Friday, April 29, 2016

The Music of Grief

Next weekend we will attend the wedding of Ruth's sister Martha. Four years ago Martha's husband of decades died at his work desk without forewarning. It was devastating for her and their teen children. Life as they knew it came to an end with a totally unexpected phone call. Their grief was raw and deep and for Martha it probably felt as though she would never recover. Eventually she met Jack, and a friendship developed, in part because of shared experience of loss. Jack's wife died swiftly after a diagnosis of cancer.  Their friendship became love and a decision to share life together in marriage.

As a minister I have seen that loss and the resultant grief comes to people in many forms and takes us residence in the human spirit in unexpected ways. There is no way to anticipate the effects of loss, even for those with a strong and abiding faith. Being Easter people does not shield us from grief.

Recently I happened on an interview with Paul Lisicky, an author whose work I don't know. About his book The Narrow Door he says

From the get-go I was after a structure that felt organic and musical — each image-based section talking to the next, and so on. I’ve already said this elsewhere: grief doesn’t obey the rules of forward time. It’s not four/four meter. It shifts time signature — I could keep going with that metaphor. But I didn’t want the book’s shape to be a mess — so I started paying attention to repetitions, the possibility of them. I didn’t want to force them, but tried to be aware of convergences, coincidences, echoes.

I have emphasized those phrases because they strike me as being so remarkably authentic. We do a tremendous disservice to people if we claim anything else. The story of resurrection day in the gospels includes fear, anger, sorrow and disbelief. While all this may be part of our grief experience, in unanticipated time signatures, the music of our faith and accompanying hope plays on.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Like a Religion

I have mused before about the adulation and deep collective grief expressed after the death of cultural figures. Many of us witnessed it after the untimely death of Princess Diana, and it virtually eclipsed the death of Mother Teresa, a person the Roman Catholic church will canonize.

This past week the musician known as Prince joined the communion of secular saints, with endless tributes and tearful vigils at his home. He was a multi-talented individual and a killer guitar player, but ironically his death pushed him back into the spotlight.

I keep wondering if this is what we humans are compelled to do, to create new religions and saints even as insist that we have no use for either in a modern society.

I noticed two "like a religion" articles yesterday. The Walrus magazine looks at the temptation for almost blind faith in the state of Israel by some North American Jews.  It perplexes me, because many are secular and non-observant, yet they demonstrate a religious zeal akin to the fundamentalists (both Jewish and Christian) who are convinced that this is the land God gave them thousands of years ago. This conviction justifies all manner of human rights violations which have been condemned by the United Nations and other bodies.

Photograph by Deaf RED Bear

The other addressed the dangerous commitment to naturopathic remedies to the exclusion of common sense and a duty of care. This was related to the conviction of a couple who allowed their child to die of treatable meningitis. Rather than following the encouragement of a nurse friend to take the 19-month-old-boy to a doctor who could provide medicinal care they "treated" him with strange concoctions with no basis in scientific fact. As tragic as this was, these parents deserved to be convicted of a crime.

I've come to the conclusion that I must reject religious tenets which result in the exclusion and rejection and harm of others, whatever they may be. As a Christian I hold to the love of Christ which will not make room for the hatred of any group. Bye the way, this doesn't mean that I don't believe in sin or choosing the moral good. But it is unethical to follow a path which is destructive of individuals and groups, whether it an actual historical religion or "like a religion."

Well, how's that for a rambling screed? What do you think, good readers?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kinship Without Borders

On Monday evening reader Judy was the gracious host to a small gathering which included the Al Mansours, the Syrian refugee family sponsored by three Belleville United Church congregations and a variety of community supporters. It was such a happy event and with the help of a couple who emigrated from Syria fifty years ago and Google Translate we were able to communicate. Actually, all five family members are figuring out English, with the 11 and 14 year-olds making the fastest progress.

The 11-year-old is both smart and bold, exuding confidence -- he's the "thumbs up" guy above.  He entertained us with card tricks he is learning on the internet  and his patter was in both English and Arabic, depending on his audience. Five months ago he knew not a word of English. Now he is an entertainer. His four-year-old brother is cute as a button and laughed uncontrollably as we played hide-and-seek.

