Thursday, November 30, 2017

Loving Nature Mystic Vincent

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Starry, Starry night
Flaming flo'rs that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze reflect in
Vincent's eyes of China blue.
Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's
Loving hand.
And now I understand what you tried to say to me

How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
They did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now.
Don McLean

Yesterday Ruth and I went to see the film Loving Vincent. As the name suggests, it is about Vincent Van Gogh, the troubled artist on the 19th century who is now one of the most famous painters of all time yet only sold a single canvas during his brief lifetime. The film is a murder mystery in a way, drawing on a body of scholarly speculation that Van Gogh was murdered -- or least died by misadventure -- rather than at his own hand. He was shot in the stomach and claimed that he had inflicted the mortal wound himself, yet the evidence didn't support this. The story of the film focuses on Vincent's last few days and a fictional man who comes to the village of Auvers Sur Oise to deliver a letter and stays to discover what actually transpired.

Loving Vincent is beautiful and innovative because it is animated, even though human actors are involved. They are portrayed by thousands of hand-painted images which evoke the colours and brush style of Van Gogh, which were then given life for the screen. Many of Vincent's best-known paintings are incorporated into the narrative.

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We loved the film, but a few things occurred to me after we left the theatre. We aren't told that Van Gogh wandered the countryside painting as a sort of day-release program from the mental hospital where he spent time at the end of his life. Vincent found solace in the pleine air experience of painting outdoors. He wasn't just an odd man, he was seriously mentally ill, and the doctor who provided care was enlightened enough to realize that creativity, solitude, and the beauty of the natural world were medicinal for his patient.

I've written before that Van Gogh was a spiritual person, although he careened back and forth between piety which was sometimes sentimental, and angry atheism. He studied for the ministry but he was not at all suitable for this vocation. It was not just because he failed exams, as the film suggests. People found him incomprehensible from the pulpit and he could not relate to his parishioners. That'll put a quick end to aspirations for a student minister.

Van Gogh was more of a nature mystic whose paintings were alive with the energy of creation. Recently careful examination of one of his works revealed grasshopper embedded in the textured impasto of his paint. I found this revelation touching, a tribute to his wild, unfettered love of the world around him. The grasshopper might have another interpretation.

Have you seen Loving Vincent? How did you feel as you walked away? Do you experience his paintings as a spiritual expression of Creation?

Listen to Lianne La Havas' lovely version of Starry, Starry Night featured in the film.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Caregiving and Violence in Ontario

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Many of you are aware through this blog of the ongoing attempts by my brother and me and our spouses to support our aging mother. She will soon be 92 and due to illness and age she has faded physically and cognitively to the point that she is now in a nursing home. We have moved her four times in the past few years, each time to a facility which provides a greater level of care. We are tremendously grateful to those who have provided various levels of support. When Mom was still in an "independent living" residence she came to the point where she needed the help of a PSW. Mom was still able to mask some of her symptoms at that stage and it was this Personal Support Worker who alerted us to what was happening in less obvious ways. When Mom moved into the nursing home recently six staff members were at her door in a matter of minutes and we see the positive outcome of their ongoing attention to her needs.

As this latest move has unfolded I have been very aware of the recent report on violence experienced by health care workers in Ontario. A poll of 2,000 nurses and PSW's and other workers found that 68 per cent of hospital staff in Ontario said they have been victims of physical violence at work in the past year — from getting punched and kicked, to being pinned against a wall. One of the co-authors, Jim Brody observes "People who go to work literally every day worried that they will be beat up or assaulted."The report is entitled Assaulted and Unheard: Violence Against Healthcare Staff, which suggests that this is an issue which isn't being addressed adequately. I heard someone involved in this study who said that at a recent conference with 150 participants every person raised a hand when the group was asked who had been assaulted while at work. While it appears that the report focused on hospital staff this is likely a reality in other institutions.

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What does this have to do with my mother? Fortunately her journey into dementia has not included anger and physical aggression. Even the calmest of persons can go through significant personality changes because of his or her illness. Mom continues to be gracious and respectful to everyone, even though she may not always comprehend what it going on around her. However, our father became increasingly belligerent and aggressive with other residents and staff in the final months of his life. When he died we gave the staff on his floor a monetary gift so they could go out for a meal together. They earned it!

