Sunday, December 31, 2017

Less Information, More Wisdom

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Does not wisdom call,
    and does not understanding raise her voice?
 On the heights, beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;
 beside the gates in front of the town,
    at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
 “To you, O people, I call,
    and my cry is to all that live.
 O simple ones, learn prudence;
    acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
 Hear, for I will speak noble things,
    and from my lips will come what is right;
 for my mouth will utter truth...

                                            Proverbs 8:1-7a

the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.
the body of knowledge and principles that develops within a specified society or period.

When I began this Lion Lamb blog more than a decade ago it was on the prompting of a young parishioner. No doubt he has gone elsewhere in terms of social media but I have stayed with it through the years. I have done so, in no small part, to help me make sense of the wave of information which washes over all of us from so many sources. When I began blogging Facebook was still associated with college students and Twitter wasn't even a virtual twinkle in anyone's eye. I couldn't have imagined that newspapers would disappear in droves nor that the evening television news would become stale because stories break through the smart phone I carry with me all the time but which didn't exist in 2006.

I have come to realize that I have continued to blog as a form of self expression and as a way of processing the tsunami of information now available to us at any time of the day or night, 365 days of the year. While I may have greater and greater access to that info (could we possibly be stuffed with any more?) I don't feel any wiser. In fact, it is quite the opposite. My attention span has declined, I can easily be side-tracked by trivia, and it can be a challenge to step away from the culture of rage, even as a bystander.

As we enter into 2018 I would like to endeavour to deepen my wisdom, which will likely mean limiting the amount of unfiltered information which bombards me. I plan to intentionally step away from my not-as-smart-as-it-seems phone more, so that it is my servant rather than my master.  

I will read more of the novels stacked all around me, and pursue deeper thoughts through the biographies of those who introduced us to new ways of thinking and being in the world. I'll read the bible more, just for the sake of doing so, after so many years of reading for my vocation as a minister of the gospel. And I'll "read" the natural world with greater purpose because I almost always find wisdom and centredness there.

Can I do this? I hope so, God being my helper.

Thoughts? Wisdom?

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Good Old Age?

Today we'll visit my mother on the occasion of her 92nd birthday. That is a "good old age" except that old age hasn't been good to her recently. She is now confined to a wheelchair and must have assistance for every physical function. She has days when she is responsive, cognitively, yet may still struggle to express herself. It's always a gift when we're able to chat, even briefly. She is most animated when her great-grandchildren are part of the interaction, whether through videos or in person. She smiled when her nearly five-year-old great-grandson came to visit with us and was animated when her four-month old great-granddaughter was introduced to her earlier this week. 

Mom didn't want to live this long, and this way. But what were the alternatives? She told us that she was supportive of MAID --Medical Assistance in Dying -- but we never had a nitty gritty conversation about her own circumstances and now we never will. She has a DNR and her nursing home is aware. Still, that's not the same.

In the bigger picture of 2017 there has been a lot of conversation about MAID in this country. We are fumbling around in the ethical and spiritual implications, which is understandable. The medical community continues to explore what is legally permissible in assisted death, how the boundaries might be changed, and who should be involved in decision-making. This was bound to happen.

Pegg and Takeda in his living room

I heard a lengthy CBC radio The Current piece about a Canadian named Will Pegg who is dying of cancer. It was very worthwhile listening because Will has a lot of support and he is a very spiritual person, in a positive, Heinz 57 way. He is living the best life he can as the end approaches, planting garlic for harvest next year and even marrying. Yet he may not make it to Spring of next year and he's made careful plans to die before prolonged suffering. Some religious friends have distanced themselves from him because of this, but his resolve is strong.

As we head into 2018 I hope we all have the conversations we need with those we love. If we are people of prayer we can ask God for wisdom and guidance for what is happening in Canada and also in our personal circumstances. Life is a gift from God and we should cherish it for all people, everywhere. Dying is part of life as well and how we depart is something we should all ponder and address without fear.

