Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Deal With the Devil?

Matthew McGregor/Canadian Forces

A new laptop is a wonderful thing, but it can slow down the routine tasks of the day. Fortunately Frank has got me up and running.

Last evening parliament voted to extend the Canadian military mission against ISIL/ISIS, both in length of time and scope. Now Canadian planes will be bombing targets within the Syrian borders. All opposition parties opposed this "mission creep" and some of the arguments against extending this military action were eloquent. However, the Conservative majority prevailed and minister Jason Kenny made his usual bombastic statements about members from the opposition "hanging there heads in shame"  and supporting evil.

A notable abstention from the vote was by respected Liberal Irwin Cotler, a politician I greatly admire. Cotler is a former justice minister and a long-time human rights advocate. He wonders whether we haven't tacitly given support to a human rights criminal by extending the mission in this fashion:

...the Government’s motion lacks clarity about what the strategic nature and limits of Canada’s mission will be. It mentions airstrike capability as only one element of a larger contribution of unnamed Canadian military assets; it does not specify where these assets will be deployed; and it has been less clear than warranted about the mission’s objectives, costs, command, and rules of engagement.

In particular – and this is reason enough for me not to support the motion – I am deeply disturbed by the Prime Minister’s statement that Canada would require the approval of the criminal Assad regime to carry out operations in Syria. To allow the perpetrator of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, to green-light Canadian intervention is to turn Right to Protect on its head. Assad should be a criminal defendant, not a coalition partner.

In the this week when we are mindful of the power of a regime which tortured and murdered Jesus, we have to ask why our nation has chosen this pathway. Certainly ISIS has been involved in evil acts and threatened Western nations including Canada. Yet minister Kenny has used the bizarre logic that because Syria and President Assad haven't threatened us they are a better ally. Really? More than 200,000 dead, millions displaced, children targeted by the regime's snipers. Isn't this an even greater evil?

What are your thoughts on this? Have we made a decision to defend ourselves or is this a "deal with the devil?"

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Muslim Jesus?

Haaz Sleiman  plays Jesus in National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Jesus”. PHOTO: KENT EANES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNELS

We enter Holy Week with a number of "Jesusy" TV offerings, a combination of old chesnut movies, newer adaptations and historical explorations such as National Geographic's Killing Jesus. It is based on the book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard and it explores the political and religious dynamics which led to Jesus' death. I wasn't able to watch because we don't have the channel but it is one of the side stories which intrigues me. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/killing-jesus/

The actor who plays Jesus is Middle Eastern, which may be a first, and he is Muslim. Haaz Sleiman was born in the United Arab Emirates and raised in Lebanon. Sleiman, who was raised Muslim, might be best known for playing an illegal immigrant in The Visitor, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination in 2008. This was a little film we really liked.

Sleiman was interviewed by Christianity Today and asked how his mother felt about him taking on this role. His answer was interesting:

Well, in Islam, Jesus is a prophet, and if you look at Mohammed and Jesus and Moses, it's not like Moses is better than Jesus and Jesus is better than Mohammed. They're all so highly respected and honored and followed and they're all there for a reason. Jesus is probably even more important than Mohammed in a way. He came before Mohammed, and I think he's mentioned in the Koran so many times, people would be shocked.

Sleiman's mother gave her blessing and he considered playing Jesus an honour.

Any thoughts about this?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Playmobil Martin Luther!

Well, who would have called this one? In anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017 the Playmobil company has created a little figure of Martin Luther, the founder of the movement. From time to time Playmobil does issue special figures, but they couldn't have anticipated the response to this one. All 34,000 of the first run sold out in days, the fastest selling special edition ever. Playmobil is now scrambling to produce more.

Martin Luther was a remarkable and complex person. He was a Roman Catholic priest whose deep anxiety about personal salvation led him to radical new conclusions about the grace of Christ. He wanted to remain a Catholic but ended up creating a "protest-ant" movement which led him out of the church and into a "married with children life."
He had an ugly side, becoming a terrible anti-Semite when the Jews wouldn't come around to his way of thinking. And he was convinced that he literally did battle with demons. Yet his translation of scripture for the German Bible was a blueprint for other vernacular translations. We wouldn't worship as Protestants without his thought and practice, and of course he wrote hymns, including A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.

Thoughts about Luther, or Playmobil, or anything else, dear readers?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Who is My Neighbour?

If you read this blog regularly you'll know all too well that I gas on about all manner of social issues from war (& peace) to poverty, to inequality, to care of the planet. I do so because I figure that the prophets and Jesus call me to care about these things and more. Salvation, from my reading of the bible, isn't just me and Jesus, even though that relationship is central to my faith. It's just that if my heart has been changed by Christ, it really should show up in my desire for justice for others and for the planet. In fact, the prophets and Jesus warn me not to get all holy and religious if I'm not willing to love my neighbour. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?
It's encouraging from my standpoint to see that the Church of England has released a 52-page position paper in anticipation of the upcoming election in Great Britain. The title is in the form of a question "Who is My Neighbour?" and it is followed by another question "How should Christian men and women approach the General Election to be held on 7 May 2015?" The C of E offers a rationale for the paper:
Some people, including some in the positions of influence in the media, politics and elsewhere, claim that religion and politics cannot mix. They assert that religion belongs solely to the private sphere and must not trespass into the realm of political or economic life. Although this is often treated as a universal truth, it is a view largely confined to the modern-day European context. In previous centuries, and in most parts of the world today, it has been accepted that religious belief of its nature addresses the whole of life, private and public. It is not possible to separate the way a person perceives his or her place in the created order from their beliefs, religious or otherwise, about how the world’s affairs ought to be arranged.
Take a look at the pdf and see whether you agree with the approach of the bishops.
Are you proud of the United Church for its positions on different social issues or do you wish we would pipe down? In your view should we be more focused on the issues of personal salvation or does  the phrase "thy kingdom come" in the Lord's Prayer compel us to be engaged in the issues of the day? Do we need a paper like this prior to our federal election later this year?
                                                                                   He Qi



