Monday, November 23, 2020

JFK and CS Lewis


Did you notice that yesterday was the 57th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? He was a flawed individual but an actual leader who  in his inaugural addressed said “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” as a challenge to American citizens to contribute in some way to the greater public good. This sentiment would be incomprehensible to the lame duck currently in office, clinging to power. 

That same day 57 years ago the Christian apologist CS Lewis died of cancer, an event overshadowed JFK's untimely death. Lewis was a remarkable man, an intellectual and atheist who was "surprised by joy", a conversion of both heart and head. He wrote 30 books through the years, including the beloved Narnia series. a sci-fi trilogy, a novel of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, as well as a number of books of popular theology and philosophy. He married later in life only to have his brilliant wife, Joy Davidman, die in her 40's. His book A Grief Observed is an honest reflection on loss and the challenge to faith it posed for him. 

This anniversary of Lewis's death I'm pondering how he became a darling of the evangelical Christian world in the 70's and 80's because of his robust, orthodox, intelligent faith. He probably wouldn't have used the term Evangelical to describe himself, but he was adopted as such, particularly in the United States.I read many of Lewis's books as a young man and was grateful that he appealed to the mind in understanding the Christian life. 

In 2020 evangelicals in The US steadfastly support a president who is brazenly self-absorbed, arrogant, and sneers at most Christian values. And evangelicalism has become anti-intellectual and far more committed to tribalism than the gospel.

 I have no doubt that both JFK and CS Lewis would have rejected the politics and religion which have infected US discourse and action. It's important to remember who they were and what their legacy should be. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Homelessness & Tiny Shelters

                                         Khaleel Seivwright -- Scarborough carpenter

 Later this morning we're supposed to get a dose of sloppy weather with a mixture of rain and snow, a combination which is really miserable. Of course we'll be warm and dry, but some won't. Homelessness is not seasonal, and while communities attempt to provide shelter, this year there is the added challenge of a virus which can be deadly when people are in close proximity to one another. 

Many who are homeless won't go into shelters because of fear of violence from other residents, mental health issues, and real concerns about contagious illnesses such as COVID. In addition, a city such as Toronto claims to have a certain number of beds for homeless people but those who work as advocates for the homeless claim that they are regularly told that there are none available.

                                                   Toronto Tiny Shelter

Khaleel Seivwright, 28, a carpenter who has been building stand-alone, insulated, movable shelters under the title of Toronto Tiny Shelters. So far he's constructed ten of them and placed them in various city-owned locations. The city doesn't like this and told him to stop, and there are obvious reasons why problems could arise with having these tiny homes in public places such as parks. The real solution to un-housed populations is to house them but most municipalities don't do a good job of this. Cathy Crowe, a Toronto street nurse, has been opposed to this sort of impermanent initiative but she has changed her outlook and considers Seivwright a hero. She says that there are approximately a thousand homeless people in Toronto at the moment, with Winter looming, and not nearly enough spaces in city shelters and hotel rooms to house them. . 

Apparently there are private property owners, including churches, who are considering being hosts to the tiny shelters. Who knows where this will go, but to date Toronto Tiny Shelters has received about $130,000 in donations, which would be enough for 130 shelters, 130 people who would be protected from the elements. 

God bless Khaleel Seivwright for his practical compassion and generosity.  

                                   Cathy Crowe -- Toronto street nurse

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Lemonade and Lament

Actor Michael J. Fox is one of those Canadian exports who makes us proud. He came to fame as Alex Keaton,  the driven Republican teen son of earnest ex-hippy parents on the hit series Family Ties. We went on to even greater acclaim in the Back to the Future films, then in another series, Spin City. What we didn't know was that half his lifetime ago, at the age of 29, he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease. He gave up acting for a time, then returned as a crafty lawyer who exploited a degenerative illness in the courtroom on The Good Wife. He has retired again, and short of a miracle this is likely permanent. 

Fox has been the point man for gratitude and hope with his autobiographical books, Lucky Man, and Always Looking Up. He feels that he's led a remarkable life and is grateful for the unfailing love of his wife and children. His new book takes a different direction as the result of the bleak challenges of a cancerous tumour on his spine which threatened to paralyze him. No one wanted to operate but he found a surgeon who admitted that no one wanted to be the doc who paralyzed Michael Fox. He had to learn to walk ago but as he did so he fell and shattered one of his arms. In all of this he began to question his optimism and wondered if he had been misleading his readers who often faced monumental challenges themselves. 

Fox is doing the virtual interview circuit for a new book,  No Time Like the Future and on the CBC radio program Q he reflected on his emphasis on making lemonades out of lemonade, until he came to the point where he said 'I'm out of the freakin' lemonade business. I can't put a shiny face on this. This sucks, and who am I to tell people to be optimistic?'​

In the interview he want on to speak bluntly about his mortality and mortality in general:

But I thought about the idea of the future, and then it came to me that the future is the last thing we run out of. We run out of breath. We run out of everything. Then there comes a point where we have no more future and that's the end of it.But until then there's always something in the future to be optimistic about, to look forward to. It may change our circumstances or it may not, but that will run out, so enjoy it while you have it.

I found Fox's honesty disarming (no pun intended) and while it is a personal story it is also a reflection of the times we'e in. The coronavirus pandemic has us all wondering what the future will look like, and even if we feel that we're blessed and have enjoyed full and meaningful lives there is a pall of uncertainty over everything.