In the meantime, live and love well. And Mom? Well done, good and faithful follower of Jesus.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

True Respect in Christmas

Image result for pope francis false respect

I'm going out on a limb and suggest that it ain't easy being Pope Francis. For some Roman Catholics he is akin to the anti-Christ with conservative priests dissing him in homilies and certain cardinals and bishops challenging his authority in the shadows. Everything he says goes through the sausage grinder in his own denomination...and then there are the Protestants and Orthodox and atheists, ad naseum.

I admire Francis but I wondered about the value of his comments in his final audience of 2017 about the "false respect" being shown to other religious traditions which undermines the true meaning of Christmas:

“In our times, especially in Europe, we’re seeing a ‘distortion’ of Christmas. In the name of a false respect for non-Christians, which often hides a desire to marginalize the faith, every reference to the birth of Christ is being eliminated from the holiday, but in reality, this event is the one true Christmas! “Without Jesus, there is no Christmas.”

I do think that Christmas has become a rather bloated, maudlin, "home for the holidays" extravaganza, but I figure it has much more to do with commercialism and secularism than other faiths. Maybe that is what Francis is referring to, and I don't live in Europe, so I don't have an immediate read on his circumstances. Maybe its because of President Voldemort's phoney "I'm gonna make Christmas great again" claptrap still turning my stomach.

Here's what I know. I said "merry Christmas" to a lot of people this year, and they said it back, with warmth. I attended a Christmas Eve service with my family and we had dozens of congregations to choose from. There were Nativity scenes here, there and everywhere, and while they weren't in the public square, Christian individuals and churches displayed them reverently.

I do lament how commercial Christmas has become. So I avoided malls and Ruth, my beloved spouse, and I decided to dial right back on the presents except for grandkids and the household in our family draw. Nobody told us to do this -- it was our choice in a country where I have the freedom to do what I damn well please in any season of the year.

I know from history that Christians were on the margins for centuries and they continued to worship and gather, although often secretively. There were no papal audiences or cathedrals or church structures of any kind. Celebrating Christ's birth at the end of December was not something that happened for a long time.

Perhaps we should just get on with loving Jesus and loving one another, including those with other outlooks. Isn't that the respect we're hoping for? Pope Francis is actually committed to doing this, so we should give him the benefit of the doubt. I can't do the same for Trump.


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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Trees as Spiritual Companions

Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. 
 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” 
 24 And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus  laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored...  Mark 8

I love the sight and the sound of the woods in winter. Leaves on deciduous trees fall but if we're fortunate the same branches are festooned with snow at various times through the season. I walked through cedars on Christmas Eve Day and took this photo. I hoped to capture the glistening sifts of snow which randomly descended but had to settle for the dappled sunlight and shadows. In winter trees creak and groan with a different voice which is distinctly of this time of year. There are also the paths of creatures amongst them, which encourage pausing and pondering who went where.

I find great solace in these wintry rambles. They make up for the weaker light and shortened days. I find that they are contemplative, soul-nourishing. It's hard to imagine what they would be like without trees, as a respite from the wind and a refuge for the spirit.

Peter Wohlleben is a German forester who has written a book called The Hidden Life of Trees. He makes a persuasive case for trees as living, social, sentient beings. If we're open trees are members of the "communion of saints" and because of them we aren't alone, even when we're supposedly walking by ourselves.

I hope you get out there and walk amidst the winter trees and that Christ opens your spiritual vision.

Related image

Winter in the Northern Woods  Lawren Harris

Monday, December 25, 2017

Joy to the World

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1 Joy to the world! the Lord is come:
 let earth receive her King!
 Let every heart prepare him room,
 and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing,
 and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

2 Joy to the earth! the Saviour reigns:
 let all their songs employ,
 while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
 repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy,
 repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

Here we are, another Feast of the Birth or Nativity of Jesus. As the years have passed I've grown deeper in love with the incarnation, the presence of God-with-us in the person of Jesus. This planet is so remarkably beautiful and the possibilities of life together for all creatures are endless. God joining us in this way is so, God-like!

That said, the year 2017 was difficult, one in which it was a challenge to celebrate the goodness of Creation and the presence of an earthy, earthling God. There have been unprecedented fires, and changes to weather patterns which have wreaked havoc in many parts of the globe. Migrants perish as they search for new homes because their countries are stricken by drought. I am disheartened that Right whales, which I have seen in the Bay of Fundy may be the way to extinction, as is the case with many other species. A tenth of the Earth's wilderness has disappeared since 1992. We humans have a propensity for the sin of environmental degradation.

