Tuesday, December 31, 2019
I have been married to Ruth for 44 years, come April, and we have been together for 46 years. Both of us are somewhat surprised that we are nearly 20 years older than 46 --where has the time gone? We still do lots together, enjoy one another's company, and have managed not to murder each other in retirement. We love our three adult children and delight in our grandchildren -- lucky us!
We both readily admit that life together has included wounds, some deeper than others, as well as scar tissue. Because we were basically kids when we got together we grew up alongside each other, sometimes at different paces and with expectations which didn't always mesh.
Our relationship is the product of the era where romantic love between two people became the marital ideal rather than a relationship of practicality which assumed the involvement of the wider family and the community, often including religious communities. In our case we added the lofty religious expectation that what God had put together no one could pull asunder.
Of course this has all changed, societally, in the years we have been a couple. Now people make vows which seem impossibly idealistic and leave God out of the equation. Little wonder that relationships falter and that lots of couples decide not to marry at all.
We have held on rather stubbornly to the notion that we came together in a covenant, or promise relationship in which God was integrally involved. Our perspective on love has been tested, altered, weakened, strengthened along the way. We don't take much for granted.
Huh. I had no idea that I would reflect on this at such length to say that I read an interesting New Yorker interview with Esther Perlman, a couples therapist. She has a lot to say that is worthwhile and the title, Love is Not a Permanent State of Enthusiasm did grab my attention.
The question about love and Perlman's response was an excellent ending to the interview:
Do you have a working definition of love?
It’s a verb. That’s the first thing. It’s an active engagement with all kinds of feelings—positive ones and primitive ones and loathsome ones. But it’s a very active verb. And it’s often surprising how it can kind of ebb and flow. It’s like the moon. We think it’s disappeared, and suddenly it shows up again. It’s not a permanent state of enthusiasm. I’m thirty-five years in a relationship, I practice. And I have two boys—I practice. It’s not just romantic love.
I think that definition today of love—“you are my everything”—where you really see it, this complete exaltation, is in wedding vows. Have you ever noticed? I mean, it’s, “I will wipe every tear that streams down your face before you even notice it’s going down.” I think a realistic vow is “I will fuck up on a regular basis, and, on occasion, I’ll admit it.”
While I always gave couples options for vows I would never have summoned up the courage to offer that one. It would have been an interesting wedding if I did!
Monday, December 30, 2019
While family was with us over Christmas our four-year-old grandson made the rounds of adults -- sometimes twice -- asking that we read him Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins. It was fun to do all the voices and he has a tremendous capacity to listen...again and again...
Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday, but it usually coincides with Christmas and has its own theme of miraculous light in the midst of darkness. Darkness invaded a Hanukkah meal on the weekend when a man armed with a machete crashed into a home and injured five Jewish residents. It was a horrific unprovoked hate crime, but sadly not isolated. In recent days there have been at least 13 attacks on Jewish people in New York State, mostly in New York City.
Crimes against both Jews and Muslims are on the rise in the United States, and we have seen increased numbers in Canada as well. This is a disgusting trend which should offend all of us, yet emboldened white supremacy has been increasing in Europe as well.
Christians everywhere need to speak boldly against the darkness of racism and bigotry. If we believe that Christ is the Prince of Peace and the Light of the World then we will stand with sisters and brothers of other faiths in decrying the goblins of prejudice.
Saturday, December 28, 2019
Every year we hear about the small group of individuals who will be named to the Order of Canada. As always there are some we recognize who we might not be enthusiastic about receiving the honour. I appreciate that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave considerable service to this country but I didn't like his policies or his personality. There are others whose names we might not know but discover are highly deserving.
One of those people is Sister Sue Mosteller, a Roman Catholic nun in her 80's who has been involved in the :L'Arche movement, founded by the late Jean Vanier, for nearly 50 years. L'Arche communities provide loving community and safety for those living with developmental challenges.
