Saturday, February 29, 2020
I decided that I would stir myself to blog, after my absence yesterday and being slow off the mark today. I have been enjoying the sunshine, getting outside to walk and ski. And there is something about the week past which has got me pondering, listening, rather than speaking via this Lion Lamb platform, such as it is.
There has been a lot written about how Canada is broken, as our relationship with Indigenous peoples is a mess, and regions of the country are carping at one another in an endless blame-game, The looming pandemic of COVID19 sure doesn't help, and a Canadian hero, Jean Vanier, has been exposed as a predator and a liar. We also seem to be incapable of addressing what we have declared as a climate emergency.
In a way the coincidence of this "winter of our discontent" and the commencement of Lent make sense. Sometimes we have to sift through the ashes and take stock of our mistakes and self-absorption on the road to healing and, yes, resurrection. I don't believe that Canada is as busted as some want us to believe.
I do think we need to repent and develop new ways of living as people who have been blessed in so many ways while others have been marginalized and suffered. We need to figure out how to live within our carbon means and not just hum louder as the world heats up. We need to remember that the persons we put on pedestals tend to tumble off, and ask how we can all live in a manner which respects others.
I wonder how I can make the decisions to do this as a Christian who can make a difference where I live, today. I still have most of those 40 days of reflection and contemplation to prayerfully do so.
Thursday, February 27, 2020
We first became involved in sponsorship of Syrian families five years ago this Fall. The first family arrived just ahead of the wave of sponsorships encouraged by the Canadian government and eventually three related families and three grandparents were sponsored as well, for a total of 23 people from infants to elders. They have done remarkably well in Canada and some are now Canadian citizens.
Why do we need to sponsor Syrians in 2020? The sense of urgency prompted by the horror of the drowning death of a child named Alan Kurdi whose family was escaping war in their homeland may have waned here, but the plight of displaced people hasn't ended. There are many reasons for sponsorship as refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey continue to be filled to overflowing. In the past three months nearly a million Syrians have fled toward the Turkish border. And a growing number of children are succumbing to the frigid temperatures.
There isn't a "best before date" for compassion. The desperate need did not come to an end on any arbitrary date in 2016. We'll see what next week brings.
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Words for the distribution of ashes, in the 11th-century Canterbury Benedictional
On that Wednesday, throughout the world,
as it is appointed, priests bless
clean ashes in church, and then lay them
on people's heads, so that they may remember
that they came from earth and will return again to dust,
just as Almighty God said to Adam,
after he had sinned against God's command:
'In labour you shall live and in sweat you shall eat
your bread upon the earth, until you return again
to the same earth from which you came,
for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.'
This is not said about the souls of mankind,
but about their bodies, which moulder to dust,
and shall again on Judgement Day, through the power of our Lord,
rise from the earth, all who ever lived,
just as all trees quicken again in the season of spring
which were deadened by the winter's chill.
I have been somewhat surprised at how important the liturgical year continues to be for me in retirement from pastoral ministry. This is my third post-retirement Ash Wednesday and we've been pondering how to observe it, given that the impending snowstorm will likely keep us from attending the service at our home congregation, which is half an hour away. Lo and behold, we discovered a jar of ashes made from burned palm branches amidst my "holy hardware." Why I kept this defies comprehension considering so much was either tossed or passed on to others.
The reflection on Lent from the 10th century (above) is a reminder that Ash Wednesday is an ancient observance of the Christian church. It also shows us that even though this has been a sombre ceremony, pointing out that our bodies "moulder to dust," a stark and powerful phrase, we are not beyond hope. Through Christ's power we have a resurrection promise, just as we can anticipate trees quickening in the season of Spring. Monday and Tuesday were very Spring-like, even if today is blustery.
Hey, the Ash Wednesday psalm, 51, includes one of the few references to snow in the bible, so perhaps today's snowstorm is appropriate.
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (detail), 1559
COLLECT FOR SHROVE TUESDAY:At the gym this morning my Roman Catholic acquaintance smiled and said "Ash Wednesday tomorrow", as though it was Christmas. I responded with "and pancakes today." He gave me a quizzical look, so I followed up with "Shrove Tuesday." I figured an observant RC would be all over the flapjacks today, but it didn't seem to register.
