Monday, April 30, 2018

The Memorial Service & Strength

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Thousands gathered for a vigil and memorial service in Toronto last night for the victims of the senseless, cowardly van attack on Yonge St. that killed ten and injured many more. Some of the victims were in their twenties, with all of life before them. The oldest was in her nineties, and while we could conclude she'd had a long and full life, her friends say that she still had purpose in each day. What they had in common was walking along a sidewalk on a sunny day and being attacked by a young man whose rage about life was taken out on people he didn't know. Most of the victims were women, which was likely the killer's intention.

How do we find meaning when something cruelly meaningless like this happens? Dozens of articles have been written about misogyny and terrorism and the influence of social media. Some have been very thoughtful and touching, while others have given the uneasy feeling that a tragedy was being used to further the writers' talking points. There have been radio phone-ins and television panels parsing every aspect of this tragedy.

There has been a make-shift memorial on that section of Yonge St., the sort which came into being after the death of Princess Diana twenty years ago. We have grown accustomed to the profusion of flower bouquets and notes, also from strangers, for the most part.

The memorial service or vigil has a history which goes back much further, arguably through the centuries. They are held in churches and other places of worship, or include religious leaders. Of course many of us gather at public cenotaphs on Remembrance Day every November and always there is a religious or spiritual element to the service. In Toronto last night representatives from several religions spoke, including the United Church minister from a congregation near the site of the attack. Candles were lit, choirs sang and, as might be expected, Amazing Grace was sung.

I have participated in or presided at a number of memorial services, including a solemn gathering just after another misogynist killed fifteen women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal nearly thirty years ago. They are an opportunity to enter into the pain and invite God's presence, even if there are no answers.

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At the memorial service yesterday dignitaries including the mayor of Toronto, the premiers of Ontario and Quebec, as well as the Prime Minister and Governor General of Canada were in attendance. In the end, though, these services are for everyday people seeking solace and understanding if the face of great sadness and loss. The solidarity and hope which comes from numbers of participants invoking the presence of God is essential now and will continue to be important in the challenges of our lives.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

This Much We Know about the United Church

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I am not at the Annual General Meeting of Bay of Quinte Conference of the United Church of Canada even though it's just down the road in Napanee. Bay of Quinte Conference stretches from Pickering to Brockville and north to Pembroke, so there are congregations from urban centres in proximity to Toronto while others are very rural. Some of them are multi-staff and others have part-time ministry or share clergy.  

I'm retired from pastoral ministry so I don't need or really want to be at Conference. I've never really been a fan of these meetings, although it's always good to reconnect with certain colleagues. This year Conference is a month earlier than usual because General Council, the triennial gathering of commissioners from across Canada gather for decision-making on behalf of the denomination is also earlier. This year GC will be in Oshawa, in July, and I will be there, briefly.

This will almost certainly be the last year for Conferences across the country, and for General Council. Congregations and Presbyteries were asked to vote on whether the United Church should enter into a major restructuring, a tough decision which has been forty years in the making. Forty is a good biblical number, as Israel kicked around in the wilderness for that many years, and Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness before his ministry began. We have been "bewildered" ourselves, reluctant to accept that change has been necessary. We have agreed to go ahead, although the new structure is still a work in progress.

I do feel that some fine people are involved in this process and it matters for both the present and the future. Our son Isaac is at Bay of Quinte Conference because he is currently a minister in a congregation in nearby Trenton and his desire is to live out his call to Christian service for years to come. There are others like him who are gifted and creative and want to be hopeful about ministry. His congregation, as with so many others, is aging but they are lovely people whose desire is to be faithful witnesses to Christ in their community.

The theme for B of Q Conference this year is This Much We Know. I chuckled when I clicked on the link in the Conference website and underneath the heading there is...nothin'! Perhaps all we need to know, in the end, is that Christ is with us in our wilderness experiences. We might be uncomfortable and disoriented and praying for a GPS to magically appear. There are times when putting one foot in front of the other is a sign of faithfulness. We can pray that what I have mistakenly typed as the "Untied" Church of Canada on a number of occasions will trust in Christ's abiding presence. We can look to the heavens, and to one another.


Saturday, April 28, 2018

Last Supper Irreverence?

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 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you:
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 
 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 
 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this,
whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 
 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

1 Corinthians 11:23-29 (NIV)

The visual artist Claire Rosen creates fantastical feasts using creatures, everything from turtles, honeybees, flamingos, and, yes, cobras, as the figures at the table -- 55 different tableaux in all. They are complex, and whimsical and time consuming to create. And if you're thinking Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper you don't have an over-active imagination. You might also have an uneasy feeling that to employ the imagery of a sublime work of art depicting the sacramental meal of Christians in this way is sacrilegious. I must admit I was a little rattled when I first saw them in a National Geographic piece but they challenged me to muse about how this solemn and holy meal is portrayed.

