Monday, December 31, 2018

Disobedience and Acceptance

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 One of the films we saw and appreciated this past year was the unheralded Disobedience starring Rachel Weiss and Rachel McAdams, two fine actors. The plotline is described this way:

 A woman returns to her Orthodox Jewish community that shunned her for her attraction to a female childhood friend. Once back, their passions reignite as they explore the boundaries of faith and sexuality.

This is both accurate and incomplete, in my estimation. Ronit, the Weiss character, returns because of the death of her Orthodox Jewish father, from whom she was alienated. While the elicit relationship is central, as the poster suggests, the story is also about the freedom of women to choose the trajectory of their lives, and what it means to be orphaned from one's faith tradition for any number of reasons. This is the reality for LGBTQ persons but also for those who question norms and mores in communities such as the inerrancy of scripture.

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I can say from experience as a pastor that individuals often yearn to reconnect but feel that acceptance isn't possible, sometimes from those they have known for a lifetime and sometimes from God. I've talked with those who've done prison time or lived with addictions who doubt that they would be welcomed back into congregations as well.

This is a good film, worth watching if you get the opportunity. Netflix beckons!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Thomas Becket & Faithful Witness

The Martyrdom (North West Transept)

Yesterday commemorated the assassination of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 AD. Becket was in an ongoing dispute with the king, Henry II, and four knights took it upon themselves to seek him out and assassinate him in Canterbury Cathedral, a grisly event dramatized by T.S. Eliot in the verse play aptly titled Murder in the Cathedral. In the play tempters come to Becket, one offering safety:

          Take a friend's advice. Leave well alone,
          Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.

Another invites him to gain power and wealth by acquiescing to the king.
To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?
Becket responds with the oft-quoted words:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

I might not pay much attention to the 850 year-old murder of a British cleric if I hadn't visited the site of his death in the cathedral some years ago and read a prayer elsewhere in the church which acknowledged modern-day martyrs of the faith, those who have spoken "truth to power" with courage, even though it meant persecution and death. Some become well-known, and are made saints, such as Becket and Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador who was murdered in 1980 by government forces while saying the mass.

Others are "ordinary" Christians who suffer for their faith. I think of the Pakistani Christian woman, Aasiya Noreen, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam in 2010. Recently her sentence was overturned but she may be forced to leave the country because of ongoing death threats and her family has considered emigrating to Canada.

Those of us who live with the freedom to worship and to criticize the "powers that be" if we choose can regularly pray for those Christians whose safety is precarious. We can support organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which monitor situations where persecution occurs, including for religious reasons. We can encourage our government to provide refuge for those whose lives are in peril.

Swiss Chalet as an environmental leader? Read about it in today's Groundling blog.

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Christ of Maryknoll Robert Lenz

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Luci Shaw at 90

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My mother, Margaret, died in November, but had she lived today would be her 93rd birthday. I discovered this morning that a favourite poet of past years, Luci Shaw, is 90 years old today.

Here are a couple of Shaw's incarnational poems for you to ponder.


Luke 1:39–45
Framed in light,
Mary sings through the doorway.
Elizabeth’s six-month joy
jumps, a palpable greeting,
a hidden first encounter
between son and Son.

And my heart turns over
when I meet Jesus
in you.

* * *

Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Sister Wendy RIP

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My undergraduate degree was in Art History and I love visiting galleries so you might think I was a fan of Sister Wendy Beckett during her heyday in the 1990's. Sister Wendy, who died this week at 88, became an unlikely media star, inviting both television watchers and readers of her books into the fascinating world of painting and sculpture through the centuries. She was an unusual looking soul and I must admit that I found her rhapsodic descriptions of works of art rather off-putting, but she developed a huge fan base.

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Sister Wendy was a "consecrated virgin" (wow) and a hermit, living in a secluded trailer. While she made lots of money from her success she gave most of it to charitable and religious causes. I do admire her personal commitment to simplicity and solitude, coupled with a deep love for beauty as expressed through art. She was spot-on in her awareness that the church, with all its flaws, had a profound influence on Western culture and she helped others understand how this was so.

