Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mazel Tov to the Reformation

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Yesterday I wrote about the 500th anniversary of what may be the phantom event of Martin's Luther's posting of 95 Theses on the door of a Wittenberg church. A scholarly monk became the lightning rod for reform in the Christian world. While it is indisputable that Luther is a key figure in history he was far from saintly. The darkest aspect of his legacy is the fierce anti-Judaism which developed in his writing over the course of his lifetime. Once generous in his perception of Jews (Jesus was one, after all) he became so vicious that his statements and outlook were used as fuel for the Nazi murder of six million Jews in Europe more than four hundred years later.

A number of thoughtful books and articles have explored this sad reality, but the one which surprised me is written by a Jew. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin begins Mazel tov to my Protestant friends! with this intriguing description:

This past week, I met a Lutheran minister at a clergy meeting. I wished him a mazal tov – on the upcoming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which will happen on October 31st. He appreciated my good wishes. And then, I added: “…and really – no hard feelings.” The minister knew exactly what I was talking about. A Jew is allowed to have mixed feelings about the Protestant Reformation.

With remarkable grace Salkin reminds us that there were Protestant pastors and theologians in Nazi Germany who courageously opposed the persecution of Jews. He goes on to say:

So, is there anything good that we can say about the Reformation?
Only that it completely changed human history.
People began to realize that the Church was not the only source of authority in the world. That gave birth to ideas that we take so much for granted – that those ideas are like the air that we breathe.
Ideas like:
  • You are allowed to be skeptical about the truths that you have inherited.
  • People should use their reason to figure things out, and not simply rely on tradition and faith.
  • You can read a text critically, and not only piously.
It is hardly an accident – that from the Reformation, we get the Enlightenment.
From the Enlightenment, we get the Emancipation of the Jews from the ghettos of Europe.
That leads directly to the beginnings of Reform Judaism – which happens in the same Germany that gave birth to Martin Luther. A choir; beautiful organ music in the synagogue; families sitting together; a sermon given in German; rabbis and cantors wearing black robes; even confirmation – all of these were the gifts of German Lutheranism to Judaism.
Had there been no Reformation, there would have been no Reform Judaism.
And no Conservative or Reconstructionist Judaism, either.


Despite Salkin's understandable mixed feelings about Luther he is grateful for what the Reformation brought about. I'm immensely grateful for Salkin's perspective.


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Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Monday, October 30, 2017

Legacy of the Wittenberg Door

The engraving above shows Martin Luther writing his protest on the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church. It is from a 1518 German broadside marking the first anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses. By then, the image of Luther publicly attacking papal corruption had become a potent 16th-century meme.
Yesterday was Reformation Sunday in many Protestant churches This year there has been a special emphasis on the guy behind the reforms and protests that brought about the Reformation and Protestantism.

Martin Luther came from a solidly middle-class background and began studies for a legal career. To his father's consternation Martin decided to become a priest instead to fulfill a vow made in the midst of terror. On the way to visit his family from school he was caught in a powerful thunderstorm and promised to devote his life to God. He was a stellar theological student, but not a rebel, and he was highly anxious about the state of his soul.

Luther's journey away from life as an ordained Roman Catholic monk was complicated. He discovered personal assurance and the grace of Christ in a reading from the epistle to the Romans. But he also made a trip to Rome where he was deeply disillusioned by a church structure that he felt was corrupt and indifferent to the gospel. Luther was also disgusted by the sale of indulgences, a sort of "get out of hell free" scam which benefitted the sellers and the church but again was antithetical to the gospel message of grace rather than works. Luther did believe that when we are transformed by the free gift of love in Christ we will engage in generous and compassionate love toward others. But we don't buy our way into God's favour or heaven.
 This year is the 500th anniversary of an event that may never have taken place. Luther did create a list of premises or theses which challenged what he viewed as destructive and corrupt in the Roman Catholic church. He supposedly nailed these to a church door in the town of Wittenberg, where a Luther conference is being held now. Within a year images such as the one above were being created which captured the imagination of those seeking reform. There just isn't a lot of evidence that Luther actually perpetrated such a dramatic challenge to the "powers that be" in this way.

Luther didn't intend to start a new Christian movement which would lead to his excommunication, political turmoil across Europe, and periods of his life where he was on the run for his safety. Yet here we are today, religious heirs of the radical changes which occurred because of the convictions of this curious, passionate, troubled man. We are the outcome of the Wittenberg door, even though that door might have little to do with our Protestant faith.

I'll say more about the legacy of Luther, the good, the bad, and the ugly, over the next few days. I'll include links to some worthwhile articles about Luther and his influence, including this one from National Geographic.


Friday, October 27, 2017

The Transitions of the Elderly

Today I'll drive to Amherstview to see my wonderful old mother at her assisted living residence for the final time. My brother Eric will be there as well, and we'll have lunch together before moving her to a nursing home in Napanee. Her Parkinson's and other laments have taken their toll on her body and her mind, although her spirit has endured.