Friday, March 27, 2015

Mission of Mercy

 Every once in a while stories rise from the muck of violence and heartache in our world to give us hope. These stories often involve individuals who are moved by the plight of others and respond with compassion, even though there may be considerable personal cost. When we hear of them we may wonder what has motivated their kindness and determination to make a difference.

I saw recently that a wealthy couple from Louisiana has spent eight million dollars of their own money purchasing and equipping a ship to rescue migrants crossing from Africa to Europe. These asylum seekers are desperate to leave circumstances of danger and privation so they are nearly always crammed into unseaworthy vessels and many of them never make it. Amnesty International says that in 2014 more than 200,000 tried --a record year -- and an estimated 3,500 drowned.

Christopher and Regina Catrambone equipped the Phoenix and hired a crew. While they are well off, the eight million is half of their personal wealth. Their first trip out they rescued 271 people including more than a hundred woman and children from a boat that had begun to take on water.

They went on to found the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which began operations last year. "We're the only game in town at the moment," Christopher Catrambone says.In just 60 days, they saved about 3,000 migrants crossing the sea in rickety wooden boats or dinghies. They then coordinated with Italy and Malta in bringing the migrants to shore. This year, they're trying to raise money to operate for six months.

The Catrambones were motivated by Pope Francis, appeal to help migrants, but who could have imagined their generosity? A priest came on board the day before the Phoenix embarked on its first patrol to offer a mass. The priest told the assembled crew that they are on a mission from God and I would have to agree.

Any comments about this mission of mercy? Had you heard about their efforts?

Chris Catrambone and priest at the mass on board the Phoenix

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Community Growing Community

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’

When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’

I have just returned from a seminar on community gardens held in Trenton. Even though Holy Week looms large I decided to attend. After all, Jesus was buried in a garden tomb and mistaken for the gardener on the day of resurrection.

The morning was inspirational, although emerging from an event showing slides of lush gardens into a veritable blizzard was cause for dismay. There were about fifty people on hand from every group imaginable and some representing themselves.

One of the presenters was Jill Bishop, the coordinator of the Peterborough Community Garden Network. http://growpeterborough.org/Jill offered an excellent overview of the growing community gardening network in that city. There are now 32 community gardens in Peterborough and I'm sure that Jill's enthusiasm and hard work are a big part of the success. By contrast Belleville has three community gardens and about 60 plots.

As Jill showed us images of the various gardens three United Churches were featured. These are congregations which have decided to literally plant the seeds of community outreach as well as nurturing a sense that living as Christ's people involves being active outside the cloistered walls of places of worship. I was pleased that churches were featured and that they were United Churches.

Today there were several volunteers from our Inn from the Cold and Thank God It's Friday food ministries in attendance. We are exploring what the possibilities might be for expanding our support of those who are "food insecure," to use a current phrase. We have discovered that the guests for our hot meals during January and February appreciate that they are being served wholesome, nutritious food. What if we could actually grow some of that food and teach our guests how to cook it?

We don't have much space around our Bridge St physical plant, but we are adjacent to a large empty lot. Many of our volunteers are from St.Thomas Anglican church just across from us. They do have land which might become a community garden.

Community gardens help build community and can be part of the revitalization of tired city cores. Take a look at this video to see what can happen  https://wangarigardens.wordpress.com/

Today's seminar opened up many possibilities and I'm glad I was there.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thoughts about Israel

What are some of my colleagues thinking now, I wonder? A couple of years ago the General Council of the United Church wrestled with our denominational responses to the development of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. Before the meeting of Council a document was circulated that raised the ire of the Jewish community in Canada because it was perceived as unbalanced and unfair in its portrayal of Israel. It also suggested a boycott of products from communities in the Occupied Territories but the media made a mess of reporting this and it seemed that the United Church was advocating a boycott of all Israeli products.

The focus of the discussion was on justice for Palestinians, but the United Church has always been careful to uphold the right of Israel to exist and has been in open dialogue with the Jewish community here and internationally. Still we were portrayed as anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic, and that we were sympathetic to terrorists. Some United Church clergy got on that bandwagon. I felt that their characterization of the UCC was unfair and their understanding of the situation naïve.

It's strange because while the current government of Canada has seemed at times to be blind to injustices in that region, it has resolutely supported what is called a two-state solution. Many other many countries have condemned the development of settlements as illegal and provocative.

What did those United Church clergy think when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated without reservation that there would be no two-state solution in Israel/Palestine in the lead-up to the recent election? And what about his fear-mongering, urging Jewish Israelis to vote because "the Arabs are voting in droves?"