We are struggling to be hopeful in the midst of this, but is it okay to be "cranky", the word Fox uses to describe this latest book? It seems to me that his latest  memoir is in some ways a lament, which is a biblical concept -- there is even a book in the Hebrew scriptures called Lamentations. To lament is not to deny hope, it recognizes our realities and lets lament and hope live alongside each other, even if it is an uneasy relationship. 

We're on the brink of  Advent in the Christian year, which begins with the Sunday of hope. Will we even be able to gather for worship through this season, or celebrate Christmas with loved ones?  Perhaps we can figure out how Christ comforts us in our loss and lament, while showing us the way to hope. 

                                  Back to the Future

Friday, November 20, 2020

MAID & Living With Disabilities


                                         Catherine Frazee

A few weeks ago I preached about Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) at Trenton United Church and I wrote about the subject in this blog as well. I attempted to be measured, compassionate, and Christian in my approach. While I have come to a place of qualified support for MAID, in part because we have developed the ability to prolong life even when meaningful living has ceased, I continue to have reservations about it's ready availability because segments of our society are vulnerable, including the aged and those with disabilities. How do we ensure that these people don't become disposable in our society, or feel that the "honorable" choice is MAID? 

Through this year the Canadian government has been exploring amendments to the original MAID legislation from June 2016. The focus is on the provision for "reasonably foreseeable death."

You may have seen or heard that spokespersons for the disabled community are raising concerns about the proposals. Catherine Frazee, a professor emeritus at Ryerson University, was interviewed by Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's The Current yesterday and she raised some important questions and concerns. I'll share this from the transcript of the interview:

Frazee, who lives with a disabling medical condition, says that — through Bill C-7 — the government is making it possible for people with disability to kill themselves while doing whatever it can to prevent suicide for everyone else. Now this amendment proposes opening up an entire new approach to assisted death, where it's now an alternative not to a painful death, but to a painful life — to a life that is considered intolerable or not worth living. And that extension will apply only to people with disabling medical conditions, and so for those of us who live with — and many of us who live well with — disabling medical conditions, we think the question has to be asked: why us?"

Apparently these amendments will be addressed in Parliament by the deadline of December 18th, which by my math is four weeks today. We can keep our eyes and ears open and pray for discernment on the part of those who will make decisions about the legislation. We have a responsibility to do as people of faith and goodwill. This is a moral, ethical, and spiritual concern, not just a matter of the law. 

If you want to learn more just paste these addresses into a search engine/

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Justice for Bedouins in a World of Turmoil

A Palestinian woman walks in Khirbet Humsah in Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank November 5th 2020 REUTERS

 On the day of the election in the United States, when the eyes of the world were on the outcome, Israeli b.ulldozers demolished a Bedouin village in the area known as the West Bank. Bedouins are traditionally nomadic people but they do establish settlements for periods of time, often living in tents while using solar panels and availing themselves of the internet. The Israeli government has been involved in a program of destroying "illegal" Bedouin settlements for more than a decade, determined to concentrate tens of thousands of  Bedouins in small geographical areas. It sounds chillingly similar to what happened to Indigenous peoples in North America who ended up on reserves and reservations. 

On November 4th tented homes, shelters for animals , latrines and solar panels were among the structures destroyed in the village, according to the United Nations. By Thursday morning the residents had already moved back to the site, using tents donated by Palestinian aid groups. According to an article the next day in US News and World Report:

"They want to expel us from the area so that settlers can live in our place, but we will not leave from here," said resident Harbi Abu Kabsh, referring to the roughly 430,000 Israeli settlers who live alongside three million Palestinians in the West Bank, which Israel captured in a 1967 war...Yvonne Helle, a humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations in the Palestinian territories, said that relief agencies had visited Khirbet Humsah and recorded 76 demolished structures, "more than in any other single demolition in the past decade". Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said the structures included 18 tents and sheds.

For decades the United Church of Canada has spoken out about Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the heavy-handedness of the military in evicting Palestinians from their traditional lands, Because of this we have been accused of being anti-Jewish, which is not the case, and of supporting terrorism, which is nonsense. We have long been committed to interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The UCC's objections have been to injustices which have been condemned by the United Nations and many Western governments. Sadly, the current right-wing government in Israel has been emboldened by the Trump administration and the support of evangelical Christians in the United States. 

It would be wonderful if the corrupt Benjamin Netanyahu was finally evicted from office. And we can pray that the Biden administration will return to policies which are more measured than under the Emperor Trump. His administration's "Vision for Peace" in the region has been anything but, Why would we surprised by this? 

In the midst of many other pressing problems in the world this still matters and people of good faith can stay informed and hope that peace and justice will prevail. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Prayer for Putting on a Face Mask

                                                Moderator Richard Bott -- United Church of Canada

I am grateful that we live in a region where the donning of masks in shared spaces is treated neither as a virtue nor an infringement of personal freedom. People just put them on when around others, including at church, or the gym, or the shopping mall.Nearly all of us have figured out how to make this part of our routine, and while it can be inconvenient at times, it is for a greater good, In our fairly large geographical area there are only a handful of active COVID-19 cases and we want to keep it that way. 