Sue Mosteller with Jean Vanier
The late theologian, Henri Nouwen spent several years living at Daybreak, one of these communities near Toronto. Nouwen and Mosteller became close friends during that time and he credited her with being instrumental in fostering a maturity in his spirituality. After his untimely death she was his literary executor.
We can be grateful that unsung and unassuming heroes such as Sister Mosteller are "sung" in such a way. The lives of many and our world in general are better because of people like her. Thank you Sister Sue.
Sue Mosteller and Henri Nouwen
Friday, December 27, 2019
The film called The Two Popes was released theatrically at the beginning of December but it's now available on Netflix. It stars Anthony Hopkins, who is good in just about anything, and Jonathan Pryce, who is also good in just about anything but lesser known. They play Pope Benedict, and his successor, the current pontiff, Francis.
It is a story about a friendship which develops out of cautious mutual respect, despite significant theological differences. The genius of the film is the focus on two human beings with a high calling who understand the role in very different ways. They do not compromise their convictions yet understand that change is necessary of an institution which is in decline. Benedict was the first pope in 700 years to resign rather than die in office, which meant that he was conservative but progressive at the same time. Francis had actually decided to resign as a cardinal and return to parish ministry but reluctantly accepted Benedict's endorsement as his successor.
Of course much of the film is speculative, given that much of what we see is conversations to which no one would have been privy. To some degree that doesn't matter. Benedict did resign and Francis has taken an approach to the papacy which has infuriated some and given hope to many.
Bye the bye, Anthony Hopkins as Benedict is playing the piano in the film. In an interview he mentions that he frustrated his practical Welsh father who felt that he frittered away time playing the piano as a boy, and he is self-taught.
I would certainly encourage you to watch The Two Popes and ask some broader questions about the sometimes painful process of transition and change in our religious institutions.
Have you seen it? Did you like it?
Wednesday, December 25, 2019
Merry Christmas to those of you who are faithful readers of this blog, and to those of you who may be visiting for the first time. I was a little surprised when I did the math and realized that between my Lion Lamb and Groundling blogs I will have posted over 500 times in 2019. Apparently there are some benefits to retirement. I hope there is joy in this day for you and in the days ahead.
As some of you will know, I have mixed feelings about Pope Francis but I do appreciate that he has taken positive and progressive steps in the Roman Catholic church despite strong resistance from those who resist change.
This year marked his 50th anniversary of ordination as a priest as well as his 83rd birthday. Today thousands listened in St. Peter's Square to what was his seventh "Urbi et Orbi" ("To the City and the World") Christmas Day address,. He once again upheld the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized around the planet and prayed:
May [God] soften our often stony and self-centred hearts, and make them channels of His love. May He bring His smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence.
Amen, whatever our Christian perspective may be.
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
The first Nowell the angel did say
was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
in fields where they lay akeeping their sheep
on a cold winter's night that was so deep.
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.
The First Nowell is one of those venerable carols to which my response every year is "this is waayyy too long." Honestly, we could sing the first verse, get the gist, and move on to another favourite.
Much has been made of the poor shepherds who were the original minimum wage workers, doing necessary and even dangerous work yet living literally and figuratively on the margins of society.
I read an article on research into a number of paintings and nativity scenes which depict shepherds with goiters, abnormal growths and condition which occurs because of iodine deficiency. Apparently the condition was common in medieval and renaissance times and so the goiters were given to the shepherds who attended Jesus' birth.
According to the article "Goiter is more often seen in poor people," says retired surgeon Renzo Dionigi of the University of Insubria in Varese, Italy, who notes that the working classes in this region would historically not have a varied diet that might supply this vital nutrient. Diogini and his son have been looking for these depictions because they accurately portray the condition in the era of the artworks.
I do appreciate that the first people to pay homage to the infant Jesus were not the educated and affluent Magi but society's nobodies. As an adult, Jesus treated the working poor, the sick, and outcasts with dignity and love. One of the best way we can honour Christmas is to do the same today.