Netanyahu has since apologized, but it seems rather hollow. His racism and declaration that he is unwilling to negotiate has dismayed world leaders, as well as many Jews in the strongly pro-Israel United States. Netanyahu's re-election is a mess, a huge step back for peace in the region. The United Church could have handled the situation better three years ago, but at least we were recognizing that change is necessary in the land where Jesus was born. When the UCC took its stand beleaguered Arab Christians in Israel/Palestine expressed gratitude. Where is there hope now?  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lament for the Songbirds

Numerous bodies of endangered bird species, laid out in a roughly circular arrangement.

‘But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
   the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth,
and they will teach you;
   and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
   that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
   and the breath of every human being.
  Job 12

March Break is generally a pleasant time for family excursions and discovery camps. Kids get to explore in museums and art galleries along with a lot of other opportunities. There was a more sombre event at the Royal Ontario Museum this past Friday. The organization called FLAP the acronym for Fatal Light Awareness Program, partners up with the ROM each year to display the corpses of birds which have been the losers in collisions with buildings. The 1,800 birds on display is a fraction of the estimated million or more birds which die in this manner, including several species at risk.

I saw film footage on the news of children leaning down close to the birds, even picking up and examining the tiny victims of our cities and the confusing light they produce.

Yesterday we watched a CBC Nature of Things episode called Songbird SOS which informed us that the songbird population of the Americas has plummeted by roughly 50% in the past fifty years, a disheartening statistic. Light pollution, habitat destruction, agricultural poisons, climate change, and outdoor cats kill billions of songbirds every year. We have "free range" cats and they are murderous. We felt considerable dismay as we watched.  
This doc reminds us that birds are literally and figuratively the "canaries in the coalmine." We lose species and their habitat at our peril for biodiversity and the health of the planet.

As someone who loves birds I want to figure out what I can do differently. Now, those cats...


FLAP Canada logo

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Rainbow Promise

During the March Break the Big Brothers and Sisters of Belleville held a children's camp in our building. There was general exuberance during the five days, which sounds so much nicer than mayhem. The kids seemed to be having a great time and the activities were obviously fun. I emerged from my study from time to time to chat with leaders and children and on Friday I noticed that the nametag on one little guy said "Noah." I told him that I thought he had an excellent name and he proceeded to tell me that it was from the bible, followed by some Noah information and theology.

All during Lent our sanctuary has been adorned with two lengthy multi-coloured sweeps of cloth. The lectionary has been reminding us of God's covenants, beginning with Noah and his family and all creatures, so we have left the banners in place all through the season.

I offered to take young Noah up to the sanctuary to see them, if a leader would come along with him. Suddenly there was a whole gang of children eager to explore a part of the church they hadn't seen. Their immediate reaction was "awesome!" as they walked into the worship space. They had a lot of questions and a great deal of curiosity. I suggested that we go even higher into the balcony and bell tower and they were off like a shot.

I have no idea how many of these children venture into a church on a regular basis. Canadian statistics tell us that not many of them do, as fewer and fewer of us attend worship on a regular basis. I'm pleased that the symbols of God's rainbow promise were intriguing for the teens who came to Bridge St a few weeks ago to speak to the UCW Presbyterial and then with the children Friday.

Will this make a significant difference? I'm not holding my breath, but at least we could be welcoming. We need to be diligent and creative in opening our imposing doors to everyone, whenever we can. God's promises are for everyone.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Grace-filled Orthopraxy

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Mark 2:16

You know the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, right? Of course, we all do! Orthodoxy is essentially the right talk of faith and orthopraxy is the right walk of faith. Both are important, although the gap between the two is often scandalously wide, as reader Frank noted earlier this week.

Pope Francis fascinates me because so far he has changed very little, if anything, in terms of the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic church. This had led to criticism of Francis by some and disappointment on the part of others. Yet his orthopraxy has sent seismic tremors throughout the church and while his actions have unsettled some who are self-appointed guardians of church doctrine he resolutely does what God calls him to do. He acts suspiciously like Jesus, literally embracing the afflicted and washing the feet of outcasts.

Today Francis will visit a prison in Naples where he will have lunch with some ninety inmates. Amongst the group will be ten from a section reserved for gay and transgendered prisoners, and those infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The visit wasn't supposed to include a meal but the pope asked that eating together be part of the occasion.

Francis has not made any ground-breaking official statements about homosexuality, which the Roman Catholic church has regarded as a sin. But through his actions he keeps challenging assumptions about who is in and who is outside God's grace. I'm glad he does.

Any thoughts about all this?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Water Week

We are near the end of Canada Water Week which means I should probably say something specific about the significance of water as a Judeo/Christian metaphor for life as well as the importance of protecting the precious resource we seem to take for granted in this country. I I did make reference to water in the form of ice in a blog entry earlier this week in my musing about the Vanishing Ice exhibit at the McMichael Gallery but I didn't have Water Week in mind. http://canadawaterweek.com/content/about-canada-water-week

I like the "splash" of the logo for this week, and everything contained within it. On first glance I thought that one of the watery images looks like a moose. Then I realized it is a stylized moose and that there is a canoe, a duck, a whale, and um, other thingies within the logo.

There are plenty of scriptural references to water and Jesus describes himself as Living Water to the Samaritan woman at the well. But one of my favorite images comes from a children's book, the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. You may recall that the children pass through the wardrobe into the Land of Narnia which is in thrall to the White Witch. The hundred-year winter has everything in its icy grip until a thaw begins, signaling hope to the inhabitants that the Aslan, the lion and Christ figure is returning to set them free.

