Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Christian Unity in the Midst of Discord

I am the vine, you are the branches. 

Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples. 

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

John 15:5-9 NRSV

Yesterday was the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and, needless to say, Christians won't be gathering to acknowledge that they are people of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." Then again, my experience has been that even in the best of times there has been an indifference to this initiative to unite Christ's people in prayer which began in the early 1900's. I would refer to it as the Week of Prayer for Christian Apathy" because even in the ecumenical ministerials I was involved in there was limited interest in coming together. I always felt it was vital to find common ground with those who chose to express their allegiance to Christ differently, and that there could be strength in our diversity. 

This year is challenging, and not only because of COVID-19 restrictions. In recent days we have heard and seen supposedly devout Christians give themselves over to the false god of nationalism in the neighbouring United States, with the culminating image of domestic terrorists joining in prayer in the rotunda of Congress after an unprecedented violent invasion of the seat of government. To me this was a deeply offensive expression of idolatry, the worship of Mars, the god of war, rather than Jesus, the Prince of Peace. I feel totally disconnected from the cult-like devotion to a person and principles which have nothing to do with the gospel. I know I should pray for unity but I'm so aghast and, honestly,  angry that I am finding it next to impossible to do so. 

This year the theme for the week is Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit, which is from John's gospel and the words of Jesus. I realize that I can't do this in my own strength, that I need the Holy Spirit to do her transforming work within me so that mu outrage is not the only response to outrageous behaviour. While I would like to cast others into the fire, I am called to abide in Christ's love so that I'm not consumed by disdain. 

Perhaps I'll prayerfully read these verses each day as an antidote to disunity, and ask Christ to dwell in my heart and the hearts of others. Surely we've had enough of the "grapes of wrath" and need to uphold the fruit of the Spirit. 

                                           Capitol building rioters praying -- to which god?

Monday, January 18, 2021

MLK & 10 Commandments for Non-Violent Change


Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in all 50 states, although two of those states still observe Robert E Lee Day on the third Monday of January as well. Just to refresh your memory, General Lee was the commander of the Confederate army which rebelled against the American union in an internal war which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 750,000 citizens. Lee was a slave-owner and a traitor, but why not recognize him on the same day as a Civil Rights icon?

Dr. King was a Baptist pastor who led a non-violent movement for change, with the goal that the constitution which declared all men and women equal would actually be true in practice. And King was masterful in calling on the Judeo/Christian scriptures as the bedrock for his message of justice, equality, and love.

Today King is quoted at every turn and lionized, yet in polls from the 1960's he was considered the most hated man in America. Many Blacks and People of Colour noted during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 that the King people are quick to quote was assassinated for his courageous leadership.

We might keep in mind today the the first time a Confederate flag was raised in the House of Congress,occurred during an a violent invasion of this the seat of American democracy on January 6th, 2021. Racism and hatred are still cancers in American society and in too many places around the planet.

 It's worthwhile looking at the covenant or pledge the Ten Commandments for peaceful change signed by those who were part of the Civil Rights movement. While it isn't scripture, there is a scripture-inspired quality to these phrases which make it sacred. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Remembering Mrs. Rogers


   Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest,
     Our morning joy, our evening rest.
     And with thy daily bread impart,
     Thy love and peace to every heart.

A couple of films about Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood fame and his messages about love, inclusion, and kindness as a sort of naloxone for a  vicious US president meant that he was revered more than a decade after his death than he might have been in life. There is no doubt that he touched millions of lives and that his Christian faith was at the core of his being. Fred studied music at university but he was also an ordained minister of the Presbyterian church. 

Today we might give some thought to Joanne Rogers, Fred's wife of 51 years. Joanne died a few days ago at the age of 92 and she deserves to be remembered as an accomplished musician with a lengthy career, a loving partner to a busy man, and a person of faith. Joanne claimed that Fred was a person of deeper faith than she was, yet she was the one who befriended "Officer Clemons" in a church choir and eventually introduced Francois (his first name) to Fred. Their friendship with Francois was like family , and while the couple came to realize that Francois was gay, they continued to love and support him despite the societal prejudices of a different time

In an interview a couple of years ago Joanne noted that the prayer above was the one they said before every evening before dinner. There is a dinner scene in the biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood where Fred is sharing a meal with a cynical reporter in a Chinese restaurant. In the midst of the lunchtime chatter Tom Hanks as Rogers asks his companion to take a minute of silence to consider the people who’ve loved him into being. It's powerful because we never experience that length of silence in a film. For the next 60 seconds, they reflect quietly while the camera pans around the restaurant, which gradually becomes silent. Joanne is in that scene, a gentle recognition of her role in Fred's life.