Monday, December 23, 2019
I was at the barbershop last week waiting my turn, so I looked for reading material. I should say that I'm at the stage of life where the haircut portion of the visit with the barber is brief, while my beard requires much more attention.
I found a recent copy of National Geographic with a cover title World on the Move and as it suggests it addresses the global reality and crisis of migrants and refugees. One photo essay was on babies born without a nation, often in dire conditions. There were many photos of Rohingya infants, children born in Bangladesh after their families fled Myanmar or Burma because they have been persecuted. An estimated 60 stateless babies are born in Bangladesh camps every day.
Rohingya Refugee Babies
Even though this was a summer issue of National Geographic it seemed so appropriate given that a Global Refugee Forum has just taken place for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland. Lo and behold many of the participants were refugees.
Of course I was also thinking about our Christian migrant family story as I looked at the photos of babies. Jesus, born in a stable, whose parents were eventually forced to flee to Egypt to escape death. How can we turn away knowing that central to our salvation story is this baby on the move?
Refugees at the Global Refugee Forum
Sunday, December 22, 2019
To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?
Christianity Today Editorial December 19, 2019
Several decades ago I subscribed to Christianity Today magazine, an evangelical publication started by Billy Graham. After a year or two I stopped, realizing that its conservative content didn't fit well with my changing theological outlook. Just the same, I would regularly take a look at issues in the United Church college library in Sudbury and then online because CT represents a huge evangelical constituency in the United States. The magazine has become more open to discussing the role of women in the church and the importance of Creation Care, but is still staunchly to the right when it comes to abortion and inclusion for the LGBTQ community. And people of colour note that CT is essentially a magazine for white folks, the base for the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. One of my colleagues from the past called the magazine Christianity Yesterday.
You may have heard about the recent editorial in CT which has caused quite a stir. A couple of days after Trump's impeachment the editor, Mark Galli, called for his removal from office because he is morally and ethically unfit. This seems rather obvious to many of us, but for CT --or ET as Trump hilariously called it in an angry response -- to say so has rocked the evangelical world with its shameful support of a man whose values and actions are antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Trump has since fumed that the magazine is "far left", which indicates that he has never read it.
This was a big enough deal that the New York Times and the Washington Post reported it, and for a couple of days it seemed that every other Twitter post had something to say. Predictably and sadly, many evangelical bigwigs rallied around Trump, including Billy Graham's reprehensible son, Franklin. The younger Graham insists that his father would not have supported this editorial, yet Billy Graham wrote an opinion piece in CT years ago when Bill Clinton was impeached, calling out the president's moral failure. And CT responded to the impeachment proceedings for Richard Nixon which resulted in his resignation.
To be honest I think the editorial is far too easy on Trump and upholds values I simply cannot support as a Christian. I do commend Galli for the courage to go against the lockstep support of a man who is "morally lost", as he puts it.
I figure that Trump could be caught in bed with the wife of a man he'd just murdered for reneging on a bad business deal made while in office and millions of evangelicals would concede that while he's flawed, he's God's choice for the presidency. We'll see whether the editorial moves the needle on public opinion, but I'm not holding my breath. I suppose I should continue to "phone home" my prayers for a moral shift in a nation which seems to have lost its way.
Saturday, December 21, 2019
Longing for light, we wait in darkness
Longing for truth, we turn to You.
Make us Your own, Your holy people
Light for the world to see.
Make us Your own, Your holy people
Light for the world to see.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in Your church gathered today
Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in Your church gathered today
As the sun rose this morning in Ireland a group of lucky lottery winners were ushered into the ancient tomb called Newgrange which was built so that the dawn sunlight of the Winter Solstice shone down a central corridor. Once this select group finishes their experience hundreds more will be taken in groups of twenty for their own experience in this 5,000 year old passage tomb.Tomorrow there will be a gathering at Stonehenge in Britain which is also solstice related. Amongst the crowd will be self-proclaimed Druids in the tradition of those who built this remarkable temple.