Back in August the moderator of the United Church, the Rev. Richard Bott wrote a prayer for putting on a mask, and somehow I missed it at the time. Recently I began seeing links to the prayer on Twitter from pastors and priests across the country and in the United States, where there is such nonsense about wearing masks and people are getting infected as a rate of more than a million a week.

One Roman Catholic priest in the US posted the prayer for his parishioners and was attacked for this "heresy." There are only seven sacraments in Catholicism, some fussed, and to suggest otherwise is dangerous! Of course, Moderator Bott is not suggesting that an eight sacrament be added to the tradition of the church. So much for metaphor to the self-appointed true defenders of the faith. 

You can decide what you think for yourself. I really appreciate the notion of transforming an irritant into a blessing for all. Thank you Richard. 

as I prepare to go into the world,
help me to see the sacrament
in the wearing of this cloth –
let it be “an outward sign
of an inward grace” –
a tangible and visible way
of living love for my neighbours,
as I love myself.

since my lips will be covered,
uncover my heart,
that people would see my smile
in the crinkles around my eyes.
Since my voice may be muffled,
help me to speak clearly,
not only with my words,
but with my actions.

Holy Spirit,
as the elastic touches my ears,
remind me to listen carefully –
and full of care –
to all those I meet.
May this simple piece of cloth
be shield and banner,
and each breath that it holds,
be filled with your love.

In your Name
and in that love,
I pray.

May it be so.
May it be so.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Second Wave & Human Loss


At a recent COVID-19 news conference featuring Ontario's premier, Doug Ford, and members of his cabinet CBC reporter Mike Crawley asked a pointed question. Crawley noted that recently Ford has spoken of how his "heart breaks" for small business people who may lose everything if the province moves back into strict lockdown because of the alarming rise in COVID cases. Why wasn't the premier talking about the growing number of people who have died because the virus was spreading? Ford took umbrage at this, saying he regularly phoned families who had experienced losses and was working long hours to address the resurgence of COVID.

Ford didn't really answer the question, still, I commend Crawley for asking it. The number of deaths is on the rise, but this figure is usually tacked on after the statistics about actual cases, and the press conferences certainly don't dwell on these statistics. Yet these are beloved human beings who are dying, and the majority of them are elderly and fragile. They live in institutions which are failing in providing protection in too many instances, and the proposed solutions to this tragedy are years away. 

When the first wave of COVID hit, most of us were appalled by the number of deaths in nursing homes and knew that this wasn't acceptable. Have we now decided as a society that a certain number of these losses of people who contributed to society, who love and are loved, is acceptable? Surely mentioning them on a regular basis in a public forum is one way of keeping a human face on what is transpiring. 

We know that one of the distinguishing features of the early Christian church which was an important part of its growth was compassion for the vulnerable, including the elderly. This care became a defining aspect of societies where Christianity was at the core, and even though we have become far more secular these values are still part of our ethos. Our hearts should break at the growing number of deaths, whatever the age of those who are lost. 

I'm not suggesting that Premier Ford is not a caring person as an individual,and God knows he has a tough job. We should all care about businesses which are struggling to survive. But as Premier of Ontario it is essential that he and his government regularly remind all citizens that the deaths associated with COVID-19 are more than numbers, they are cherished human beings. 

It would seem that despite the hope of vaccines we are in this for the long haul, and we must remain steadfast as a society. I'm glad that there are people such as Mike Crawley asking the challenging questions. 

                                                                              Mike Crawley

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Temptation of an Edifice Complex

                                         Basilica of Our Lady of Peace -- Cote D'Ivoire

Because I studied art and architecture in my undergraduate degree I've always held an interest in the design of places of worship. I've visited some of the great cathedrals of Europe as well as more modern structures such as the remarkable Ismaili worship centre in Toronto.

In the late 1980's  I read about what a puzzling construction project in a small city in Cote D"Ivoire, an African nation. It was a Roman Catholic church to be called the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace and when completed it would be the largest in the world, surpassing even St. Peter/s in Rome. Cote D'Ivoire was only about 30% Christian at that time, and only half of them were Roman Catholic. It really was a vanity project for the president of the country who had actually been a benign leader, creating economic prosperity and avoiding the extremism and religious strife of neighbouring countries. He wanted a monument in the place of his birth, so he essentially created a city with a magnificent place of worship seating 18.000. Pope John Paul II came to consecrate the edifice in 1990. 

Recently I saw another article about the same church, nearly a generation after it was built. Today many of the government buildings in the city are empty, and the church attracts 300 to 400 for worship. The future of the church in uncertain in a country where there is now turmoil and fighting amongst religions.

While this building may seem like folly, and it really is, it is also a reminder that religions and religious people always run the danger of an "edifice complex", revering the structures of their faith to the point of idolatry. When Notre Dame in Paris burned 19 months ago there was an almost immediate commitment to rebuild in the neighbourhood of a billion euros. This is a staggering sum in a country which has become quite secular in its outlook.

                                            Notre Dame in flames 2019

Through the years I served three congregations which seated 400 people, one of which could hold double that number. Each is beautiful in its own way, and all have required lots of money to maintain and repair -- sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for certain projects. There were large congregations on occasion, even filling the sanctuaries, and one Easter in Halifax we had an estimated 600 in worship, but these were exceptions. 