Perhaps we could take a few moments in silence to express our gratitude for Joanne Rogers. 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Joyful Winter Hymn?


                                             Zwick's Park  Sliding Hill, Belleville Photo: Ruth Mundy

1 'Tis winter now; the fallen snow
has left the heavens all coldly clear;
through leafless boughs the sharp winds blow,
and all the earth lies dead and drear.

2 And yet God's love is not withdrawn;
his life within the keen air breathes;
his beauty paints the crimson dawn,
and clothes each branch with glittering wreaths.

4 O God, you give the winter's cold,
as well as summer's joyous rays,
you warmly in your love enfold,
and keep us through life's wintry days.

"Tis Winter Now, The Fallen Snow --  circa 1850 Samuel Longfellow , Unitarian pastor,

We are blessed to live in a town/city (50,000 pop) which is one of the few areas of Southern Ontario with a low number of COVID-19 cases. We would be in the Green category under other circumstances right now, although we have been in Yellow at times. I say we would be because this part of the province is under a state of emergency with a stay at home order. Of course there is lots of confusion about what this actually means, so we still head out for exercise even though we don't venture out for much more other than groceries.

Yesterday we went for a ramble along the water in Prince Edward County, in a spot where we were totally alone. It is remote enough that we didn't hear human-made sound, let alone see other members of our species. The skies were overcast yet it was still beautiful. We sat in a rocky alcove by the shore to drink our tea and eat a muffin. 

We did lament the lack of snow and the unsettling mild temperature. What was happened to Winter? I commented to Ruth that the absence of actual Winter weather is making the lock-down tougher . And then we talked about how few hymns there are which actually celebrate the season. The ones which do acknowledge Winter tend to describe it as bleak, cruel, bitter, and a time when creatures which can skedaddle do so. 

Where are the hymns and carols which celebrate the transformation which snow brings to landscapes, or the delight of ice covering bodies of water? The obscure hymn above is as close as I could find. Yet, a cardinal or a blue jay on a snow-laden branch stirs deep joy in me. Canadians thrill at sledding  down a hill, or skiing, or skating across a frozen pond. Our unofficial national sport is hockey and we excel at winter sports in the Olympics. So why portray Winter as grim, the enemy, instead of a gift from God, the Creator.

There are a number of musicians and music-lovers who read the blog, and a few who are part of worship teams. Do you know of upbeat hymns about Winter? What experiences of the season would you include in a positive Winter hymn? What tune might we use with original lyrics, if the music wasn't written for a Winter hymn? 

I'd love to hear from you on this one! 

                                                    Sidney Conservation Area Photo: Ruth Mundy

Friday, January 15, 2021

Monks Behaving Badly

When Ken Follett wrote the page-turner novel
The Pillars of the Earth thirty-odd years ago I had to read it because it was about a twelfth century monk who was driven to build a magnificent cathedral. Because of my art history background I am something of a church architecture nerd. Pillars was entertaining and educational, but the church and its leaders were not treated kindly. Follett's best-seller begot a  cathedral trilogy and it seemed that the wickedness of clergy was ramped up as the series progressed and I actually abandoned the second novel partway through because of it.

Last Fall a fourth book, a prequel of sorts called The Evening and the Morning was published, set a couple of centuries earlier than the others. I decided to give it a chance when I saw it was available through the library. I made it through perhaps forty pages before deciding I'd had enough because a central clergy character was portrayed as almost cartoonishly villainous from the get-go. Why is this necessary?

The reality is that there was corruption and nefarious allegiance with power by the church of that era and others. It's why there were reform movements in monastic orders along the way, and the reason a monk named Martin Luther reluctantly broke with the Roman Catholic church. 

Just the same, monastic orders made tremendous contributions to science, including medicine during the Medieval period, as well as astronomy and the arts. Their contributions to advancements in brewing and distilling were impressive as well. And blessed are the cheesemakers!

Yet  priests, monks and nuns are rarely portrayed in a positive light in novels about this era. To be fair to Follett, I've read other series which follow the same path. I suppose it heightens the entertainment, but it isn't fair to those who were faithful servants of Christ and all who were leaders in their fields of endeavour because of their faith. 