It seems somehow fitting that Sister Wendy died the day after Christmas, given her great love for Mary, the mother of Jesus. And while she adored art, she assured us that it was nothing compared to her passion for God.

Take a look at the interview she did with Charlie Rose years ago.

My Groundling blog today muses about Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle

Thursday, December 27, 2018

La Posada & the Death of Children

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 Now after [the Magi] had left,
an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt,
and remain there until I tell you;
for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night,
and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.
This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,
“Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Matthew 2:13-15

I hope all of you had a meaningful holiday season and a sense of Christ's presence in the midst of the busyness. We had plenty of time with our three grandchildren, which was a joy. They are innocent and mischievous, timid and reckless, exploring life under the shelter of family of caring adults.

8 year old Felipe Gomez Alonzo, from Guatemala, died on Christmas Eve.

I was mindful of two other children, one seven, the other eight, who died in recent days, the latter on Christmas Eve. They were both Guatemalan migrants who fled their country with their parents only to perish in the custody of the United States Border Patrol after being arrested while crossing from Mexico to the States.  

Something is terribly wrong with a security system which victimizes the vulnerable, and many Americans know it. Church leaders of many stripes have spoken out about the inhumane incarceration of those seeking asylum and Christians have gathered along the border to protest.

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There was a poignant "Las Posadas" Nativity service at one section of the barrier between countries again this Christmas Eve. Traditionally in this procession two people dress up as Mary and Joseph and certain houses are designated to be an "inn" (thus the name "Posada"). The head of the procession will have a candle inside a paper lampshade. At each house, the resident responds by singing a song and Mary and Joseph are finally recognized and allowed to enter. Once the "innkeepers" let them in, the group of guests come into the home and kneel around the Nativity scene to pray.

At the wall this became a powerful act of protest against a government which claims to want to put Christ back into Christmas yet allows children to die at its border while celebrating a child refugee.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Santa, Wonder & the Birth of Jesus

William Blake, Illustration 1 to Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”:
The Descent of Peace, 1814-1816., pen and watercolor.

We are blessed to have our grandchildren, five, three and one, with us this Christmas morning. Last year the then four-year-old woke up in our home and roared into the family room with great excitement. Then he was "over the moon" to discover the glass of milk empty, the cookie plate reduced to crumbs, and the carrot half-munched. Santa had come and gone, as promised!

This sense of wonder and excitement enchanted us, as it truly should, or what is grandparenting for? There was a thoughtful piece by Ed Simon in the New York Times yesterday called In Praise of Wonder with the heading beneath: Christmas is a reminder of the radical power of humility, amazement and embracing the Other. Simon admits that he is not conventionally Christian but appreciates the significance of the Nativity. Within the article he muses:

Christmas, according to the carol, is the “most wonderful time of the year.” Certainly it’s one of the most commercialized, where it’s hard to sense much of the sacred import between Black Friday and the perennial culture-war scuffles over the meaning of the season. How much better, then, to see the holiday through Blake’s eyes, where “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

One need not be a conventional Christian — I’m not — to see the significance of the nativity story. Because what the nativity story conveys is a narrative of wonder threaded through prosaic reality, where the birth of a child is an act of God’s self-creation, where a manger can be the site of the universe’s new genesis. Perhaps Blake’s seeing angels in trees and God in his kitchen is the true nature of things, and everyday appearances are the real delusions.

It is difficult to see those angels today. We live less in an “age of wonder” than we do in an age of anger, anxiety and fear; the age of the weaponized tweet and horrific push notification. I don’t believe that one can die from lack of wonder, but I’m certain that a deficit of it will ensure that one has never really lived.
I'm hoping that our grandkids will have room for the presence of God in Christ as part of their Christmas through the years. Santa is fun, but Jesus is life abundant.
And that's wonder-full. Fear not dear readers, and Merry Christmas.