I was often frustrated that it was harder to muster conversation about Christ's mission for the congregations as members wrung their hands about the buildings. In some of the smaller congregations of my first pastoral charge in Newfoundland any discussion of amalgamation was met with hostility because the buildings were cherished, yet two of the five are now closed. 

It never seemed to occur to folk that the Christ in whose name these churches were built had ambivalent experiences in places of worship, no Christian church existed during his lifetime, and he never owned property of any sort, as far as we can tell. 

I still love fine examples of architecture from a variety of religious traditions and always will. I also feel that we need to maintain a sense of perspective about the bricks and mortar, the vessels  in which the body of Christ is housed. Those vessels can take on different shapes and forms, as we carry out our mission of love and compassion in Christ's name. If we don't acknowledge this we too are engaging in the folly of an "edifice complex."


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Indigenous Peoples & the Marriage Act


Indigenous wedding ceremony for Sanford White & Ann Marie Proulx -- Cape Croker, Ontario

When we lived in Northern Ontario I served a larger downtown congregation in Sudbury. A couple began attending worship and approached me about presiding at their wedding. While they were both Christians and wanted a Christian ceremony, she was Indigenous and hoped to incorporate aspects of her First Nations heritage in an outdoor ceremony. I agreed, with the provision that is we were outdoors we had the option of shelter, should the weather be inclement. It was a good thing because the rain teemed down that afternoon. It was so intense that it crept in under the protective tent where the ceremony took place!

I thought about this couple when I saw news that the Marriage Act is being revised in Ontario to include Indigenous ceremonies. It surprises me, given that the Marriage Act includes religions other than Christianity, as well as secular marriages,that there is no specific provision for Indigenous ceremonies. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised since we have so consistently marginalized Indigenous customs and spirituality for centuries in this country.

The changes in the Marriage Act will allow a person to solemnize a marriage in Ontario if they belong to the band, a First Nation, Metis settlement or Inuit community and for communities to designate persons as officiators. Ceremonies can include Indigenous languages and the subtleties of culture and spirituality which those languages denote. 

This all makes sense to me. What do you think? 

Oh yes, the Sudbury couple found me as they were celebrating their 20th anniversary, so their vows "took" despite the wedding day deluge. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Diwali & Advent, Light in the Darkness

Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.

                          Taize chorus 

 Happy Diwali! That was the greeting from a member of my Sudbury congregation one Sunday morning years ago. Brenda was, and likely still is, a quirky spirit who on her first Sunday after my arrival walked into the sanctuary with bicycle helmet and tire in hand. This was a congregation of suits and jewelry, not cycling gear. She was an intelligent, inquisitive person, a psychiatric nurse who then studied to become a lawyer and was a key person in starting a meal program from the church (resisted by some of the suit an jewelry folk.) I had no idea what Diwali was and she explained that it was a Hindu festival of light and that she appreciated the theme. As I learned along the way, Diwali uses the theme of light in the darkness to celebrate goodness overcoming evil, kindness over hatred. 

Diwali is another moon-related festival and so it moves around the calendar. Today is the first of the five days of Diwali in 2020 and this year Hindus are adapting as Christians and Jews did with their moon-related festivals of Easter and Passover in the Spring because of the pandemic. In North America the social gatherings are being curtailed and family gatherings will be small, or virtual. Yet Hindus are determined to uphold the themes and values of the festival in spite of and in response to the psychological and spiritual gloom which has resulted from the invisible and potent coronavirus. 

This is important, and as we recognize what the Hindu community is doing I wonder how we will respond as Christians during the season of Advent and into Christmas. In the darkest days of the Northern Hemisphere we will be lighting Advent candles and Christmas lights, even in what is increasingly a secular society. A neighbour who isn't a religious person already has his Christmas lights up and is turning them on in the evening, far earlier than in previous year. We put our lights up as well to take advantage of the mild weather and even though we'll wait a while to put them on we may start earlier as well.

This has me thinking about what we might do in our household through Advent in terms of addressing the ominous darkness of rising numbers of COVID cases and the possibility that Christmas won't be the opportunity for family joy we've taken for granted in the past. Surely we can find ways to affirm Advent Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love as Christ's people, and as we honour the coming of Christ, the Light of the World? 

This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Friday, November 13, 2020

Addressing an Open Wound

This week a report was issued by the Vatican regarding one of the highest ranking clerics of the Roman Catholic church who was accused of being a sexual predator. Theodore McCarrick is ninety years old and rose through the ranks to the position of cardinal. He became a powerful figure in the church because he had the ear of powerful people in American society, including politicians, and he was an effective fundraiser. Through the decades McCarrick was accused of abusing young seminary students and children but somehow avoided criminal prosecution and censure by the Vatican. 

The report reveals that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict were aware of the gravity of the accusations yet McCarrick not only continued in his roles of responsibility, he was essentially promoted. After years of denial and financial settlements with accusers it was only in 2018 that McCarrick was "laicized" or expelled from the priesthood. He has never accepted responsibility for his actions, no genuine repentance or work toward reconciliation. 

I find this so appalling that I can barely control my anger and disdain for McCarrick and all those who enabled him. Pope John Paul was fast-tracked for sainthood yet he was complicit in cover-ups which almost certainly meant that more innocent and trusting young men and children were victimized. There is simply no excuse for this, and it undermines the credibility and spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic church. While Pope Francis has made repeated promises to address sexual abuse by priests he became pope five years before McCarrick's eventual ouster. 