We didn't grow up with Pancake Tuesday because we both came from staunchly Protestant homes. They weren't anti-Catholic, we just didn't go in for the seasons of the church year, and we certainly do popish things such as smudging ourselves with ashes.Lent? What was Lent?
The idea behind Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday/ Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras is to do a spiritual and kitchen housecleaning in preparation for Lent. The faithful were to head to confession where they would make a clean slate by confessing sins. Then they wtere shriven, assigned penance by the priest followed by absolution. The households of those same faithful would clear out foods which were too luxurious for the austerity and fasting of Lent. In some places Carnival and Mardi Gras is celebrated as a party to get one's ya-yas out before the season of self-reflection. Carnival may come from "carne" which is meat. Have a party, eat up the meat and eggs, and start fasting. Good luck with that one.
We will eat some pancakes today, but we won't party until midnight. Confession? I won' t be heading to my nearest RC church but I am reflecting on my role in a culture which seems to be careening along in a mode of consumer excess despite dire warnings about a climate emergency. I am also feeling contrite about the miserable relationship our governments, and therefore all of us as citizens, have with Indigenous peoples in this country. God, we've made a mess of things, and faith communities have been a significant part of the problem through our history. What should I fast from? Perhaps the culture of outrage and grievance which is fueled by social media? I wonder if this is possible?
All I can say is, thank God for maple syrup!
Are there pancakes in your future? Wild parties? Any other comments?
Mardi Gras New Orleans
Monday, February 24, 2020
On the weekend we heard and read the results of an internal investigation of the late Jean Vanier by the L'Arche community he founded in the 1960's. Vanier was from an influential and wealthy Canadian family but he chose to begin living with a couple of developmentally challenged men in a village in France. Over the course of 50+ years this "ark", a place of safety and shelter for those who are vulnerable because of cognitive and physical challenges grew into an international movement.
Vanier was not a Roman Catholic priest, but he chose a personal life of austerity and chastity...or so we thought. The investigation's report has revealed that Vanier was involved in at least half a dozen coercive sexual relationships with women through the years. Others resisted Vanier's advances, but there is no doubt that he used his position, quasi-religious rationales, and deception, for his own sexual gratification.
This is stunning and distressing news. No person is without foibles and failures but this is a gross breach of trust and inconsistent with the gospel values which Vanier purported to uphold. The revelations don't negate the powerful work of L'Arche but they undermine it, and of course, it shatters the image of Jean Vanier many of us have held.
Immediately some have reminded us that investing so much trust and power in one person is fraught with danger and I've already talked with admirers of Vanier's work who admitted their reservations about aspects of his life and his perceptions of women which unsettled them.
We can pray for those who work in L'Arche communities who must be reeling from this news, and for those who have given of their time to L'Arche through the years who are deeply disillusioned. This grief will be real and lasting. We can also pray for all the institutions, including schools named after him, which will be facing tough decisions for their futures.
Most of all we can pray for the women who have lived with the misery of Vanier's abuse, even as he was being touted as a saintly figure. They have shown tremendous courage in naming his sin and we can only hope that this will be a step toward healing in their lives.
Saturday, February 22, 2020
The TV comedy series (do we still call them TV series/) Fleabag has won a lot of awards in the last year. This is deserved because its funny, topical, and the creator and star, Pheobe Waller-Bridge is bitingly funny. The show is also, well, raunchy, at times -- at least for our sensibilities. So, we watch for a bit, then we quit for a bit, and eventually return.
In Season 2 there is a fair amount of "ligion in the plot, surprisingly. Not surprisingly some of this religious stuff is irreverent, as the poster suggests. Waller-Bridge's character ends up in a relationship with a Roman Catholic priest, which takes her into the confessional and beyond -- well beyond. They also go to a Quaker meeting where she breaks the silence by blurting out something rather inappropriate in an "overshare" sort of way. It did make me laugh and wonder, when has a Quaker meeting ever shown up in a comedy? The scene was shot in a Quaker Meeting House, bye the way.