Oh ya, why not read about beavers and St. Nick at my Groundling blog

Monday, December 24, 2018

Stille Nacht at 200

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I imagine we'll be singing Silent Night this evening at church because that's what we do on Christmas Eve, somewhere. I served six pastoral charges in three provinces and we always sang Silent Night, often multiple times in various services. The first was in outport Newfoundland where I began the Christmas Eve service because until I arrived it was considered "too Catlick." Singing Silent Night to candlelight with folk who'd never done so before  was magical.

The goofiest experience was in Halifax, in the beautiful sanctuary of St. Andrew's. University-aged son Isaac and a good friend who was studying guitar at Dalhousie accompanied this classic carol, which was written for guitar. One of the choir members who was a self-appointed Guardian of Musical Taste processed into the sanctuary, saw the guitars, then flounced out in tears. Ah yes...

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This is the 200th anniversary of the writing of Silent Night, a collaboration between  Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. The story goes that it was an emergency measure when the organ was damaged, hence the guitar. And the original version has six verses. There have been plenty of celebratory events in Austria leading up to this Christmas.

This simple carol was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011. I'm not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds important! We're told that German and Allied troops at the Front established an impromptu truce on Christmas Eve in 1914 and sang the carol together.

Silent Night was translated into English in the 1840's by an American clergyman and some of the lyrics were rather ambiguous -- "round yon virgin?" There was a recent translation which was intended to be truer to the original. Take a look:

Silent Night! Holy Night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon godly tender pair
Holy infant with curly hair
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Brought the world gracious light
Down from heaven's golden height
Comes to us the glorious sight:
Jesus, as one of mankind
Jesus, as one of mankind.

Silent Night! Holy Night!
By his love, by his might
God our Father us has graced
As a brother gently embraced
Jesus, all nations on earth
Jesus, all nations on earth.

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Long ago, minding our plight
God the world from misery freed
In the dark age of our fathers decreed:
All the world is redeemed
All the world is redeemed.

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Shepherds first saw the sight
Of angels singing alleluia
Calling clearly near and far:
Christ, the saviour is born
Christ the Saviour is born.

 Translated by Bettina Klein © 1998 Silent Night Museum
A-5024 Salzburg, Steingasse 9


Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Canadian Christmas

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A Northern Nativity William Kurelek

1 No crowded eastern street, no sound of passing feet;
  far to the left and far to right
  the prairie snows spread fair and white;
  yet still to us is born tonight
 the child, the King of glory.

2 No rock-hewn place of peace shared with the gentle beasts,
  but sturdy farm house, stout and warm,
  with stable, shed, and great red barn;
  and still to us is born tonight
 the child, the King of glory.

3 No blaze of heavenly fire, no bright celestial choir,
  only the starlight as of old,
  crossed by the planes' flash, red and gold;
  yet still to us is born tonight
 the child, the King of glory.

4 No kings with gold and grain, no stately camel train:
  yet in his presence all may stand
  with loving heart and willing hand;
  for still to us is born tonight
 the child, the King of glory.

Ruth asked me recently if I had a favourite Christmas carol and a favourite Christmas song. With a lump in my throat I named No Crowded Eastern Street as the former. It is a truly Canadian carol and I was a little choked up because when our son Isaac was but a lad he named this as his favourite.

Frieda Major wrote the lyrics as a poem in Winnipeg in 1958, which is "only" sixty years ago. Robert Flemming, who worked for the National Film Board composed the tune in 1970 or 1971. So, this carol is fairly new by the standards of some of the European perennials, but so is Canada. 

Todays' Groundling blog is about Peace, Joy and...Snow?

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Solstice, Newgrange, and Christmas

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 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
Isaiah 9:2  (NRSV)

Earlier this year Canadian writing celeb Margaret Atwood and partner Graeme Gibson visited Newgrange in Ireland. It would have been much more difficult for them to do so yesterday, the Winter Solstice, because a small group of people chosen by lottery were the only ones allowed to be present as a ray of light illuminated the inner chamber of this Neolithic tomb. The monumental Newgrange was only rediscovered and excavated in the 1960's but it's estimated to be 3200 years old -- older than portions of Stonehenge. Well, yesterday there was no sunlight and so no illumination for those chosen from 28,000 applicants.