The room was full of doting grandparent types and the kids seemed totally at ease with all of us. One couple really has become surrogate grandparents and she told us that the 11-year-old has been asking why Canadians are so kind to them. He isn't so sure that Syrians would be as welcoming, an interesting observation. He did offer that God would want them to be hospitable, and Carol let him know that was part of the motivation for many of our folk.

Our gathering may prove to be the best event of this week, although the arrival of long-time friends will rival it. Despite differences of language, culture, religion, we experienced kinship, the pleasure of human kindness, laughter, good food.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Chernobyl Syndrome

Remember the film The China Syndrome? It was a pretty good flick with an impressive list of stars including Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon. Fonda is the investigative reporter who realizes that safety cover-ups at a California nuclear reactor could lead to a core melt-down. The same year, 1979, an incident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania came perilously close to the premise of the movie thriller.

Then came Chernobyl, the disaster in the Ukraine which occurred thirty years ago today. This 1986 fire and explosion was and is the worst nuclear power plant accident in history in terms of cost and casualties. There were more than thirty people who died immediately but the estimates are that between 30,000 and 60,000 will die eventually from radiation poisoning and cancers. The reactor has been entombed at huge cost, and a large area is no longer habitable, displacing thousands more.

Chernobyl is the cautionary tale of nuclear energy and every once in a long while we have other sobering reminders. The most recent is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 the only other Class 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Are you now afraid, very afraid? The positive story on this anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster is that the exclusion zone has become a haven for an abundance of wildlife. Europe is not known for its biodiversity or complex ecosystems. Yet the Chernobyl area has become a refuge for all kinds of animals.

Along with the wild horses seen above there are moose, deer, beaver, and owls to more exotic species like brown bear, lynx, and wolves. Yes, some creatures are born demonstrating weird mutations. But without people hunting them or ruining their habitat wildlife is thriving despite high radiation levels.

At times I wonder what will happen to the Earth if we humans don't get our ____ together. If we disappeared, would the planet restore itself? We Christians like to cherry pick scripture to say that God likes us best, and that we can mess around however we choose. If you think that way, remember the Genesis stories of the Garden and the ark. They are the cautionary tales of our Judeo-Christian tradition and both instruct us to "wisen up."

Do you think we are capable of wisening up as a species? Can Christians be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem?

Read this National Geographic story for more

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens?

“The Faith of Christopher Hitchens,” by Larry Alex Taunton. Photo courtesy of Fixed Point Foundation

A few years ago I would browse in the religion and spirituality sections of book stores and be annoyed to no end by the presence of Christopher Hitchens book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As a so-called New Atheist he aggressively attacked religion of any stripe. Why would stores include his book in the religion section? While he had a brilliant mind he had a reductionist, almost cartoonish view of religions seemingly making no differentiation between extremists using religion as an excuse for mayhem and those who were devout, open, and genuinely making a difference in the world.

Well, Hitchens died young, and according to him, that's that. Now there is a new book by an evangelical Christian Larry Alex Taunton who arranged debates between Hitchens and high-profile Christians. They became friends over the course of three years and they developed a warm relationship despite their profound differences. Taunton claims that in conversation Hitchens pondered a change of heart regarding his atheism. Of course, Hitchens had a brother, Peter, who became a Christian, and the two debated along the way.

Friends of Hitchens say that Taunton's claims are preposterous, that he never considered recanting his atheism. Since these purported conversations were personal and unrecorded, there is no hard evidence to support or refute the claim. And what would change as a result of being able to prove that the conversations occurred? If Hitchens found the comfort of Christian faith as he died, I would be happy. But it really doesn't matter all that much to me. I wouldn't shout "aha, God 1, Christopher no score!" Nor would I feel better about my own faith.

Now, if atheist United Church minister Gretta Vosper would toddle off to some new community affiliation as she has been purported to be considering...

