Thursday, July 31, 2014

Under God's Roof

A woman holds a model of the House of One

A month ago reader Larry sent me a link to a story about a practical interfaith initiative in Berlin, Germany. There are plans for the construction of a place of worship which will house a Muslim, a Jewish, and a Christian congregation. It is an unprecedented proposal which still has a long way to go, but the notion of one building including worship spaces for all three faiths, as well as a common room sounds wonderful to me. In the BBC News piece the Christian cleric is interviewed:

Each faith will keep its distinctive ways within its own areas, Pastor Hohberg says."Under one roof: one synagogue, one mosque, one church. We want to use these rooms for our own traditions and prayers. And together we want to use the room in the middle for dialogue and discussion and also for people without faith. Berlin is a city where people come together from all over the world and we want to give a good example of togetherness."

There is no desire to homogenize the three faiths, simply to demonstrate that distinctly different religions can literally find common ground for mutual respect and understanding.

Since hearing about this I listened to a CBC radio interview with a Toronto rabbi and an imam whose lengthy relationship has been built on trust, humour, and an obvious affection after more than twenty years of friendship. Their places of worship share a parking lot, but they share a great deal more as congregations.

This can happen! In a world where mistrust and violence rooted in tribal religion cause us to be discouraged we need the stories of dialogue and respect.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Boyhood, Childhood and Our Hope

A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40

On Saturday we drove daughter-in-law Rebekah and grandson Nicholas to Toronto where we rendezvoused with son Isaac for their return to London. I was delighted to spend time with their family, including six successive days with Nicholas. He is eighteen months old and was a different person than the year-old I saw at Christmas. He walks, has started talking in both official languages, loves music and books, has likes and dislikes. It was a pleasure to get him out in a canoe twice and watch him trailing his hand in the water with great fascination. I wish I could see him more often, but it was also fun to see so much development and change in a matter of months.

We went downtown from our meeting place and watched a movie at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the drama called Boyhood. We watch as an American boy named Mason becomes a young man. What makes this film remarkable is that it is filmed over the course of twelve years with the same cast or primary characters throughout, a considerable risk given all that would have changed in the lives of everyone involved. They came together every year to film the next sequence of the story. As a result we watch Mason and his sister grow from young children to young adults. The film is nearly three hours in length but remains fascinating because of the direction, the acting, and the transformation unfolding before us.

We found that we were both emotional at the conclusion, and knew that in part it was because of our time with Nicholas. When I was in London to pick them up Nicholas would point at his father and say "Papa" and then at me, quizzically offering "Papa" as though he was trying to figure out the generations.

While he was with us he played at a wooden table we have hauled around with through the years. He sat in a chair marked with a red "I" for Isaac, his father. He loved the bucket of cars and trucks including a selection of the metal Matchbox toys from my childhood. As life unfolds we aren't always aware of the passage of time in our busyness, and then we have the reminders of how fleeting and rewarding our existence is.

I am grateful that my faith helps me put life in perspective. Even though the brevity of our time here can be unsettling and even scary, God is our companion on the journey in all its changing seasons. I want to trust that in Christ these years have meaning and be the source of hope.


Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all who breathe away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

 O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come;
be thou our guide while life shall last,
and our eternal home.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Radical Religion

Another Canadian jihadi fighter

Ah yes, the irregular schedule of vacation does knock me out of the rhythm of blogging. I have been thinking about the recent reports of a young Ontario man who became a radicalized Islamist and went off to fight in Syria. When he was wounded he came back to his family to recover, but eventually returned.

What struck me was that this man was discouraged from taking the radical route by his mosque and actually participated in seminars to this end. His family also attempted to dissuade him to the extent that his mother hid his passport. Somehow he got back to Syria, claiming he is willing to kill and to die.

Often those who are anti-Muslim are critical of the religion in a couple of ways. One is to assume that all Muslims are violent extremists. The other is to accuse non-violent Muslims of not doing or saying enough in opposition to the terrorists. But we all have free will, and none of us can insist that another do as we direct them, especially as adults.

This week the world is recognizing the beginning of the First World War, a conflict which resulted in the deaths of nine million combatants, most of them young. Many young Canadians enlisted for a war whose purposes were vague and with little idea of the horror they would encounter. It is the way of war, and the young are recruited to fight and die for a variety of causes. Religion is often used to justify conflict, and to make casualties into martyrs.