The glimmer of hope in this sordid situation is that the investigation occurred and the report was released to the public.There is a level of transparency here which is essentially unprecedented in the Roman Catholic church. In an article in CRUX, an online newspaper which addresses Catholic issues, editor John Allen Jr. offers this:  

To grasp the full significance of what’s happened, let’s take a step back. Since 1870, when the Vatican lost its temporal authority and was compelled to become an exclusively spiritual power, operationally it’s had two core principles: Secrecy and sovereignty. Secrecy meant we don’t air our dirty laundry in public in order to avoid scandal, and sovereignty meant we don’t owe an explanation of our actions to anyone.

There have been far too many shadows, far too much dishonesty, and,most importantly, far too many innocent victims through the years. As John Allen observes in the article, this report is a fundamental shift, and the church can't go back now, whatever the consequences.In the Vatican's response to the the report there is both explanation and remorse: "This wound cannot be treated solely with new laws or ever more effective codes of conduct, because the crime is also a sin. To heal this wound, humility and penitence is needed, asking God’s forgiveness and healing. "

 We can pray for those who have suffered for years not only from the abuse by individuals but the ongoing betrayal of trust by the institution. Many of the survivors have been robbed of personal faith and the solace of the community of Christ. May the peace of Christ be with them, and may justice be done. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Congregations and Their Veterans

In one congregation I served I visited a tiny, crotchety man who never got out to church because he was dependent on an oxygen tank and had mobility issues. His beloved wife had died years before I came on the scene and his daughter lived at a distance, so he spent a lot of time alone. I came to realize that he was also anti-social and didn't like change, including the fact that my predecessor was a woman. It didn't matter that she was a very effective and beloved minister.

Despite a rocky start we ended up getting along and he became more open about his experiences in WWII. Initially he failed the medical because he was 5'4" short, and weighed next to nothing. He was determined though and attempted to enlist again. It was decided that he would actually be ideal for the tank corps because he was so small and was literally a good fit for a confined space. He had some harrowing experiences along the way and he was grateful that he survived. In old age he was frustrated that it was so much work to get support from Veterans Affairs, although he saw the irony in the fact that as many of his contemporaries died there were more resources for those who remained.

I'm grateful for the veterans and their spouses in all my congregations, including the war bride widow in outport Newfoundland who came from England and never ventured more than a few kilometres from the remote fishing village of her husband after she emigrated in 1919. She never saw her family again.I even had an ancient WWI veteran with a wry sense of humour in one of my earlier congregations. 

I also had contemporary military veterans in some of these churches and a handful of active service personnel, including a teen who joined the navy and another who served as a peacekeeper on the Golan Heights

I was always moved by the sight of the increasingly tottery veterans of past conflicts who carried the wreath on Remembrance Sunday. Some of them walked with a cane, so we would invite a child to assist with the wreath. It was powerful to see young and old together, and I won't forget. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Who Will We Remember?

 Our son, Isaac, shared in our family group chat that he was saddened by news that the local Santa Claus parade has been cancelled this year because of the pandemic. While it was expected, he looks forward to taking their two boys to participate in the energy and excitement of this joyful annual event.

I chimed in that I had a similar reaction to the announcements that gatherings at cenotaphs in communities across Ontario will not take place tomorrow, which is Remembrance Day. I haven't missed many through the decades and when I was working I would arrange my work schedule so that I could slip away to a war memorial, or arena, or cenotaph to join in solemn gratitude for those who served and those who made the ultimate personal sacrifice. Both my father and father-in-law were veterans and while neither saw action in the European war theatre, their lives were shaped by service. My father-in-law did see the immediate aftermath of bombings and it must have been traumatic. 

It's been important for me to honour them, the veterans in my congregations, and those who could only be names without faces. We always acknowledged Remembrance Sunday in the congregations I served, even though we emphasized the importance of peace, and the Prince of Peace. I'm grateful that Isaac has continued this tradition. 

I listened this morning to someone from the Kojo Institute who invited us to reframe Remembrance Day so that we would expand the moment beyond acknowledging white men who served in wars that had their roots in European empires and colonialism. She reminded us that Indigenous, Black, and Persons of Colour served in these wars, often returning to second-class status in their homelands, or to colonial rule. She pointed out the important roles of those who stayed behind, including the millions of women who took on important roles in industry and community leadership, yet were returned to stereotypical roles after the conflicts ended. 

Her perspective is an important one which we can all keep in mind tomorrow. We may not be able to come together to remember, but we have the freedom to expand our scope of gratitude

Monday, November 09, 2020

What is "a Sustaining Faith" Alex?


After a lovely paddle at Bon Echo Provincial Park yesterday we got into our vehicle to hear the tail end of a news report listing the accomplishments of Jeopardy game show host, Alex Trebek. We were certain that this was not good news and within a few minutes we'd ascertained that Alex had succumbed to the pancreatic cancer he'd battled so valiantly, although in an understated Canadian way. It was a shock because he was on the air Friday evening, but of course that episode was taped several weeks ago. 