We have noticed on our walks that streams and rivers are beginning to run again, despite the persistent cold. Spring will eventually arrive! Let's hope and pray that as we anticipate the change of seasons we will respect the abundant water of this region and all the watersheds of Canada.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Legacy of Gandhi

I had no idea Winston Churchill despised India's Mohandes Gandhi. Did you? Churchill did not appreciate Gandhi and his independence movement's affront to the British  Empire calling him seditious and declaring that he "ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant." At least Churchill's sentiment was unambiguous.

Gandhi was Hindu but he was intrigued by Jesus and profoundly influenced by his teachings. He just didn't see many Christians who lived the gospel: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Gandhi did resolutely practice non-violence and in the end the mighty empire capitulated to the determined bid for independence. He had a powerful influence on the key Christian leader for civil rights in the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the film Selma a scene in MLK's home includes a small statue of Gandhi on a table, an homage to the inspiration the Indian leader provided for non-violent resistance to the "powers that be."

Churchill may be spinning in his grave. Recently a nine-foot statue of the great man was dedicated in London's Parliament Square, not far from the statue of Churchill. This should please us all. God bless trouble-makers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Vanishing Heritage?

By the breath of God ice is given,
   and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
   the clouds scatter his lightning.

We went to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg on Saturday for the Vanishing Ice exhibit which includes paintings, photos, videos and more. The exhibit sprawls through many rooms of the gallery and extends outside, offering a varied outlook on the ice which is a significant portion of our planet and yet is changing rapidly due to climate change. This is an excerpt from the description of the exhibit:

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a passion for alpine landscapes spread throughout Europe and later into North America. Artists, scientists, and writers introduced the sublime beauty and natural history of these regions, which were once fearfully regarded as the home of demons and dragons. Artists’ depictions of alpine landscapes helped popularize the revolutionary idea of an Ice Age governed by the movement of glaciers and ice sheets over vast stretches of time. Their work contributed to an expanded vision of the planet’s age and dynamics of formation.

Artworks appeared in scientific publications, travelogues, popular magazines, and exhibitions. A vogue for mountain climbing and tourism to alpine terrain rapidly developed.The integration of the arts and sciences stimulated a closer connection to the natural world. This led to the foundation of organizations such as the Sierra Club (1892) and the movement for environmental preservation. Artists were commissioned to create mural-size landscape paintings for natural history museums and schools of higher learning. These works helped students and visitors visualize the movement of glaciers, which was key to understanding the process of ice age formation and retreat.

Canada celebrates its abundance of fresh water but much of that is in the form of retreating ice and melting permafrost. We really don't know what will happen to the planet if it all melts, but it won't be positive from scientific or aesthetic points of view.

Christians don't have a theology of ice, but we do affirm that water is a gift from God and living water is a powerful metaphor of faith. Surely that extends to all forms of water?

We enjoyed the exhibit but we wished there were more original paintings, including some of the work of David Blackwood.And the spiritual/religious aspects could have been explored further. But I quibble. Make sure you catch the exhibit before it melts April 26th. http://www.mcmichael.com/vanishingice/

It was serendipitous or providential that Inuit environmental activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier has been talking about her new book The Right to Be Cold on CBC and elsewhere during the past week. We may be more than willing to relinquish that right to be cold, but those who live in the North are aware of the effects of climate change on their way of life.

Have you seen the exhibit or heard Watt-Cloutier? Are they of interest?

Cool Facts About Ice

● “Ice is a common material with uncommon properties: it can flow downhill like a river, carve rock like a chisel, reflect sunlight like a mirror, and float on water like a cork.” — Henry Pollack, geophysicist and author of A World Without Ice, 2009
● Ice contains 75% of the world’s fresh water.
● Ice can reveal the planet’s climate history dating back 800,000 years.
●90 percent of a floating iceberg is actually beneath the water, which led to the expression, “That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Thought for St. Patrick

On Sunday I began my message speaking about St. Patrick and the Celtic Christian tradition because St. Patrick's Day was so close at hand. I commented that the green beer, leaping leprechaun St. Paddy's celebrations seems like a rude anti-tribute to someone who was the source of a fresh interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, one that was profoundly Christian an both earth-honouring and life-affirming. Patrick was born in the late fourth century and began his missionary work in the fifth.

I hadn't realized that the St. Patrick's Day party tradition is actually an American invention, not something imported from the Emerald Isle. Apparently March 17 started as a religious feast day in Ireland in the 17th century, marking the death of Patrick.It was a sombre day when people would go to mass, and the pubs were closed. A banquet in 18th century Boston got the ball rolling for the often raucous festivals observed today.

Along with remembering the spiritual legacy of Patrick we might also give a thought to the many thousands of immigrants who fled the potato famine of Ireland in the 19th century. The peasant class of Ireland were required to plant potatoes by the gentry and when this monoculture failed there was widespread famine and death. Those who left out of desperation often died en route and arrived sick and destitute.

There is a Celtic cross in Kingston near the site of the "fever sheds" where 1400 Irish immigrants died of typhus, a significant percentage of the more than 20,000 who died on Canada's shores. There was considerable fear of those who came bearing disease, but religious people were amongst those who cared for them. A number of those caregivers died themselves. There will be commemorations today.

Any comments about your Irish heritage or the Celtic spiritual tradition?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A War Against Rest?

