Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Mercies Novel as a Pandemic Read

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Sundays are disorienting these days, aren't they? No getting up and out the doors to our various places of worship. Granted, some congregations live-stream services with the pastor and a musician or three, but the majority "can" worship and share it with the flock. This morning Rev. Katy (another retiree) and I offered reflections for Trenton United because Rev. Isaac was taking a week of stay-cation.

We were in a canoe on the Salmon River near Roblin shortly after 8:00 this morning and it was a tranquil, worshipful 90 minutes or so under the canopy of leafing trees. 

But I digress, sort of.. I wanted to tell you that yesterday I finished a novel called The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave which has received strong reviews. It was one of three novels I gave Ruth for her birthday and when she finished it I picked it up.

It is based on actual events in 17th century Norway, during a period of persecution of people condemned as witches and sorcerers. They were mostly Sami, the indigenous people we called Lapps when I was young. It turns out that Lapp is a derogatory term for these semi-nomadic people who herded reindeer, as well as hunted and fished and foraged off the land. They had their own spirituality which might be considered animism, strongly connected to the land. 

This made them targets of suspicion and condemnation which resulted in the executions of more than 90 in pathetic "trials" which involved little in the way of justice. The collusion of the Christian churches was both dismaying and predictable. Somehow clergy and other officials convinced themselves that the love of God could include torture to extract confessions and death by burning. 

The novel is both fascinating and a tough read. It focuses on relationships within one village where an actual  sudden and violent storm occurred led to the deaths at sea of nearly all the community's men, at least 40 fishermen. Eventually a couple of the women were tried for conjuring the storm through witchcraft as Sami supposedly had magical powers to control the elements. The guilt of one was amplified by her choice to wear trousers when the women took on the tasks of their deceased husbands, including fishing. 

The Norwegian Shaman Eirik Myrhaug plays the drum for Wisdom From ...

Sami Drummer Eirik Myrhaug

This was in an era when hysteria over witchcraft came to a destructive fever pitch in Europe and in America (think Salem witch trials.) The story also made me think of the persecution of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the extensive efforts made to extinguish their spirituality.. In the novel Sami drums are destroyed and we know that they were stolen to become artifacts in museums. In North America similar things were done with prohibitions on totems and other "suspicious" symbols. 

We need to keep in mind that there are still Sami people in the north of Scandinavia, as there are First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people in Canada. There are efforts around the world to revive and preserve the pre-Christian spirituality of indigenous peoples. 

We would both recommend reading The Mercies even though it is a sobering story. I have to wonder whether these murderous "Godly" men ever had pangs of conscience or whether they went to the grave without contrition. And if there is a hell, are they there?

I love turtles, rah, rah, rah! Today's Groundling blog.

Finns, Snow and Magic - Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Worshipping in Place


I know, I know, I've addressed the subject of church re-openings recently but I just have to revisit it because of the Emperor Trump. He has issued an imperial to allow congregations to gather in the faithful, and he will make it so, even if he has to override the decisions of state governors to do so. Of course Trump doesn't go to church because he plays golf on weekends and I have to agree with Pope Francis who commented that given Trump's actions and policies it's unlikely that he is a Christian.

Trump is a desperate politician who has seen an alarming decline in his support amongst evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians (finally!) They tend to be older and vulnerable to the coronavirus and Trump's response to the COVID-19 crisis has been abysmal. So, pretend you're on the side of religious freedom and use your magic royal sceptre to open the locked doors of places of worship! 

Here is is though. Many congregations in the US have defied closures and they have paid the price. Thirty Pentecostal pastors in the south have died of COVID -- that's right, thirty. A priest at a Houston church died after legally reopening and because of the death they've closed again. There are lots of other examples in the States and in other parts of the world. Needless to say, congregants have also tested positive and some have died. 

I'm relieved that many religious bodies in the US are convinced that keeping places of worship closed is the right decision and will not comply with what's-his-names huffing and puffing. 

So far most congregations of various faiths here in Canada have complied with closures. Thank God we don't have a fool like the emperor encouraging people to try quack remedies for COVID-19, or using worship for political gain. 

I will remind you that there is a petition by a group of pastors asking Ontario Premier Ford to allow congregations to assemble beginning in June. Their request includes limiting gathering size, us of sanitizer and using an honour system to affirm a lack of symptoms or travel outside the country.  But some people would struggle to follow those guidelines, perhaps with a misguided belief that God would protect them. And not all congregations have the same resources to ensure safety.   While reopening will eventually happen, I do hope that the petition is ignored in the shorter term. 

We really must consider staying home from worship as the loving and faith choice, for this unprecedented moment. 

Yes, we are struggling and even suffering from the loss of physical community. Yes, there are people who are finding the loneliness difficult to bear. But there are also a host of creative ways by which congregations are "gathering" and even celebrating the sacraments. 

Stay strong folks, keep in touch with members of your faith family, and remember that the body of Christ is centred in the One who embodies sacrificial love. 

