirt Story -- book by Phylis Webstad

In 1998 the United Church of Canada, through then-moderator Bill Phipps, apologized for its involvement in the residential school system: 

I wish to speak the words that many people have wanted to hear for a very long time. On behalf of The United Church of Canada, I apologize for the pain and suffering that our church’s involvement in the Indian Residential School system has caused. We are aware of some of the damage that this cruel and ill-conceived system of assimilation has perpetrated on Canada’s First Nations peoples. For this we are truly and most humbly sorry.

Our grandsons wore orange shirts yesterday as their school observed this occasion a day early. At home and school they were educated about what the orange colour represents. It's a grim aspect of Canadian history and we can all remember, repent, and reform. 

God of struggle, and of reconciliation, 

Be with us as we remember what we have been a part of: 

Cruel and unjust systems Efforts to say “sorry” … and to mean it 

Remind us that our history as people is like a braid 

We are wrapped together And there is tension in that, and pain 

But there is also strength Remind us of the beauty and sacredness of braids 

The beauty and sacredness of relationships 

Remind us to never again sever these braids 

But to honour them in everything we do God of struggle, and of reconciliation,

 Be with us as we recognize what we must be a part of: 

Loving and just relationships Saying “sorry” … and actively meaning it. Amen

United Church Prayer

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Sacred Gathering

We spent some time, suitably distanced, with good friends on Saturday and amongst other things we talked about the resumption on in-person worship, They are active members of their United Church congregation but Sunday services haven't resumed and may not for a while  given the threat of a Second Wave of COVID-19, 

Here in Quinte/Prince Edward County there is only one active case of COVID, so the risk of infection is very low, with proper protocols in place. In-person worship has started again at Trenton United and  I presided on Sunday because Rev. Isaac was participating in the regional meeting. 

There were about three dozen people scattered through the sanctuary, probably less than half the number on a lovely September day in other years. Of course it was just weird to be wearing masks and not singing, but a little bit more "normal" on this second Sunday of resumed worship. This will take some getting used to. 

Just before worship began someone in the congregation let out a deep sigh and I commented "did you hear that? It pretty much sums up the past six months." Folk chuckled, and there were several moments of collective laughter during the service. It was surprisingly  important to hear one another laugh.  

A notice had been sent out that this was Orange Shirt Sunday, a recognition of the dark legacy of the Residential School system which took Indigenous children from their homes for decades. Sadly, our United Church was complicit in a system where abuse and cultural genocide was rampant. At least a third of the congregation was wearing an article of orange clothing, which was heartening. 

Ruth, my wife, said a favourite moment for her was the "passing of the peace" where we stayed in place but turned and waved at those we hadn't seen in months. At the conclusion of the service, following Isaac's example from last week, I raised my arms in blessing and invited everyone else to do the same, which they did. I found this quite moving. 

I decided to wear an alb and stole on Sunday, even though I rarely did in the latter years of my ministry. I "dressed up" for a sense of occasion, of Resurrection hope during this bleak time. As I pulled the alb over my head in preparation I felt a powerful sense of God's presence. 

How do we measure the meaning and value of being together as the community of Christ? We can't quantify this, yet we can experience it. Every congregation has to make its own decision about resuming in-person worship and discerning this will be a challenge. I'm just glad we are back together, at least for the moment. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

2020 Vision for Yom Kippur

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. 

A liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the forces that destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.

- Abraham Joshua Heschel

 Recently I wrote about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the challenges of observance in the midst of a pandemic. Last evening marked the beginning of Yom Kippur, which will conclude later today. This is a solemn, reflective day on which Jews seek God's forgiveness and make amends with those they have hurt or offended. While Yom Kippur is observed around the world, in Israel there is a stringent lock-down which will make this a very different day. 

For some Jews there is a broader sense of societal and ecological responsibility. Tikkun Magazine describes these high, holy days in this way: 

The central message of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur: 

We can heal and transform ourselves, our society, and the life support system of planet earth.We do this in our tradition by focusing on three components: Teshuva (repentance), Tzedakah (social justice), and T’fillah (prayer). 

We will create sacred high holy day experiences that allow us to do the deep inner work and reparation needed to return to our highest selves as well as a deep dive into exploring what changes and reparations are needed in our society and make commitments to participate in efforts to manifest those changes so we are partners in the ongoing evolution of the universe towards love. 

All of this will be held in the container of meaningful prayer experiences which will touch our hearts and souls.

I really appreciate this three-fold approach and we can take it to heart, whatever our spiritual background might be. 

Yom Tov is all those observing Yom Kippur today. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Like Jesus, Forced to Flee

This is the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which we acknowledged as we gathered for worship this morning.We are aware that millions of people are on the move around the planet for a variety of reasons, everything from food insecurity, to conflict, to climate change. Often these causes are intertwined. The United Church formally acknowledged Refugee Day in June, but this is the date for many other religious groups. 

Pope Francis has addressed the plight of migrants and refugees often and did so once again to mark this solemn occasion. I always appreciate that in his addresses and written messages on issues of social justice Francis offers thoughtful theological rationales. The title for his message this year is 

Like Jesus Christ, forced to flee. 

Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating 

internally displaced persons. 

He is referring to the story in Matthew's gospel of how the family of the child Jesus was forced to flee Bethlehem for Egypt for fear of Herod.