Last Sunday the lectionary, or schedule of scripture readings for worship, included the Exodus passage with the Ten Commandments. It is difficult to do justice to any of the ten in a sermon let alone all of them, but I chose the Sabbath as my topic.

I'm always a little uneasy speaking about Sabbath-keeping because it's unfair to beat up on those whose circumstances make it next to impossible to join with others on the Christian Sabbath, which is Sunday. Medical workers and caregivers and those in the food industry are often scheduled to work Sundays. There are Christians who are sanctimonious about Sabbath-keeping who go out for brunch afterward without a thought to those who are waiting their tables in restaurants.

I was relieved when a fellow in the congregation who works every Sunday morning in a restaurant emailed me to thank me for the message rather than take me to task. He faithfully reads the sermons even though he can't get to church and he stays well informed about what is going on in congregational life. He is hoping that a change in schedule will allow him to come to worship at least once a month. He misses the experience of joining with others on Sundays but he can't afford to miss shifts or to lose his job. He is attempting to be a Sabbath-keeper in other ways.

Then I found an issue of the Christian Century magazine from last November with this cover statement: Keep the Sabbath Holy* *unless you can't afford to. The article inside by Benjamin Dueholm is entitled The war against rest and it explores the impact of the last recession on time away from work for those who are paid poorly and struggle to make ends meet. Some are working at multiple jobs with low wages, and the expectation is that they will work when the employer wants them there -- no questions asked. Recently one of our daughters decided to quit her job because of the long hours, six and seven days a week. She had no time with her partner working every weekend, so they decided to take the risk of her unemployment. Fortunately, when her employer received the letter of notice they offered consecutive days off every week and a significant raise. We don't hear these stories of an accommodating employer very often. And still, her days are Friday and Saturday so the opportunity for worship, even when she comes to visit with us aren't there.

The article reminds us that the commandment to keep the Sabbath is costly -- 15 percent of life. Yet our Judeo-Christian faith insists that idleness is sacred, literally and figuratively freedom from slavery.

Those of us who have this precious freedom can be mindful of those who don't, and ask how our society can be liberated from the slavery of 24/7.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Thank God for Jean Vanier

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“We have universities, we have schools of technology. But where are the schools for love? Who will teach us to love? Who will help us to come out from the frontiers that we lock ourselves behind?”  Jean Vanier
Jean Vanier, Canadian philosopher, theologian, and profoundly Christian founder of the l'Arche movement has been awarded the Templeton Prize. The Templeton is named after the Christian investor and philanthropist and it ain't chump change. The 86-year-old will receive $2.1 million and he will probably give it away. Vanier formed the first l'Arche community for the physically and mentally challenged in the 1960's in France, and there are now communities around the world. Another profound Christian, Henri Nouwen, left the "stardom" of a top academic position and round-the-world speaking engagements to live in a l'Arche community north of Toronto.
I would suggest that these Arks, places of dignity and shelter for the residents, have influenced the approach to care far beyond the actual communities. These thoughts from Jim Coyle in the Toronto Star say it so well:   
 Of all the unlikely wonders that humankind has wrought, the empires, the inventions, the monuments, one of the most marvellous might be the simplest.That L’Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together, is the work of a Canadian makes it all the more gratifying. That the hero, Jean Vanier, is a man of peace when the word “hero” is so overwhelmingly used these days by prime minister on down in reference to war is remarkable.
I have a couple of Vanier's books and I have heard him speak at least twice, maybe more. He is a true disciple of Christ and it is wonderful that he has received this recognition but it will not go to his head.
Do you know much about Jean Vanier?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Ashes to Ashes, Grass-cuttings to Grass-cuttings?

I don't want to be composted, just so you know. That may seem like one of the weirder comments I have offered, at least in the past two or three days, but there is actually discussion these days of composting deceased humans as an alternative to traditional forms of burial.

Did you notice I said forms, as in more than one? We used to think of bodily burial, usually in a coffin or a shroud as traditional. It's still what we see in virtually every movie and TV show when people are gathered in a cemetery. But more than half of the funerals and memorials I do are of those who have been cremated, and that has been the case for a couple of decades now. Bodily burial requires a fair amount of space in a cemetery, embalming fluid is made up of icky chemicals, and concrete vaults in the ground aren't exactly eco-friendly. We figured that cremation was better in virtually every way, but the truth is that it takes a lot of energy to incinerate a human body. That may sound unpleasant but it is a reality.

Enter composting as the new alternative. I will let Katrina Spade describe this to you.Katrina is the designer, architect, executive director, and sole employee of the Urban Death Project (no, I'm not making this up, we're still weeks away from April 1st)

“Bodies, our bodies,” Spade says, “will be laid into the ground and covered with wood chips. There would also be some other carbon materials that would help the process work a little more efficiently, like sawdust, which is very high-carbon, and possibly something like alfalfa straw.” The process of turning from human to soil is surprisingly quick. The UDP’s website says that within a few weeks of interment, “the body decomposes and turns into a nutrient-rich compost. The process is continuous — new bodies are laid into the system as finished compost is extracted below.”
There is precedent for this kind of burial, and it comes from agriculture. “Thank goodness,” Spade says. “I really don’t think I’m the appropriate person to create a brand new process but I do think that I’m the right person to take a process that’s been studied by agriculture and universities for a number of years now. The research is out there.”
Proposed Urban Death Project facility
My Lee Valley tumbler composter isn't nearly big enough to fit my 6'4" frame, so I won't be tucked in with the salad leftovers unless we invite Freddy Krueger to the service. Seriously, while I am inclined toward "never say never" I really don't think that I will come around on this one. But I appreciate that there are people who are challenging our conventions. Humans need ritual and meaning in burial and have done so for millennia. But it has taken many different forms. In Jesus' day there was bodily burial, in a tomb if you were well off. We know from the gospels that Jesus was buried in a "loaner" tomb because he was poor. It would have been assumed that after the flesh decayed Jesus' bones would be gathered and put into an ossuary, a bone box, usually made of stone. That was "traditional."

What do you think about alternatives to the alternatives? Maybe not composting (although you might surprise me) but some other option?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Niqab, the Turban, & The Cowboy Hat

CP PHOTO/Calgary Herald
I listened to more discussion of Prime Minister Harper's comments about certain Muslim women wanting to wear the niqab to be sworn in as citizens of Canada and his opposition to this, despite a Supreme Court ruling. A niqab is the facial covering, the burka covers the entire body, and the hijab is the head covering which often extends to the chest -- go all that?

I must admit that I have mixed feeling about this. I also wonder about Mr. Harper's motives.

I strongly believe in religious freedom, but I have listened to Muslim women argue eloquently that the niqab is a cultural practice, not a religious requirement. Others agree that it is not a requirement but women should have the freedom of choice.

There is a woman in our congregation who married a Muslim man who insisted that she wear certain clothing, and she eventually realized that this was an issue of control,  not religion. I just can't accept this. At the same time, some Muslim women embrace what many of us might consider oppressive clothing and we allow it in our society. If it is not against the law to dress this way in public in Canada,  why would we insist that a woman cannot wear this garb when she becomes a citizen?

As for Mr. Harper, why is he making such an issue of this as Prime Minister, addressing the issue himself rather than through a minister? Is this a political ploy, one designed to appeal to our growing fears about extremist Muslims?

When I drive up Bathurst St. in Toronto on a Saturday morning I see some Jewish men heading to synagogue wearing yarmulkes and others wearing the severe and even strange looking (to me) clothing of Orthodox Judaism. That is their right in this country. There are Sikhs who are members of parliament who wear turbans and beards. Sikhs are allowed to wear their turbans in the RCMP.
Edmonton-Sherwood Park Conservative MP Tim Uppal

I am getting a kick out of those on Twitter who are mocking the PM's style advice. One dad asks whether he needs to consult Harper's office when his daughter covers her face.

My gut feeling is that the niqab is not necessary and doesn't reflect the freedoms of our pluralistic society. But my "sober second thought" response is, let it go Prime Minister Harper.

Your thoughts?

View image on Twitter

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Can the United Church be Resilient?

This morning I zipped off to a gathering at one of the many United Churches in Belleville to further the conversation between a number of congregations from our denomination. We all understand that the way we have done ministry in the past is no longer effective and we hope that God will show what it in store for this time and place. We have come together with no preconceived notions about the outcome of our conversations.

Today Rev. Cathy Russell from St. Matthew's presented some material from a seminar she attended where Reg Bibby, the Canadian sociologist, shared findings from research on religion in Canada. Bibby has been at this for eons and we had him come to Sudbury and St. Andrew's, the congregation I was serving at the time. He has also done work for the United Church of Canada specifically.

What Cathy heard is that the Roman Catholic church in this country is surprisingly healthy, as are evangelical churches. Mainline churches? Not so much, and the United Church leads the way.

Bibby suggested that part of this is that we have bought into the "old story" that Canada used to be religious but is now largely secular, so whaddya gonna do? And that a lot of people are now "spiritual rather than religious." He says that the "new story" supported by research data is that a surprisingly high percentage of Canadians still identify as religious, although they may not go to places of worship. There are a fair number of ambivalent folk, the equivalent of "swing-voters" who just haven't made up their minds. The percentage of truly non-religious people is relatively small.

There weren't many United Church types at the event that Cathy attended, but he cheerfully encouraged them to drop the old narrative and to engage with those who still see themselves as religious and recent out to those who are ambivalent.

This makes sense to me. How about you?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sex and the People of God

You know Adam and Eve, right? Okay, not personally, but the story of the first couple who manage to mess up on the whole paradise thing, and who eventually procreate is close to the beginning of the "in the beginning" book of Genesis in our bible. There is also the direction to "be fruitful and multiply" which is about the only biblical commandment we have actually followed through on.

Multiplying is apparently okay for people of faith. We Protestants trace our spiritual lineage to Martin Luther who was a priest before leaving Roman Catholicism. He eventually married a former nun and they had six children, which is a fairly strong statement about procreation. It is a bit shocking to read Luther on sex. He says that if a man can't satisfy his wife she should look elsewhere.

Why then are Protestants so uncomfortable, generally speaking, about acknowledging sexuality, particularly during Sunday worship? This past Sunday I spoke about the Sabbath and mentioned that Sabbath-keeping for Orthodox Jews includes encouragement to engage in sex as a celebration of marital intimacy. Eyebrows rose as though folk had just received an injection of botox. Did he just use the word "sex" in a sermon, as though it might be something to be celebrated? I chuckled and commented on their stunned silence and then there was some nervous laughter.

I laughed during the day when I recalled the startled looks in that moment. For some it may have been the first admission that church people engage in sexual activity and maybe even enjoy it. That's the ambivalence of our approach to sexuality. These days we affirm that sex is good, a gift of God, as long as we don't admit to doing it. Luther also said that there is something of sin in sex, but keep encouraged people to keep on doing it!