What are your thoughts about Taunton's book? Do you care whether Hitchens had a deathbed spiritual awakening?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Beyond Convention

News last week that the British painter JMW Turner will be featured on the twenty pound note. I have long been a fan of Turner whose experimental approaches to light and colour were innovative and ground-breaking. Predictably, he had many detractors, although foremost critic of his time, John Ruskin, deeply admired his work, which was prodigious in volume.

Last year the Art Gallery of Ontario showed fifty pieces from that legacy, on loan from the Tate Gallery in London. It was called Painting Set Free and featured works from that experimental phase which was the last fifteen years of his life. Here is the AGO description:

Turner’s late works, with their emphasis on atmosphere, are famous for their rich colour, textures and evocative use of light. Challenging the myths, assumptions and interpretations that have grown around Turner’s later work, this exhibition sets out to show how his final years were a time of exceptional drive and vigour, during which he continued travelling, confronting and painting the dramatic landscapes of Europe.

We enjoyed the exhibit, much more than the film Mr. Turner, which explored those same years.

I figure Turner is an appropriate person to uphold on Earth Sunday, although conventional faith wasn't important to him. He expressed the grandeur of creation, even though he may not have given much thought to the Creator. Then again, perhaps he did, beyond convention.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Pesach, Kashrut, and Eating Well

Christians are most aware of Jewish Pesach, or Passover, when it coincides with Holy Week, the days leading to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This year Passover began last evening, almost exactly a month later than Holy Week. There are specific foods related to this meal of deliverance, which Jesus and his disciples would have eaten in solemn remembrance in what we call the Last Supper, on Maundy Thursday.

I'm thinking about the observation made recently by Mark Stoll about the number of food producers and sellers such as Whole Foods which specialize in nutritious and organic products which were started by Jews. The question is whether the historic commitment to kashrut, or kosher dietary laws has resulted in a stronger concern for healthy eating amongst Jews, even those who might be secular. In Stoll's book Inherit the Holy Mountain he also mentions Michael Pollan, who was born into a Jewish family, and who writes extensively about our mindfulness (or lack thereof) around food and it's preparation. Pollan's book and Netflix series called Cooked are thoughtful explorations of the theme, although his enthusiasm for whole-hog barbecue suggests he is not concerned about observing kashrut!

Who knows! I hope that last evening's Passover meal was deeply meaningful for Jewish participants. Yahweh be with you.

Here is an interesting New Yorker article on changes to dietary rules for Pesach.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Sparring with Climate Change

Earth Day 2016

Earth Day Google Doodle

  7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. Mark 13

Happy Earth Day! Are you ready for the apocalypse?

Yesterday Prime Minister Trudeau did a photo op in a New York City gym, sparring with some young people in a boxing ring. We remember when he pummelled the bigger, stronger, meaner looking Patrick Brazeau in the ring a few years ago, much to everyone's surprise.

Today he is one of more than a hundred representatives from various countries at the United Nations to sign on to what we hope is an historic agreement on climate change. This agreement is the outcome of the COP24 climate change conference in Paris last December. It enters into force once it’s signed by 55 countries accounting for 55 per cent of global emissions. Most countries are expected to add their signatures today – on the first possible day.

While our prime minister is willing to symbolically do battle with the pressing issue of climate change we need more than a couple of photo op rounds. Canada isn't even close to being on track to reach a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030.

Back to the apocalypse. In scripture there are passages which predict gloom and doom, last battles an natural catastrophes, for those who do not open their eyes to the signs of the times. 

While this might be dismissed as ancient religious claptrap, world leaders are realizing the catastrophic implications of our current trajectory. Before COP24 the Chinese government issued a sobering report on the effects of climate change. The New York Times published an editorial stating bluntly that if we don't figure this out we run the risk of bringing life as we know it to an end. That is catastrophic.

Jesus also offers hope, the birth pangs of a new way of being as an aspect of God's reign. We can pray that we do see the signs and respond, that we aren't just whiffing at the air for the cameras.