Eric has rented a vehicle with a lift for her wheelchair so that he can be the driver (he does this for a living) and he'll take her along the waterfront route between the communities. He figures that this might be her last opportunity given that her health is so fragile. He's likely correct on this. We rarely get her out the door anymore, even to the patio at her residence.

The nursing home in Napanee is one of the best around and we feel very fortunate that this has worked out. Eric lives near her current location and stops in to see her several times a week. I honestly feel that his constant presence has made a difference with staff and Mom's social worker. They see him bringing in a bag of clean laundry, he has a sense of humour, and he chats with them.

With the demands of the workload for these unsung heroes it probably helps to see a family member who is attentive and asks the right questions without being demanding. We're both very impressed by the folk at Helen Henderson in Amherstview.  I'm not there as often, living farther away, although we've met with administrators and nurses and the social worker together. Our wives are so kind to Mom as well and both have gone in to see her on their own.

I saw Mom last week, with Eric, and it was a good day for her. She picked up on humour and stayed with the conversation. Once again I read scripture and prayed. When I was done she smiled and said that it was good to be visited by a minister.

Both of us struggle with the decline we see and we wish this move didn't have to happen. This will be the third place she's lived in 2017 in the midst of deepening dementia. Life isn't always fair, that's for sure.

Keep Mom and all of us in your prayers please. I know that many of you have gone through similar experiences with aging loved ones.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

From Trash to Table

Illustrations by Caitlyn Murphy for The Globe and Mail

God incarnate. There is a 'ligious term we don't utter often. it refers to Jesus with us, in the flesh, as a human being. When we read the gospels Jesus eats, as humans are wont to do. When and where did he eat? Sometimes with "the wrong crowd" according to the Holier Than Thous. He was accused of being  a glutton and partial to the vino.

We are also told that there was a general purse for Jesus and the disciples, with Judas as the treasurer, which may have been used for food. And a timely prayer multiplied some loaves and fishes.

Still, there must have been lots of occasions when Jesus and the lads had to forage for food in orchards and fields along the way. There was no Farmer Brown with a shotgun, but were there times when they were challenged for grabbing a handful of grapes or grain? I'm thinking that in the first century there was very little food wasted.

I've noticed lately that there has been a lot of attention given to what really is the sin of wasted food. We're told that approximately half of produce in the United States ends up being discarded, in large part because we've developed notions of perfection, as well as hyper-caution. During a recent CBC Radio phone-in on food waste a truck driver called to say that he had just taken a full tractor trailer load of name-brand frozen meals to the landfill because they were past the warehouse "best before" date, which is not the same as the later grocer "best before." They were perfectly good but just hadn't been sent to retailers on time.

Efforts are being made to change this. Grocery chains are now offering "ugly" fruit and veggies so that produce is not discarded. Of course farmers' market vendors have been selling "just as I am" produce for years. There are now laws in provinces and states to protect those who contribute food for redistribution.

A new food-ordering app that allows people to buy meals that are about to be discarded by restaurants has been developed. Feedback was co-founded by cousins Josh and Ben Walters,  and allows users to browse "time-specific deals from Toronto's best restaurants" and purchase meals at up to 80 per cent off the original price. Both restauranteurs and diners win on this one. feedbackapp.ca

On Thanksgiving weekend there was an inspiring Globe and Mail article called From Trash to Table by Ann Hui about Chef Karen Barnaby who is using her skills to create meals from "below seconds" produce for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. 

The meal ministry chefs for Bridge St. UC do this, often gathering a team in hours to process vegetables brought to the church from Gleaners Food Bank and other sources. They are cooked and frozen and used in recipes at a later date.

I pray that the sin of waste in our society of disposal will continue to be addressed through a change in attitude about the gift of food.

Thoughts? Bon appetite!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Supernatural Caves of Dreams

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We've caught on to Hoopla, the public library streaming resource which gives us access to some interesting feature films and documentaries from the comfort of our family room. Sometimes technology is delightful.

Last evening we watched a doc we meant to see when it was released in 2010, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It is an exploration, both physically and psychologically of the series of caves discovered in the 1990's by French spelunkers. They cleared rubble from a narrow opening which led them into a world of wonders which had been sealed for centuries.

Inside these Chauvet caves, named after one of the discoverers, they found paintings of exquisite beauty and variety, as well as the skeletal remains of many of the creatures depicted on the walls. Carbon dating suggest that some are at least 30,000 years old, which I find mind-boggling. Perhaps the most familiar images are of horses, but there are bison, bears, lions and leopards, species nearly all long-gone from France. It seems that the works are "signed" with handprints, with recurring signatures from a painter with a crooked finger.

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The film-makers were given rare and limited access to the caves, initially only able to work for an hour at a time. Early in the process the crew was invited by one of the team of researchers to stand in the silence, to absorb the ambiance of the cave and its witness to the past. Later they, the discoverers, and the researchers describe their sense that the paleolithic eyes of those who created these images are upon them, a permeability between this world and the world of the spirit.