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MASH movie 1970

It happens that I'm still working my way through Walter Isaacson's book on Leonardo and not long ago read his fascinating chapter on the 15th century Last Supper fresco, in the refectory, the eating area, of a convent in Milan. Isaacson has a fascinating chapter on what Da Vinci was trying to achieve in terms of perspective to draw viewers in to the drama of what is one of the most recognized paintings in the world. It is almost certain that the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his crucifixion would not have been eaten in this configuration, or even at a table as we know it. Yet this image is fixed in our psyches and has been coopted in many settings, often irreverently.

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This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes

Rosen's remarkable tableaux got me thinking about all the ways I've seen The Last Supper through the years. I recall being quite offended by the sketch on This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes years ago. It occurred to me that this Canadian comedy show would not have taken similar liberties with other religions. Even the Simpsons got in on the act, using Moe's Tavern as the setting. Doh!

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The Simpsons

Still, even when pushing the boundaries of taste and respect, there is a degree of homage in these take-offs. And perhaps mockery can be a form of flattery? The novel The Da Vinci Code had a certain blasphemous tone to it's premise as well, yet it piqued the interest of millions.

Certainly, Jesus was scorned and humiliated in the hours following the final meal with his followers. Honestly, the crass commercialization of first Christmas and now Easter is far more disturbing for me.

What's your take on Rosen's depictions? (Google more)  What about the other uses or misuses of the imagery?

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Friday, April 27, 2018

Giving Peace a Chance on the Korean Peninsula

Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un shake hands

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in

C'mon, ev'rybody's talking about
Ministers, sinisters, banisters and canisters
Bishops and Fishops and Rabbis and Popeyes and bye-bye, bye-byes

All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance
John and Yoko and friends 1969

On Remembrance Day each day we Canadians are committed to remembering our veterans and the global conflicts in which they fought. There are no longer any living veterans from WW1 and the number from WW2 is dwindling. We sometimes forget that nearly twenty-seven thousand Canadians participated in another war on the Korean Peninsula only five years after WW2 ended, as part of the United Nations response to the invasion of South Korea by the North, and fewer of them are still alive. After the two world wars, Korea remains Canada’s third-bloodiest overseas conflict, taking the lives of 516 Canadians and wounding more than 1,200. The sacrifice of these men and women for the global good should not be forgotten.

While the conflict ended in 1953 and the last of the Canadian peacekeepers left in 1957 the two Koreas are still technically at war, nearly seventy years later. A zone about four kilometres wide was set up between the two nations which is called the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. Through the decades there have been many skirmishes in that zone and at sea, along with threats of aggression by the North Koreans.

The biggest concern has been the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea, along with the ability to deploy them over ever greater distances. In recent months the ridiculous thug of a leader, Kim Jong Un, has launched missiles into the sea around Japan and claimed to have the capacity to strike the United States. The response of American Un-president Trump has been to huff and puff about having a bigger nuclear button that Kim Jong Un and threatening total annihilation. There has been growing concern about an inadvertent stumbling into another global conflict with disastrous consequences.

As we have all kept an uneasy ear to this escalation we got surprising news that Kim Jong Un would begin dismantling North Korea's nuclear arsenal and that leaders from North and South would be meeting to discuss peace between the two nations. This week they did meet in the DMZ and signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula. The document commits the two countries to a nuclear-free peninsula and continuing talks to bring a formal end to the Korean War.They planted a tree together, from 1953, and then ended the summit with a formal dinner.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in participate in a tree-planting ceremony

It's tempting to say "was that so hard?" or "what took you so long?" But we can't be flippant about this development. Pundits have pointed out that North Korea has made similar noises in the past, and Kim Jong Un is far from trustworthy, yet this step is significantly greater than anything that has transpired before. Still, we'll pray that diplomacy will take precedence over threats and posturing. I say this with deep conviction as I look to our world and see the folly of military aggression. Too often the innocent are collateral damage.

All we are saying, if give peace a chance. We owe it to those who gave their lives in the past, and for future generations.

North Korea is sometimes described as the "Hermit Kingdom." Read about the unlikely "Peaceable Kingdom" in the DMZ in today's Groundling blog entry.

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Canadian Private Frank Hardy - Korean War

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Lynching Memorial and the Cross

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In the 1930's a poem called Strange Fruit, written by a Jewish teacher from the Bronx, was used as the lyrics for what became an iconic lament for the grave and multi-generational injustice of lynching in the United States. Untold numbers of people of colour were beaten and hanged for everything from property theft to accusations of looking at white women with disrespect. It has been recorded by a number of performers through the years but is strongly associated with Billie Holiday.