Earth Day 2016

Earth Day Google Doodle

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Equal Pay for Equal Work

Both Canada and the United States are planning to include women on currency in the near future. Canadians do get to see the Queen (celebrating her 90th today) but the Bank of Canada has invited us to suggest other women we consider worthy to grace our bills. The nominees have included women's rights activist Nellie McClung, and author Margaret Atwood. Ruth and I are inclined toward painter Emily Carr.

In the States anti-slavery champion Harriet Tubman will grace the twenty, and some have wondered whether this new bill will only have $15 worth of purchasing power because that's roughly the difference between the way men and women are compensated for work of equal value. Tuesday of this week was Equal Pay Day in Canada, representing the point in the year when women will have earned what men earned in the previous year. In other words, women work roughly 16 months to earn what men do in twelve. We don't show up well compared to other developed countries. Even though there is a gender gap just about everywhere, in Britain the day is in March while in Switzerland it's in February.

I ponder this in regard to pay for women clergy. Of course in the Roman Catholic church and many conservative Protestant denominations there aren't any women priests or pastors. But in our supposedly enlightened United Church where a significant percentage of ministers are women there is a gender-based pay gap. Yes, there are minimum salary thresholds based on years of experience, but women don't fare well beyond that.

What is your experience? Have you been paid less because you are a woman? How do we ensure fairness? How does the church do this?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Drop in the Ocean

Recently I wrote about the heart-warming potluck supper held at Bridge St UC to welcome the Syrian family Belleville United Churches sponsored, as well as a Syrian family here in Canada through another group. The Al Mansour family is "our" sponsorship, while the Mustafas are sponsored by the Prince Edward County group. The latter family is living near Bridge St. and yesterday as I walked to work I passed the dad and five children (above) who were on the other side of the street. I realized he was shepherding them to school, and I called out a hello. He didn't have a clue who I was, but waved back just the same and said hello.

This brief encounter lifted my spirits and touched me. How brave the families are who have arrived across this country. They have endured civil war and displacement. They have lived in wretched conditions in refugee camps before finding themselves in a country with strange weather and an unknown language. Yet they are determined to build a life of meaning and hope.

Later I thought of Pope Francis' visit to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, in solidarity with those who continue to arrive daily from distant places and at great peril. Francis returned to the Vatican with twelve Syrians from three families – all of them Muslims. His comment was that “all refugees are children of God,”  adding that though his gesture was “a drop in the ocean” he hoped “the ocean will never be the same again”.

We too may feel that our efforts are a "drop in the ocean." Still we can ask God to open our hearts in love to the families we have sponsored and those we hope to bring to Canada.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Voices for the Voiceless

The Goldman Prize is an international award for environmental activism and achievement, a sort of Nobel Prize for the earth-care set. I'm always interested to see who wins and for what causes. The Goldman is the world's largest award honoring grassroots environmental activists and there are six recipients each year.
Leng Ouch is one of the 2016 winners this year, and he is from Cambodia.  He went undercover to document illegal logging in Cambodia and exposed the corruption robbing rural communities of their land, causing the government to cancel large land concessions. Cambodia is a dangerous place for activists of any kind, and he has admitted that he's surprised to have lived to receive the prize.
We may think of environmentalists as earnest Birkenstockers who care about the planet but don't really get the way the world works. The opposite is the case for so many, as they take on polluters and destroyers with great courage.
Last month a Goldman recipient from last year, Berta Caceres, was killed. Berta was a Honduran indigenous and environmental rights campaigner and she was murdered  a week after she was threatened for opposing a hydroelectric project. You may recall that I wrote about Caceres and the description of her as an environmental martyr in a Roman Catholic publication.
I hope we can be prayerfully aware of those who are fearless and tireless on behalf of people who are often downtrodden, and like the Earth itself, without a voice. We must mourn those who are senselessly murdered for their prophetic actions. They deserve to be honoured, and they also deserve to live.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Talkiing about Religion & Faith

A friend moved to the United States a few years ago and went through the culture shock of being immersed in a nation so like our own, and the source of so much of our entertainment, yet so different. She was immediately struck by how "out there" people were about religion. Neighbours invited her to their churches, and public chatter about religion was obviously not the taboo she assumed in Canada.