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Inside Newgrange

There are Christians who would cringe at the popularity of this pagan site, although it's likely that it was built for a religious purpose. And yet we know that our celebration of Christmas happens in December because of the Roman celebration of the solstice, Saturnalia, which was a public festival which was a time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees -- sound familiar? Jesus was likely born in the Spring of the year but the early Christians adopted this festival as their own.

There is something to be said for acknowledging the wonder of changing seasons, the tides, the movement of Sun and Moon and planets in their orbits. If the Jesus we follow and worship was aware of all of these rhythms during his Earthly existence, we can be as well.

I would much rather intertwine my celebration of Christ's birth with these rhythms than have the Incarnation coopted by commercialism. How about you?


Friday, December 21, 2018

David Milne and a Deeper Solitude

David Milne (1882 – 1953)has been one of my favourite Canadian painters for years so we had to take in the current exhibit of his work at the McMichael Gallery. His career overlapped the period of the Group of Seven but he was more of a loner than a collaborator. Milne began working in New York City before taking to the wilds of the Empire State where he lived a meagre existence. He was in the army of the British Empire in World War I and while he was sent overseas too late to see action his legacy is the paintings of the shattered French countryside (below) he created after the Armistice. Eventually he spent time in the Temagami region and around Six Mile Lake, both areas I have paddled.

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In several of the blurbs alongside his work at the McMichael he is described as seeking "deeper solitude," an interesting term. Did he use it, or has this been ascribed to him? It seems fitting somehow, and creates the image of an ascetic, an intentional hermit. Did Milne need to heal from the shocking images of war he witnessed, even though he hadn't been involved in combat? Was he like many of us, realizing that silence and solitude are necessary for creativity and spiritual renewal? There is no sense that he was a religious man yet these sensibilities are common to the contemplative life.

There seems to be no point in asking whether any of you have seen the exhibition since the silence, in terms of comments,  has been deafening of late. I encourage you to make the trip to what is likely the most beautiful setting for a Canadian gallery anywhere in the country between now and mid-January.

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The Alander cabin on Christmas day 1920

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Jesous Ahatonnia -- The Huron Carol

When we lived in Sudbury I read that a Laurentian University prof had translated what is often called The Huron Carol into the Huron language. This was no easy feat given that Huron was a "dead language" and it involved considerable reconstruction on his part.
 I met with him, thinking that we could use the original words, only to discovery that they were un-singable in an accurate English translation.

What we call Huron is more accurately Wendat, and many are uncomfortable with what is often described as "the first Canadian carol" because of the "settler" theology attached to it's 17th century Jesuit origins.

This month's United Church Observer looks at the history of the carol and honours the First Nations artist, Moses (Amik) Beaver, who created the cover art. The links are here:

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christmas Mubarak

Mary and Jesus in a Persian miniature

20. [Mary] said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?" 21. He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us':It is a matter (so) decreed."

22. So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place. 23. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): "Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!"

24. But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; 25. "And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.

26. "So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if thou dost see any man, say, 'I have vowed a fast to (Allah) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into not talk with any human being'" 27. At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: "O Mary! truly an amazing thing hast thou brought!

Surah Maryam Koran

Many Christians would be surprised and perhaps even unsettled to realize that the holy book of Islam, the Koran or Quran, includes Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a revered figure and Jesus is honoured as a prophet. There is even an angel who announces the birth of Jesus and a birth narrative, although one significantly different for what we find in the gospel of Luke. Jesus' conception is one of two miracles in the Quran and Mary is the only woman named in the Quran. She is actually mentioned more often in the Quran than in the New Testament and there’s a whole chapter named after her.

Mary and baby Jesus are portrayed in a scene from “Christmas Mubarak.

Recently a play opened in Chicago called Christmas Mubarak or Christmas Blessing which was billed as an interfaith event meant to foster understanding.  It mixed the Christian and Muslim birth stories and a Methodist choir sang Christmas music.