Ah well, thank God for the library and the freedom to close the cover on what seems inaccurate or unfair. There are always the Brother Cadfael novels for those who would prefer a monk who has integrity and the smarts to solve crimes. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

A Courageous Chaplain in Turbulent Times

                                         Margaret Grun Kibben

I have a lot of time for those who serve as chaplains in various institutions because the role requires a responsiveness and openness which is different from congregational life where the flock tends to be more stable. It many settings chaplains are not only ecumenical, they are multi-faith and even non-religious, providing spiritual support to those who may be suspicious of organized religion yet desiring to draw on strength beyond themselves when they are most vulnerable. 

On Sunday, January 3rd, Rear Adm. Margaret Grun Kibben, a Presbyterian minister was instated as the first female chaplain for the United States congress. She was well aware of the tense and divided political climate of her nation and that when she went to Capitol Hill on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany there would likely be rancour. She couldn't have known that a violent mob would invade the house and send the proceedings into chaos. As the insurrection became apparent Kibben offered an extemporaneous prayer which she only vaguely recalls now. According to a Religion News Service piece which quotes Kibben:

 "It was a matter of asking for God’s covering and a hedge of protection around us,” she said, remembering the House recorder was diligently documenting her words as she prayed. “And that in the chaos, the spirit would descend in the room to offer us peace and order. That we would look to care for each other, even as we are under stress.”

After the House Chamber was vacated and members were led to safety the former naval chaplain prayed again, preceded with scripture: 

She began by reading from the Bible’s Psalm 46, the same passage she had included in her scheduled prayer before the House that morning. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.”

We know that some of the insurrectionists carried banners and signs which were Christian in content, even though their actions were evil and destructive. Their behaviour was antithetical to the message of the gospels and was a terrible example of the worst of religion co-opted for another agenda. It's good to know that Kibben was present in the midst of the chaos and inviting those she served into a place of spiritual calm, whatever there political or religious affiliations might have been. 

God be with her during these turbulent times.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Do We Really Need Another Apology?

Infant and baby shoes are hung along the playground fence as a vigil is held at the Tuam Mother and Baby home mass burial site on Aug. 25, 2019 in Tuam, Ireland.Charles McQuillan / Getty Images file

Public apologies are popular these days. Our Canadian government has offered up quite a few, as has our United Church of Canada. Some of the recipients of these expressions of contrition are justifiably cynical. Indigenous peoples suggest that fewer apologizing with more respect and constructive action would make a greater difference in their lives. Just the same, saying sorry can draw attention to historic and current injustices, and at least sometimes leads to reparations and reform. 

Not long ago I wrote about an apology by the United Church Last November to women who spent time in denominational maternity homes and were often shamed into giving give up their newborn children for adoption. I support this apology first of all for the sake of those who were emotionally abused and robbed of the opportunity to raise these children. The apology also educated me about an aspect of the United Church of which I had no previous knowledge. I need to see and hear about this. 

Yesterday the Irish Prime Minister, Micheal Martin,  apologized for an even greater wrong, the horrendous history of mother and child homes in that country, and did so in conjunction with the release of an extensive investigation and report. Of the more than 50,000 children born in the homes approximately 9,000 died. The Irish government said the report revealed the country had a "stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture" and again the church -- in this case the Roman Catholic church, perpetrated this crime up until the last home home was closed in 1998. 

Facing the truth of grievous wrongs is rarely easy, but absolutely necessary. Repenting of sins, past and present, personal and collective, is essential Apologies are inadequate on their own, but may be the first step in reconciliation and restitution. 

I must say that when I heard of the thousands of deaths of innocent children my blood boiled at the thought of sanctimonious priests (a small percentage) who claim that they are pro-life (actually anti-abortion) that they told voters in the United States that if they didn't vote Republican in the last election that tthey weren't Christian heir souls would be in peril. This view was not supported by most bishops, nor the pope, but it was the height of hypocrisy and arrogance in my estimation. Didn't Jesus say something about removing the log from our own eyes first? 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Gift of Forgiveness

 Several years ago Karen Armstrong, the excellent writer on religious subjects, was instrumental in initiating the Charter for Compassion, an inter-faith statement on commitment to developing a world in which compassion is a guiding principle. As a Christian who is convinced that this is both true to the teachings of Jesus and other religions I signed my name to the project, and I still support their expanding work. 