Where is the joy? We all need to find the wellspring for joy in our lives, in our choices. As Christmas comes again and a New Year is on the horizon I commit myself anew to caring for Planet Earth as a follower of Jesus, the Promised One.

 A familiar hymn of this season, Joy to the World, was not written as an Advent or Christmas carol, but it is sung often at this time of year. Isaac Watts wrote it nearly 300 years ago as a mash-up of Psalms 98, and 96 and Genesis 3. He includes in his lyrics the hope of Christ, not as the baby of Bethlehem but as the one who would redeem all of Creation. This is an environmental hymn and a planetary hymn and a cosmic hymn.

I can only hope for a heavenly home when this life ends, but I am able to make a difference now, on the planet where I was born. I desire joy for my grandchildren and future generations. I can lobby governments, and take personal action in my lifestyle choices which may be costly in their commitment to simplicity. I can also worship the God revealed in Jesus, to sing and pray with a joy and peace which is beyond understanding.

May the earthy, cosmic Christ bring you joy today and in the year to come, and may you live your joy.  Thanks for reading!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A New Christmas Journey

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1 Infant holy, infant lowly, for his bed a cattle stall;
 oxen lowing, little knowing Christ the babe is Lord of all.
 Swift are winging angels singing,
 noels ringing, tidings bringing:
  Christ the babe is born for all.
  Christ the babe is born for all!

2 Flocks were sleeping; shepherds keeping vigil till
  the morning new
 saw the glory, heard the story, tidings of a gospel true.
 Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,
 praises voicing greet the morrow:
  Christ the babe was born for you.
  Christ the babe was born for you!

Many of you who are regular readers are aware that I am the son of a United Church minister, I spent 37 years in ministry before my recent retirement, and our son is a UCC minister as well. This means that my memory of Advent and Christmas from the earliest days of my life is of preparation and busyness. Despite every effort to be ready for multiple services there are always circumstances which can't be controlled. One year there were three funerals of beloved members of a congregation in the week before Christmas, including the spouses of both the pastoral care minister and the organist.

I've spent many an early Christmas morning at the hospital, visiting those who feel bleak about their health and separation from family. Last year Christmas morning was on a Sunday and before worship I spent time with a family whose husband and Dad had died at home in in the early hours. Then it was on to the hospital before worship. We have joked through the decades that on Christmas morning the family props me up with pillows on the couch as I try to keep my eyes open.

There are so many meaningful memories of ministering to others at this time of year. Tonight I will miss going outside on the steps of the church with the congregation with candles to sing Silent Night to the community. Some years the stars were blazing and the experience was exquisite.

And yet...I am so grateful that this aspect of my Christian journey has come to an end. This evening I will sit with my family and sing carols without having to consider what is next during the service. I won't have to fret over the possibility of snow (which should be a delight) or if attendance will be deemed good in the seasonal post mortem. And truth be told, I'm relieved that I no longer preside over the funeral and memorial services of the saints.

 Our son and his family have moved nearby and he will begin his ministry in a new congregation at the beginning of January. So he is off now, and this is an even greater gift, two clergy guys getting to sit together in church without responsibility!

Christ be with all of you this night and throughout the season.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Jazz, Jesus and Charlie Brown

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There are many Christmas TV specials and classics, and we all have our favourites. To be honest I've never been a big fan of A Charlie Brown Christmas, although my brother Eric loves it, in no small part because of the music. I listened to an interview with the drummer from the jazz trio which wrote and performed the score and it piqued my interest. Here is a description of the development of the half hour animated show from that unimpeachable source, Wikipedia:

Peanuts had become a phenomenon worldwide by the mid-1960s, and the special was commissioned and sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company. It was written over a period of several weeks, and animated on a shoestring budget in only six months. In casting the characters, the producers went an unconventional route, hiring child actors. The program's soundtrack was similarly unorthodox: it features a jazz ccore by pianist Vince Guaraldi. Its absence of a laugh track (a staple in US television animation in this period), in addition to its tone, pacing, music, and animation, led both the producers and network to wrongly predict the project would be a disaster preceding its broadcast.

