Sunday, October 23, 2016

Darkness and Light in Leonard Cohen

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If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my lord

There's a lover in the story
But the story's still the same
There's a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it's written in the scriptures
And it's not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

They're lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim
Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
If you are the dealer, let me out of the game

If you are the healer, I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker...

You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen

When Bob Dylan was announced as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature I wondered how long it would be before speculation about other singer/songwriters as equally worthy. It wasn't long before Canada's Leonard Cohen was named as someone perhaps more deserving.

Cohen certainly deserves an award for coolest octogenarian on the planet, and he is a thoughtful and spiritual writer. Cohen began life as a Jew, often uses Christian imagery, and practices Buddhist meditation. The title song from his newly released You Want It Darker reflects those traditions and he uses the choir from the synagogue of his youth as the introit for this song. This is what the The Guardian has to say in its positive review of You Want It Darker.

But equally, you can see why Cohen is keen to deflect the interpretation that You Want It Darker is intended as some kind of musical last will and testament. It arrives packed with songs you could interpret as reflective farewells – from Leaving the Table to Steer Your Way – and with references to mortality and faith. The first sound you hear is a choir from the Montreal synagogue in which Cohen’s family worshipped, and the last is Cohen apparently addressing Jesus with a certain irrevocability: “It’s over now, the water and the wine … I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.”

Do we nominate Cohen now for the Nobel? Have you been aware of the spiritual and religious themes of his music? Are you a fan?

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Glory of God & Contemplative Prayer

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
   their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
   and their words to the end of the world. 
Psalm 19

I'm writing a sermon on prayer for this Sunday which invites us into openness and contemplation rather than just yakking at God, which is what we Protestants tend to lean toward.

We really don't trust our senses when it comes to prayer. It's unfortunate because we live in a country of extraordinary beauty and sensory delight. One of my most holy moments in recent memory was the cycle home from Bridge St.UC on Tuesday afternoon. While my early morning cycle was lovely and calm, in the afternoon the wind was stirring up the Bay of Quinte and the colourful leaves of Autumn rustled and roared. God was there in the stiff breeze in a way that lifted my spirit.

I saw the illustration above and the encouragement below on Twitter and it spoke to me.

“Fall is a feast for the physical senses, the perfect opportunity to step out of our thoughts and into the body, connecting with the world around us.” — Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of the meditation app Headspace.
Step outside on a fall day.
Notice the quality of the light.
Feel the air against your skin, cooler than it was just a few weeks ago.
Observe the sunlight filtering through the trees.
Notice the play of the shadows.
Listen to the sounds of rustling leaves.
Inhale the smell of an autumn day.
The rain today and tomorrow may bring down many leaves, but this is a great encouragement to contemplate and appreciated the glory of God.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Song of Hope

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                                                     The Calais Jungle

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

                             Psalm 137 King James Version

There is a makeshift refugee camp in France which has stubbornly defied closure, although the threat looms again this week. It's not as though The Jungle, as it's called, is a model place for asylum seekers. In fact this camp near Calais, which has shifted from location to location, has been described as a hellhole. Each time the camp is dismantled it reappears, filling up with those hoping to get to Britain by any means possible. The refugees jump onto moving transport trucks and attempt to sneak through the Chunnel. The current issue is unaccompanied minors living in the camp who have family members in Britain. Under international law they are entitled to be reunited with family, but Britain doesn't want a new wave of refugee claimants.

I contrast this with the United Refugee Family Sponsorship Group Belleville which met yesterday at Bridge St. Church. It was a warm and positive meeting with participants from three United Churches, the Muslim and Bahai communities, and a Roman Catholic parish.

We heard touching reports of trips to the Toronto and Ottawa airports to pick up family members of our first sponsored family, the Al Mansours. One grandmother and a sibling family of five are now in Canada. In both situations the Al Mansours were able to greet their loved ones at the airport and there was joy for everyone as they were reunited. One of the Al Mansour boys played O Canada and the Syrian national anthem on a portable keyboard as they made the drive to Ottawa. In Toronto the grandmother jumped out of her wheelchair when she saw her family.

Those describing the experiences were emotional in the telling, as were those of us listening. The Al Mansours and these relatives all spent extended periods of time in crowded refugee camps in Lebanon. Now they are settling in to fully equipped apartments in Belleville.