It seems that Trebek has become more of a Canadian hero in recent years and particularly since his cancer diagnosis. We were all amazed that he continued to work through his chemotherapy and joked about fulfilling his contract for a couple more years. It's surprising how many people of all ages have come to enjoy Jeopardy. Our younger daughter, Emily, never struck as a candidate for Jeopardy nerd-dom, but she has become an enthusiastic fan and is a strong home contestant.  Back in the days when people actually went to an office to work she had a Jeopardy calendar on her desk and her young colleague stopped by each day to test their knowledge. Jeopardy is the one show I really don't like missing, and while sometimes I mutter "c'mon Alex, you have all the answers!" when he was a little condescending to a contestant, he really was an excellent host. 

During interviews after he announced his cancer Alex nearly always mentioned the importance of faith, along with the prayers of many, in sustaining him through the challenges of the disease. I was disappointed that interviewers didn't delve deeper into what this meant to him, perhaps a comment on our secular age
. Guideposts magazine mentioned his comments in the video posted to his Twitter account in March of last year:

There were moments of great pain, days when certain bodily functions no longer functioned, and sudden massive attacks of great depression that made me wonder if it really was worth fighting on. But I brushed that aside quickly because that would have been a massive betrayal–a betrayal of my wife and soulmate Jean who has given her all to help me survive. And it would certainly have been a betrayal of my faith in God and the millions of prayers that have been said on my behalf.”

Trebek continues to rely on prayer and his faith to keep him motivated and uplifted, which he noted while accepting Fordham University’s Founders’ Award in January. As stated in Fordham News, he said, “If there’s one thing I have discovered in the past year, it is the power of prayer.

I appreciate Trebek's honesty and witness about what his faith meant to him. During my ministry I was inspired by the courage and sustaining faith of so many who walked through the valley of the shadow of death, even though they weren't celebrities and their stories weren't widely known. 

Thanks, Alex Trebek, for entertaining us through the years and for your faith. 

Any other Jeopardy nerds out there? 


Sunday, November 08, 2020

Eagles Wings and an Election


Last evening President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris spoke before a jubilant crowd to acknowledge the outcome of the US election. There was a degree of American glitz as 77-year-old Biden trotted down a runway as though he was an aging football hero being recognized before the Superbowl. The speeches by both Harris and Biden, were inspiring, articulate and blessedly free of grievances and conspiracy theories. 

Both of them are people of faith, even though they have been characterized otherwise, and Biden will become only the second Roman Catholic president in the history of the US. He attends worship on a regular basis and says that his faith has sustained him through life's losses. Biden's first wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident decades ago and he lost a son to cancer. These experiences would be enough to embitter most of us, but he embraces life.

At the end of his speech which was under 15 minutes -- imagine a presidential speech which was succinct!- Biden quoted scripture twice. The first reference was to Ecclesiastes 3, the passage which speaks about their being a time and a season for everything, including both living and dying. 

The other was the hymn adaptation of psalm 91 which many of us know as On Eagles Wings. It was written by Michael Joncas, a Roman Catholic composer, in response to the sudden death of the father of a good friend. Through the years it has found a home in various Christian traditions, and it is in a hymn resource of the United Church called Voices United as a version of  psalm 91. 

It's interesting that in a moment of victory and celebration Joe Biden did draw on scripture which has meaning for him and both passages are often used at funerals and memorials. This says to me that he is someone who understands loss and will be able to express empathy and compassion from the wellspring of his personal faith. Let's hope so. It is urgently needed in the United States right now. 

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Praying for an Outcome


And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; 

for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, 

so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

Matthew 6:5 NRSV

Today Joe Biden has been declared president-elect of the United States of America, a defeat for incumbent Donald Trump. With a predictable lack of grace Trump is conceding nothing, a reminder of why he needed to be vanquished. Of course in excess of 70 million Americans voted for Trump and many of them are unwilling to accept defeat.

On Wednesday one of  La Grand Orange's  "spiritual advisors" -- a misnomer if every there was one -- Paula White led a bizarre prayer vigil  for a Trump victory which looked like a mash-up of a third-rate country auction and demon possession. 

I appreciate that in some Christian circles emotional expression is commonplace, and God knows that many mainline traditions are "God's frozen people." Still, White's wild gesticulations and invocations of the Angels of Africa and South America (why did  they need to be imported?) were bizarre. One commentator quipped that ICE would immediately put these foreign angels in detention centres. 

Obviously White was off on her angelic aim and Trump is now a one-term, impeached former president. I feel that fervent prayers, including my own, have been answered, although we're not done yet. A jubilant cousin in Maryland has offered to send me knee-pads to keep it up because the country is deeply divided.

                             John Lewis (left) praying, 1963

Paula White is a false prophet in my estimation, and just plain kooky. I'm thinking instead of the late and great civil rights icon John Lewis, a feisty Christian saint of the highest order. One of the counties he represented in Congress was the last to have votes tallied in Georgia, likely turning the state in Joe Biden's favour. I prefer to view this as an answer to prayer, without the hype and histrionics. 

Humility in prayer is essential, not just to get what we want, but to align ourselves with the God who desires the best for all. Angels in every sphere are welcome to join in.                                                         

Friday, November 06, 2020

Praying for Ethiopian Christians

This may surprise you but there is a world beyond the United States and that nation's election drama. In the past few days grave situations have emerged from the shadows of the endless tea-leaf reading south of the border. 

One story outlines violence against Christians in Ethiopia with the burning of church buildings, physical violence and murders by an organization of young male Islamic extremists. In some communities courageous Muslims have protected their Christian neighbours but as many as 500 Christians have died, including children, women and the elderly. It's sad to think that Christians and Muslims have co-existed for centuries in Ethiopia and are now under threat. 

