Monday, August 21, 2017

Signs and Portents

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See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion... They will turn their faces upwards, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.

                                                                            Isaiah 8

I was too late in searching out those odd glasses which millions of people across North America tomorrow to observe the solar eclipse. In the early afternoon I will be averting my gaze to preserve my sight but I have been pondering what all this means.

Through the millennia humans have associated solar and lunar eclipses with "signs and portents" of the gods, or God. Perhaps because of the apparent extinguishing of our star's powerful and all-encompassing light solar eclipses have been seen as signs of divine disfavour. Even in the 21st century some Christian congregations will be makin' hay while the sun don't shine, with eclipse events taking on an ominous tone. There are roughly a dozen biblical passages which use this heavenly imagery to speak of God's judgement of the wayward and unfaithful.

What came to mind for me was an aspect of the crucifixion story in three of the gospels where after Jesus' death on the cross the skies darkened. Astronomers have explored whether there was a solar eclipse which coincided with the crucifixion but the evidence seems to suggest that this was poetical rather than factual. There is a verse in the spiritual "Were you There?"which picks up on this theme, often sung on Good Friday which picks up on this theme:

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

For me the eclipse is a reminder that in the midst of this strange time of political turmoil, not to mention faces constantly focused downward on the trivia of our phones, we live in a universe of grandeur and remarkable celestial events which transcend our pettiness. I figure that our Creator wants us to remember that "the heavens declare the glory of God" so it really is good for us to note this portentious day.

Will you be looking skyward or skulking about like me today? What do you think about the heavenly hoopla? Are you old enough to remember Carly Simon?

Well I hear you went up to Saratoga
And your horse, naturally, won
Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia
To see the total eclipse of the sun
Well, you're where you should be all the time
And when you're not, you're with some underworld spy
Or the wife of a close friend,
Wife of a close friend, and
You're so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You're so vain, you're so vain
I'll bet you think this song is about you
Don't you?
Don't you?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Abbey in the Trees

We spent four weeks on Change Islands, Newfoundland this summer, as many of you are aware. These two adjoined islands are alongside the better known Fogo Island, but we appreciate their relative anonymity. There aren't as many short-visit tourists as is the case with Fogo. Many of the people from "away" have purchased homes which have been empty for years, renovated them, and spend the summer.  

We had lovely visits with a number of residents who have been on Change Islands their entire lives. Our long-time association with the area gave us that "in." We also met some of the seasonal newcomers, including Wayne and Denis, a couple from Montreal. We went to their creaky old saltbox house for brunch on our last day there. They too explore many of the coastal trails of the islands and we got into conversation about the spirituality of walking, agreeing that it is a form of prayer. 

Denis, who works for a Quebec publisher, told us about a book project he's working on for a Fall release about the redevelopment of what was the Oka Trappist monastery in Quebec. We may be vaguely aware of the community because of the cheese, which they no longer produce. The book, with plenty of photos, will be entitled Val Notre Dame: L'Abbaye dans les Bois - it is the abbey in the trees.  This is the community's description of what has transpired through its history and over the past fifteen years:

In 1881, faced with threats of being expelled by an anti-religious government, the Trappist monks of the Bellefontaine monastery, still active in France, came to Oka, in Canada, to found La Trappe d’Oka, which flourished in the 1950s with a total of 177 monks. The monastery will become famous for its cheese: the Oka cheese.

In 2002, there were only some 30 monks left in the community. Since the premises had become too big and the surrounding area too noisy, the monks decided to move to the Lanaudière region and establish themselves in Val Notre-Dame, at the foot of the Coupée mountain. In this enchanting site and in a bright monastery of sober and modern design, they continue to search for God, still guided by the Rule of St. Benedict.

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I was intrigued by this relocation because it reflects the pattern of a number of monastic communities in the 21st century. Traditional monasteries and convents are choosing to reinvent themselves because of declining numbers and a much more secular society. Many are choosing to develop a Creation-care focus, working with architects to create new buildings which are energy efficient and in tune with their surroundings. You can see the green roof in the photo above from Val Notre Dame. They are also  opening their guesthouses to those who have a spiritual yearning even though they may not be Roman Catholic, or even Christian.