We recognize that we can't solve the problems of the Middle East and the rising tide of displaced people in the region. There are now 52 million refugees from 13 countries in that troubled part of the world, more than the population of Spain.

As people of faith, choosing a common cause of compassion and hospitality, we endeavour to make a difference in this moment and this place. We will do everything possible to let these human beings, loved by God, learn a new song of hope.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Honouring Chanie Wenjack

Recently the exceptional Canadian writer Joseph Boyden released a book about a First Nations boy named Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack who was born the same year as me, 1954. But rather than living a full and meaningful life as I've been able to do as white, middle class male, Chanie died at the age of twelve as the result of hunger and exposure.  He ran away from his residential school, and perished as he attempted to return to his home. His death sparked national attention and the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.

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Along with this book there is a project connected to Chanie Wenjack initiated by Gord Downie, the leader singer of the Tragically Hip. Downie has terminal brain cancer, so his Secret Path collection of sung poems in particularly poignant. As Downie's memory fades, he is collaborating with the Wenjack family to uphold  the memory of a child wrested from his own culture by a system created by government and religious authorities. The concert which launched Secret Path this past Tuesday was moving, according to all reports. This from CBC News:

Pearl closed the concert with a traditional Anishinaabe healing song, sung without accompaniment. Her hand was held by Downie as she sang, her strong, clear voice softening with emotion at the fourth and final chorus. Charlie Wenjack's grave in Marten Falls First Nation at Ogoki Post in northwestern Ontario. She stepped back from the microphone, and then forward again. "My father died in 1987 without ever knowing why his son had to die," she said. "My mother still waits. To this day no one has told her why her son had to go." Wenjack's sobs filled the auditorium.

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Both the federal government and various religious groups, including the United Church of Canada, have acknowledged what was cultural genocide, and the dark
truth that many of the children taken into the residential school system were not only abused, psychologically and physically, but died.  The estimates of those who died has been growing steadily since the Truth and Reconciliation commission has fulfilled its grim mandate across the country.

Musician Gord Downie meets with Charlie Wenjack's sister Pearl Wenjack in Marten Falls First Nation last month.

Gord Downie and Pearl Wenjack ( Chanie's sister)

While we don't always want to have our sins revealed, whether individually or corporately, we know that the notions of forgiveness and reconciliation are hollow unless we confess and repent. I hope that the efforts of both Gord Downie and Joseph Boyden will help us as we discover how this can happen. I encourage you to revisit the apologies made by the United Church and read more about our participation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.

When we hear of four children, with one only ten years old, taking their lives on a Northern Saskatchewan Reserve in recent days we realize the legacy of  despair is still painfully real.


Charlie Wenjack's grave

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Next Chapter

On Sunday morning I informed the Bridge St. congregation of my intention to retire as of June 30th, 2017. I began the conversation with our Personnel Team in June of this year, had further discussions, and chose to let the congregation know early so the sometimes ponderous search process could get underway. This is actually earlier than I had intended when accepting a call here, but It just seems right.

I had my first interview to become a candidate for ordained ministry when I was nineteen years old and I am grateful that the Rev. Dr. Stanley Osborne and the committee from Oshawa Presbytery took me seriously, and honoured my developing sense of God's call,  even though I was essentially a kid. Dr. Osborne was principal of the Ontario Ladies College at that time, and in a lovely coincidence our daughter Jocelyn was married in the chapel a year ago. She and Jeff chose the venue not knowing that I was interviewed there decades before.

The church no longer interviews possible candidates before they have begun post-secondary education, yet here I am 42 years later, having completed six years of university, including my Masters of Divinity, before embarking on what will be 37 consecutive years of pastoral ministry in six pastoral charges. Hmm...

As I spoke Sunday, Ruth, my partner in life and ministry, listened from the congregation. Remarkably, we began our relationship with we were nineteen-year-olds and were married at twenty-one. Not only has ministry been the trajectory of my entire adult life, she has been my loving, encouraging, wise and patient companion through all those years. We have lived in Newfoundland, Northern Ontario, Nova Scotia, as well as Southern Ontario, and Ruth has always been willing to pick up and go on to the next challenge. She is a remarkable person.

Ruth and our adult children Isaac, and Jocelyn, and Emily, have been wonderfully supportive in this decision. They have seen that while I love ministry in many respects, and consider serving these congregations in Christ's name an honour, the demands have taken a toll. I am physically healthy, yet emotionally and spiritually weary, so it is time.