I am more mindful of what some of the excellent staff members who support our mother may be experiencing in the workplace. In any setting it doesn't really matter if someone lashes out because of pain or intoxication or dementia. These workers deserve to be safe and to fulfill their vocations without threat of violence. The majority are women and surely this is a violence against women issue, from a different perspective.

When I was in ministry I would pray in worship for caregivers from time to time, often around holidays when others were with family and they were working. It didn't occur to me to pray for their safety. Perhaps this should happen more often in our services and in personal devotions. They really are unsung heroes.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Another Apology for Mistakes of the Past

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Our Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau is issuing an apology today which is in some respects the fulfillment of a decision made by his father, Pierre, who was PM in another era. It was actually while the senior Trudeau was justice minister in 1967  that he proposed decriminalizing "homosexual acts' performed in private. He told reporters that "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," a phrase which was controversial at the time and has remained in the Canadian consciousness for the past 50 years.

Trudeau the Younger will officially apologize to those in public service who lost their jobs and were often publicly humiliated for what was deemed illegal activity of living out their sexuality. Some were convicted of crimes, going to jail or designated as sexual offenders.

 It is an ongoing shame that institutions and individuals condemned and ostracized members of the LGBTQ community for so long. Churches often led the way in this prejudice, and still do. One congregation I served had a woman minister years before I came who lived in the manse with her female friend. As the United Church began the conversation about the place of gays and lesbians in the denomination some folk spoke to me about this, sympathetically, realizing that they probably forced a loving couple into a covert relationship. In other congregations I discovered after my arrival that there were LGBTQ candidates who were the source of extensive conversation. Would calling them cause division in the church? I hope I was called because I was the most suitable candidate rather than a suitable candidate who was a white, married male with children.

Today's apology is more than earnest words. Yesterday the feds announced that 100 million dollars will be available to those whose livelihoods and careers were curtailed or extinguished. Some claim that the prejudices weren't just a thing of the past, that the "pink ceiling" existed into the 21st century. Neither the apology nor the money will be enough, but both matter.

Part of today's apology will be the commitment to expunge the criminal records of those who convicted on grounds that no longer exist in Canadian law. This will be a considerable challenge, even though it is a worthy endeavor. Read the excellent article by Steven Maynard, a lecturer at Queen’s University, to discover why.

What are your thoughts today? Is this apology worthwhile, or it just another Canadian saying sorry? What else do we need to do in faith communities to accept responsibility for the sins of exclusion and persecution?

Monday, November 27, 2017

Scattering the Proud

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Charlie Rose interviews Margaret Atwood

Last Monday I indulged my habit of watching the PBS television program eponymously named Charlie Rose when everything changed. I have enjoyed watching the show through the years, although the 5:00 PM timeslot didn't always fit with working life. When I became a paid bum (retired) I enjoyed the freedom to watch regularly. Charlie Rose has been interviewing interesting people on the spare set which was a round table and a dark background for most of 25 years. During the current chaos of the Trump debacle his informed guests helped me navigate through the issues of the day. And then there were the writers and musicians and film-makers who seem to thrive in the intimate and relaxed setting which made the interviews seem more like conversations under the direction of the skilled and informed Rose. I have bought books and watched films as a result of these conversations.

Monday's interview was with the president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust. Faust will retire next year and Rose explored her illustrious academic career, including her role as the first woman president of this esteemed institution. In conversation Faust mentioned her mother's repeated advice that “It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you’ll be.” Faust could have known the import of those words in that moment.

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Drew Gilpin Faust

As I watched I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw that Rose has been accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour with a number of women in his employ. The allegations were of a creepy abuse of power with female staff who had no real recourse to address his behaviour because he developed and owned the show. It occurred to me as I read that I might be watching the last Charlie Rose program, which proved to be the case. Within hours PBS and CBS first suspended, then fired Rose. A number of other women have come forward with similar stories and this once esteemed interviewer and media sage has been disgraced by his own actions. His career is effectively finished and it should be.

I have spent a week pondering these revelations and my response. We are living in an important moment as those who assumed this predatory behaviour was a right associated with their wealth and prestige can no longer shield themselves from scrutiny and condemnation. The shift began with entertainer Bill Cosby, it seems to me. It toppled nasty Fox News kingpin Bill O'Reilly. But it was the wave of accusations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein which turned the tide, with many more predators revealed in the days following his unmasking. I find that I am most disillusioned by the revelations about Charlie Rose because he represented a different perspective in a nation which seems to have lost its way.