Mainline Protestant congregations would do well to emulate what is happening in these Roman Catholic communities, in terms of reimagining their purpose. It will take courage, yet there is tremendous opportunity to nurture the contemplative life in those who are searching. We can also demonstrate our commitment to environmental justice and celebrating Creation.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

We Cannot Forget

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As I drove around doing errands the other day I heard a CBC Radio piece featuring a young woman and her grandmother. The younger family member had visited Yad Vashem, the memorial in Jerusalem to six million Jews whose lives were extinguished by the Nazi regime during WWII. She realized that her grandmother was a survivor and took to heart the observation that hers is the last generation to be able to speak to those who lived through this atrocity.

Upon her return the young woman visited her grandmother whose memory is fading. The grandmother was taken to an extermination camp when she was fourteen, and while she has trouble remembering lunch, she can recall grim aspects of that distant time in her life. I didn't hear any more because of my next errand and I'm not sure I'll find the interview.

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This was a reminder that I have visited Yad Vashem on several occasions. The memorial to the children who perished was particularly affecting. I have also spoken with those who survived the camps, even though family members didn't.

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As we see images of "Christians" in Charlottesville Virginia strutting around in their pathetic uniforms waving Swastikas we should be sickened. When we see one of the organizers of the rally shedding tears at the prospect of being criminally charged we should not hate -"do not repay evil with evil" Jesus said -- but we should feel no pity. There are no "nice" Nazis, past nor present, because the ideology is antithetical to human decency and the gospel.

Those of us who claim to follow Yeshua the Jew, born to a Jewish mother, educated in a Jewish synagogue in the way of the prophets, must be vigilant. The legacy of those who died, and that of our brave forbearers who fought to end Nazism cannot be forgotten.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Dreams of Immigrants

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I've just read Behold the Dreamers an award-winning debut novel by Imbolo Imbue. Imbue is originally from the African nation of Cameroon, which most of us couldn't find on a map, if we're honest. The novel is about the immigrant experience, for a Cameroonian couple, Jende and Neni, who are barely making ends meet in New York City. Jende lands a job as the chauffeur for a Wall Street investor with Lehman Brothers, one of the companies which eventually collapsed during the economic crisis of nearly a decade ago. It seems like a dream job but the undercurrents of American society in a time of greed and turmoil are fascinating.

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Both Jende and Neni come to love NYC  and aspire to greater things, working hard, dedicated to achieving a higher education. Of course I can't reveal too much about this compelling story, but I was intrigued that Neni becomes part of a congregation which is accepting, even though she isn't sure if she is a Christian. The worship is subdued compared to the exuberance of her experience back home, but she finds a place there.  The female pastor is wise and encouraging  and willing to help.

It occurred to me the church described in the novel, Judson Memorial, is quite real and I did a bit of research. It turns out that author Mbue has spoken there since the success of her book. I wonder what she association with the congregation might be.  While the church scenes are a minor part of the overall narrative, it was encouraging that the congregation is portrayed in a positive light. The novel as a whole is even more timely given the harsh shift in American immigration policy in the short time since it was published. We certainly have our own challenges with asylum seekers at the moment.

I certainly recommend Behold the Dreamers. Has anyone else read it?  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Losing Ground

A street person sleeps right on the S/W corner of King and Bay St. as people, cars, and limos pass by within inches of him.
Lost amidst the general outrage about Donald Trump's ridiculous comments about the deadly white supremacist rally in Virginia last weekend was the release of a report on the growing gap between rich and poor in this province of Ontario. The study called Losing Ground was researched by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. It found that the top half of earners grew their share of income from 78 to 81 per cent from 2000 to 2015, while the share for the bottom half of earners fell from 22 to 19 per cent. The bottom half of income earners didn’t even keep up with inflation.

In this same week Premier Kathleen Wynne took major heat from a gathering of municipal leaders who told her that upping the minimum wage will require tax hikes in order to pay for the increases. The food chain Metro announced that it will move toward automation to reduce the number of workers in its stores. And rural business owners argue that raising the minimum wage will eliminate entry level jobs in communities where the owners are lucky to be making $15 an hour themselves. There is an element of truth to all of this, although Metro and other food chains are not in the red by any means.

The Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote a column about this rural challenge, although it has a "let them eat cake" quality to it. She spoke to shop owners in the pretty rural town near her summer place. Hmm. It's nice to be able to afford a summer home and then bemoan the plight of those who provide services for you. And then there was these observations:

Ms. Wynne argues – correctly – that nobody can live on $11.40 an hour. Yet few people have to. Ms Wynne likes to depict minimum-wage earners as hard-pressed single mothers. In fact, statistics from 2014 referenced in the AIMS study showed that 58 per cent of them were between 15 and 24 years old, and 57 per cent lived with family. Only 2.2 per cent were unmarried heads of household with at least one minor child.

Ya, well those young people would probably prefer to have a decent-paying job so that they didn't have to live at home. Many younger people are resigned to not being able to buy any home because of low wages and astronomical housing costs. Wente's argument seems tone deaf to the realities of those entering the workforce.

Sitting with folk at the Bridge St. church meal ministries reminded me that a number of guests were "working poor," struggling along in low-wage jobs and trying to make ends meet at the end of the month. None of them ever described their cottages or vacations.

We may end up seeing a revision to the $15 an hour minimum wage, with graduated or regional increases. Still, this has to be a step in the right and just direction. In order to gain ground decent wages are essential.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

There's the Church, and There's the Steeple?

One of my favourite craft breweries is Church Key, in a former United Church near Campbellford, Ontario. Not long after starting at Bridge St. Church I referred to this "repurposing" of a country church and one of our wonderful 90+ members spoke to me about it after the surface. She chuckled as she mentioned that her aunt had sung in the choir when it was a Methodist church and is probably spinning in her grave because of it's current use.

It seems that the media pieces on church buildings being decommissioned and put up for sale are becoming more common, and the variety of uses grows. Since the sixties country churches have found new life as homes and antique shops. Today many urban church buildings are office space and anchors for condo developments. The photo above is of a climbing gym in Quebec in an old church structure. How appropriate -- there are antics in congregations which sometimes cause those in leadership to climb the walls!

When the former hotel property next to Bridge St. was for sale recently we wondered if we should put in an offer, but the asking price was too rich for our blood, and we weren't ready to ask the serious questions about purpose. I did wonder whether the day might come when the successive bidder, a condo developer, would approach the congregation about buying the church property.

Bridge St. still has a vital ministry in downtown Belleville and can serve those on the margins of society as gentrification takes place. The two are not mutually exclusive, but it is important that the Christian community continues to live the gospel for those who are often without a voice.

Of course, this is no longer my challenge, yet it still matters to me as a Christian.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Thirsty Priests

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You may have heard that binge drinking and rowdy groups of pub-goers has become a significant problem in the British Isles. Many drinking establishments have imposed rules about the size of groups entering their premises to control rowdyism. One pub in Wales also prohibits patrons wearing costumes because of the association with revelry which could lead to problems.

Well on July 29th a group of Roman Catholic seminarians showed up to celebrate the  ordination of Father Peter McClaren. They were dressed in their cassocks and turned away by staff members who mistook them for a bachelor party.

I love this story in so many ways. How delightful that Father McLaren's confreres wanted to take him out for a celebratory pint or two. This skewers stereotypes about religious prohibitions on drinking. Jesus did turn water into wine, didnt' he? And it is funny that the staff of the pub figured that they must be imposters of some sort.

There is a pleasant outcome to the story. The pub has renamed one of its brews "The Thirsty Priests." It is described as a “rich, warming ale with a clean, rewarding finish,”  with the added slogan “saving souls and satisfying thirsts.”  I'll drink to that!