I promised myself that after being absent far too often from family life when our children were young, I would make the right decisions about being present to grandchildren when the time came. Because Ruth and I are both Preacher's Kids we've had a lifetime of weekend commitments when others were enjoying something as simple as consecutive days off and three-day weekends supposedly mandated by law. Congregations really need to figure this out in the 21st century!

That said, I really appreciate the folk of the Bridge St. congregation and what I feel is our vital and meaningful Christian presence in this community. I commented to Ruth this morning that this is a congregation with a heart in the heart of the city, and our meal ministries and refugee sponsorships are amongst the highlights of my ministry.

What will I do next? Gulp...I'm not sure. I commented Sunday that this feels like jumping off a cliff, and I'm trusting that I'm wearing a wing suit to soar into new and creative opportunities. I want to reconnect with my contemplative self, expand my passion for the outdoors and creation, and rediscover the dormant aspects of my creative spirit. "Splat!" is not an option.  

Christ has been my companion through these years, and I'm confidant that this will not end.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls

We have a massive bell tower at Bridge St Church, which soars over the downtown in Belleville. In that tower there is a hefty bell pull rope, although it is no longer used, as the bell is controlled electronically from the convenience of the narthex. It's better and worse to ring it from downstairs. We can't speed the ringing to a joyful cadence for a wedding, nor can we slow it down to a mournful toll for a funeral or a memorial service such as the one held here for those killed in an Orlando nightclub earlier this year.

In some of the cathedrals of Europe, and a handful of places in North America, bells are much more serious business. There are peals of bells, and trained ringers who play complicated changes which ring out over the cities where the churches are located. I've heard this, quite by happy coincidence while in Canterbury, Great Britain.

There has been a stir at another of the foremost cathedrals of Britain, York Minster, over the firing of 30 bell ringers from their team for reasons unknown. If you're like me, you're surprised that there might be that many ringers (are there more?!) and that this would become such an issue. How do you get fired as a bell ringer? Do you riff on Born to be Wild" when you should be playing medieval changes?  Apparently these volunteers ringers will be replaced with professionals, but not until the new year. This means that the fourth "heaviest" peal of bells in Britain will be silenced for Remembrance Day and Christmas/New Year's.

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As odd as this controversy sounds, we know that there is a long and meaningful tradition of church bells serving as warning, celebration, invitation to worship within communities of all sizes. Bells are rung to mark the conclusion of conflict, to say farewell to a significant figure, to warn about climate change, and to mark the hours of the day. It's wonderful that places of worship have been the home to bells and it is curious and intriguing that the brouhaha at York Minster has become newsworthy.


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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Above and Beyond Ugly

When I was in a community in the summer where I once served I had contact with two people I liked very much when I was their minister. One has remained a good friend for Ruth, and me, and I stayed in her home during the visit. I had lunch with the other, and it was good to renew acquaintances after many years. During those Sudbury years they were a married couple, at least to begin with, and our children were friends with their children. Then the marriage came apart, and the months and years following have not been kind. Even though the breakup occurred more than 15 years ago, there has never been resolution. The recent wedding of one of the children had its tensions, sad to say.

We so wish this wasn't the case, but as a minister I've experienced this all too often through the years. In most instances the hope is that the end of a relationship won't be contentious, for the sake of the children, but the wheels of civility come off along the way.

These situations came to mind when I saw the article in The Guardian entitled  Parenting after divorce: the art of not being ugly by Sasha Frere-Jones. This couple seems to have gone through a painful parting, yet they managed to establish a couple of basic ground rules which have served them well.

We held to that one point of agreement: change the boys’ lives as little as possible. After children have seen their lives inverted, that all sounds a bit feeble, but it was a seed.

But a second rule went into effect early: no badmouthing the other parent, whatever the topic. And we were lucky – we liked and respected each other, beneath the turbulence. That’s where we had started. So the irregular interactions led to a committed decision to not be ugly, even when that seemed impossible. There was enough doubt and hurt for all four of us – anything to clean the air helped. It was a way of being both selfish and considerate.Even when there wasn’t much of it, talking was a boon.

"Thou shalt not be ugly" seems to be an excellent 11th commandment for separated parents. One would hope that it would be an even greater priority for people of faith, but life isn't easy, and it's a mistake to be judgmental from the outside.

Have you lived through this yourself? Have you the child in a difficult family breakup? Is there an art and a spiritual grace to not being ugly?