Herzog employs his brilliance as a film-maker to move from the factual aspect of this discovery into an exploration of what the paintings mean for our understanding of what it is to be human. One of the experts muses that while we are described as homo sapiens, humans who think, we might be called homo spiritualis, spiritual humans.

Herzog segues to discoveries of ancient bone flutes in other locations to suggest that along with art, music was an essential aspect of the development of our spiritual identity. Interestingly, there is no evidence that humans ever lived in the Chauvet caves. They were a "chapel" (my term) for artistic expression, and the researchers speculate that rituals may have been part of what occurred there.

Music, art, rituals, silence, even unique smells. All these are aspects of spiritual and religious expression today. Extraordinary. Supernatural.

Have you seen the film? What are your thoughts about what I've described here?

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Called By Earth and Sky

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 Called by earth and sky,promise of hope held high.
This is our sacred living trust,
treasure of life sanctified,
called by earth and sky.

1. Precious these waters, endless seas, deep ocean’s dream, waters of healing,
rivers of rain, the wash of love again.

2. Precious this gift, the air we breathe; wind born and free. Breath of the Spirit,
blow through this place,
our gathering and our grace.
Hymn Called by Earth and Sky More Voices 135  

This past weekend several ministry colleagues and friends attended an event in Peterborough, Ontario, only 90 minutes from here. The speaker was Diana Butler Bass and she was sharing the ideas explored in her most recent book Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution. I'm sure this was an excellent two-day experience with one of America's foremost writers on the changing church. I pre-ordered Grounded and it is a strong addition to the growing body of literature on how we embrace and experience God in earth and sky and water.

Ruth on the Salmon River

While some Christians view this trend with suspicion, labeling it as pantheism, it has a strong biblical foundation. And as I've pointed out often, Jesus was often at greatest risk in formal places of worship while being received as "Good News" on hillsides and on the water.

I didn't attend because I was spending time with wife Ruth getting grounded...and watered. We cycled and ambled and kayaked over the weekend, taking advantage of glorious Fall weather. We paused to ponder the God of Creation and to give thanks, doing so outside.

I hoped to begin offering worship opportunities for people in the outdoors this Autumn, not as competition but as a complement to the life of congregations. Family matters took precedence over this desire but I'll get there and open it to anyone who would like to come together in simple gathering of contemplation and gratitude for the gift of Creation. I wonder if the Peterborough event provided opportunities to get outside, including worship?

When we went to Change Islands, Newfoundland this past July I took along a book called Nature as Spiritual Practice by Steven Chase. It was a "throw-in" with a pile of others and it turned out to be a profound experience as we basked in the raw beauty of the North Atlantic. He encourages us to savour a partial phrase from the Lord's Prayer, "thy will be done, on Earth as it is..." We don't deny the glorious possibilities of Heaven, yet we can live fully in the promise of where we are grounded, here and now.


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Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Lancet and My Neighbours

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A couple of decades ago Sojourners, the Christian magazine, published a book of essays called Holy Ground: A resource on faith and the environment. I rummaged around and unearthed my copy to look at the section Environmental Racism and Justice. This may have been the first time I made the connection between care for the Earth and care for those humans on the margins who are most affected by environmental degradation.

This book came to mind when I heard and saw the media reports about the Lancet medical journal's Commission on Pollution and Health report on the effects of pollution on human health, worldwide. Here is how the CBC reports it:

Environmental pollution — from filthy air to contaminated water — is killing more people every year than all war and violence. More than smoking, hunger or natural disasters. More than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.
One of out every six premature deaths in the world in 2015 — about nine million — was attributed to disease from toxic exposure...The financial cost from pollution-related death, sickness and welfare is equally massive, the report says, costing some $4.6 trillion in annual losses — or about 6.2 per cent of the global economy.

This is staggering. given the caution that this is a preliminary study and the numbers could well be much higher. The study also notes that it is the poor of the planet, including those who are poor in developed countries who are most likely to be the victims. About 90% of those who die are in what we used to call Third World countries, many of which have lax regulations and insufficient monitoring. Their economies are attempting to catch up with more affluent nations, often with a huge human health cost.

The study points out the EPA has found that for every dollar spent in the US over the past fifty years to combat pollution there have been $30 in benefits. Yet the Trump administration is working diligently to dismantle parts of the Clean Air Act. In case we are feeling smug, a report this week says that the Alberta Tar Sands projects are producing are producing far more air pollution than previously estimated.

This is a matter of faith and justice. If the goods and lifestyle I have are at the price of the health of brothers and sisters in other parts on the planet then I have made a mockery of Jesus' response to the question "who is my neighbour?" My affluence isn't in isolation. My choices matter. When I see the dense fogs of air pollution enveloping Chinese cities or hear that the Ganges River is toxic from industrial waste I can't breathe easy. I need to pray and act.