The plight of refugees and migrants is no less real today than before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. If anything, it could be worse. The European Union is abandoning the idea of mandatory refugee quotas, as it revives an attempt to change Europe’s asylum and migration rules after more than four years of deadlock.

These long-awaited migration proposals, delayed by the pandemic, would allow EU member states to choose whether to accept refugees, or to send them back to home countries. 

Here in Canada our borders have tightened and refugee claimants have years-long waits for hearings. 

In Trenton a group has been attempting to welcome a Syrian refugee family for five years and just as it seemed that the process was coming to fruition COVID stymied the efforts. 

In some respects it seems that many countries have hardened their hearts to this humanitarian crisis, in part because of fear of a health crisis.

Whichever date we choose, it is essential that our compassion and practical concern for migrants and refugees not waver. By doing so we honour Jesus, the refugee. 

                 Refugees and migrants camp on a road following a fire at the Moria camp in Greece

                Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Preaching to the Choir on Pandemic Protocols

The CBC radio midday phone-in earlier this week had as its guest an expert on air quality systems. As you might imagine he was addressing concerns about the transmission of COVID-19 and people phoned in with questions about HEPA filters and school ventilation and what happens in open office spaces.

 One woman wanted to know about her church choir as in-person worship resumed for her congregation. What could the 12-15 members of the choir do to stay safe and to protect the minister? The expert pointed out that standing and singing is 30 times the risk of standing quietly -- 30 times! In effect he told her that there is no safe way for the choir to sing within the worship space.

Tomorrow morning I'll lead worship in the sanctuary of Trenton United Church. The past two weeks we were in the pews with all the protocols in place, and it worked well. We wore masks, we followed the arrows, and we didn't sing. Which was far more difficult than I imagined. As the hymns were played we hummed, as did others. We couldn't help ourselves, because singing our faith is essential. Apparently we'd make lousy Quakers.

Could you attend worship without warbling? Are you reluctant to return to in-person worship without singing? . 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Fridays and for Future...and Faith


It's hard to believe that a year ago there were huge rallies around the world as part of the Global for Week for Future. These rallies including a half-million march in Montreal were termed "climate strikes" as young people ditched school to participate and others joined them. The leader of that Montreal rally and the global movement was and continues to be Greta Thunberg, the relentless Swedish teen who founded the Fridays for Future protest movement. She has motivated the passion of young people who are keenly aware that the Climate Crisis will have a profound effect on their futures on a compromised planet. 

This morning I listened to two teens, including Canada's Indigenous Water/Protector from the Wikwiemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Autumn Peltier. Both were articulate and informed about the issues of climate change and the degradation of our ecological systems, including sources of water. 

As you can see above, Thunberg was in front of the Swedish Parliament this morning with some of her young cohorts. As I've noted several times in recent months, we can't forget the climate pandemic because we are preoccupied with the health pandemic which is COVID-19. 

Cyclists attend a Fridays For Future protest rally close to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Friday. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

Here in Canada provincial and federal governments have relaxed environmental rules for dubious reasons related to the economic setback created by COVID. These are short-sighted decisions. We need to be vigilant and prayerful and act with courage. 

Many Christian denominations and other faith groups supported the Global Week for Future last year and while so many of us are struggling to find our way forward these days we really must maintain our resolve and have a broader vision. On a personal level, I'm convinced that Jesus' encouragement to love God and our neighbour as our self must include care for God's Creation, that "our self" can refer to our human kin, and that our neighbours are all creatures, great and small. 

Bye the bye, the late US Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was an admirer of Greta Thunberg.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Artistic Expression as a Gift to and from God


There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of church buildings which are closed each year as congregations "age out" and can no longer exist in their physical settings. Often these buildings are repurposed but some are demolished. Tough decisions are made about distributing the "holy hardware" of the congregation. Along with the communion tables and crosses there are decisions to be made about stained glass windows. often created in memory of family members and veterans. Some are dismantled and pieces used for artwork while others are in storage, likely never to be reinstalled in a building.

I was interested to see that a quiet Benedictine monastery in Germany with only a dozen monks recently dedicated a set of three commissioned stained glass windows in the choir of the church, thanks to two benefactors. They are the work of celebrated artist/designer Gerhard Richter and are ten metres in height. According to the New York Times:

THOLEY, Germany — For Abbot Mauritius Choriol, the new church windows being ceremoniously inaugurated on Saturday at Tholey Abbey are a gift: from God, from two generous patrons and from Gerhard Richter.The three windows — with deep reds and blues prevailing on the two outer displays and the central one dominated by radiant gold — are made in stained glass to a symmetrical design by Mr. Richter, the revered German artist. “Abstract art is not normally my thing,” said the abbot, who oversees Tholey Abbey. “But you don’t need to be an art expert to appreciate the qualities of these.”

The abbey, which dates back to the seventh century, also commissioned Mahbuba Maqsoodi, an Afghan-German artist, to create 34 more windows for the church. Her figurative images portray saints and scenes from the Bible.The hope is that the abbey, which has been hidden away from the world as a cloistered community, will become a tourist attraction, a plan which may be sidetracked by the pandemic.

As someone whose undergraduate degree was in art history I'm always intrigued by the choices of religious communities to praise God by visual means. Protestants have been suspicious of doing so for centuries and our church sanctuaries are often spartan and, frankly, boring. 

Was this a faithful choice by Tholey Abbey in a world of need? While the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to simplicity it also reminds us that we can respond to God's extravagant love with the best of our gifts. 

What do you think?