All this caused me to ponder the prevalence of religion in shows that are not religious. Sometimes they are poking fun at religion, or sneering at it. Other times they are asking the questions which religion might address if we were willing to be more honest. It turns out that Waller-Bridge has a religious grandmother who said grace at the table and Phoebe volunteered enthusiastically to say the blessing as a child. She admits to being "transgressive" in her writing, and I don't think she wants anyone, including God to forgive her transgressions.
Are you a Fleabag fan? Are you willing to admit it? Do you notice that religion does appear in lots of series and movies as well?
Friday, February 21, 2020
Notice of cancellation of worship services in South Korea
It would be difficult not to be aware of the "novel coronavirus", aka COVID19. The death toll in China, the country of origin, now exceeds 2,200 with tens of thousands infected. There have been only a handful of reported cases in Canada and no one has died but we all have a heightened awareness because hundreds of Canadians are in quarantine because they had spent time in China.
The early reports are that the number of influenza cases are down this year in North America, likely because the COVID19 scare is causing people to be more vigilant about hand-washing and other precautions. We have a couple of friends with compromised immune systems who are in self-imposed quarantine because of their concerns about viruses.
I hadn't really thought about what the effect of all this might be for Christians in countries where the threat is greatest. I just read that both the Hong Kong and South Korean dioceses of the Roman Catholic church have banned masses with the celebration of the eucharist or communion for the next few weeks. The beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, falls within that prohibition so there will be no services, which include the cross imposed on the forehead made with ashes from the burning of last year's palm branches.
I assume that this also means that on the first Sunday of Lent these Christians will not come together to hear about Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness, his own literal quarantine. Rather ironic, don't you think? The "modern" notion of quarantine began in the Middle Ages as an attempt to curb the spread of the Black Death or bubonic plague. Research shows that the death rate amongst clergy was higher than the general population because priests were more likely to be tending to the dying.
The good news is that Lent will unfold as it should in these parts. Perhaps we can all pray for those affected by COVID19, wherever they are, and whatever their religious background. In Trenton, where we attend worship there may still be some people in quarantine at the military base, although many of them were released today. God be with them all.
Jim Crace novel about Jesus' time in the wildnerness
Thursday, February 20, 2020
I hope that Pope Francis' influence can help bring to fruition aspects of these Godly, just, and compassionate dreams. I feel that his commitment to care for Creation in the Amazon is exemplary. God knows he'll have a challenging time in doing so, even within his own church.
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Take Me BackAndraé Crouch
My United Church Twitter feed has included regular reminders that February is Black History Month in Canada. This is important because we tend to place less emphasis on the history of people of colour in this country than Americans do during this month.
I've been trying to pay attention to events and historical moments of Black History during this month and an announcement about a bell caught my attention and took me back nearly two decades.
That morning in 2002 I hurried out to Africville (I wasn't really sure how to get there) where I listened to empassioned former residents speak and a stirring "call and response" gospel song (above) sung by virtually all of the people of colour who were present and which they seemed to know. Copps appeared to be moved and rose to the occasion, promising that the church would be rebuilt on the site, an announcement which caught local officials by surprise.
Irvine Carvery and Linda Mantley say the church bell
was the defining sound of their childhood in Africville. (Brian MacKay/CBC)
Eventually the city of Halifax apologized for what had taken place decades before, but that wasn't until 2010. The Africville park did become a historic site and the church was rebuilt as a museum. Yesterday we heard that the bell from the original church which marked occasions of sadness and joy, and called people to worship, will be returned to the museum, although not installed in the tower.
We must continue to acknowledge our history of racism here in Canada. It's also good to hear that efforts are being made to acknowledge and celebrate Black history in this country.
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
The dispute over the path of a natural gas pipeline on Wet'suwet'en land in British Columbia continues, as do blockades and protests in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of this First Nation. The blockade of a rail line just a few kilometres from where I live has resulted in a cascade effect across the country, shutting down VIA passenger travel and impeding the movement of goods. This has led to layoffs for people who have no direct involvement in the BC standoff and impending shortages of propane for farmers.