I applaud the imams and the congregations of mosques and the families of those who are being recruited in their efforts for peace and counteracting the way of terror.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Clamming Up

This morning we were off to paddle a portion of the Moira River north of Belleville with precious cargo. Our daughter-in-law Rebekah made sure that our eighteen-month-old grandson,  Nicholas, did not enthusiastically pitch himself into the murky water. We want Nicholas to gain an early appreciation of being out on the water and he did seem to enjoy himself.

It didn't occur to me immediately that we had an expert onboard. Rebekah is a freshwater ecologist and has just completed an aquatic study for McGill University. She explained some clam shells which were not as impressive to me as the blue herons and osprey and the school of gar swimming past, yet they are remarkable. They have developed a lure-like appendage which attracts certain fish. When they come close the clams squirt their young into the gills of the fish where they live until they are fully formed and release themselves. This is all the more amazing since clams are blind. How do they know what would attract the fish?

Rebekah is a scientist, yet she wondered aloud at the complexity of this evolutionary development and can appreciate why people are convinced that this is the work of a creative force, what we call God. I agree. I suppose I'll continue to make room for both and continue to be amazed by the variety of our wonderful planet.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Chef Jesus

We went to see Chef this past week, a Jon Favreau film with a great cast. At times it is rather predictable but in the end it is a worthwhile story of a precocious chef who realizes he has drifted from edgy to establishment in terms of his menu at a high-end restaurant. After a melt-down directed at a critic who is withering in his disdain for the predictability of the chef's fare he is disgraced and fired. He returns to his roots in Miami and then hits the road in a food truck as a kind of pilgrimage to re-establish his creativity.

Chef's ten-year-old son accompanies him, a boy who  has longed for time with his over-worked and distracted father. Along the way the boy learns to cook and demonstrates his own strengths through promoting the truck on social media.

Of course, I see this story as a Christian parable -- would you expect anything else from a minister? Jesus was something of a foodie, enjoying meals with people at the edge of a culture where there were strict dietary protocols. His last meal has become one of the key sacramental aspects of our Christian faith. Somehow, though, our menu has become very predictable and many expressions of the Christian church are dismayed that people find our fare bland and uninspiring. Maybe we can reimagine Jesus as the creative, innovative chef of our faith once again.

In Chef the word gets out that the food truck is coming to town. The hungry and the curious line up for what is being served. Wouldn't it be great if we could set out on a new adventure, a new pilgrimage with Chef Jesus?

Have you seen this film? Do we need more than "comfort food" in the church today? What would our faith-full food truck look like, and what would we put on the menu? And what about making little chefs, as disciples?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Good Listeners

Shush! Did you hear that? I hope so, whatever it might be. This is World Listening Day and we are nudged toward attentiveness, to one another, to the natural world, and, in my worldview, God. I consider the three to be related. If I'm not listening to God I tend to be tone-deaf to the real voices of others. If I am not listening to nature then I lose an opportunity to hear God's expression through Creation.

This morning I dropped Ruth at work and then drove north of Belleville to the Frink Centre, which is a beautiful conservation and interpretation centre along the Moira River. I was there before the gates were opened and there were no other vehicles. I walked through the mixed forest and listened to the birds, the frogs, and the mosquitoes. The wind picked up in the maples from time to time and I stopped to listen. At one point walking along the river I crunched across the clam shells likely left by otters.

I decided to also make my way along the marsh boardwalk to the north of the road. The sounds were quite different with the breeze in the grasses. I met Kenzo, a tiny man of Japanese background who I often see on the Bayshore Trail in Belleville. I told him about World Listening Day and he smiled and nodded his head. He comes to the boardwalk nearly every day to listen and look. He showed me a photo of a baby sora, a very elusive marsh bird, and a rare Blanding's turtle. As I walked away I heard him tell his equally tiny Pomeranian dog that it was World Listening Day and that they must pay attention. It was sweet.

How are you when it comes to listening? Are you able to receive as well as transmit? Will you find some time to listen to God, others, and Creation today? Are you a good listener?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Toast to Bernie

Tomorrow will be the memorial service for a former parishioner and I will not be there. Once again I am struggling with the necessary but painful reality of keeping my professional distance from my former pastoral charge. I thought the world of Bernie, who was actually Bernice, but as with many women of her generation took on a male nickname. In the same congregation there was a Billie and a Georgi. Bernie was anything but male. She was an elegant, accomplished, vivacious woman. She was seventy-nine when I met her and ninety when she died, but she was beautiful to the end, with the panache of an aging movie star. Our two daughters loved her fashion sense and style, as did my wife Ruth.  

Bernie was a person of depth, thoughtful in conversation, often engaging me after worship to talk about the sermon or give the service her stamp of approval. Her opinion mattered to me.

Aspects of her life had not been easy, yet her spirit was not dampened. She was compassionate, concerned about the well-being of neighbours, and she was a lot of fun. Bernie was the matriarch of a group of women who were all her junior by many years, including Ruth, and they gathered periodically to share a meal and the fullness of life. These women are mourning her death, and one of them, reader Lynn, will reflect on her full-to-the-brim life tomorrow.

I am reminded again that our loss has nothing to do with the deceased's chronological age. Is this a tragedy? No, and Bernie would scoff at the notion. Are we saddened to the point of tears? I know I am.

Thank you God for the life shared with us in Bernie. Condolences to her family. A toast to a classy lady.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ramadan and Understanding

The world's Muslims are well into the thirty day observation of Ramadan, an annual period of fasting and spiritual purification. I freely admit that I am not well informed about Islam even though I have tried to learn more through the years, both by reading and in conversation with Muslims.

It hadn't occurred to me that the geography of Canada would create challenges for some of the faithful. If a Muslim is allowed to break his or her fast at sundown, what if there is no sundown? In the Far North daylight hours are so long that observing the fast could be life-threatening:

Islamic scholars have ruled that in Far North places such as Inuvik, Muslims can go by the time of cities in the south. So for Mr. Suliman and the roughly 100 observant Muslims in Inuvik, when the sun sets in Winnipeg it also sets in Inuvik, at least for the purposes of Ramadan. Otherwise, Muslims in the North would be fasting non-stop for an entire month.

Ahmad Alkhalaf, an engineer who also lives in Inuvik, says observing Ramadan in the North still requires a bit of an adjustment, even though he has lived there for 11 years. “You’re supposed to break your fast when it’s dusk and we eat when the sun is out. So it’s psychologically tough for the first couple of days,” he said. “But we follow time, more than what we’re seeing outside. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do this. It’s an abnormal situation.

This is a reminder that Islam is not as rigid as some might think. These are real people dealing with the real challenges of our faith -- just like the rest of us. I wrote before about Osgoode Hall prof Ziyaad Mia who started a program of contributing a loonie a day for hunger relief, a nice tie-in with the theme of fasting This morning I listened to young Muslim women discussing an Iftar, or communal fast-breaking meal which allows them to support one another in a culture where they are the minority. Another group is working on information sharing about Ramadan and Islam to address stereotypes.

It is important to be aware of these challenges and initiatives in our pluralistic society, Maybe this will lead to greater awareness and acceptance.

Do you agree?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Dawn of Understanding

On Sunday afternoon I went with wife Ruth and daughter Jocelyn to see the film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Blockbuster action films are just not my thing, but the reviews have been so positive we decided to don our 3-D glasses and took a look.

We found this prequel to the prequel to the...well to all the be entertaining and even thought-provoking. Without undermining your possible viewing, a virus wipes out most of humanity and one pocket of survivors lives a tough existence in  shatteredSan Francisco. The apes, escapees from medical research labs,  have established a healthy colony in the forests beyond the city. A human scouting party encounters the apes, and conflict ensues.

The themes of suspicion of "the other" and the conviction that violence is a solution to problems over diplomacy run through the film, sometimes in an overly obvious way and sometimes with nuance.  The voices of reason from both sides are often ignored.

The resonances with "first contact" between Europeans and First Nations, and the current conflict in Israel and Palestine came to mind. Lest that sound demeaning given that one group is apes, it is the apes who often come across as wiser and more restrained.

It was a bit of a relief that there were no heavy-handed references to religion as a factor in justifying the enmity between the two groups. That seems to be the flavour of the day in many films, although God knows fundamentalist religion is often "guilty as charged."

Have any of you seen this film? Are you intrigued?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Tit for Tat

As I write this I'm also listening to a piece on radio about the tragic, deadly mess in Israel and Palestine. We know that three Israeli young men were murdered while hitchhiking through the West Bank. It was risky behaviour, but these students didn't deserve to be attacked, let alone die. Then a Palestinian teen was brutally murdered, burned alive. He had done nothing to provoke the attack, and it was as cowardly as the murders of the three teens.

In both cases extremist religion appears to have been a factor. The three charged with the death of the Palestinian teen, two of them only seventeen, are clearly connected to an radical Jewish group. On both sides terrible cruelty is justified in God's name.

The outcome of these murders was sadly predictable. The fools of Hamas began to fire rockets into Israel.  Whenever they do so they create huge uneasiness in Israel but do limited damage. The Israeli government has justifiably responded with force, although once again with a heavy-handedness which has resulted in nearly 100 Palestinian deaths and thousands are homeless. Most of the dead are civilians and a large percentage are women and children.

Nothing about this makes sense. Both sides shout "they started it!" and both claim that they have a right to do violence. And the prospect of some workable truce, if not true peace slips further away.

God help them all.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Not long ago we were reminded of the twenty fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massaqcres in China.. Commentators noted that despite the courage of the participants in the cause of freedom, little had changed in terms of freedoms and basic human rights.

Last Saturday the Globe amd Mail newspaper offered a feature look at the situation for   Christiaenzhous in China today. The church is growing to the extent that China now has one of the largest Christian populations in the world at around 70 million. But harassment and persecution of leaders and congregations has increased under the current regime. Leaders are being detained and incarcerated, publishers are restricted and church buildings forced to take down external crosses. Documents indicate that there is an imperative to stem the growth of religion and Christianity specifically in China, even as officials deny this.

 Even though Christians represent just 5% of the population, in 1949, at the time of the communist revolution, there were only four million Christians. Clearly they are perceived as a threat today. In the city of Wenzhou a huge new church was demolished shortly after it was finished.Wherever the churches are knocked down officials claim it is because of faulty building practices.

We need to pay attention to the plight of Christians wherever they are harassed and persecuted and marginalized. In Iraq ten thousand Christians in the north of the country have fled their homes and communities because of ISIS, the militant Islamist group. While we should be concerned about religious persecution of any kind, these are our brothers and sisters in Christ and their plight must matter to us.

Sunday, July 06, 2014


Belle Movie Poster

Last week we went to see an entertaining movie named Belle. It is costume drama, set in eighteenth century Britain, a time when the slave trade still flourished. Belle is a lovely mixed-race young woman, the daughter of a British naval officer and a woman of colour who may have been a slave. After the mother's death the child is taken to live with wealthy and influential grandparents who struggle with the social stigma of a "mulatto" grandchildren. Still, they raise her with love despite some of the social restrictions to which they adhere. The grandfather is the chief justice of England and is called upon to rule on a case involving a slave ship.

If this sounds a bit far-fetched, it is based on true. We know nothing about Belle's personal life from historical records but her existence and the manner in which she was raised are documented. It was unusual for the time, and the film does a good job of imagining what her life might be like, including the prospects for marriage.

What the story ignores altogether is that the movement to abolish slavery in Britain was passionately carried forward by Christians, including William Wilberforce. If anything the film minimizes the role of religion in favour of the law in regard to the end of slavery. Just the same, it is well worth seeing.

Have any of you heard of Belle, or seen it? Do you know much about the history of slavery in Britain? Do a search on William Wilberforce. You will be inspired.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Step Five Revisited

Some of you will recall a blog entry in which I described meeting with a guy who wanted to address the Fifth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is essentially the "come clean before God and somebody else about how you have messed up" step. This fellow did well, admitting that he has always tried to blame others, including two ex-wives, for his problems. Never once did he use the word disease, which means he didn't say that he wouldn't  been such a mean son-of-a-gun if it hadn't been for an illness. At the end we prayed and I haven't seen him since.

I wish I could find this fellow and send him to have a chat with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Ford returned from rehab earlier this week and set out to tell us once again that he was humiliated by his actions. We get that part, but then the recovery movement jargon just flowed out of him and in no time all the racist, sexist, homophobic bile he splashed around was dismisses as the result of drugs and alcohol. Once again Rob Ford has proven what a self-absorbed character he is. He has conveniently mistaken quasi-confession with true contrition. And he appears totally unprepared to accept that there are consequences for his actions. There is no definitive medical proof that alcoholism is a disease, but even if it is, it doesn't give a pass for any and all socially unacceptable behaviour.

It may sound as if \I am being unnecessarily hard on the mayor, but I saw all this play out when  I was a chaplain intern at Kingston Pen. Some inmates realized that 12-Step groups were an opportunity to reclaim their lives. Others saw them as one more "con" to garner sympathy and manipulate others.

God invites all  of us to "come clean," acknowledge our transgressions, and accept the consequences. I sure hope Toronto voters aren't conned by the Artful Dodger. I really do think he needs a genuine "come to Jesus" moment. Then again, we all do.


Friday, July 04, 2014

Suffer the Liittle Migrant Children

But Jesus said, "Let the children come to me. Don't stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children." Matthew 19:14

Today is the 4th of July, a big deal for my American cousins. I have been in the States for this celebration and it is flags everywhere and patriotism coming out the wazoo. On Canada Day I had our flag out, and so did our next door neighbour. That was it for our court. I literally have American cousins in several states and they think differently on a number of issues, including immigration.

I chatted with one who was here from Maryland recently. His wife teaches English to undocumented immigrants and has done so for years. They are a well-to-do couple but unlike many others they see immigrants as an asset rather than a liability and recognize the industry and desire to learn amongst these Spanish-speaking newcomers. Another cousin from Texas will be visiting us soon. She is lovely person, but she has a different view of "illegals." I wouldn't say it is terribly harsh but it isn't exactly warm and fuzzy. It's interesting that my Maryland cousin is the non-churchgoer while my Texas cousin is an enthusiastic member of a megachurch.

In my conversation with my Maryland cousin we touched on the recent influx of undocumented children, arriving without adult accompaniment from countries such as Honduras. They are fleeing the violence of the drug cartels and often their parents have been killed. Somehow they are being smuggled into the US where they are treated like terrorists or drug dealers, locked up in pens with very little support.

No one wants these kids. Recently several busloads were taken to a detention centre in a California city, pending deportation. They were met by angry residents waving placards and American flags, some of them chanting "go back home" and "USA, USA."What does that mean? This is the country which has always depended on cheap immigrant and yes, even slave labour, to do menial work. It is a country, like our own, which outsources work to make sure that consumer goods are ridiculously inexpensive. But the message seems to be that USA is spelled NIMBY. Of course, these are desperate children, not adults.

To be honest, I wonder how welcoming we would be, and the current federal government likes to tell us that they are immigrant and refugee friendly but sure doesn't act that way. There are religious groups which are vocally calling for compassion with these children and many church groups provide practical support to immigrants, but there is a lot of racism and xenophobia.

Have you heard about these children? How should they be treated? Do you think there would be the same Not In My Back Yard sentiment in your community?

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Methodist History & Canada Day

A week ago we drove to Huff's Island in Prince Edward County and put in our canoe along the aptly named Marsh Rd. We made our way out the channel toward open water with cattails on either side. We stopped briefly at a newly constructed dock and boardwalk, the only one along that stretch. Tucked behind the dock we were invisible to a pair of bitterns which flew in, only a couple of metres above us. I have never been that close to elusive bitterns before.

On our way out we scared up ducks, watched kingfishers dart by, and steered clear of touchy looking swans. My motto is, don't mess with the big birds. After nearly an hour we arrived at Grape Island, which was the site of a settlement of First Nations people established by the Bridge St. Methodists in the 1820's. These were Mississaugas rather than Mohawks who, from what I can tell, and were brought to the area by the well-meaning Methodists. Some were baptized in the Methodist church, and eventually two islands, Grape and Sawguin, were leased from the local Native band for settlement. Ninety adults and forty children established themselves on Grape Island in the fall of 1826 and into 1827.

As we approached the island, now privately owned, a felt a way of emotion. There is a swath of wild rice at the east end and some of the trees are huge. It was calm enough that we could circumnavigate the island and we stopped briefly, although it is private property.

Why did I feel that emotion? It was the mixture of feelings about those who shared the gospel of Christ out of deep conviction, and those who were the recipients of evangelization, often with the expectation that they would give up their traditional ways. Why did these 130 people need to be taken from elsewhere to establish a community. Were they treated with respect, or as "less than" those who shared the gospel with them?

The Grape Island experiment lasted less than a decade. A "native son" named John Sunday became the pastor and eventually Grape Island became part of a two-point charge with the band at Rice Lake, a day's journey away. Eventually the Grape Island folk moved to what is now Alderville, where the First Nation continues.

On Canada Day I am grateful for the First Nations, the first peoples of this marvelous land. I only hope we do better in the days ahead when it comes to respect and reciprocity.