Those who attended the play found it both informative and inspirational but people who would never have darkened the door quickly denounce it.Some were sure the intention was to create "Chrislam" a new world religion. Some of the Christian critics declared it blasphemy, even thought the music was distinctly Christian. Some of the Muslim critics figured it was an attempt to convert Muslims.

I've pondered whether I would attend this play if it were performed locally and the answer is yes. As a Christian Jesus is more than a prophet for me. He is God-with-us in a way that is significantly different than the Islamic perception of him. Still, I could learn and reflect on the deeper meaning of Christmas and I'm impressed that Malik Gillani undertook this, despite the negative response of some.

Would you attend a play like this? Are you intrigued by the Islamic story of Mary and the birth of Jesus?

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Lord's Prayer Revisited

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I can resist everything except temptation.

Oscar Wilde

 It is prayed by all Christians, but it never mentions Christ.
It is prayed in all churches, but it never mentions church.
It is prayed on all Sundays, but it never mentions Sunday.
It is called the ALord=s Prayer,@ but it never mentions ALord.@
It is prayed by Christians who focus on the next life in heaven or hell,
but it never mentions the next life, heaven, or hell.
The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the LORD=S PRAYER.
John Dominic Crossan

A year ago I blogged about Pope Francis' comments about the Lord's Prayer or Our Father and the problematic phrase about temptation. Apparently the Italian Episcopal Conference has sent proposed changes to the Vatican, which they seem likely to approve, to change the line “lead us not into temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer to read “abandon us not when in temptation.”

Through the centuries scholars and pastors and laypersons have struggled with the notion of God as tempter, for obvious reasons. In the gospels Satan or the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness. But God? Isn't God is the One who gives us the strength to resist temptation not dangle it in front of us?

I knew I had written about this before so I went back to discover when. This is actually the sixth time I've addressed The Prayer That Jesus Taught as it's also called, and I did a sermon series on this prayer early in 2011 -- something I'd forgotten about!

I appreciate that Francis is open to exploring the intent of the original languages (Greek and Aramaic) rather than being slavish to one particular translation.

What do you think? Here is the text message Lord's Prayer from a few years back.

Dad@hvn. Ur spshl.
We want what you want & urth 2b like hvn.
Give us food &4giv r sins lyk we 4giv uvaz.
Don=t test us! Save us!
Bcos we kno ur boss,
ur tuf & ur cool 4eva! OK!

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Hardened Heart & the Ugly Wall

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Now before faith came,
we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 
Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came,
so that we might be justified by faith. 
 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 
 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 
 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  
 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,
 heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:23-29

During Donald Trump's campaign for the presidency of the United States he promised his adoring supporters that he was going to build a "great big beautiful wall" along the border to keep out migrants from Mexico and Central America. Not only did he promise this, he claimed that the Mexicans were going to pay for it.

Well, the Mexicans aren't paying for it --surprise, surprise-- and this may be yet another broken Donald promise because he's getting no traction from American legislators to pay the five billion dollar bill for construction.

This reluctance may sound like welcome news but the "build a wall" mentality has seeped into American sensibilities in a profound way. Hearts have been hardened to the extent that millions, including many Christians (?) have accepted that taking young children from the parents of migrants and incarcerating thousands of refugee teens in a facility designed for a few hundred is acceptable.
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Border Guard pours out water left for migrants

Then there is the tragic death of a Guatemalan girl, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal. Jakelin died in the custody of Border Patrol and while the government insists she arrived ill the family disputes this. Apparently she died of dehydration and brain swelling. The official response and those of many conservative commentators is to say that this may be the consequence for embarking on such a dangerous journey. There is next to no compassion and certainly no recognition that there are international laws protecting the rights of migrants and refugees.

In this season of the Refugee Christ Child we can pray not only for the failure of the physical wall but the dismantling of the ugly walls of fear, suspicion, and hardness of heart. I'm convinced that this is what Christ desires of all of us.

Check out my Groundling blog for an environmental perspective on the "ugly wall."

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