These realities are reminders of the complexity of this situation and it would be unfair to dismiss the hardships some are facing as simply inconveniences. At the same time we must pay attention to the level of frustration and anger Indigenous peoples across the country feel. Prime Minister Trudeau has been exercising restraint and sending ministers to negotiate in various locations but he has also stated that we are governed by the rule of law. This phrase, "rule of law" is an ominous one for Indigenous peoples because it is nearly always has to do with laws which support the patriarchal authority of non-Indigenous governments, whether provincial or federal.
I've been reading 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph which has been slow going, even though it is well written. I become so upset reading about this "rule of law" which has been used to control and oppress Indigenous peoples that I have to stop reading. The book reminds me that the law was used to control their movement, where they could sell agriculture products, and to support the removal of children from their families. Several Christian denominations, including the United Church used the rule of settler law to justify Residential Schools where children had their language and culture beaten out of them, and where many died because of malnutrition and disease.
Mohawk Tyendinaga Territory
The book includes a letter from a principal of a Residential School which grants permission for children to go home for Christmas provided their parents travel what was often considerable distance to pick them up. Some correspondence from federal officials uses the term "final solution" to describe plans to deal with the "Indian problem." We know those ominous words "final solution" as a phrase the Nazis used to describe the extermination of Jews during WW2. Of course, everything which happened in Nazi Germany was supported by law.
I have no idea what the plan of action should be to address what is happening in BC and across the country, and as you can imagine no one is seeking my opinion. I do know we have a shameful history of oppression of Indigenous peoples and that apologies and rhetoric about reconciliation mean nothing if this becomes "might makes right" under the guise of "rule of law."
Monday, February 17, 2020
A group of mostly aging men and a priest who we assume never had children stood around a gravestone in Belleville Cemetery last November. This Knights of Columbus chapter raised funds for this monument to "victims of abortion" in keeping with Roman Catholic doctrine.While many Roman Catholic women may support this stance on abortion its telling that men have chosen to do this. I see this as misguided, at best, and a waste of money. Who will this benefit?
We have seen a rise in anti-abortion sentiment in many jurisdictions and in the States mostly male legislators have worked to make abortion illegal in virtually all circumstances with prison terms as a consequence.
As an aging white male I usually keep my mouth shut on this subject, and I should.. I can't say that I'm in favour of abortion -- this isn't a popularity contest-- but I don't think it is my place to tell women what their reproductive rights may be. Choosing to have an abortion can be frightening and traumatic for women yet there are many reasons to proceed, including ensuring the health of the prospective mother.
It disgusts me when some religious people become obsessive about being "pro-life" yet are willing to deport innocent children or incarcerate them, as well as being in favour of the death penalty. They are clearly pro-birth, rather than pro-life, and the movement has become almost cult-like over the past 50 years in some conservative religious circles.
I was interested to read an article which indicates that there isn't the same outlook in Judaism and Islam, and that it was possible to have an intelligent conversation on the subject in evangelical circles in the 1960's. It's fascinating that while neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul addressed abortion it has become a central religious tenet for conservative Christians.
This isn't an easy subject, yet I would agree with the Rev. Katy Zeh of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights in the United States
“As a follower of Christianity, as a minister of Christianity, to me the core message is really about, first of all, love and compassion and care for the neighbor but also really eliminating systems of oppression no matter what kind they are.”
Saturday, February 15, 2020
This past week students on a number of college and university campuses across Canada spoke up in a variety of ways about the lack of mental health support. This prompted public discussion in the media which called for greater participation and practical efforts on the part of administrations in those institutions.
One dean of students commented that the loss of hope for the future was a factor for many young people, which is probably a significant factor. On the same day I heard this we ended up in a restaurant with a wonderful, more-elderly-than-us couple. We decided to sit together and we caught up on their family, and they on ours.
We were gratified to hear that their daughter who is now middle-aged is doing remarkably well despite going through decades where she was barely able to function because of clinical mental illness. She returned to church during my time in the congregation where she had grown up and joined along the way. She is a talented musician and she began employing her musical gifts from time to time on Sunday mornings. We got to know her and discovered that she is a kind, compassionate person who helps the elderly in a number of behind-the-scenes way, and is involved in the congregation's meal ministries.
Her parents receive her recovery as a gift after trying everything possible when she was younger. They don't really understand what was unfolded but they are delighted for their child and grateful to God.