It seems that humans have always acknowledged a deeper, spiritual meaning to the orbit of the Earth around the Sun and what we term as seasons, with equinoxes and solstices. Despite the fact that the vast majority of us are now urbanized there remains a significant interest in the
It shouldn't be surprising that early Christians drafted in behind the Winter Solstice to celebrate the birth of Jesus, their Saviour. We don't have a clue when Jesus was born, other than that lambing season is usually in the Spring, not the heart of Winter. And yet, we Northern Hemisphere types make the most of the weak, short daylight hours to reflect on the movement from the darkness of Advent to the light of Christmas morning, complete with the growing number of candles on the wreath.
I'm one of those people who consider today an early Christmas gift. I'm with a friend who texted this morning "it just gets better from here on."
The hymn above was suggested one year as an Advent refrain by Terry Head, the exceptional musician who served Bridge St. UC before moving on to London, where he died suddenly a few weeks ago.
The Light of Christ is gleaming, and the daylight hours will lengthen, thanks be to God!
Friday, December 20, 2019
Oh Holy Sh*t.!This was a Twitter post by Anglican priest, RevDaniel which made me laugh and shake my head in disbelief. Where do people like this come from? Hey, I fume about the news reports of Muslim women who are harassed or assaulted on buses, or the grim reality that Jewish synagogues are defaced and require security for worship services. I get worked up when I hear about claims that Britain and Canada and the United States are Christian countries and the bullies who say "go back where you came from" to individuals who are just attempting to live their lives in peace.
Perhaps as an antidote I watched a PBS program about the centuries of religious tolerance and even pluralism in Spain and which were unprecedented in Europe. This era was far from perfect and religious freedom for Jews and Christians came with a price under Muslim rule. Just the same I was encouraged by this story from another time.
As the Christmas season approaches shall we remind ourselves that our scriptures tell of the birth of Yeshua, a Jewish child? And that mysterious strangers from a distance land, likely Zoroastrian Magi, came to give him homage?
Here is a description of the program I watched:
"The Ornament of the World" tells a story from the past that’s especially timely today: the story of a remarkable time in history when Muslims, Christians and Jews forged a common cultural identity that frequently transcended their religious differences. Retrace a nearly 800-year period in medieval Spain, from the early 8th through late 15th centuries, during which the three groups managed for the most part to sustain relationships that enabled them to coexist, collaborate and flourish.
Thursday, December 19, 2019
People are generous in the Holiday Season, formerly known as Christmas. It used to be that folk were especially generous at this time of year because of God's generosity to humanity in Christ, the original "reason for the season." In most mainline church congregations December is the key month for giving and through the years those of us "in the financial know" would sweat it out over whether some key members would come through in the clutch. To be honest I quietly fumed that while the majority of contributors would give week by week, month by month, albeit modestly, there were the "I'll save you" gifts at the 12th hour by a few.I resented that we were supposed to be thrilled by these high profile contributions. I'll add that there were also people who gave a lot without any desire for acknowledgement.
Today fewer people are connected to communities of faith than in the past, but they do give to charitable causes. When the coalition of congregations sponsored Syrian refugees in Belleville there were impressive contributions from individuals and organizations who weren't church folk yet wanted to support our effort. Some got public recognition for their gifts but some didn't because they didn't want it.
I got thinking about all this watching an episode of the guilty pleasure streaming series, Billions. It's an outrageous tale of the rich, rude, and famous and the attempts by the legal system to bring them low for their crimes and misdemeanours (I just had to use that phrase).
Damien Lewis & Richard Thomas (yes, John Boy) in Billions
At one point billionaire Bobby Axelrod, played with relish by Damien Lewis, is recruited by another rich guy to take The Giving Oath. The premise is that fabulously wealthy people pledge to give away the majority of their fortunes before or at the time of their deaths. In the conversation the recruiter admits that the prospect of giving the filthy lucre away with fanfare is almost as satisfying as making it in the first place.The selfish Bobby likes the idea because it will make him look good, but he is later scolded for not delivering.