If you are so desperate to physically worship outside your home fill a bag with canned food items and drop them off at a food pantry.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Celebrating Biodiversity

International day for biological diversity arctic Vector Image

Another day, another...Day. This is the International Day for Biodiversity, named as such by UNESCO. I wonder, does the United Nations have a department of day-naming? It does seem that they've figured out at least 365 of them and actually, most of them are worthwhile. 

On the website there is a brief definition of biodiversity and then a description of the threats:

Biodiversity is the living fabric of our planet. It underpins human wellbeing in the present and in the future, and its rapid decline threatens nature and people alike...the main global drivers of biodiversity loss are climate change, invasive species, over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution and urbanization.

Conserving the Diversity of Life - International Day for ...

Today reminds us that humans are highly skilled at taking and depleting, and lacking in the humility and foresight to sustain the balance on which our future as a species depends. We have an astonishing sense of entitlement and unfortunately the scriptures of our Judeo/Christian tradition are often manipulated to justify our greed. 

Still, the planet is marvelous and there are the moments of wonder we can celebrate, giving thanks to the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. At 7:30 this morning we were out in a canoe on the calm waters of the Bay of Quinte, minutes away from our home. Almost immediately we saw a snake undulating by, and not far away a swan family with a number of cygnets. 

As we paddled along the shore there were blue herons, kingfishers, and ospreys. A variety of songbirds were in the trees, and where branches leaned out over the water fish were jumping to catch insects which congregated there. Because Belleville was nearby we could hear city sounds in the distance but the morning chorus of birds was far greater. 

In moments such as these the great biodiversity psalm, 104, comes to mind, a celebration of creatures in all their variety with hardly a mention of human beings. Of course, a thousand years before Jesus the human population of Earth was 50 to 100 million while today it is in the neighbourhood of 7,8 billion today. Even in the year I was born the critters had a better chance to "live long and prosper" with a mere 2.8 billion people. 

It's clear that we must take responsibility for protecting and cherishing the variety of life in oceans, air, and land. As we do sowe can look up and around and give thanks. Gratitude and stewardship are essential disciplines of the Christian life. 

psalm 104 chiastic structure

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Ramadan Like No Other

GIVE 30 - Home

The Muslim month of fasting and contemplation called Ramadan is quickly coming to an end for 2020. There has been a lot written about what a strange Ramadan this has been in the midst of a pandemic. Gathering for prayer and communal meals has been prohibited in countries such as Canada. I listened to an imam the other morning who offered a thoughtful spiritual perspective on the importance of distancing despite the fact that Ramadan usually means heightened observance and lots of interaction with people not normally seen through the rest of the year. 


Ramadan is also a time for increased generosity and once again this year an organization called GIVE 30 has been inviting Muslims and all people of good will be be more conscious and intentional in giving: 

Most human beings around the world have been affected in one way or another by the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is an unprecedented and extraordinary challenge to humanity in our lifetimes.  Extraordinary challenges require extraordinary action.

Just because we have to keep apart physically, does not mean we cannot (virtually) come together in solidaritycompassion, and kindness to help those in need.  Let's use the spirit of Ramadan, regardless of faith of background, to unite in common humanity.

This moment can teach us about what matters in our lives.  It allows us time to reflect, take stock of our blessings, and turn our minds and hearts to those who may not have enough, especially during these days of uncertainty, fear and anxiety.  There are many people in our world who, even without a virus on the loose, find it difficult to make ends meet; the pandemic has only amplified their struggles and their needs.

Let's be generous, kind and compassionate to friend and stranger alike.  Respond to selfishness with generosity, division with social solidarity, and meanness with compassion and kindness.

Once again we are reminded that despite our differences in religion there are commonalities which are important to recognize and generosity is certainly one of them. As a Christian I can certainly affirm this. I'm sure that Canadian Muslims are looking forward to Eid al-Fitr also called the "Festival of Breaking the Fast", this weekend, although it will be a likely be a celebration unlike any other. 

GIVE 30 - Home

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

An Uncertain Future for Summer Camps?

Camp Quin-Mo-Lac

Day by day there are more announcements about the summer that won't be, at least in terms of the special events and activities we assume are part of the season. Huge public events in Toronto including the Canadian Natoinal Exhibition have been cancelled. And yesterday the Ontario government declared that overnight camps will not be allowed in 2020. This means that the sort of seasonal residential camps in wilderness and rural settings will be required to stay closed, some for the first time in 100 years.This will be devastating, financially, for lots of them. 

The summer camps run by religious organizations will not be exempt from this directive, including those operated by the United Church of Canada. These church camps went through a rough patch in the late 70's for a decade or more and some closed permanently. Then there was a resurgence in Christian camping generally, often with a change in focus. In a number of United Church camps there was a new emphasis on celebrating Creation in a way that wasn't there before. It's odd but most of these camps had beautiful natural settings and outdoor chapels but didn't explicitly explore the connection between Creator and Creation.

IAWAH's Out There | Staff

The United Church camp in our area is Quin Mo Lac where I was a child camper and later a swimming instructor. Thousands of children have spent time there through the decades, including children from our Syrian refugee families. My parents worked there the summer after I was born and curiously sent me a postcard with an image of Bridge St. United Church, the last congregation I served before retirement. Of course I was an accomplished reader at the age of nine months! Quin Mo Lac was founded in 1950 and this is probably the first summer in 70 years without a camp program.