I figured I should share this story because we are bombarded with gloomy news about the rising tide of mental illness in our culture.We must address this growing challenge. At the same time I want to believe that a caring Christian community has contributed to this woman's new-found mental stability which has now extended over several years. There have been many people who've held her in prayer and offered encouragement through they years. While we know this doesn't always result in positive outcomes we can be encouraged by each story which gives us glimmers of hope.
Friday, February 14, 2020
Sometimes I post a blog entry, often written in advance, and then realize that the day called for something else, or at least a subject which is more immediately topical.
On this day when we celebrate romantic love, lovely, but far from the sacrificial love of St. Valentine I'm thinking about the recently discovered "love letter" a hand-written note penned by Christian pastor and Civil Rights icon of the 1950's and 60's, Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. Apparently he was asked to comment on the meaning of love and his brief response was
"Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God."
I have already posted another blog entry for this day, but surely we all need this reminder from someone who loved courageously and sacrificially himself
May the love of Christ fill all your hearts and minds today, and guide your paths in the days before you.
What does sanctuary mean to you?
I've written before about the biblical notion of sanctuary which stretches from places of safety in the wilderness (think of Elijah) to holy places of protection to the places of worship in our Christian tradition. In many denominations the worship space is described as the sanctuary, but there is also the notion of churches being sanctuaries for those fleeing oppression. A number of United Church congregations have harboured individuals and families so that they might avoid deportation to countries where they risked persecution and violence.
Sanctuary is not exclusive to the Judeo/Christian tradition. In March a new exhibition will open at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, a remarkable place of tranquility and beauty which upholds the rich history of Islam. The participating artists have been asked to imagine and express sanctuary within the confines of 4 x 6 foot woven rugs. Here is how the exhibition is described:
What does sanctuary mean to you? Step inside an immersive and contemplative space dedicated to exploring the concept of safe haven. Woven rugs designed by thirty-six leading artists from around the world, including Mona Hatoum and Brendan Fernandes, reflect their personal responses to the word sanctuary — whether that means refuge, sacred space, place of beauty, or something entirely unique. The 36 artworks are spectacularly varied, reflecting the great diversity of the artists’ heritages, philosophies, and histories — many of which include experiences as refugees and migrants.
We intend to visit the exhibition so that we might stretch and strengthen our sense of sanctuary and perhaps to glimpse the holy through the eyes of those from another religious tradition.
Do you have your own sense of sanctuary or safe haven, or specific places which are sanctuaries for you? Does this exhibition intrigue you, both in terms of the concept and the location?
Thursday, February 13, 2020
We didn't watch the Academy Awards this year so didn't see Joaquin Pheonix win Best Actor for The Joker, a film we likely won't see. You may recall that way back in 2006 Phoenix was nominated for Best Actor in Walk the Line, a biopic about Johnny Cash. It was a "warts and all" portrayal which included his infidelities and sketchy history as a parent during his rise to fame. Reese Witherspoon did win an Oscar for playing Cash's wife, June Carter.
Despite his sometimes troubled life Cash was a person of faith, raised as an evangelical Christian by a devout mother. Along the way Johnny recorded the entirety of the New Testament -- 19 hours of speaking -- from the King James Version of the bible.
There is a new book by Richard Beck about Cash and his Christian faith called Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. The title came from a comment about Cash's recurring themes by the author's son.
In a review by Casey Kep in the New Yorker she suggests that the book is uneven, stretching for meaning at time but also concedes that:
...Cash is the country star who went to Israel to make a movie about the life of Jesus (“Gospel Road,” very much worth viewing), wrote a novel about the life of the Apostle Paul (“Man in White,” only for the completists), and denounced the devil on his national television program, “The Johnny Cash Show”? (“I think we’ve made the devil pretty mad because on our show we’ve been mentioning God’s name,” Cash said on air. “Well, this probably made the devil pretty mad alright, and he may be coming after me again, but I’ll be ready for him.”)
I can't say that I'm a big Johnny Cash fan, but i do find it intriguing that he always believed in redemption for those who may have seemed lost, and Jesus was never that far away from his life and music.
Are you a Cash fan? Did you know about his faith?