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Today a memorial to those who died in this terrible fashion was opened in Montgomery, Alabama, facing the state capital. It's called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Inside eight hundred steel blocks hang from the ceiling, bearing the names of 4,400 victims, and over time they will rust to a blood-red tone. Another exhibit features bell jars filled with dirt from the site of each lynching and also bearing the names of those killed.  The memorial is the vision of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that documented the lynching of thousands of African-Americans across the South from 1877 to 1950.

When I first heard about this memorial I wondered about what is essentially a museum to an atrocity. Why would people want to go to visit such a place. Of course, I thought that as a white male whose forbearers did not suffer, nor had to worry about suffering vigilante injustice. I have visited Holocaust memorials in Jerusalem and other cities. Each time I was tremendously moved.

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Stevenson is a lawyer and a Christian who often quotes scripture when he speaks to groups. He was inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, says he wanted the memorial to capture just how brutal the targeted killing of black people was in Jim Crow South.

I can't imagine ever visiting Alabama, although if I did I would visit the memorial. It might be a time for repentance knowing that white supremacy in the South often had ugly connections with white churches. For black Christians the lynching tree and the cross of Jesus are brought together as images of suffering, In a book called The Cross and the Lynching Tree author James Cone offers hope out of this tragedy:

 “God took the evil of the cross and lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation there is hope ‘beyond tragedy.’”


 You might be interested in my Groundling blog while you're here.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Power & the Practice of Kindness

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   Now when Jesus heard this,
he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;
and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

                               Matthew 14:13-14

I'm a big fan of Dr. Brian Goldman and his CBC radio program called White Coat Black Art. It explores all things medical with a curiosity and depth which always leaves me feeling better informed.

Goldman is an author as well, and his latest book is The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life. Goldman is a practicing physician and an incident with a family pushed him to question whether he had lost his ability to empathize and demonstrate kindness. While he attended professionally to the needs of the elderly mother and wife he was curt and impatient with the family. After she died the husband wrote a letter to Goldman and this is how he describes what unfolded in a Toronto Star interview:

He told me flat-out in the letter that he thought I was unkind, and the reason he wrote the letter was because he thought I was salvageable, that there was a human being under that moment of unkindness. Eventually, I met most of the immediate family and we all had a good cry in that meeting. It was that encounter, more than any other, that set me on this road and made me want to look inside myself — and also around the world to try to figure out what kindness looks like.

This situation motivated Goldman to reconsider how he practiced the empathetic aspect of medicine and set him on a quest to examine kindness as an essential aspect of being human.

I do feel that kindness is a core value of the Christian life, and that we can live the love of Christ through compassion and kindness. During my years at Bridge St. United Church I worked with the Rev. Vicki Fulcher who was our Pastoral Care minister and also the chaplain at Belleville hospital. Vicki is one of the kindest people I know, and I think she acted as a gentle but firm "kindness conscience" in the hospital, setting an example for empathy and compassion with those who are under constant pressure to address the physical needs of patients. While it is important to have institutional chaplains who provide this leadership, I agree with Dr. Goldman that this can extend throughout the system if those involved are mindful of the importance of kindness for those who are vulnerable.

This applies to all of us. As a Christian I can ask each day how I will engage in the spiritual practice of kindness, through a smile or a greeting or spontaneously asking how I can be helpful.

There are many scriptural examples of Jesus' kindness, the ways he compassionately attended to those who were sick, or bereaved, or outcasts. This is a wealth we can all share if we choose. We saw this currency shared by many people who went to the aid of those injured in the terrible tragedy in Toronto a couple of days ago, and after the bus crash in Saskatchewan. Yet we don't have to wait for a traumatic event to practice kindness.


Want to be inspired by the story of a 13-year-old Water Keeper? Today's Groundling blog

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Anger of Young Men

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A man in his 20's is awaiting sentencing in Quebec for the senseless murders of six Muslims as they worshipped peacefully in their mosque. Alexandre Bissonnette became obsessed with immigrants, was suicidal and obviously homicidal. He eventually pled guilty to his crimes and will likely be in prison for the rest of his life.

Yesterday a young man in Toronto rented a van then "weaponized" it, careening along one of Canada's busiest streets with the intent of killing innocent pedestrians. Sadly, he was very successful , killing ten and injuring many more. Alek Minassian, also in his 20's, had no previous criminal record but has been described as a loner, and he challenged the remarkable police officer who arrested him to shoot him in the head.

We hear far too often about incidents of mass murder in places around the world where young men are recruited to do terrible harm to others, as well as so-called "lone wolves" such as Dylan Roof  and Nikolas Cruz, and just this week, Travis Reinking, in the United States. Please note that all these North Americans  I've named are angry white men, alienated and enraged. Yes, there are brown-skinned terrorists out there, some of them religiously motivated, but while we obsess overthem, there are terrorists in our midst whom we aren't as inclined to "other." 