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine suggest that is changing significantly in the States.

According to a new Pew Research Center study, only a third of Americans say they talk about religion with people outside of their families at least once or twice a month. Evangelical Protestants and people who attend historically black churches are far more likely than other religious groups to talk about faith with friends, colleagues, and strangers, but only about half of each of those groups tends to do so with regularity. Jews, Catholics, and mainline Protestants don’t talk about religion much—only a quarter or slightly more of each group said they did so once or twice a month. Atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people were the least likely to discuss religion, with only a tenth or slightly more of each of those groups doing so regularly. All of these groups, outside of those who aren’t religious, said they’re much more likely to talk about religion in private with their immediate families.

Some would say that this is the way it should be, and certainly I feel that aggressively proselytizing for any faith is intimidating, counter-productive, and just plain annoying. I have been aggressively evangelized on a number of occasions through the years, usually with the other person having no idea that I was a minister. It has rarely felt like a conversation, Too often I've felt like a project, a task. Of course I've felt that way about people who were trying to sell me on their sports team, or political party, name it.

I enjoy talking about my Christian faith and religion, when there is a sense of reciprocity and respect. Why wouldn't I? My faith is a central aspect of my being, and my relationship with God is one of the most important in my life. So why wouldn't I be willing to do so when the opportunity arises.

How do you feel about talking 'ligion? Are you okay with doing so, if the context is right? Is that actually part of the Christian life that we tend to ignore?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Nessie and the Celts

Hey! They found the Loch Ness monster! Okay, it isn't a flesh and blood sea creature, but the discovery is still cool. There was a 30-foot model Nessie used in a 1970 film called The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The model sank to the bottom of Loch Ness during filming in 1969, and was recently discovered using an underwater drone.

There is a connection between one of the Celtic saints, Columba, or Columcille and the elusive monster.  St. Columba travelled to what is now Scotland to evangelize the Picts. Of course there are many stories of miracles  the most famous being his encounter in 565 with an unidentified animal that some have equated with the Loch Ness Monster. The beast of the deeps killed one of the Picts and attacked a member of Columba's party of missionaries. Columba vanquished the 6th century version of Nessie. It could happen...

Lest I drone on, I'll stop here.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A New Tree of Life

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
  Revelation 22:2

The tree of life is an important theme in scripture and our Christian bible ends with the image of such a tree, as a symbol of hope. The tree of life shows up in other spiritual and religious traditions as well. In the movie Avatar there are the massive hometrees and the Tree of Souls, which is, essentially, the tree of life.  There is a film called The Tree of Life which was both praised and despised, depending on the viewer or critic.

The tree of life was also a concept embraced by Charles Darwin. Nearly two hundred years ago he used the metaphor to describe the relationships between organisms. While scientists now view his tree as inadequate in MANYpects, it was the inspiration for subsequent visualizations.

The latest version has been offered by a team of researchers from Berkeley University. It shows that bacteria make up a significant portion of this tree, and we are still becoming aware of the great diversity of that bacterial world.

As a Christian who reconciles trust in a Creator with the processes of the natural world included in what we term evolution I find this fascinating. Such a vast, complex world we live in! When I read Genesis it's not the notion of a six-day creation which I take to heart. It is the caution that as we come to the tree of good and evil we must be humble and realize that we make lousy gods. If we hope to heal the planet a sense of wonder and a commitment to humility are essential.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Canadian Black Lives Matter

Most of us have heard about the Black Lives Matter movement and assume it is primarily about racial injustice in the United States. It is a relatively recent cause beginning in 2013 with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. It appeared that Zimmerman literally got away with murder, and Black Lives Matter has been used repeatedly since then when people of colour have been killed.

We might not be as aware of the Black Lives Matter protests going on in Toronto in recent weeks. Eventually Premier Kathleen Wynne met with leaders, although Toronto mayor John Tory has been reluctant to do so. There have been a number of incidents in Canada's largest city, including shooting deaths of black people, which led to these protests.