Sadly, Guaraldi died before the age of 50 but the drummer, Canadian Jerry Granelli is still going strong at 77. He reminisced that the execs figured jazz didn't make sense for a children's special and that the program would be "one and done." No one could have predicted the enduring love and staying power for more than 50 years.

I happened upon A Charlie Brown Christmas the other evening and decided to give it another look. Charlie's sadness over the commercialization is even more timely, and it is so...Christian! Near the end Linus quotes from the King James Version of Luke 2, which is the go-to passage about the birth of Jesus. Schulz was a devout Christian and nearly 600 of his comic strips have faith themes. He was a Sunday School teacher and a voracious reader of biblical commentaries and the bible itself.

I'm glad I saw the special again, with it's jazz and Jesus. Hey, every once in a blue moon a kid brother gets it right.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

An Unforgettable Night

Many of us grew up with European Christmas carols and Nativity scenes that were reminiscent of medieval Switzerland rather than ancient Israel. The members of the Holy Family often had distinctly Caucasian features as well. Without ever giving it much thought, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were dominant-culture-Canadian, eh?

I was moved when I first saw artist William Kurelek's images in A Northern Nativity of the Holy Family in Canadian settings, including a Maritime outport. The cover showed them in a cutaway igloo.

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This past summer we spent a month in a Newfoundland outport community, Change Islands, and met a lovely couple from Montreal. Denis is a book publisher whose company, Mediaspaul  had recently published it's own Nativity children's book called Noel: An Unforgettable Night! in English, although it was originally published as in French as Noel: Une Nuit Inoubliable! The text is by Claire Dumont and the illustrations are by a relative newcomer to Canada, Mehrafarin Keshavarz. Keshavarz was originally from Iran, and was somewhat reluctant to take on a project which required imagining the birth of Jesus in an Inuit setting, as seen above. We must always be cautious about cultural appropriation.

Denis kindly sent a copy of the French language version to us. While my French is abysmal, our young grandsons are growing up speaking both English and French, so this is ideal as long as I'm not reading. The older of the two gets a bemused trace of a grin on his face when I slog through the French picture books!

The day may come -- and should -- when Canadian children can learn about Christ's birth from books written and illustrated by Aboriginal individuals of this land. If the incarnation is universal, then we don't need to be confined by European imagery. In the meantime, Noel and A Northern Nativity invite us into different ways of telling the story.

Is it important to have depictions of the Christ story which reflect the cultures in which they're told? Does this new telling intrigue you?

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas Cheer?

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This morning I brushed my teeth to a CBC Ontario Morning radio interview with someone who is a recovering alcoholic and was offering encouragement and advice for those who will be in social gathering where drinking will occur through this holiday season. It was a recognition that this can be a precarious time for those with substance abuse challenges and I commend CBC for offering this interview.

I grew up in a teetotalling home, so alcohol was never part of the occasion in our family festivities. Today I am a moderate drinker, although I gave up alcohol for a year in my twenties after working as a summer chaplain in Kingston Penitentiary. So many of the men to whom I ministered were in prison, sometimes with life sentences, for crimes committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I quit in solidarity with these inmates, and I did think of the verse in Romans 14 that says "it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble." Before long though I was back to my barbecue beer, or wine with dinner, or...some low-key Christmas wassailing.

I'm not going to encourage anyone not to drink through the holidays. It is an enjoyable social thing to do within the proverbial moderation. Just the same, we do need to be respectful and kind to those for whom this is an issue. When Ruth, my wife, worked as a counselor in a shelter for women and children leaving abusive situations she spoke with clients who feared what was supposed to be a festive family time because of their "ugly drunk" partners. There are readers of this blog who have been to hell and back with loved ones whose addictions have derailed their lives and those around them.

The person being interviewed this morning reminded listeners that it's nobody's business why a person isn't drinking, and that being respectful as hosts is important. There is no "bah humbug" in kindness.

Any comments on this dear readers?