Now, in some megachurches in the States the pastors have actually gone in the other direction encouraging their folk to engage in sex more often. One actually brought in a bed which he perched on while delivering his message. While I like visuals this will never happen at Bridge St!

Were you brought up with mixed messages about sexuality? Did you ever hear sex mentioned in a positive way in church? Can you live with the occasional reference to sex without tarring and feathering the minister?

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Black and Blue?

The Salvation Army is using the buzz over #TheDress to bring attention to violence against women. (@SalvationArmySA/Twitter)

Our younger daughter, Emily, got us going on a family text message chat with this photo. It is the visual portion of a provocative ad campaign by the Salvation Army in Australia. It is about domestic violence and it cleverly picks up on "the dress," which some of you may have seen. That photo is of a dress which some see as black and blue and others see as gold and white. In the photo above the young woman is clearly in a gold and white dress, but she is "black and blue" as a result of domestic abuse.

Often religious organizations such as churches shie away from the dark secret of abuse. We rarely bring up the subject in worship and when my wife Ruth was a crisis counselor and outreach worker for a women's shelter she found that churches were often reluctant to have her come as a speaker. She was regularly embarrassed in case meetings where one of her co-workers would express frustration that a client was staying in an abusive relationship for religious reasons, and sometimes on the encouragement of a pastor of priest.

This is International Women's Day and it is an invitation to "see" women as equals in every way. It is also an opportunity to name issues of domestic abuse. We never know who is living through that nightmare in our congregations, either with family members or personally.


Saturday, March 07, 2015

Arbor Week & the Rainbow Promise

I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
   the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
   the plane and the pine together,
so that all may see and know,
   all may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
   the Holy One of Israel has created it.

                              Isaiah 41:19-20

This is National Arbor Week in the United States, which means we are all invited to be mindful of the importance of trees. I'm glad to celebrate trees, although ours are still hunkered down against the cold and snow. I like that this poster winner from 2014 and one from this year feature the rainbow. We began Lent this season with the Rainbow Promise or covenant from Genesis. While I can't picture trees lumbering onto the ark, I'm willing to make promises to care for trees.

I have written before about Tu Bishvat which is the New Year for the trees which takes place early in February. This ancient Jewish festival has taken a modern environmental twist, with an emphasis on the importance of trees as lungs for the planet. A couple of decades ago we were all worked up about clear-cutting in the Amazon basin, but as is often the case we moved on to other causes. The fact is that forests continue to be razed in South America and in Malaysia and in many other parts of the world.

This week I'm not going to fret about deforestation, as important as the issue is. I'm going to celebrate God's gift of trees, the sounds and sights of them. I think I'll tell the all the shivering trees in my back yard that this is their week. They may not be impressed.

Any comments about the trees in your life?

the importance of trees as lungs for the planet.

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Friday, March 06, 2015

I'm the Goof with Jesus

The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has returned to Israel and the fray of a hotly contested election. He briefly left home during the campaign to poke his finger in the eye of the Obama administration through an inflammatory speech in Congress. So much for the billions in aid Israel receives from the States.

Netanyahu is dead-set against the United States negotiating a deal with Iran regarding the development of nuclear weapons. No one wants Iran to have a nuclear arsenal, but we get the impression that Netanyahu would rather nuke Iran to stop them having nukes than work out a deal. He just doesn't trust them.

Many pundits and politicians are supportive of John Kerry's efforts just the same. Marauding around smiting our enemies has its limits and it is very costly. Besides, the US has been relying on Iran to help out in the fight against ISIL/ISIS in Iraq. It is a 21st century "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" geopolitical reality.

Since I'm a tree-hugging, peace-mongering leftie pinko I'm glad that the US is in negotiations with Iran even though our government is inclined toward "evil empire" rhetoric. But I find global politics to be incredibly hypocritical. It was just a minute ago that we were celebrating sport at the Russian Olympics even though Putin was an oppressive dictator whose true colours have really shown since the games came to a close.  We are currently in a coalition of nations fighting ISIS, the miserable band of assassins which beheads people. One of our partners is Saudi Arabia, a nation which regularly beheads people. We all know how awful the Syrian regime is, having murdered a couple of hundred thousand of its own citizens, but we are rather quiet about Assad and his henchmen because we're --yes, you've got it-- we're fighting ISIS.

We listen to grim and earnest announcements from politicians about our enemies and our friends, except that if we're paying attention some of those enemies are former friends and the friends are former enemies.

I'm sticking with Jesus, who told me to love my enemies and follow him as the non-violent Prince of Peace. It sure sounds goofy, but consider the alternatives.


Thursday, March 05, 2015

Purim and Religious Freedom

Do you associate Orthodox Jews, dressed in traditional garb, with getting tipsy, even downright drunk? I didn't think so, but around the world there is a good likelihood that some normally observant Jewish men will wake up with hangovers  both today and tomorrow.

Why? This is Purim, a curious Jewish festival related to the story of the only book in the bible that doesn't mention God. The book of Esther is about unlikely deliverance, so Jews are instructed to revel until they cannot tell the difference between one of the good guys of the story, Mordecai, and Haman, the Snidely Whiplash bad guy.