Yusra Khogali Black Lives Matter Toronto

As I've listened I have wondered if there has been any faith response, and then yesterday I saw a letter from clergy and lay persons of the United Church acknowledging that there is systemic racism in the city. There are more than 140 signers, and I know many of them.

We are deluded if we figure racism doesn't exist in Canada, even though we are generally a tolerant and diverse society. A number of media sources have shut down comments on aboriginal stories because of the toxicity of the responses. We hear plenty of nasty stuff about refugees, and there are ongoing tensions about so-called carding of people of colour in Toronto. While the issues may not be as apparent in communities which aren't as diverse, there is plenty of racism out there.

Again, this is a marvellous country and we don't want to paint a dire picture of race relations. Toronto is known throughout the world for its workable diversity. Still,  I am grateful for colleagues and other people of faith who are willing to address the ugly reality of racism.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Joy of Love

In the Fall of 2015 we marked Creation Time at Bridge St UC with sermon and study series' on Pope Francis' encyclical called Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home. When the pope speaks the world tends to listen, or at least react and respond.

Francis is at it again, this time with a reflection on marriage, love, and family entitled Amoris Laetitia: The Joy of Love.  I really do wish the Vatican would lose the Latin. Who uses Latin anymore? But I digress...

This is another important document because it opens the discussion about what families look like, and at least gives a glimmer of hope for those in relationships which don't fit a particular template. There seems to be room for grace here, although some Vatican watchers insist that the change is in the rhetoric, not the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church. Because the eucharist, or communion, is so central to Catholicism there is also consideration of who is welcome for the sacrament. Traditionally divorced Catholics have not received the eucharist.

Protestants might not be inclined to give this document much consideration, particularly those of us in liberal churches. We have come to different conclusions about divorce and remarriage, same-gender marriage, and the meaning of relationships outside of marriage. The United Church has been thoughtful in working through these issues, but I'm not sure anyone reads the documents we produced along the way. And of course marriage is not a sacrament in Protestant churches the way it is in Roman Catholicism.

I figure we should pay attention to Amoris Laetitia because we tend to be so vague in our theology of relationships and marriage despite our stated positions. I'm with Pope Francis in his encouragement to be less judgemental and rule-oriented about relationships.He says that the church must meet people where they are and stop speaking of "living in sin.  At the same time I want to consider how can be support relationships if we don't take much more than a passive, "whatever" approach.

Here is an article on the top ten "take-aways" from the document

Will I read Amoris Laetitia the way I worked my way through Laudato Si? I doubt it, but I will pay attention to the reflections of those who have. And I will ponder my convictions about relationships.


Saturday, April 09, 2016


The world seems outraged by the revelations of prominent persons from many nations who have tucked their wealth away in Panamanian tax shelters. From what I can see the majority have done so legally, although some are hiding ill-gotten gain, and others have entered the shadows of unethical behaviour, even if it is not illegal. Some of the thousands of persons named in leaked documents are politicians who are under pressure to resign or have done so because they have profited from the havens at the same time their national banking systems were taking a huge hit.

What is shocking is that anyone is shocked. The wealthy have usually been adept at both creating wealth and holding on to it. The wealthy are generally conservative in their politics because they want to conserve what they have. If you listen to loudmouths such as Kevin O'Leary, this is the way the gods of commerce and accumulation have ordained it. He is so convinced of this that he considering a run for leadership of the Conservative party of Canada.

What depresses me is that while there will be some huffing and puffing for a week or three, this too shall pass, and we will return to the status quo of the rich prospering. It's unlikely that anything will change. It will remain legal to dodge taxes, despite all the moral outrage.

 I think of the negative comments I regularly hear about free-loading poor people who milk the system. We have our fair share of folk who come to the church seeking twenty dollars here, thirty dollars there. Someone showed up while I was writing this blog, a regular who is one of the few individuals who pays us back. Why does society hold these people in contempt and accept that at least some of the rich can do what they please? Did they really earn their wealth, the way most people do?

