Sunday, December 17, 2017

Keeping the Faith

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Earlier this year Martin Scorcese's film version of the novel Silence was released around the world. The historically based story is a demanding one of 17th century Jesuit priests who suffer for his commitment to sharing the gospel in Japan at a time when the nation was hostile to foreigners, particularly those attempting to evangelize. It explores suffering and the silence of God. The novel was written 50 years ago by Shusako Endo, a Japanese Catholic who experienced discrimination because of his faith. Scorcese, a Catholic, worked for decades to bring this story to the screen.

The novel won an award in Japan but it wasn't immediately embraced by Japanese Catholics. The film adaptation was generally well reviewed and I do want to see it. One of the stars, Andrew Garfield, was profoundly affected by his role. He enlisted a Jesuit priest to introduce him to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. In an interview Garfield said “What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.” I was interested to see that Liam Neeson, who was a Jesuit in The Mission is in this film as well.

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The other day I came upon an article about a new three-part documentary called Keeping the Faith about Christians who essentially went underground on the Japanese island of Kyushu for nearly four centuries. The stories told in Silence and Keeping the Faith serve as reminders that Christians have been persecuted and shunned over time for remaining faithful to Christ.

There are Christians in North America who huff and grumble about being persecuted because of the limitations around Christian imagery in the public square in the Christmas season. They use silly phrases such as "the war on Christmas."Not being able to display a Nativity scene in front of a government building does not count as martyrdom. In truth, we know nothing about persecution compared to sisters and brothers in Christ around the world.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Mary for Christians and Muslims

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 And when the angels said: 'O Mary! Allah gives you the glad tidings of a command from Him: his name shall be Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary. He shall be highly honoured in this world and in the Next, and shall be one of those near stationed to Allah.
Quran Sura 3:45

As Christians have increasingly interacted with Muslims and learned more about Islam we've become aware that Jesus is revered as a prophet in their faith. The Quran even recognizes virginal conception and an announcement of Jesus' birth, similar to what Christians term the annunciation. I hadn't been aware until this Advent that Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran and she is mentioned there more often than in the New Testament. Who says you can't teach an old dog new facts!

While Mary is recognized in Islam as the equivalent to the Orthodox "theotokos" or God-bearer she is also known for her intellect and deep spiritual connection to God. Chosen by God “above all women everywhere,” the Quran says (4:32), Mary spent much time in solitude, praying in a place reserved especially for her in the sanctuary.

Learning about this strikes home in a number of ways. It reminds me that ignorance and suspicion are destructive. I realize that my perception of Jesus and Mary will be different from those who are Muslims but I can appreciate their reverence for both. And I like the characterization of Mary as a spiritual person, chosen by God for her life in prayer and a love of solitude which enhanced her receptivity to a life-changing message and challenge.

Those of who are Protestants have become aware that we don't really give Mary or Miryam the respect she is due and which Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians accord her. Perhaps we should be humbled by the way Islam regards Mary as well.

Did you know that Islam holds Mary in special regard? Do you think we should give greater attention to Mary in the Protestant tradition? Would it be worthwhile to have a joint study with RC's and Muslims about Mary?

Friday, December 15, 2017

One Planet

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Some world events capture the media's attention and others seem to come and go without much more than a ripple. Two years ago the COP 21 international climate change conference took place in Paris, France. An agreement was forged during that gathering which we now refer to as the Paris Accord  and eventually every nation on Earth signed on with a common goal of mitigating the causes of climate change. There were many religious representatives in Paris for that conference and prayers of gratitude were offered in churches around the world.

Two years later and the optimism has faded, in no small part because the president of the United States has decided that his country will withdraw from the accord, against the concerns of scientists and advisors. While it hasn't happened formally yet, Trump is not interested in participating in climate talks.

Still, this week leaders from 40 nations gathered again in Paris for the One Planet Summit with President Macron of France as host. Macron has used the phrase "Make the Planet Great Again" as a challenge to Trump's pathetic "Make America Great Again" crowing. Trump was not invited to this summit and Macron has provided grants for a number of the US's climate scientists to do research in France, which is a Gallic slap in the face to a nation which has been a leader in scientific discovery in many fields.