The real good guy of the story is not a guy at all, because it is the resourcefulness of Esther in the court of King Ahasuerus which averts the slaughter of the Jews who are powerless subjects in the monarchs empire. Esther arranges days of fasting on behalf of her loved one Mordecai, who is destined to be hanged because he will not bow down before the king. When the king relents the fasts become a feast and a party and Haman ends up begging Esther for mercy.  Okay, if Esther is the star, why aren't the women out partying in the streets?

Because Purim also involves charitable acts and gift-giving to friends it has been trivialized in some instances to become a sort of Jewish Halloween. As cute as the kids are, there is much more substance to the story and the celebration.

I wonder if there isn't more heft to Purim this year when anti-Judaism has been on the rise. Along with the murderous assault on a Jewish store in France, there have been desecrations of cemeteries, and threats against synagogues. This week a man in Kansas was committed to trial for murdering three people at a Jewish Community Centre. None of the three were Jews, but hatred is so often random and senseless. Some Jews in France and Britain have emigrated to Israel on the invitation of the Israeli government, but others are determined to stay in their countries, to "stand tall" against fear and intimidations.

Do you know anything about Purim? Will you blame me if you get soused today? Is it important for us to stand with Jews against any form of intimidation and threat?

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Sorrows of Mental Illness

For some time now I have been meaning to muse about All My Puny Sorrows, another award-winning novel by Miriam Toews. As always with Toews it is well-written and honest and insightful. I "tabbed" a number of spots as I read because of the beauty of phrases or the thoughts expressed. Still, it took me weeks and weeks to read because the subject matter is so achingly sad. There are two suicides of loved ones in the book and this roughly parallels Toews life experience with her father and sister.

As I read I pondered circumstances with parishioners through the years as they felt helpless to make a difference with those they cared for so deeply. Those in the throes of mental illness have often been exceptionally gifted and bright and had "everything to live for" yet were tortured souls. As a pastor I sat with some of the individuals who took their own lives and realized early on that this is not about making logical arguments for living.

In Toews novel there is an indictment of a health care system which has a double standard, having expectations of active participation in the treatment process for mental health which are different than those for physical health. There is also strong frustration that family members who may know a person's patterns best, and who are expected to provide care once the family member is released from an institution are often shut out of the diagnosis, treatment, and return to the "real world."

Toews is not reluctant to portray religion as part of the problem rather than the solution. This can certainly be true, although I can say from experience that Christian communities I have been part of have provided loving and non-judgmental support for those affected by mental illness.

I would recommend All My Puny Sorrows but it is not for the faint of heart. To describe it as tragicomic, as one reviewer did, is painfully accurate.

Have you read this novel? Does it ring true with your experiences? Will you read it?

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

A Covenant with all Creatures

This is World Wildlife Day and so I should be posting on my sorely neglected Groundling eco-faith blog. But wherever I write, the subject of biodiversity is vital to the health of the world God created. We are moving through the scriptural covenants or promises this year and we began with the covenant with Noah and his kin and with all living creatures. I pointed out that Sunday morning that this has become an urgent call to humans to look beyond themselves to the sustainability of ecosystems. With seven billion of us on the planet we are literally pushing other creatures to the brink of extinction and beyond.

At Docfest we watched a film called Cowspiracy which began strongly then morphed into something of a quasi-religious screed for veganism. But it did remind us that humans are emptying oceans and clear-cutting forests in our rapacious desire for more animal protein. North Americans love their beef and raising cattle requires tremendous resources. We don't see what is happening in the waters of the planet but it is disastrous.

We came away from that film asking what we can do to live our covenantal commitment to care for and sustain diversity, including changing our diet.

The areas around Belleville, in all directions, have abundant wildlife but we know there is pressure on habitats for birds, turtles, and larger mammals. We can "have a care" today and every day. As I said two Sundays ago, this planet is the ark, or Turtle Island, as First Nations peoples term it.


Monday, March 02, 2015

Eyes Opened

I overdosed on films through the weekend at this year's edition of Docfest in Belleville. I managed to prepare for worship and our annual meetings, attend a portion of a Kente Presbytery event on visioning, lead worship and one of those meetings, and still fit in a bunch of great docs. 

One of them was Slums: Cities of Tomorrow, a really thought-provoking film about the realities of approximately one billion humans, or one in seven inhabitants of this planet live. While the very term slum is highly charged, these are often complex communities with their own forms of organization. Governments tend to want to git rid of slums when they are perceived as an embarrassment or problematic because they are next to impossible to service with basics such as sewer and water. But the alternatives, including grim apartment blocks where there are no parks or spaces where gardens or chickens can be raised are hardly better. Slums allow residents to be entrepreneurs in ways that structured housing can't.

There are books such as City of Joy and Behind the Beautiful Forevers which help us to understand that along with abject poverty in slums there is hope and a spiritual core for many of the residents. In the Slums film an illiterate single mother in Mumbai, working as a maid, carefully grooms her children in the morning and walks them to school. She is proud that the teacher of her son is surprised  to discover that his top student lives in a slum. Her life is devoted to their progress out of these circumstances.

The filmmakers also go to a tent city in the United States where people who were hit hard by the recession have set up a community. County officials don't want them there but the man who is a combination of mayor and sheriff and pastor of the 75 to 100 residents works diligently on their behalf. There is even a church tent where he holds simple but meaningful services with prayers for their everyday needs. One of the women describes the people who live there as refugees, and we know that the God of the bible has a heart for refugees and the dispossessed.

I came away with my eyes opened, which is something Jesus encouraged.