I met my wife, Ruth, at Camp Iawah, where we were staff members in our late teens. These summer romances obviously don't last, given that we've now been married 44 years. 

Please pray for these camps in the midst of terrible disappointment and uncertainty. You might consider supporting one financially. You may have a camp "alma mater" and your donation along with lots more like it could make the difference in terms of survival. 

Did you have a summer camp experience, Christian or otherwise? Did camp make a difference in your life? How about for others you know? 

On World Bee Day I consider how cherishing bees in a religious experience in my Groundling blog

C-A-L-U-M-E-T! I went to this camp every summer. This is the ...

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

First Nations, Schools, & the Christian Legacy

Image preview

So many of us receive information digitally these days but I still subscribe to the Globe and Mail newspaper (only Saturdays now) and a couple of magazines, including Orion and Canadian Geographic. I like turning pages and leafing back and seeing the piles of past issues I particularly enjoyed. Canadian Geographic reminds me of what a diverse, immense and truly beautiful land we live in.

In recent years there has been a lot more attention to First Nations, Inuit, and Metis history, current concerns, and contributions to the fabric of what many of us assume to be Canada. In the most recent issue there is a pull-out map of schools across the country, including residential schools, which have not been included in compensation packages for those who attended them. Some were operated pre-Confederation, but that doesn't mean that there aren't descendants of those educated in these institutions. 

I felt a bit of a jolt when I saw Grape Island and Alderville First Nation included on the map (centre, bottom, 2 yellow circles.). Bridge St. United Church in Belleville celebrated it's 200th anniversary several years ago and we acknowledged that the then Methodist congregation of 1825 established a mission community on Grape Island in the nearby Bay of Quinte. According to the Missionary Society of that era:

At Grape Island there are two hundred and twenty natives under the Christian instruction of one missionary 120 of whom are regular communicants and 5 ? children are taught in the schools. Very considerable improvement have been made here in also in the arts of civilized life and especially in meliorating the condition of the females.

Around the time of the anniversary Ruth and I kayaked out to Grape Island which is now home to one cottage, and that seemed about right. We circumnavigated the small island and wondered how it was possible that so many people resided there. The  reports of the time celebrate conversion and baptisms, education, and efforts to feed the community. Yet within a decade the Grape Island community was all but gone, and most residents had moved to Alderville First Nation, where there is still a United Church presence.

During the 200th anniversary year David Mowat came as a speaker from Alderville in Sunday worship and he was also a character in a play about the early history of Bridge St. which included a character from Grape Island. It was important that we did this, but I did think about  how close to home the colonial or settler realities were for us. 

 l know that the Christian zeal of the missionaries was genuine and lives were no doubt changed through sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Still, looking at the Canadian Geographic map reminded me that that there is also an ambivalent and sometimes dark legacy for churches in this country and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples  is far from accomplished.

Image result for sawguin creek bay of quinte

Monday, May 18, 2020

Sensible Choices and the Plague

Oberammergau Passion Play 2020 - Albatross Travel

I graduated from seminary in 1980 and was ordained as a United Church minister shortly thereafter. I knew that we were heading to outport Newfoundland for my settlement charge but before we made the trek to The Rock we went to Europe. We were tour leaders and we visited several countries with the key destination being the village of Oberammergau in Germany. Every ten years for centuries a Passion Play has been held there to honour the "miracle" that the community was spared the bubonic plague of the late 17th century.

When we attended there was strong controversy over the anti-semitism  of the play, with Jewish leaders portrayed as villains and Christ killers. Apparently Hitler saw the play twice and applauded the way Jews were portrayed, which was hardly an endorsement. Since 1980 there have been significant changes to the script which back then some insisted shouldn't be made to respect tradition. Times change.

I'm always open to God's presence in our lives and I don't discount miracles. The reality is that Oberammergau wisely closed the community to outsiders 350 years ago, and that quarantine resulted in the people being spared from the devastation of the plague. The irony is that this year's production of the play, which is usually staged over several months. has been postponed until 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A wise choice, once again. 

We know that many jurisdictions are gradually lifting physical distancing regulations. Some are measured and some are rash and defy scientific evidence. There are also lots of churches and religious groups demanding that they be allowed to gather again for Sunday worship. There is a open letter and petition by pastors here in Ontario insisting that 1500 years of church history suggests that they have a right to assemble and congregations should be allowed to reopen. This doesn't seem logical to me. What happened in the year 500 has little bearing on decisions we make in 2020. There were no epidemiologists in the Middle Ages or earlier, no real understanding of the transmission of diseases. It may be that gathering for worship and prayer actually hastened the spread of plagues in the past, sad to say., and doing so with too much haste today could be deadly. 

The United Church has come up with a rudimentary guide to phasing in congregational life once again, but hasn't suggested a timeline. This is wise, in my estimation, and I hope our society as a whole is cautious and evidence based in returning to "normal", with the realization that that there may be a new normal in virtually sphere of life. 

Trusting in God's miracles doesn't require us to deny scientific evidence and common sense.