This is an obvious poke at the Giving Pledge, the real-life equivalent which includes Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and 200 other "richer that God" mortals. Some of them including Gates and Buffet, have already given billions to excellent causes bringing health and well-being to the poor and disadvantaged of the world. Others have signed on but drag their gold-plated feet when it comes to ponying up.If you won't be a philanthropist you can always act like one.
Generosity is a curious thing. It makes us feel better and sometimes it makes us look better. It doesn't always mean that we are better. Some suggest that anyone who is a billionaire has trampled on others to get there, and this may be true, so generosity can be a form of white-washing for grubby images.
I'm going to suggest that as Christians we have all taken a form of giving pledge. Whatever Scrooge-like tendencies we have we can repent and choose to love lavishly and be generous with what we have, in this moment, without calculation of reward or acclaim. I hope we all respond to the Christmas and Easter stories "with glad and generous hearts" and that we do so 12 months of the year.
Wednesday, December 18, 2019
In my heart, Mary and Joseph, I will journey
with you and others for "Las Posadas."
Carrying lanterns, we sing joyfully and walk along with brave Joseph.
He leads poor, tired Mary on her little donkey.
From house to house we go, asking to come in, to find a quiet place
for the young mother who is about to give birth.
"We have no room. There's no room for you!"
On and on, we travel in hope, following an angel.
Finally, on the ninth night, on December 24,
we find shelter for the holy pilgrims.
Your holy child is born in a borrowed stable.
We will feast and sing and rejoice.
The long, hard journey has ended.
This newborn child shall bring us so much joy.
Las Posadas Prayer for Children
Somewhere in a file there is a copy of the Las Posadas service from at least 25 years ago which was one of the Advent services -- White Gift?-- at St. Andrew's United Church in Sudbury. In those ancient times we had lots of kids in Sunday School and a couple of children's choirs so it was a big production. Los Posadas recognizes the demanding journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem by Mary and Joseph and is celebrated in Spain and Latin American countries. Even though the image above is cheerful the play we used noted that it wasn't easy and that there was rejection along the way.
Las Posadas begins on December 16th and continues until Christmas, nine days later. It's appropriate that today, December 18th is International Migrants Day, which acknowledges those who are on the move for a variety of different reasons, economic and environmental and personal safety.
Migrants whose boat sank in the Mediterranean
There are many barriers, actual and metaphorical, in the world we live in, and the United Nations is calling for a new international strategy, an updating of the Global Compact for migrants and refugees who now number more than 70 million souls.
There is a Banksy image of the Mary and Joseph reaching a wall on their journey, which is likely the wall in the West Bank, but which could be the US/Mexico border wall or representing the patrols on the Mediterranean which repel migrants from Africa and Turkey. Keeping people out may seem like a solution but ultimately this is global challenge which will need more than barriers to address.
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
Anti-government protesters in Baghdad
It's a challenge to keep up with the turmoil and chaos of our world and let's be honest, sometimes it's bad for our mental health to be immersed in the unending tales of woe. At the same time I realize that I don't have a right to turn down or off the injustice around me and at a distance just because it makes me uncomfortable. There are plenty of passages in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament which warn about indifference to the suffering of others, including some of the sternest statements of Jesus.
You may have seen that Iraq has been wracked by public protests which have resulted in the deaths of at least 400 people by security forces. It is sad indication that the war in Iraq accomplished little and that the country continues to be dangerous and unstable. Many Iraqis are frustrated that they are without clean water and electricity and jobs, despite the country having large oil reserves.
Christians at prayer in Baghdad
We also know the years of chaos were terrible for the Christian minority in Iraq, a largely Muslim country. Many Christians have been persecuted or killed, and a significant number have fled to other nations. Despite this Christians have been active distributing food to protesters, often putting themselves in harm's way.