Here is the official description of the summit:

3 goals, 1 commitment: taking action together.

Adaptation, mitigation, mobilization. The Summit’s three key words will be discussed in the afternoon and each promoted by one of the three co-organizers: Antonio Guterres, Emmanuel Macron and Jim Yong Kim. The One Planet Summit is an alliance of hundreds of global leaders from all sectors, determined to demonstrate the power of collective action in addressing such a global issue as the fight against climate change. The aim is to find new means of financing the adaptation of our ways of life to inevitable transformations, of further speeding up the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and of ensuring climate issues are central to the finance sector.

While these are admirable goals I haven't heard much about what actually happened at the summit, and I hope this wasn't yet another greenhouse gas producing gathering with limited outcome.

This past Sunday was the second in Advent, with the theme of hope. Hope moves us beyond cynicism and despair, so we can continue with our prayers for decisive action on the part of world leaders, as well as our commitment to make God's planet great again. It's the least and the most we can do as Christians.

Have you followed the summit? Did you know it was taking place? Do these conferences matter or they hopeless?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Lady Bird & the Holy

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It is a pleasant surprise that there are several films in the theatres at the moment which are not noisy adaptations of superhero stories and require more than two of three brain cells to watch.
On of them is Lady Bird, which we took in at the late Saturday morning showing. For the first time in our lives we were the only two people in this viewing room of at least 150 seats. What does it say that no one was there to watch a critically acclaimed film? Christmas shopping beckoned, I suppose.

The central figure, played by the wonderful Saoirse Ronan, is a teenager in Sacramento, California during the early years of the 21st century. Her name is Christine but she insists on being called Lady Bird with anyone who will listen. She has lofty, romanticized aspirations for life which include heading across the continent for college. Much of the film involves the relentless low-grade (mostly) conflict between Lady Bird and her mother, whose goal seems to be to deflate Christine's airs.

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Lady Bird balks at the strictures of the Roman Catholic high school she attends, reluctantly. The nuns have their rules, including skirt length and "room for the Holy Spirit" between boys and girls at the school dance. There are many other RC references which are evidence that the screenplay writer knows about Catholic schools. At the same time there is a caring nun who has a sense of humour and a kind priest who nurtures students to excellence in the school musical.

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Hmm. What can I say that won't spoil your viewing experience? We laughed out loud a number of times, which is a bit weird in a nearly empty theatre. It was also very thought-provoking about what religion offers us.

Enough to say that Lady Bird eventually makes room for the mystery of what has seemed like a deadening religious upbringing. This is what we hope for all of us, isn't it? Rather than a rote recitation of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" we desire a sense of the holy, the numinous experience of God which may come out of our shop-worn traditions. In Advent and Christmas we await the living Christ who comes to us in the familiar carols and the manger scene.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Blessed is the Last Cheese Maker

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Through the years I've visited a fair number of monasteries and convents in a variety of locations. They include Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Colorado, New Mexico. Most have been places where silence is cherished and observed. Just the same, I've had the opportunity to chat with a few of the brothers and sisters. These communities of prayer have been Benedictine or Trappist in nearly every instance, which means "ora et labora" --pray and work. Sure they observe the offices of daily prayer, but they are expected to be self-sustaining. The places I've visited engage in everything from cattle ranching, to website designing, to egg-producing, to Christmas cake baking. I accepted the invitation to help with the cake-making brothers and was surprised that their habits gave way to pristine white overalls in an industrial kitchen.

In Canada many monasteries have produced cheese -- think of Oka in Quebec. Except that those Trappist brothers out of the cheese biz as they aged (the monks, not the cheeses.) The same is true in other locations, including a monastery in Manitoba. Brother Alberic is the last cheesemaker at Notre Dame des Prairies, having joined this monastery from Oka. He is the last monk in North America to make Trappist style cheese. This is how he is described in a CBC piece:

Eighty-three-year-old monk Brother Albéric says that if you stacked all the cheese he's made in his life, the pile would reach up to heaven. Every morning, the monk is in the kitchen at the Notre Dame des Prairies monastery near Holland, Man., by 8:30 a.m., crafting fresh wheels of fromage de la trappe — cheese in the Trappist style, made with unpasteurized milk. At that point, he's already been awake for hours, after getting up at 3:30 a.m. to sing and pray with the four other elderly monks who are part of the Trappist order at the monastery. He's in the dim cellar by 10 or 10:30, handwashing dozens of the 10-pound wheels in a special brine as they age, in silent, spiritual contemplation.