The World Council of Churches has addressed these attacks, particularly one on All Saints Day, this past Sunday: 

In an attack on ethnic Amharas in western Ethiopia on Sunday 1 November, 54 people are reported to have been killed, in a tragic escalation of the ethnic violence which threatens the very fabric of the Ethiopian nation. Ethiopian Orthodox communities have also been targeted in previous attacks, with churches burned and many members of the church communities killed since mid 2018. WCC denounces these attacks, and the unconscionable instrumentalization of ethnic and religious differences for political purposes which feeds such attacks and atrocities.

I've learned in the past couple of years that the Christian community in Ethiopia is in the majority and an ancient tradition. I've written about the church forests, oases of biodiversity amidst widespread deforestation. A good friend visited Ethiopia with a goal of exploring some of the cliff and forest churches and was fascinated by the rituals and practices. 

We are inclined to think of the Christians of ancient Rome as those who were persecuted, something from the past. In truth, it happens every day, often without our knowledge. It's important to remember and pray for the safety of our sisters and brothers in Christ. 

                                                      Church Forest --Ethiopia

Thursday, November 05, 2020

The Pandemic of Addiction


In every congregation I served during nearly four decades of pastoral ministry there were people dealing with addictions, everything from gambling to alcohol to drugs to spoons, judging from what I saw on the walls of some homes when I visited. Okay, decorative spoons and elephants shouldn't be lumped in the same category, and I don't want to be flippant. Just the same, Gerald May argues in his thoughtful book  Addiction and Grace that we all have addictions, it's just that some are more hidden or socially acceptable than others. 

We've just learned that in 2018 an average of 13 people died each day from opioid overdoses in Canada, a grim statistic. Even more unsettling is that recent reports show that during these anxious and isolated months of 2020 drug overdoses and deaths have soared. In British Columbia the number of drug deaths exceeded 1,000 in the first eight months of the year, nearly 100 more than in all of 2019. This is an national tragedy, one which governments struggle to address because of the many factors which contribute to addiction. Whatever stereotypes we have about drug use, it affects people in every facet of society. Most people who die of drug overdoses do so at home, alone. The crisis has led to some experts suggesting that its time to decriminalize the use of drugs (not the trafficking) so that users would be more inclined to seek help. 

In communities of faith, including the majority of Christian congregations, we have an uneasy relationship with the reality of addiction. Doesn't God give us victory over our weaknesses? As I say, it's a reality in most churches, but when was the last time you heard a sermon on the subject? How many congregations have resources or strategies regarding addiction? In what ways do faith communities support the local efforts to address various addictions?  

When I publicly raised concerns about the consequences of allowing a casino in this community because of the statistical evidence about the rise in gambling addiction there were members of my congregation who felt that I shouldn't have spoken out about it. Certainly, too many parishioners suffered in shame as they kept secrets about family addiction, often not realizing that others were well aware. 

I should point out that some of the evangelical churches which lobbied early on for resumption of in-person worship and gathering did so because of their support for those dealing with addictions, and the concern that without support there could be relapses and deaths. The evidence indicates that this has been a societal reality.

I'm not sure what the solutions are, but in the midst of financial support from governments in a host of sectors of society, this certainly seems like an important area as well. 

As Christians we can pay attention to what we might be inclined to ignore, and to respond with compassion. "Judge not, lest you be judged" might be at the core of our approach. 

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

The Cathedral and the Magnificat


All God's critters got a place in the choir

Some sing low, some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
And some just clap their hands, or paws or anything they got now

Days...a week? It will be a while before we know the election results south of the border, despite the whiny declarations of the emperor. In the meantime why not turn our sights elsewhere and let the world of of arcane American politics sort itself out? 

The other day I saw an article about a cathedral and its cat and, hey, who doesn't appreciate a good cat story. A stray cat showed up at Southwark Anglican Cathedral 15 years ago and one of the staff began feeding her. The cutesy name of Doorkins Magnificat was bestowed on the feline and as cat's are wont to do, it took over, sleeping in the nativity crib and napping on the chairs designated for clergy. Eventually DM became quite famous, meeting the Queen and becoming the focus of a book for children. There is even a stone corbeil as part of the cathedral in honour of DM. There is actually a long history of creatures, including cats, showing up in manuscripts and in church stonework. 

Alas, Doorkins died of liver failure at the end of September (too much communion wine/) and because she was so well known the Dean of the cathedral held a memorial service attended by thirty admirers. On this news a bishop weighed in ‘Is this a joke? I do hope so. If not it’s grossly insensitive to bereaved families and those ministering to them in the North West under the regional coronavirus restrictions.’

While holding a memorial service for a cat might seem unusual, this response sounds like what our stereotypes of what would emanate from the mouth of an officious Church of England bishop would be, And, um, given the pandemic, doesn't he have more important things to attend to than censoring a cat funeral? 

What struck me is that during the pandemic when so many are anxiously in isolation from loved one and friends and faith communities, they appreciate the comfort of their companion animals. I've had parishioners who felt stronger affection for their loyal pets than their curmudgeonly spouses, and likely mourned their passing more deeply. This aside, the deary bishop doesn't seem to realize how much people need tender moments in the midst of so much gloom and doom. Why not give thanks for the life of a creature which brought others joy, and probably attended worship far more often than a lot of human parishioners.