Jesus had a lot of time for the poor, and suggested more than once that the road to hell is paved with lucre, even when it isn't filthy. Could it be that we should pay greater attention to Jesus? Ah, such silly talk!

Friday, April 08, 2016

The Court of Public Opinion

JIan Ghomeshi, with lawyer Marie Henein, made his way many times in recent months through public throngs without talking. But Judith Timson believes in the court of public opinion he will eventually have something to say.

The Jian Ghomeshi trial came and went, although the former radio celeb will be back in court in June. Ghomeshi is present but not accounted for in the sense that he has to testify. That is the responsibility of his accusers and the first three did not fare well, all being dismantled in questioning by Ghomeshi's formidable lawyer, Marie Henein. Henein did exactly what she was employed to do, and the outcome was what everyone who knows the judicial system expected. While she was vilified as a traitor to her gender she did an exemplary job as a lawyer, regardless of gender.

As a Christian minister who has listened to many heart-wrenching stories of assault and abuse, and as a person married to a former Women's Shelter counsellor, the outcome of this case was not satisfying. While I appreciate why Ghomeshi was acquitted, I am not convinced justice was done for those three women, many more who didn't press charges, and for women everywhere who are reluctant to enter into the murky waters of a legal system that seldom addresses sexual assault cases without leaving the complainants feeling they have been made victims again. I felt that the judge unnecessarily scolded the complainants, even though their testimony was not sufficiently credible for a conviction.

In the end Ghomeshi was acquitted in a court of law, but not in the court of public opinion, as Toronto Star writer Judith Timson so cogently reminds us. In her excellent article she poses ten questions I feel get to the heart of the moral and ethical matters.

1. Mr. Ghomeshi, why do you think so many women — not just these three but easily a dozen more — came forward to the media with accounts of having been abused or assaulted by you? Is it your contention that every single one of these women was lying or mistaken or vengeful? If so, why would that be?
2. Can you walk the court of public opinion through your admitted “rough sex” practice and tell us what physical actions were involved? 
3. Could you help us understand what “consent” means to you? No one doubts that consenting sexual partners do all sorts of things that others view as weird or distasteful or dangerous.  Did you obtain verbal consent every time you practiced rough sex?
4. Apart from the allegations of sexual assault, why do you think other women have come forward, to say your manner with them socially or professionally, was sexualized, overly flirtatious or just plain creepy?
5. Were you aware that in the arts and music scene, that talk was rife about you being a “bad date”? Did this concern you?  Did you ever try to rebut this gossip? If not, why not?
6. Can you please tell the court of public opinion why you kept emails and in one case a written letter that were more than a decade old from women who seemed to have meant so little to you. How did you file these emails?
7. In the CBC interview, your lawyer Marie Henein said this process was “painful and very difficult” for you and that anyone who goes through a criminal trial “will never be the same again.” How did this trial change you?
8. Have you given any critical thought to your relationships with women?
9. If you are acquitted at your next trial, how do you intend to rebuild your life?
10. And finally having gone through what anyone would describe as a legal nightmare, what would you have done differently?

I did feel that some of the post-trial reaction was "over the top" but the issues around sexual assault have not been resolved and once again the provisions of the law are found wanting.

How did you feel at the end of it all? Do we need to re-examine the way our judicial system addresses sexual assault?

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Bible as State Book? Why?

There really is so much weird religion in the States. The most wretchedly mean-spirited candidates in the presidential race invoke the bible but obviously take none of it to heart. Everyone intones "God bless America" to the point that it means next to nothing. What would it mean, anyway? That God blesses the United States because...why, because?

Now we learn that Tennessee is going to declare the bible its state book. It's curious enough that states and provinces have designated birds and mammals and flowers. Massachusetts has a state fish, represented by the so-called "sacred cod" which hangs in the legislature.

Why chose a sacred text as a state book though? We live in a pluralistic age, where different religions are respected, at least in law. Choosing one holy book offends or diminishes others, not to mention those who don't adhere to any sacred text.