About his impending retirement Alberic says "For me, it's the will of God, I'm old, I'm tired, I [have] nobody.… It's time to finish."

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While this sounds like a lament, Alberic is passing on his knowledge to a couple Dustin Peltier  and Rachel Isaak who are preparing to start their own cheesemaking business in the tradition of the  monks. Rachel isn't allowed in to the inner world of the monastery, so she is learning through Dustin.

I'm encouraged to hear that some of these traditions will survive, but I am saddened that so many of these monastic communities are coming to an end and their crafts will move elsewhere. They were places of spiritual and physical nourishment through the years. In the words of the film Life of Brian, Blessed are the cheese-makers!

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tweaking the Lord's Prayer?

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Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.
A version of The Lord’s Prayer
from The New Zealand Prayer Book

 Well, the first round of snow shoveling is done this morning and I have the retirement luxury of going nowhere as the white stuff continues to fall. Perhaps I should offer up a prayer of gratitude, even the Lord's Prayer or The Prayer Jesus Taught or the Our Father -- it depends on your tradition. But what version of the Lord's Prayer should we use?

Even Pope Francis is willing to shake up the tradition a little. A few days ago he mused that the problematic phrase "lead us not into temptation" creates a false impression of God's agency in the world and is an inaccurate translation of the original language. Something has been lost in translation -literally-- from Jesus' Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English. In an interview on the weekend Francis noted that French Catholics now say "do not let us fall into temptation."

Already we Protestants are aware that some traditions say "debts" rather than "trespasses". Protestants also add on the caboose of "for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory..." yada, yada, which is not in the gospels.

I think it's good to re-examine the words we use in this prayer so that they are alive for us, are accurate and reflect good theology. Many of you will know that in various congregations I served we would use different versions of the Lord's Prayer, sung and spoken, during the season of Lent. Not everyone liked it (surprise, surprise) but it was a Lenten discipline of paying attention to a seminal prayer of our Christian faith. It's also important to remember that every phrase in this prayer has a parallel in Judaism, which makes sense because Jesus was a Jew!

 Have you puzzled over this phrase through the years? Does your repetition tend to be rote? Do you appreciate different versions of the prayer?

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Grammar of Animacy

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This morning I dropped Ruth off at work before 8, then proceeded to a stretch of unmaintained rough road through an expansive marsh in Prince Edward County. It is only a few minutes away from downtown Belleville yet I nearly always alone there. I love the big sky, water, and solitude.

Alone? That's not true, unless I'm referring to humans. In the warmer months the area is teeming with bird life. Even at this time of year there are creatures to behold. As I came to Sawguin Creek on foot I could see the head of a muskrat peering at me through a hole in the newly formed ice, only to disappear, and then reappear a few minutes later. As I left I saw a Northern Harrier, aptly nicknamed the marsh hawk, patrolling for breakfast. I regularly see deer in the same area, as well as the tracks of coyotes.

I find comfort in the realization that I'm in the midst of a "cloud of witnesses" as I walk. I am enjoying my retirement rambles and find that my deepest communion with God these days is as I walk, either on my own or in Ruth's company. She too can walk in the silence without any sense of discomfort or awkwardness about the lack of speech. Again, I think of Robin Wall Kimmerer and her book Braiding Sweetgrass. In it she encourages humans to "learn the grammar of animacy" (a chapter title.) Kimmerer says that when we listen in wild places we are audience to conversations in a language not our own and we must learn to speak that language. She is a scientist and she is Potawatomi, so she speaks the language of a biologist and is slowly learning the language of her heritage which is more attuned to the cadences of wild places.

In the cattail domain of Marsh Rd. other languages are spoken by creatures that are not "its" but "thous." I want to respect them as God's creation, not as disposable because they're not human, or as a backdrop to my experience. I have a deepening conviction that until we figure this out we will never have the will to care for our planet in any effective way, and time's a wastin'.