What do you think? Did the dean do the right thing regarding Doorkins Magnificat? 

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Ancient King David & Today's Election

History of David in four episodes -- Hans Sebald Beham 1534

Over the past few months a host of museums and art galleries around the world have offered virtual experiences of their collections, including the Louvre, in Paris. I first visited this extraordinary art museum at age 19 and I've returned on a couple of other occasions. Recently I read a piece by someone who'd had the privilege of wandering the Louvre, virtually alone, which was not that far off my own experience as a teen when I meandered through the galleries for hours and hours. 

The article prompted me to look online and I discovered an exhibit of art from the Louvre collection featuring my namesake, King David. As you'll know, David is a big deal in the Hebrew scriptures and the gospel writer, Matthew, tells us that Jesus is a descendant of this charismatic, courageous, and flawed figure. David was a freedom fighter who rose to power, only to allow this to go to his head -- and other body parts -- as he became a womanizer and complicit in murder. It took a brave prophet, Nathan, to challenge the king, who repented of his sins. Psalm 51 is used on Ash Wednesday as a reminder than even the mighty need God to keep their arrogance and the headiness of power in check. 

When I perused the online Louvre exhibit I was delighted to discover a piece which I have searched for over the years, to no avail. I recalled seeing a Renaissance artist's depiction of events from David's life from above, including what was essentially his rape of future wife Bathsheba. I began to wonder if it was a figment of my imagination, but there it was! It turns out that it is a table top created nearly 500 years ago for a bishop. It's astonishing that these pieces survive the vagaries and ravages of time and regimes. 

Today many of us are praying for the democratic overthrow of an arrogant, unrepentant tyrant wannabe who has made sure that no one close to him would speak "truth to power." David is a figure who has a legacy after 3,000 years which is more than infamy because of his humility and repentance, not because of his hubris. We'll see!

Monday, November 02, 2020

The Vote for America's Soul

 One of the best series we've streamed in the era of Intense Television Watching is The Plot Against America, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by the late Philip Roth. It is autobiographical in some respects with strong parallels to his Jewish family, including names and the profession of his father.

It becomes a fascinating work of fiction as Roth imagines that President Franklin Roosevelt does not win a third term of office the year before United States entered World War II. Instead, Charles Lindbergh, who never actually ran for office, wins and takes the nation on a different course. Lindbergh, the hugely popular aviator and his wife, celebrated author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were Nazi admirers because of the perceived revitalization of Germany under Hitler. Lindbergh was awarded a medal for service to the advancement of aviation by Hitler's regime in 1938 and the couple considered moving to Berlin.

In the novel and series Lindbergh's election begins first an insidious, then accelerating shift toward fascism. The Jewish family sees and experiences the growing anti-Jewish sentiments under Lindbergh's presidency. There is family tension as the sister of the mother marries a rabbi who is convinced that Lindbergh is open-minded. He works in the administration for a time, only to realize that he has been duped. What begins as shifting policies moves toward violence. 

The series is well-scripted and well-acted and chilling, given what we have seen in the United States in the past four years, and particularly in recent months as the election approaches. While the targets of white supremacy are broader now, with immigrants and Muslims being primary targets, racism toward Blacks and People of Colour, along with anti-Jewish sentiment, are certainly evident.

It sure seems to me that there is a plot against the American values of democracy and inclusion.The election tomorrow is as much about the soul of a nation as it is about political parties and their leaders. I am dismayed by the abandonment of Christ's teaching by millions of supposed Christians, and by the enthusiasm for violence and intimidation by both Trump and so many of his followers. He has brought out the worst in people and his re-election will be a disaster for America in so many ways. 

We may live across a border with the United States but we can certainly pray for the outcome of the election. God help us all. 

Sunday, November 01, 2020



A few days ago three people  were murdered, stabbed to death, in a cathedral in Nice, France. Two of them were worshippers, and one of them was beheaded by the young Islamicist who was the assassin. The tensions between a determinedly secular French society and those who purport to be radically devout Muslims have come to a fever pitch once again. It's been demonstrated that many of these Islamicists don't actually follow their faith but use it as a rallying point for their disaffection in a country where immigrants are often marginalized. It's complicated, to say the least, and there ism't much evidence that the French government has any notion of how to address the divide. 

I have been haunted by the thought of people seeking sanctuary from the demands of daily life in a place of worship and prayer, only to be the victims of such a brutal attack. One was a mother of three children who told responders as she was dying of her stab wounds "tell my children I love them." A friend commented “She was a brave, generous, devout woman but also tolerant. If someone wanted to attack a symbol of joie de vivre, they could not have found better.”

                               Simone Barreto Silva, one of the three victims of the knife attack in Nice. 

                                 Photograph: Simone Barreto Silva/Reuters

This is an incident where I do wonder where God was as these innocent people perished. The assailant yelled "Allahu Akbar!" -- God is great -- as he carried out his hideous crime. This invocation of God is antithetical to the nature and character of the God of love and compassion I worship. I know Muslims who will be horrified by this grotesque misuse of the phrase. 

I have no answers, only my lament. I'll pray for those who have been left behind in this senseless crime, and for sanity in a country which has seen too much of this sort of violence.