Perhaps more importantly, history tells us that the bible is at its best when it challenges the status quo, and the "principalities and powers," not when it is coopted by them. The bible has been at its worst when it is used to justify harm to those who are disempowered and disenfranchised. The ugly truth is that Tennessee was a slave state, and the bible was probably used to justify the evil institution on a regular basis.

The bible is at its best when it lifts up the lowly and scatters the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. We know that Henry VIII hunted down those who translated the bible into English because there was so much which challenged imperial power within its pages. The King James Version was a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attempt to control the message. The bible is a subversive book which upholds Christ's new way, his reign.

I'm pleased to see that a number of Christians leaders from different denominations are opposing this bill. To be clear, the bible is the most important book for me. But instead of declaring the bible a book of significance through legislation, why not simply make its message meaningful from the pulpits of churches and in the actions of our personal lives? Or is that too foolish a suggestion?

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Refugee Challenge

I wrote recently about the potluck meal held at Bridge St. United to welcome our sponsored Syrian refugee family, the Al Mansours, along with another family sponsored by another group. The Al Mansours are pictured above from that evening. We are so pleased that they are adjusting well to life in Canada, and they are so grateful to be here. All are working on their English, and dad is itching to find work.

Unfortunately our positive experience is not shared by others, as you have probably seen in the news. Many sponsorship groups, including faith communities, have been waiting and waiting for word on their sponsored families and individuals. The complaint is that there is no transparency on the part of the federal government and some cynicism that now the "photo op" is over and the 25,000 target has been reached there is less urgency to settle refugees. I am reluctant to criticize a government that has done so much better than most nations, including our neighbours to the south. Yet we know that the process is not what it should be.

To add to the confusion, last week the government announced that prospective sponsor groups had a mere twenty-four hours to file applications for up to 10,000 more Syrian refugees. Virtually everyone involved in sponsorship was caught off guard and scrambled to complete the paperwork. A handful of us at Bridge St. worked feverishly last Thursday to fill in the forms for several households related to the Al Mansours, all of which are living in camps outside Syria. We had hoped for a measured approach to family reunification through sponsorship of additional family members but were thrust into a different approach.

Daily we are reminded that the planetary crisis of displaced persons is deepening. While we can't solve this complex challenge, we can choose to respond with practical compassion and Christ's love. As voters and constituents in this democracy we can also let our governments know how important this is to us.


Day of Prayer for Climate Action

Well, I'm back after a week away (sort of) and a sabbatical from blogging. I hope you're still taking a peek from day to day to see if I'm writing.

This is the Day of Prayer for Climate Action, which I suppose should be every day, given the state of the planet. Of course this comes in the midst of a cold snap in Southern Ontario which has left many sputtering in disbelief -- where did Spring go? everyone whines. This shows how we have all become accustomed to changing weather patterns and climate. I grew up with the expectation that April would be the cruellest month, to borrow from T.S. Elliot. We were told not to plant anything tender until near the end of May, for crying out loud. Now we have some strange notion that the end of March is patio weather.

At the beginning of December last year Christian religious leaders joined heads of state and representatives from governments around the world to address climate change. Many pundits felt that there wasn't a prayer of reaching an effective agreement which would actually result in action. We hoped and still do that prayer will make a difference, and that we can develop the resolve necessary to bring about change because God wants us to care for Creation.

Here is a portion of a prayer on the Citizens For Public Justice website for this day.

Creator God,
We come to you in a spirit of awe, wonder, and tremendous gratitude for life on this Earth.
You have cloaked the Earth in an unimaginable beauty that is everywhere we choose to see it – in a budding spring leaf, the falling rain, a crisp mountain lake, and the clear blue sky.
Yet we continue to bring devastation upon the Earth through our over-reliance on fossil fuels.
Today, we lament the pain that our actions have caused...
We know that solutions exist.
Help us, dear God, as we work together in service of the common good.
Strengthen us as we adjust the actions of our daily lives to better reflect our love for the world.
Embolden us to continue to speak truth to power.
Walk with us as we do all these things in response to your call to love and protect the Earth.
                                                In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray,