Monday, May 29, 2023

God's Spirit and Renewing the Earth


                                                                      Psalm 104:30 Jenn Norton

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, let there be light, and there was light.

Genesis 1:1-3 Robert Alter translation 

I was musing this past week about yesterday's Feast of Pentecost, the Sunday we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church in those extraordinary events in Jerusalem two millenia ago. All during my ministry I focussed on Acts 2 and the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit that day. 

I wondered about what a Creation themed Pentecost would look like, or whether that would even make sense. Yet the very first verse of the Hebrew scriptures and our Christian bible says that the wind/breath/spirit of God hovered over the "welter and waste" of Creation, the translation provided by Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter. It could be argued that Acts 2 is a creation or re-creation story which resonates with the first of the two creation stories found in Genesis. The followers of Jesus are in disarray, and the enlivening Spirit transforms their "welter and waste" into a community of Good News. 

I decided to look at the psalm for Pentecost, which I never bothered to do in my preaching days. Lo and behold it was a passage from Psalm 104, the magnificent Creation psalm (see below.) I decided to reinstate the portion of verse 35 which is often expunged because it was likely added later, the bit about sinners and the wicked being expunged from the Earth. I put it back because it may be that our foolish ways will degrade our planetary home to the point where it is unlivable for humans. This will be a form of self-punishment, and sadly already is in part of the world. 

Enough sermonizing for one day? Get a life, you say? Thanks for your patience!

Let there be light amidst the welter and the waste, and may God renew the Earth. 

Lord, how manifold are your works!

    In wisdom you have made them all;

    the earth is full of your creatures.

 There is the sea, great and wide;
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
 There go the ships
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

 These all look to you
    to give them their food in due season;

when you give to them, they gather it up;

    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
    when you take away their breath, they die
    and return to their dust.
 When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground.

 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works—
 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains and they smoke.
 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
    for I rejoice in the Lord.
 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
    and let the wicked be no more.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise  the Lord!

Psalm 104:24-35 NRSVue

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Come Holy Spirit, Come, on this Feast of Pentecost


Come Holy Spirit, Come...

As  I thought about this Pentecost Sunday the doors of St. Andrew's United Church in Sudbury came to mind. I served this congregation for eleven years and loved the contemporary sanctuary, including the sand-cast doors created by Jordi Bonet specifically for this space. 

In these days of shrinking congregations and divestment of church facilities I have to wonder whether such an ambitious creative project will ever occur again in a United Church. We've always been ambivalent about the "extravagence" of beauty in our places of worship even though art and architecture can open in our spirits a sense of God's Holy Spirit at work. 

I incorporated the words from the door in liturgy on many occasions during my years at St. Andrew's and in congregations I served afterward. 

A variation of this prayer of invocation is in Voices United, our worship resource.

God, Holy Spirit, come to us, come among us;

come as the wind, and cleanse;

come as the fire, and burn;

come as the dew, and refresh:

convict, convert, and consecrate

many hearts and lives

to our great good and your greater glory. Amen.

Voices United 197

Saturday, May 27, 2023

River of the Water of Life & the Olympics


A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold,  and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.  The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Genesis 2 10-14 NRSVue

My phone tells me that the number of steps I take each week has dropped significantly but I figure that's okay. We are back on our bicycles regularly and that skews everything. We are also back on the water, canoeing a number of times during May, on the Bay of Quinte and a couple of rivers. Paddle strokes don't count as steps but they are certainly exercise.

I would paddle either in our canoe or kayaks every day, if I could. I love the experience of being on the water and all the creatures we encounter. I've had occasions when I could barely muster the energy to get our craft on the roof of the vehicle only to be rejuvenated by the rhythm of paddling and all the sights and sounds.

Humans have taken rivers for granted in just about every setting around the world and Canada is no exception. They have been used as sewers, they have been buried, they have been dammed, they have been conduits for industrial waste. Drinking from most urban rivers or swimming in them would be or should be unthinkable. Even supposedly sacred rivers such as India's Ganges are a toxic mess. 

You may have heard that France is spending billions on cleaning up the legendary Seine River which flows through Paris, in anticipation of hosting the 2024 Olympics. The proposal is for the hosts to hold events on and in the river as they did for the Olympics in 1900 but many are doubtful that the Seine could be clean enough for athletes to swim in this water without the competition being their last. It's been illegal to swim in the Seine for a century because it is so polluted. Still,this is a noble goal. 

                                                                             Don River Revitalization

Closer to home, the city of Toronto is engaged in a 1.25 billion dollar revitalization of the mouth of the Don River, rescuing it from the industrialized Port Lands which might as well be called the wastelands. This project will not only restore habitat for creatures it will greatly mitigate the risk of flooding and provide recreational opportunities for residents. Thank God that the project was initiated before the Ford government could kibosh it. One of our daughters and her partner live close to this area and are excited by the possibilities. 

The bible has plenty of rivers, actual and metaphorical. Of course, the Jordan River is central to the story of the Exodus and entering the Promised Land, while Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. 

There is the river flowing out of Eden in Genesis and the River of Life in the Revelation of John. Our Christian bible begins and ends with visions of rivers. 

While we were in Israel a few weeks ago we stopped at the traditional baptism site where people robbed in white were undergoing "kinda" baptisms, foregoing immersing their heads because the river is so polluted. What have we done? 

Taking care of our rivers and waters is surely a sacred trust.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

 Revelation 22: 1-2 NRSVue 

Friday, May 26, 2023

Pentecost and Celebrating the Diversity of Languages


                                                                  Canadian Language Museum 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

                           Acts 2:1-4 NRSVue

 Listening to CBC Radio can be a "wheat and chaff" experience, with a fair number of impossibly earnest and lengthy interviews on subjects for which I have limited interest. Some of them go on...forever!

Then there are the interviews which open doors both figuratively and literally to experiences which I didn't know existed and at the end I feel that I am much the better for them.

Today I listened to the director of the Canadian Language Museum which is in North York, Ontario. As the name states clearly, it shares the diversity of languages which are the reality in the land we know as Canada, including those of the First Peoples who preceded speakers of French and English. I discovered that Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken by more people than any other beyond the two official languages. I visited the website after the interview and saw that there has been an exhibit on Yiddish, the language of European Jews before Hebrew was revived as a spoken language in the late 19th century. 

This conversation seemed highly appropriate a couple of days before the Christian Feast of Pentecost, the celebration of the birth of the church. As the passage above tells us, on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes upon the first People of the Way in manifestations which include speaking in a variety of languages. Rather than ecstatic speech, these languages were undestood by those who were gathered in Jerusalem from around the ancient world for the Jewish Pentecost.

There are people in Canada who respond to a diversity of languages negatively and often with anger. There are conservatives who want what they presume is a Christian nation, which means white and English speaking and without respect for other religions. This often means denigration of those First Peoples and denial of the harms done, including erasure of language through the Residential Indoctrination Institutions. 

This Sunday folk at Trenton United Church will be invited to share their different language background as part of the Pentecost celebration, always a great idea. 

We need the reminders that not only are we made up of ethnic and linguist diversity, the birth of Christ's Church was marked by the mosaic of languages which signalled that the gospel of inclusion was meant for all. 

                         Soichi Watanabe (Japanese, 1949–), The Coming of the Holy Spirit, 1996.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Ooh, I Love Turtles

                                                              Turtles, Turtles, Rah, Rah, Rah

Are you old enough to remember the lengthy ad campaign which extolled the tasty virtues of the Turtles confection. Pecans and caramel dipped in chocolate, shaped like a turtle -- what's not to like? The ads used a rather bizarre combination of caricatured turtles in top hats, tails, and monocles alongside femme fatale women  crooning "ooh, I love Turtles." 

Earlier this week marked World Turtle Day and I pay attention because, well, I have a strange affection for turtles. We see them a lot when we paddle in our neck of the woods, and on various waterside walks. Happily, there are a bunch of different species including Snapping, Painted and the threatened Blandings turtles. We saw a lunker of a snapping turtle, up close and personal, while on a marsh boardwalk with two of our grandchildren recently. As I mentioned before, it was something of an "I-thou" moment as it looked up at the grandchild who'd requested a turtle quest. 

Each year I note that in different Indigenous cultures the planet is referred to as Turtle Island, which suggests a living, sentient being. We have been inclined to treat our planetary home as though it was a resource to be recklessly exploited rather than the provision of the Creator for all living creatures. Too often Christianity has been complicit in this disastrous worldview, even though scripture invites us to be stewards of and companions in Creation. 

We "turn turtle" (crummy expression, really) at our peril when it comes to the practical and spiritual responsibility to care for the Earth. I'm not suggesting we become pantheists, just faithful Christians. I appreciate the icon of Kateri Tekakwitha by Robert Lentz which honours her as a symbol of ecological balance.  

I have our collapsible shovel in our vehicle, at the ready to help a turtle across the road, should I encounter one. I want them to flourish because they are remarkable creatures, but also because they represent an important member of the marvelous web of Creation. 

Shouldn't everyone love turtles? 

                                                     Kateri Tekakwitha, Algonquin Mohawk IroquoisSaint 

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

A New Outreach "Bridge" in Belleville

                                                                    Bridge St. United Church

Yesterday the volunteers for the Bridge St. United Church meal ministry received a courtesy email about significant changes to the programs offered withing the church building in the partnership with various municipal entities. This letter was a preface to a decision by Belleville city council and the regional partners to purchase a building not far from the downtown which will be a hub for various services with sufficient space to do so. 

You might have noticed that I italicized the word "ministry" because while I was minister at Bridge St. I encouraged -- actually insisted -- that we use that term rather than "program." In my view the heart and lungs of congregational life were Sunday worship which informed our hands and feet in reaching out in compassionate love as Christ's people. It was a hard sell, to be honest, and the important expansion of outreach through the Bridge St. building with partners made this even more of a challenge, from what I can see, because the other stakeholders are not religious. 

I certainly support the plan to establish this hub because the outcome can be an integrated response to the needs of those who are on the margins of society and often in crisis. I know Ruth will continue to volunteer at a new location because her contribution is about the guests, not the physical site. I do wonder what this will mean for Bridge St. after decades of providing several different meal ministries. And what will this mean for the future of a congregation which has, as with so many other downtown congregations across the country, searched for a sense of purpose? 

Here is the email, thoughtful and clear, shared with the volunteers: 

Dear Meal Program Volunteers,

We are writing to inform you of a significant development for the Drop In program currently operating at Bridge Street Church.

As you are well aware, a Drop In program for people experiencing homelessness has been operating at Bridge Street Church since May 2021 as a partnership between several organizations. Over the past year, the Drop In partners have developed a concept for “The Bridge”, a collaborative health and social service hub to provide collaborative services to individuals in one location, as a next step in the evolution of the current Drop In. “The Bridge” is led by a Steering Committee comprised of the John Howard Society of Belleville, Bridge Street United Church, Grace Inn Shelter, Hastings Prince Edward Public Health, Belleville and Quinte West Community Health Centre, Enrichment Centre for Mental Health and CMHA Hastings Prince Edward.

With support from the City of Belleville, the Steering Committee for The Bridge hub is in the process of purchasing the property at 1 Alhambra Square (formerly “The Banquet Centre”) as an ideal location for the hub. News of the City’s support for this project will be shared publicly later today. 

“The Bridge” Steering Committee is presently working through a due diligence process for the purchase and pending successful completion, will proceed with the design and construction of the hub. The Drop In will continue to operate at Bridge Street Church until a move to the new location can be affected.

Bridge Street Church has provided daily lunches to members of our community who are experiencing hunger and food insecurity, including those who attend the Drop In, since March 2020, as a continuation of its longstanding Meal Programs. We intend to continue providing meal support to The Bridge, with daily lunch meal service transitioning fully to the new location. We will seek your input and keep you informed in planning for this transition.

This is a positive development for The Bridge hub, those that it serves, and for our community. Bridge Street Church can take pride in its role in enabling and supporting the Drop In and development of The Bridge hub over the past years, and our continued role in its operation. 


Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Seven Psalms from an Aged Balladeer

Paul Simon may be 81 but his latest and perhaps last musical compilation is drawing lots of interest. He was one half of Simon and Garfunkel, after all, the adored folk/rock balladeers of another time who created sublime harmonies. The solo career which followed their break-up was eclectic and brilliant. 

                                                    Ladysmith Black Mambazo & Paul Simon 1986

Now, in old age, he has created a suite of songs with the intriguing title, Seven Psalms. Simon was raised in a Jewish family which was Jew-ish as one comedian described himself, occasional observance and a Bar Mitzvah without being particularly religious. As is often the case, though, awareness of mortality tends to focus one's thoughts, especially for those already inclined toward introspection. 

One review, written by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin,has the title Paul Simon Gets Religion and argues that Seven Psalms is innately Jewish. Another by Jon Pareles in the New York Times begins with the header:

Paul Simon Confronts Death, Profoundly, on ‘Seven Psalms’ :The 81-year-old songwriter ruminates on mortality, faith and meaning in an album that could be a farewell.

As with others, Pareles spends much of his review pondering the spiritual content of Simon's 
album and makes an interesting connection with a couple of other iconic figures from the musical world:

“Seven Psalms” sounds like a last testament from the 81-year-old Paul Simon. It’s an album akin to David Bowie’s "Blackstar"  and Leonard Cohen’s "You Want it Darker" which those songwriters made as mortality loomed; they each died days after the albums were released...

Almost immediately, it becomes clear that the migration is from life to death, a transition the singer is preparing to make himself. He’s thinking about time, love, culture, family, music, eternity and God, striving to balance skepticism and something like faith. “I have my reasons to doubt/A white light eases the pain,” Simon sings in “Your Forgiveness.” “Two billion heartbeats and out/Or does it all begin again?”

I haven't heard any of these psalms but apparently the last word on the final song is Amen. I hope that the "amen" for this life is down the road a few more years for Paul Simon and that he will live in hope for the life to come. 

The Afterlife -- Paul Simon -- 2011

After I died, and the make up had dried, I went back to my placeNo moon that night, but a heavenly light shone on my faceStill I thought it was odd, there was no sign of God just to usher me inThen a voice from above, sugar coated with Love, said, "Let us begin"
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the lineYou got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line
OK, a new kid in school, got to follow the rule, you got to learn the routineWoah, there's a girl over there, with the sunshiny hair, like a homecomin' queenI said, "Hey, what you say? It's a glorious day, by the way how long you been dead?"Maybe you, maybe me, maybe baby makes three, but she just sher head
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the lineYou got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line
Buddah and Moses and all the noses from narrow to flatHad to stand in the line, just to glimpse the divine, what you think about that?Well it seems like our fate to suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek
It's all his design, no one cuts in the line, no one here likes a sneakYou got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the lineYou got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line
After you climb, up the ladder of time, the Lord God is nearFace to face, in the vastness of space, your words disappearAnd you feel like swimming in an ocean of love, and the current is strongBut all that remains when you try to explain is a fragment of songLord is it, Be Bop A Lu La or Ooh Poppa DoLord, Be Bop A Lu La or Ooh Poppa DoBe Bop A Lu La

                                                             Simon and Garfunkel 1968