In a few weeks one of the Advent scripture readings will be the Magnificat, Mary's song of hope that God has "scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts." Is this happening now? We can pray that it is and will continue.


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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Pope Francis in Myanmar

A roadside billboard welcomes Pope Francis to Myanmar

Pope Francis is en route to the Asian nation of Myanmar, or Burma, for a visit that begins tomorrow. On this Sunday we can pray for the pontiff in what will be a tremendously challenging visit to a troubled nation. More than 600,000 Rohingyas, an ethnically Muslim group within Buddhist Myanmar have fled the country to neighbouring Bangladesh due to persecution by the military. Men have been killed by the military, women have been raped, villages have been burned. Many of have died as they fled, some from starvation. The United Nations has labeled the situation a humanitarian tragedy and last week the United States spoke of ethnic cleansing as they condemned what was unfolded.

Before his arrival the bishops of the tiny Roman Catholic community in Myanmar have asked Pope Francis not to address what is happening, even to avoiding the use of the term Rohingya. The repercussions for the 450,000 Catholics (1% of the population) might be brutal if Francis is outspoken. He will likely meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the equivalent of the Prime Minister, who has been widely criticized for her meek response to the aggression against the Rohingya, including by me in a previous blog. Yet we have been reminded that her power is limited and that she walks a fine line herself. Before her election Aung San Suu Kyi, aged 72, spent fifteen years under house arrest and was gravely ill at times. There is no doubt she has been ineffective but her situation is precarious. Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations observes that “We created a saint and the saint has become a politician, and we don’t like that.” There is an excellent article about the situation in the New York Times today.

There were some who figured Pope Francis should cancel his trip to Myanmar as a sign of quiet protest and for his own safety and the security of Catholics in the country. He hasn't, so we can pray that he will be a missionary of love and peace, as he is described on the billboard which awaits him. God give him the grace and wisdom necessary in the next few days.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

A Day of Alex Janvier and Apologies

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Alex Janvier

Yesterday I went on a road trip with my brother, Eric, to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg Ontario. Eric is an accomplished guitarist and I thought he would enjoy the Group of Seven Guitar Project which is on display now. Seven guitars were created by some of Canada's pre-eminent luthiers to honour Group of Seven artists, as well as an eighth for Tom Tomson.

I also wanted to take in the Alex Janvier exhibit which was in the National Gallery in Ottawa, modified now for the McMichael.  Janvier is one of the Indian Group of Seven which includes two of my favourite aboriginal artists, Daphne Odjig and Norval Morisseau.

Born of Dene Suline and Saulteaux descent in 1935 Janvier was raised in the nurturing care of his family until at the age of eight, he was taken from his home and sent to the Blue Quills Indian Residential School near St. Paul, Alberta. Although Janvier speaks of having a creative instinct from as far back as he can remember, it was at the residential school that he was given the tools to create his first paintings, which is an irony.  Some of the earliest works on display were commissioned for the school chapel when he was fifteen. He still paints today at the age of 82.

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Our Lady of the Teepee 1950

As we meandered from room to room we witnessed the development of Janvier's style, or styles of painting through the decades. We were also aware from the descriptions beside the paintings of the racism and discrimination Janvier experienced, and the imposition of Christianity and European culture on him and his peers.

Also yesterday, thousands of kilometres away, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was apologizing to Aboriginal people in Newfoundland and Labrador for the misery of the residential schools. The apology was heartfelt is seemed to me, even though there has been controversy about who was excluded from it. Trudeau conceded that saying sorry was not enough, and it isn't.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes residential survivor Toby Obed to the stage after delivering an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to former students of the Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes residential survivor Toby Obed to the stage
after delivering an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada
to former students of the Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools.
(Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

There was a response from Toby Obed, a man the same age as Trudeau, whose suffering is evident. He was emotional and eloquent, reminding Canadians that this apology is only a step toward healing: "The apology has been a long time in the making — too long. Because I come from a patient and forgiving culture, I think it is proper for us to accept an apology from the government of Canada."

All Canadians, and particularly those of us who are part of denominations which ran those schools where so much harm was done must continue to listen and learn from the aboriginal peoples of this land.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Bread Not Stones


If a child asks for bread, who among us would give that child a stone?"
                                                Matthew 7:9 

Our Canadian Thanksgiving is long past but millions of Americans have been on the move the past couple of days so that they can be with family today and over this long holiday weekend. Thanksgiving is a bigger deal in the States with a greater emphasis in some families to be together for this meal than Christmas dinner. There are guides out there on how not to end up in brawls over the political tensions in the country at the moment. And the gross consumer excesses of Black Friday have now crept into Thanksgiving Thursday with encouragement for homo consumerus to eat early and then get down to the shopping mall to binge buy. In the United States the welcome and generosity of Aboriginal people extended to European newcomers is a foundational aspect of Thanksgiving. The newcomers would have starved without this hospitality.

Maybe today is a good time to mention a program which the United Church of Canada has initiated and which is now endorsed by governments at various levels. It is called Bread Not Stones and it's goal is to raise awareness about child poverty in Canada. It's estimated that 1.3 million Canadian children are poor, and we know that Quinte region has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the province of Ontario. 

 In 1989 the Canadian parliament adopted a goal to eradicate child poverty by the year 2,000, and we aren't even close nearly two decades beyond the turn of the millennium. Aboriginal children are disproportionately represented in these figures, and issues of adequate food, shelter, and education are a national shame. Affordable housing and a living wage have been in the news a lot lately, and these issues certainly affect child poverty.

Bread Not Stones is not a fundraiser. It is the attempt of one Christian body to keep this often hidden issue before the nation, and decision-makers in government.

Have you heard about Bread Not Stones? Does the statistic above shock you? Is it possible to eliminate child poverty?


God of all children,

we come before you bewildered by the fact of child poverty.

We come in frustration and shame that students are hungry,

that homeless children sleep in cars and church basements

because we don’t provide meals at school or build enough affordable housing.

Strengthen us to honour and care for the children in our communities.

Help us to place the best interests of children first.

In the name of your child, Jesus. Amen.

(Carolyn Pogue)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Museum of the Bible

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I first wrote about the Museum of the Bible in April of 2015. At that time it was "in the offing" with a prime location purchased and an impressive collection of biblical artifacts as the foundation for the exhibits. Two and a half years and 500 million dollars later the museum is open with some spectacular exhibits to welcome people in.

There has been a ton of articles about the opening and a lot written about the controversy around the enterprise. The museum is the brainchild of the wealthy Green family, known for a conservative Christian stance, challenging in court the provision of contraception in their employee health plans along with an anti-LGBTQ stance. The Greens insist that the museum will be non-sectarian and without any agenda to proselytize. The tax form for nonprofit status states: “We exist to invite people to engage with the Bible through our four primary activities: traveling exhibits, scholarship, building of a permanent museum in DC, and developing elective high school curriculum.”

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Along with these concerns are the accusations, some already substantiated, that articles in the collection were acquired illegally or questionably. There is a shadowy market for biblical artifacts and the Greens have admitted that they made mistakes when they began collecting. Some artifacts have been returned to Iraq, where they were pilfered, and a three million dollar fine was paid to the US government for illegal importation.

Despite these clouds of controversy the exhibits do look fascinating and extensive. It would take more than a week of full days to tour through them all. Here are some examples:

Christmas Illuminated: Prestigious Manuscripts from around the Fifteenth Century in the Bavarian State Library Collection Explore the Christmas story as presented in rare and precious illuminated manuscripts.

The Living Dead: Ecclesiastes Through Art: Explore themes from the book of Ecclesiastes through early modern art.

The Art of the Gospels by Makoto Fujimura A contemporary art exhibition highlighting the work of Makoto Fujimura, as he revisits the legacy of illumination and explores the Bible as a source of creative inspiration.
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If I'm in Washington, will I go to the museum? I'm not sure, but I wanna! When I wrote about MOTB in 2015 I made this observation:
Of course this museum will be about history rather than interpretation. For all the bible has been misused, it can speak to us so powerfully in this moment. It is up to us to humbly, receptively listen for God's voice in scripture, appreciating that it is a lamp showing our path rather than a club to threaten and control. We need to understand the history of scripture, and of its interpretation. And we can pray that Christ will be opened to us in fresh ways as we read and study and hear the Word proclaimed.

Are you intrigued? Will you visit if you are in the vicinity?

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

World Fisheries Day

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As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers,
Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother,
casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 
And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Matthew 4:18-19 NRSV

I will make you fishers of men,
fishers of men, fishers of men.
I will make you fishers of men,
if you follow me.

Traditional chorus

When I was a kid we used to sing this chorus with abandon, even though the words were, well, boring. We never gave any real thought that such a watery metaphor is central to a religion born in such an arid region. Jesus did spend a lot of time around the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a freshwater lake called Kinneret. He called disciples from its shore, he calmed its unpredictable waters, and he even walked on it, according to one miracle story. There are still fish in Kinneret, the tilapia called St. Peter's fish for the benefit of tourists.
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Today is World Fisheries Day, a yearly reminder that about 15% of the protein humans eat comes from the seas and oceans of the planet. And that two thirds of the world's fisheries are in decline, some of them in catastrophic free-fall.

A quarter of a billion humans are involved in fisheries in some way, which is quite remarkable. Those numbers are in decline as well. I've mentioned that we spent a month on islands in the North Atlantic this past summer. Change Islands were once all about the fishery which sustained over a thousand people in the community. Now a handful of 200 residents fish for a living and the plant is open sporadically. In one of the nearby outports I served in ministry there are now three full-time fishers. When I was there in the early 80's there were more than thirty.

Through the years I have ministered in communities which focused on agriculture, mining, lumbering, and fishing -- all dangerous. The first three have become safer over time, but fishing is still fraught with danger in Canada, and most other places as well. here was an interesting article about this in the Globe and Mail not too long ago called Canada's Deadliest Jobs and fishing is at the top of the list.

Did Jesus call fishermen as disciples because he needed their courage and ability to respond to difficult and unpredictable circumstances? They didn't always shine under pressure, but he shied away from theologians and academics and he didn't seem to have much fear of the tough going himself.

As followers of Jesus today we can take the risks necessary to protect the planet, including the seas. And we can accept the challenges of "fishing for people" in ways we never considered in the past.

I'll give you some Canadian content with words from a Gene Maclellan song made famous by Anne Murray.

Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who stilled the water
Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who calmed the sea
Take a look at yourself
And you can look at others differently
Put your hand in the hand of the man
From Galilee.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Helter Skelter

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Definition of helter-skelter 
1 :in undue haste, confusion, or disorder
  • ran helter-skelter, getting in each other's way
  • —F. V. W. Mason
2 :in a haphazard manner
Do you, don't you want me to make you
I'm coming down fast now don't let me break you
Tell me tell me tell me the answer
You ain't no lover but you ain't no dancer
Helter skelter
Helter skelter
Helter skelter
When you get to the bottom
You go back to the top of the slide
And you stop and you turn
And you go for a ride
Then you get to the bottom
Then you see me again
Helter Skelter Beatles 1968
In 1967 Charles Manson was released from a California prison and very soon was living in a communal situation with at least 18 women. He obviously had a weird charismatic influence on them and others in what was essentially a cult. Manson portrayed himself as a Christ-like figure and preached about simplicity, but he was a violent and manipulative man. Manson gave psychedelic drugs to his followers every day and abused them sexually. Yet he talked his way into jam sessions with Neil Young, the Mamas and the Papas and visited Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.
In 1969 Manson was using songs from the Beatles' White Album as "scripture" for teaching about an impending race war, with Helter Skelter as the theme for the chaos which would ensue. He instructed some of his followers to invade a home in a toney California to begin "helter skelter" by killing the residents. They brutally murdered five unsuspecting residents, including actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski. The next day they killed a couple at another location.
Dec. 03, 1969-Charles Manson is escorted to court for preliminary hearing. (John Malmin / Los Angel
Manson spent nearly 50 years in prison for his role in the murders and overnight he died at the age of 83. Through those years he applied for parole a number of times, and denied his involvement in the deaths. He was always turned down for parole and in psychiatric sessions and interviews he contradicted himself often.
Was Charles Manson insane, or was he the embodiment of evil? Defining evil is never straightforward, although "profoundly immoral and malevolent" does work here. The bigger question is whether Manson and his followers, most from stable middle class backgrounds, had given themselves over to a force of darkness which invited them into such heinous acts. You might recall that one of the Manson cult members, Squeaky Fromme, was not charged in these murders but did attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. What "possessed" this group to follow Manson and what motivated his hatred in what was then called the Summer of Love in 1967?
We'll never know with certainty, but the questions arise with news of Manson's death. What are your recollections from this time, if you're old enough to remember. Was Manson's cult evil? How would you define evil? Is there an Evil One?
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