One of the programs offered by Charter for Compassion begins online today and it's called The Gift of Forgiveness. The advertising suggests it will be worthwhile for:

  • Anyone who is tired of harboring anger, bitterness, regret, resentment and sadness.
  • Anyone who wishes to unblock the barriers that keep them from living their best lives.
As these state, there is a theme that forgiveness is for ourselves, which is true -- to a point. So many people are consumed by the inability to forgive themselves and others. 

While I support thoughtful teaching on forgiveness I feel that Christian forgiveness is much more than self-healing, as important as this is.. In our faith there is also the central theme that God has forgiven us through the sacrificial love of Jesus, the Christ, so we too are called to forgive. This forgiveness may seem incomprehensible to the world at times, but it is the way of radical, compassionate love.

This past Sunday our son Isaac preached, virtually of course, about forgiveness, and it was a good reminder that Christ's ministry and his reign are radically different than what the world often clamours for. In the toxic climate of grievance and revenge we witness around us these days it is so important to uphold forgiveness and compassion in all its expressions. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Pagans and the Christians

                                                                  Saga Centre, Borganes, Iceland 

First, a moment of silence for grieving Pittsburgh Steelers fans after a humiliating loss yesterday which ended what had been a promising season_______thoughts and prayers in the days ahead. 

When we visited Iceland several years ago we repeatedly exclaimed "wow!" as we came around yet another coastal curve in the road to a waterfall or glacial mountain or seascape. While we were there we also visited several museums including one in the western town of Borganes dedicated to the sagas which were imported a thousand years ago with Viking settlement and those developed by the early inhabitants. The interactive story-telling displays were vivid and  could be described as Pagan in their content because the sagas have origins apart from Christianity, which eventually superseded this tradition.

I was interested to see that there is something of a revival of this Pagan heritage, what is described as Neo-pagan, with elements of the past incorporated into the present manifestation of a non-Christian spirituality. Iceland is still officially Lutheran, with state-financed clergy, but in fact it is one of the most atheist countries in the world, according to Gallup polls. This Astatru revival religion has about 5,000 active participants which, to put it in perspective, would be cause for alarm if that was the number for remaining practicing Christians in Iceland. 

Astratru Temple design

Astatru was officially founded on the first day of summer in 1972, the Summer Solstice. As this timing suggests, there is an emphasis on the cycles of nature and the spiritual entities related to them. The claim is that this is the fastest growing in Iceland. Fund-raising is underway for an Astatru Temple in Reykjavik. 

We'll see whether this Neo-pagan religion has staying power. It is a reminder that in many places around the world institutionalized religion is in decline, including here in Canada. There is a growing interest in spiritual expression which recognizes the natural world, what our Judeo/Christan faith describes as Creation. 

While I enjoyed learning more about the Norse, Pagan past of Iceland I don't feel the stirrings of conversion.  I do think that rather than condemning this interest we can use this time when we are unmoored from the conventions of Christian daily life, including going to our bricks and mortar places of worship to ask how the God of the wilderness revealed in the Hebrew scriptures and in the story of Jesus can lead us into a revival which speaks to the time in which we live, with all the concerns about the integrity of Creation. Reveling in paganism didn't turn out well for the people of Israel, yet they did learn to live with the rhythms of the wilderness for a generation before settling once again. 

Oh ya, the Icelandic Pagans might think twice about getting into real estate and physical places of worship. Don't they see where that can lead? 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Jesus Loves, Hate Destroys

 Earlier this year I began following the Auschwitz Memorial Museum  on Twitter, probably because I'd seen someone else's retweet and I was curious. I soon realized that every day, often several times, the site posts the stories of those who perished at this Nazi extermination camp. I was tempted to unfollow because the photos of those who were murdered and the information accompanying them was so bleak. But I decided to continue, and I usually spend what amounts to a few seconds to learn more about the innocent Jews of all ages, along with others, who died in the gas chambers of a fascist regime.

Since the terrible invasion of the US Congress last Wednesday thousands of people have visited the online tutorial about the Auschwitz death camp provided online by the memorial. In fact, in 2020 roughly 7,500 visitors accessed the information while nearly 7,000 did so on Thursday alone. 

There were many racist, violent messages which were displayed during the invasion, including a Confederate flag. One of the most offensive was the White Supremacist sweatshirt on one of these "patriots" with the words "Camp Auschwitz." All of this is a stark reminder of the festering, corrosive power of hatred which the Emperor Trump has encouraged in America.

There were other offensive banners and messages which were religion-based, including Jesus Saves. Of course that message should be a powerful declaration of hope, but it was co-opted to support the opposite. I didn't see any banners saying Jesus Loves because the sacrificial love of Christ which transforms hearts and minds was not the goal of these domestic terrorists.

We need to remember that during the Nazi era in Germany many Christians stood against what transpired, and some of them died because of their courage. There were others who twisted the gospel message in order to support Hitler's evil regime.I pray that what happened last week in Washington will not be repeated in the days ahead, and that Christians who support what unfolded will repent and follow Jesus, the Jew, the Saviour. 

Friday, January 08, 2021

The Light Ages

A recent New York Times review of three books on the development of science and medicine includes The Light Ages:The Surprising Story of Medieval Science By Seb Falk This title is,a play on the term Dark Ages which most of us know, perhaps vaguely, refers to the early Middle Ages, following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Some suggest that the time period is between 500 and 1,000 AD, although you can find much broader parameters for this era when civilization and progress in various aspects of science ground to a near halt. Apparently this book suggests that this premise is overstated and demonstrates how it isn't accurate. 

Falk’s book seeks to put to rest forever the dismal imagery of the “Dark Ages” by describing the life and times of John of Westwyk, an English monk who lived from about 1350 to 1400, as northern Europe’s medieval period was drawing to a close. John was devoted to astronomy, and by following his own mental odyssey we learn in this book how to tell the time of year from the stars, what mechanism lay at the heart of the great astronomical clock at the monastery of St. Albans, how to operate an astrolabe and why the earliest sunset of the year comes several days before the winter solstice....

For John, the purpose of such technologies was twofold. A knowledge of astronomy was essential to computing the dates of Christian festivals such as Easter. And: “No astrologer … could even begin their work without knowing precisely where the planets were.”

The Middle Ages saw advances in the making of scientific instruments, such as the astrolabe (a replica of a medieval one is shown), a device used to measure the positions of astronomical objects. BRIAN MAUDSLEY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

This makes me think of a worthwhile course I audited on the history of science at Dalhousie University while I was serving a downtown church in Halifax. I became aware that, far from being anti-science, which we often see now, religion often embraced and advanced science.

We could all keep this in mind, especially when so many supposed Christians assume God will be some sort of lucky charm protecting them from a deadly virus or are convinced that vaccines are harmful rather than helpful. This really is darkness rather than light. 

 I'm sure I'd find the book fascinating, but I have a pile of potentially fascinating books awaiting my attention!

                                              John Gall

Thursday, January 07, 2021

In God's Tender Care


                                Tendercare Living Centre protest

3 Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay

close by me for ever, and love me, I pray.

Bless all the dear children in your tender care,

and fit us for heaven, to live with you there.

             Away in a Manger Voices -  United 69

We were rattled when in-person Easter worship was cancelled in 2020, but we all assumed that by Christmas the coronavirus would be under control, if not eradicated. That simply wasn't the case, and many of us missed attending a Christmas Eve service for the first time in our lifetimes. It also meant that we didn't sing what are "comfort food" carols, including Away in a Manger. Of course the circumstances of Jesus' birth were fraught with danger and he squalled and cried like any other newborn. But the hymn, using either tune, speaks to us of God's love and tenderness through the mystery of the incarnation.

The phrase of the final verse, "in your tender care" keeps emerging in my mind as I hear about the tragedy of the long-term care facility in Scarborough called Tendercare Living Centre. It is actually a focal point for death, with more than 60 residents who have succumbed to COVID-19, despite government promises after the first wave of the virus that an "iron ring of protection" (who comes up with these jingoistic phrases?) would be put in place around these facilities. The reality is that our most vulnerable seniors are dying in droves across the province, by far the greatest number of fatalities. In Scarborough family members of the dead and the living have staged rallies and protests outside Tendercare, demanding better resources and answers. 

What has transpired over the past ten months is shameful, but it really isn't new in terms of how we treat our elders. When I was a seminary students in my early twenties I conducted worship services in a decrepit nursing home in trendy Yorkville where the conditions for residents were terrible. My wife Ruth and my musician mother, then in her fifties came with me, and we were all disturbed by what we saw. My Mom expressed her hope that she would never have to experience what she witnessed there.  

I'm glad to say that the facilities in which my mother lived during the last years of her life were infinitely better, and she received excellent care in the nursing home where she died. That facility has avoided an outbreak, but I wonder how it might have coped if COVID had found its way in, and the helplessness we would have felt if we couldn't visit or provide support. 

Currently more than 200 long-term facilities in Ontario, or roughly a third of the total in the province, are experiencing outbreaks of COVID. This is not "tender care" and we need government to develop strategies to address what may actually worsen. 

As Christians who care about the quality of life for our most vulnerable, we can be prayerful, mindful, and pro-active in our expectations for a response which will save lives. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

The Epiphany and God's Wisdom

This is the
Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian year, a recognition of the arrival of the Magi from the East, in search of a child who was the Messiah, the Christ. These were astronomers and astrologers -- there wasn't really a distinction between the two in ancient times -- who followed a heavenly portent to Bethlehem where they paid homage to the young Jesus. 

The story also tells us about their encounter with the despotic Roman ruler, Herod, who was known for his paranoia and violent response to perceived threats. Herod instructs the Magi to search out the child and to act as his spies and minions, which they refuse to do, leaving for home as mysteriously as they arrived.

How appropriate that this story, told only in Matthew's gospel, is shared today, in light of what is unfolding in the United States. Two senate races in Georgia are being contested, both of which could unseat the wealthy and powerful incumbents. One has already been called in favour of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Black pastor of Martin Luther King's congregation in Atlanta. He will be the first Black senator in Georgia's history.

In Washington DC what would normally be the ceremonial confirmation of last November's presidential election results will be contested by some Republican senators and congresspeople who are co-conspirators of outgoing President Trump. While nothing will change for President-Elect Biden, this is pandering to the attempts to overthrow the legitimate election. There are concerns that thousands of Trump supporters, some of them armed and intent on disruption  will descend upon the city. 

Four years ago at this time The Rev. Kate Jone Calone wrote a piece in Sojourners magazine with the title WHEN THE WISE MEN REFUSED TO COLLABORATE WITH EMPIRE. It was republished recently because it seems so timely, as does the biblical story. In it she observes:

Throughout human history, individuals and institutions have had to make difficult and risky decisions in response to unjust directives — especially those directives framed as required cooperation, “for the good of the country.” Resistance can take many forms: Dissent, protest, civil disobedience. Sometimes, though, what should be done is simply declining to participate.

Of course Trump's Christian supporters would argue that this is what they are doing. For so many others, what happened yesterday in Georgia and what will transpire in Washington today offers hope that "might makes right" is not for the good of the nation and that prayers have been answered.

I pray for peaceful transition in these turbulent days, as we all can. Hey, We could use a bunch of epiphanies and a few wise people right now. 


Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Cosmic Beethoven at 250

At the baroque Austrian National Library in Vienna, an extensive Beethoven exhibition includes the manuscript of his Ninth symphony. 
Credit...Andreas Meichsner for The New York Times

So many celebrations and other initiatives were curtailed or came to naught during 2020, many of which we just weren't aware. One for me, at least until the waning days of the year, was the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Beethoven, one of the most famous and performed composers of classical music. 

Beethoven wasn't a particularly religious man despite being nominally Roman Catholic and working as a church organist as a younger man. He was a theist, as Jan Swafford explains in a piece for NPR:

 In his letters and conversations he didn't seem much interested in the figure of Christ. God, however, interested Beethoven a lot. He studied books about Eastern religions and about revelations of the divine and nature. He quoted to friends a line of the Philosopher Kant: The starry skies above and the moral law beneath. 

While his Ninth Symphony is the music most of us would identify with Beethoven, he considered his mass, Missa Solemnis, as his greatest achievement. The challenge was and is that is on such a grand scale that it really isn't possible to be performed in a church setting and ambitious for most orchestras. And it really isn't all that Christian, which is a bit of a problem for a a Roman Catholic mass. It is more "cosmic" in its vision, what we might have called New Age a few decades ago. It concludes with the Latin words  dona nobis pacem, give us peace.

Swafford suggests that the conclusion of Missa Solemnis is open-ended, which leads listeners to the Ninth Symphony. In turn, this symphony ends with the stirring vision of the chorale ending of the Ode to Joy. We have a version of this ode as a hymn in Voices United, the only piece ascribed to Beethoven in the hymnary of the United Church. 

I really don't know bupkis about classical music, even though my father often had it thundering away in our home as I grew up.I'm probably better off with the clever kid's book, Beethoven Lives Upstairs.  We did have the opportunity to be immersed in the 9th at Roy Thompson Hall, a generous gift from a student for the ministry from a congregation I served. While I am staunchly Christian,  do find theses themes in Beethoven's music intriguing and they may be timely. .

Any comments or observations about Beethoven from those of you who are musically literate?  


Monday, January 04, 2021

More Like Jesus in 2021?


I don't know about you, but my resolve to make New Year's resolutions just isn't there for 2021. I suppose that getting the COVID-19 vaccines is a priority, but I'll wait my turn. Staying alive seems like a worthwhile goal, so I'll endeavour to keep up the 3 W's: Wear my mask, Watch my distance, and Wash my hands.I'll do my best to be kind and generous to others, especially those who are most vulnerable because of the pandemic. I want to be supportive of my Christian community and to look outward when the temptation is to be focused inward.  

I like Len Sweet.s desire to be more like Jesus in 2021, which could be a resolution every year. I make it a point not to fall asleep in my kayak or my canoe, because the outcome could be unpleasant, but I'm already a fan of dry-land naps. While I'm tempted to stop there, some of the other points are great. We we may need a few months for the "hanging out" part, although Ruth is fulfilling that one by spending so much time with me. Sweet's list is a great reminder that Jesus turned conventional ways of being a God-person upside down.

This got me thinking about the John Wesley prayer which has been used at New Year's covenant services for 240 years or so. The language has been updated, but it's essentially the same prayer that was first offered back in the time of Bridgerton, to give you a context. I sure didn't hear it in the series!

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.


Sunday, January 03, 2021

God and Pandemic Lit


You may have noticed that 2020 brought us a number of pandemic-themed novels even though they were written well before COVID-19 became the acronym we've all come to know and hate. How did the authors anticipate what would unfold? As Tom Power, host of CBC Radio's Q said to one author whose book is chillingly accurate, "could I get you to choose numbers for my lottery tickets?"

I haven't got to the somewhat older Stations 11 by Emily St. John Mandel yet, but Ruth tells me it is engrossing. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue takes us back a century to the flu pandemic which killed more people than the conflict of World War I, and it is certainly worthwhile. 

I was really impressed by The End of October by Lawrence Wright which was published early in 2020. A deadly virus develops in an Asian detention camp and while efforts are made to contain it, a person at the periphery of the outbreak becomes the catalyst for spreading in around the planet. While this virus is more virulent than the one we're experiencing, the parallels to what has transpired with the coronavirus are uncanny. More than once I wondered how Wright could have developed a story-line which is based on the science of transmission while nations have struggled from the get-go to understand what was unfolding with our pandemic. Of course, politics has played a part in our drama, as with the novel. 

Almost midway through the novel Henry, the epidemiologist who is the unlikely hero of The End of October, has a FaceTime conversation with his tween daughter who is in the United States while he is half a world away. She asks the question of her agnostic father "do you believe in heaven?"  He is evasive, and knows that his response is not helpful. The daughter eventually offers that she does believe in heaven, although her description is not conventional from a Christian standpoint. Then again, what is often presented as a Christian heaven has more to do with speculation than anything we find in the bible or in the teachings of Jesus. 

What struck me about this father/daughter conversation is that in the midst of a well-structured, page-turner story which is rooted in science, God and the afterlife shows up. For months we have listened to the medical experts and the politicians as they shared their messages about hygiene and limiting transmission. We've heard from the religious types who claim that neither the scientists nor the politicians are "the boss of me" and want to continue to gather because it's their God-given right to do so. 

Our United Church of Canada has tended toward caution throughout, seeing the decision not to gather for at least several months as one which demonstrates that we "love our neighbour" and which honours our elders. I personally think this is better theology that the Martin Luther wannabees who huff and puff about religious freedom. Most UCC clergy have been very pastoral in the midst of the disorienting realities of the pandemic. 

I do think we could all engage in some deeper discussion about our views of heaven or the afterlife or whatever term we want to use. So many have lost loved ones in the past ten months, often without opportunity for meaningful goodbyes or to come together to celebrate and mourn these lives. There is a lot of anxiety and fear and confusion roaming about that we could do with some honest conversation about all of this. 