Sadly, the Roman Catholic church and other Christian groups have chosen to cancel Christmas celebrations and services this year. In part this is solidarity with the protest movement but it is also a matter of safety in such an unstable environment.
We do want to give thanks for the birth of Jesus in our culture. We can remember that he was born into an oppressive empire which ultimately put him to death. This Christmas we might pray for Easter resurrection hope for the Christians of Iraq and peace in a region which has experienced violence for so long.
Food distribution in Baghdad by Baptists
Sunday, December 15, 2019
A Nativity Scene Without Jews, Arabs, Africans or Refugees
This popped up on my Twitter feed a couple of days ago, another simple and rather clever attempt to connect the gospel story of the first Christmas with events of our time. Prosperous nations around the world are attempting to harden their borders and their hearts against the increasing wave of migrants fleeing oppression, war, and climate disaster. Some of those countries, including the United States, Britain, and Italy purport to be Christian, at least in tradition, yet many of those people who make noises about being Christian are first in line to resist refugees and migrants. Governments in places such as Canada and Germany are feeling the pressure to follow suit.
Perhaps we should use this image as a daily devotional icon through the rest of Advent as an invitation to "dance with the one who brung ya", the God who entered into human existence in the child, Jesus. His peasant Jewish parents were first displaced, then became refugees. We need this reminder on a regular basis.
Saturday, December 14, 2019
Canadian flag taken down in Kabul March 2014
marking the end of our military presence in Afghanistan.
If memory serves me correctly it was early 2002 when I stood in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax and watched Canadian navy vessels make their way out of the harbour on their way to respond to the war in Afghanistan. I was with then 17-year-old daughter Jocelyn and a fair number of others, including a man some distance away who sang O Canada. It was moving, but Joc who wondered why we were sending the navy to a war in a land-locked nation. Good question.
There have been a lot of questions about what how we got involved as a nation in Afghanistan, why we stayed as long as we did, and what was accomplished. We do know that more than 150 brave Canadian men and women died there and at least 70 have died by suicide since the war ended, a grim reality we have addressed poorly. We may have created a Highway of Heroes here in Southern Ontario but the way we have treated veterans in body, mind, and spirit is a disgrace.
A few days ago information was released from a study in the States ironically titled Lessons Learned.The 2,000 pages of documents reveal the bleak and unvarnished views of many insiders in a war that has cost a trillion dollars US for their effort alone, killed more than 2,300 US servicemen and women, with 20,000+ injured. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have died in the conflict. Canada spent at least $18 billion in Canuck Bucks between 2001 and 2014 when we withdrew.
The sad truth revealed in the American study is that no one really knew what the goals of the war were, and as a result few were accomplished. I heard a Canadian who served as an officer there saying that along with combat there was a "hearts and minds" objective of working in villages, drilling wells and building. Yet when they've returned few of the people remember them.
There is little evidence that corruption has been rooted out in the Afghan government, or that the Taliban has been defeated, or that the plight of women has improved in the way that was hoped. I hate to think that the contributions of our troops were in vain, especially knowing how some families will mourn deeply in this season.
Flora MacDonald in Afghanistan
I rooted around and found the blog entry from 2008 which I wrote after hearing former Canadian MP and cabinet minister, the late Flora MacDonald, speak about the work she was doing in rural Afghanistan to bring solar power and literacy to villages. Her foundation staff included herself and her Afghan driver. At the time I heard her in Victoria at FirstMet's Epiphany Explorations MacDonald was in her 80's and still making the trip to what was a dangerous region. She received absolutely no financial support from the Canadian government.
What are the "lessons learned."? Well, get out of the way of a determined woman, for one. And how about accepting that war has dubious outcomes for the most part and brings great sorrow.
Last Sunday was for Peace in our Advent. Perhaps we can reflect on the courage of those who served in Afghanistan and on how we can choose alternatives to military conflict whenever possible in a world of turmoil.
Here is the link to the Flora MacDonald blog