What do you think? How could this happen when we can't come together to speak from the heart and pose the questions we want to ask? Would it help if you could? 

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Gratitude for a Friend, Norm Esdon


                                                  Photograph: Norm Esdon

I have written about  the Rev. Norm Esdon, my friend from seminary days, on several occasions through the years. Norm was one of the "old guys" in my first year at Emmanuel College, 32 to my 22. His first career was as a teacher, and Norm had established what appeared to be a meaningful life with his wife Marie. He experienced two callings in a way, one to ordained ministry, and the other, eventually, to be true to his orientation as a gay man. Both took courage.

Norm was an exceptional student and stood near the top of our graduating class of 1980, the largest before the steady decline in student numbers during the past four decades. He served three multi-point pastoral charges through the years, if memory serves correctly, before stepping away from congregational ministry in his later 50's because of a blood disorder. In June of 2020 I made these observations about Norm:

I came to appreciate Norm as a photographer (he chaired the weekly bulletin cover working group for years) and as poet. A former chemistry teacher, Norm was committed from those seminary days to the present to explore how "living with respect in Creation" is a vital and integral aspect of our Christian faith. 

Through the decades Norm visited us in Newfoundland and Northern Ontario where he took his deliberate time photographing the wild landscapes we explored. I tuckered him right out snowshoeing into Killarney Provincial Park to see a frozen waterfall one brilliant winter day. In true Norm fashion he wanted to be up close to the ice surface to capture the texture rather than the panorama of the fall. 

The United Church hasn't been a denomination which intentionally creates space for mystics and contemplatives and hermits. We leave that to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Norm was a combination of the three and the UCC was better for his ministries, even if there weren't many people who knew about him. He had a loyal circle of friends, but this cat-lover had a certain cat-like quality to his personality.

Norm's prognosis was that he would be dead by his mid-sixties but fortunately that was incorrect, for which we were all grateful. He did everything possible to prolong his life and did so with dignity and grace. 2020 was not kind to Norm and it seemed that as the year progressed everything revolved around treatment and stays in the hospital. 

On New Year's eve Norm died peacefully in Kingston at the age of 76. I'm grateful that I knew him, that he provided a unique witness and ministry within the United Church, and that he is now beyond suffering. His tremendously supportive friend, Jeff, shared the news with this epitaph.


Friday, January 01, 2021

Soul, Regular Old Living, & 2021

Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11-13 NRSV

Yesterday evening, which was New Year's Eve, we watched the new, buzzy, Pixar/Disney animated film called Soul. The title is a reference to music, although the principle character is a jazz pianist named Jerry who is languishing as a middle school teacher as he waits for his big opportunity. There is also the eternal soul which is imagined in a "spiritual but not religious" way. Jerry gets his big break only to...well, let's just say he ends up encountering an apprentice soul, of sorts, and both drama and humour ensue. 

Number 22, the soul-to-be is resistant to the role, while Jerry desperately wants to keep body and soul together. The former figures she has no purpose while Jerry wants to fulfill his. The soul trainee eventually has an epiphany which helps her to appreciate that "regular old living" is our grand purpose, and we never really know where that will lead us. We just accept that being "ready to go live" is what we're all called to do.

Pixar films are always extraordinary in their animation and Soul is no exception. The human cast includes Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey and Angela Bassett, which is wonderful. I wasn't as knocked out by the film as I thought I might be, but a combination of hype and sleepiness might have taken the edge off what is a really imaginative story. 

This morning I woke up thinking of the adage "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans”, coined by Allen Saunders in the 1950's and later included in the lyrics of John Lennon's song, Beautiful Boy. It's the message of Soul, in some respects, and timely. 

Most of us learned in 2020 that our plans and purpose in life can quickly be rerouted. As we came to the end of the year lots of people were literally cursing the past twelve months or claiming we should forget about them.

There was so much I didn't like in 2020 and there was too much sadness and loss for so many. Still, we were also able to do lots of "regular old living" for which I'm grateful. Instead of anticipating what was going to happen down the road we discovered, by the grace of God, that our purpose could be finding meaning in the day we were in. That's significant soul work, when all is said and done. 

I think the apostle Paul had it right about God's strength and provision. Let's savour the "regular old living" of 2021, whatever the year may bring.