In February, after the school massacre in Florida, the New York Times published what has become a widely quoted op-ed piece called The Boys are Not All Right by Michael Ian Black. In it he observes:

America’s boys are broken. And it’s killing us.
The brokenness of the country’s boys stands in contrast to its girls, who still face an abundance of obstacles but go into the world increasingly well equipped to take them on.
The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America. Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone. They’ve absorbed the message: They’re outperforming boys in school at every level. But it isn’t just about performance. To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions.
 Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to “be a man” — we no longer even know what that means.

Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others. They are trapped, and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine.
Here is the sad reality. While religion can lead the way in nurturing a healthy sense of being male in this time of confusion, the opposite happens, far to often. Again, some like to point the finger at other religions, particularly Islam, for unhealthy male images. Yet in too many conservative Christian communities manhood has been associated with male superiority, often described as "headship" and "complementarity" -- which is just another term for patriarchy. Evangelicals in the United States have elected and given a free pass to a president who is a strutting, lying, misogynist -- the worst possible role model for male leadership. If you want to know how bizarre this has become, take a look at the advertising for the upcoming Stronger Men's Conference, with disgraced pastor Mark Driscoll, a bad-tempered arrogant bully as one of the speakers.
Faith communities do have the opportunity to address this toxic and ultimately destructive perception of manhood. I am praying that our two grandsons will grow up to have a balanced and healthy sense of self, grounded in their Christian faith. They have wonderful parents to model this, and we can be hopeful.
As a society we can ask the important questions about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Enough is enough.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Wired for Awe and Wonder

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Last Tuesday I caught the first PBS episode of the BBC series called Civilizations. This one had the subtitle The Second Moment of Creation. It was sufficiently intriguing that I watched a portion again when it was broadcast on the weekend.

The Second Moment of Creation is about the development of human creativity through the centuries and while it was all worthwhile I was taken by the portion going back to our earliest artistic expression. Host Simon Schama visited caves (Chauvet in France, perhaps?) with their astonishing depictions of creatures, as well as tracings of human hands. Archeologists have also recreated wind instruments made of bone and stone for eerie, mystical recitals in these cathedral-like caves.

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What captivates me in this episode is the speculation that thousands of years before the emergence of the world's great religions, including Christianity, humans expressed themselves through art and music in settings which invited awe and contemplation. Despite our propensity for destruction we are wired for wonder and creative expression.

I was glad to have that reminder and it was probably the reason I was willing to watch a second time. Will our society, which seems to be abandoning religious institutions, come to a new appreciation of these experiences as vital to who we are?

Have a look at today's Groundling blog while you're here.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Touching the Earth Lightly

1 Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently,
  nourish the life of the world in our care:
 gift of great wonder, ours to surrender,
  trust for the children tomorrow will bear.

2 We who endanger, who create hunger,
  agents of death for all creatures that live,
 we who would foster clouds of disaster,
  God of our planet, forestall and forgive!

 Touch the Earth Lightly Hymn: lyrics Shirley Erena Murray

Today is Earth Day and Earth Sunday, so our worship today could include a reverent hour or so within a bricks-and-mortar church sanctuary and a ramble or paddle in the glory of the created world. It's important to remember that Jesus spent a lot of his ministry in a counter-cultural way, preaching on hillsides, messing about in fishing boats, going to secluded spots to pray. If it was good enough for Jesus...

Despite a stretched single income when our children were young we travelled a lot in Northern Ontario where I served an active urban congregation. We car-camped when they were quite young and canoe-tripped into some surprisingly remote spots (in retrospect) when they got a bit older. We also did VW Vanagon trips to Atlantic Canada twice, camping all the way. I'm delighted that all three, now in their thirties, have fond memories of those forays and love the natural world themselves. The two with children make getting outside a regular part of family life.

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There are times when I teeter on despair for the damage we are doing to Planet Earth -- Turtle Island to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. Yet I want a world in which our grandchildren will thrive and be able to delight in the beauty of all that God has made.

When our daughter Jocelyn was a child she created the image above of a happy, female figure in the background of a planet. We figured that this was a feminine Creator smiling upon the goodness of Creation. Joc is the mother of an infant daughter herself now and we pray that we will all make the decisions as a species which will allow the planet and this wee bright soul to flourish.

Oh yes. Ruth and I will be out on a river in our canoe today. Maybe we'll see some turtles. You're never too old for wonder as people of the Creator.

Happy Earth Day/Sunday!

Here is the link to today's Groundling blog which also has an Earth Day theme

3 Let there be greening, birth from the burning,
  water that blesses and air that is sweet,
 health in God's garden, hope in God's children,
  regeneration that peace will complete.

4 God of all living, God of all loving,
  God of the seedling, the snow and the sun,
 teach us, deflect us, Christ reconnect us,
  using us gently and making us one.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

"Sprinter" is Dead. Hallelujah!

This was one of the first days of 2018 when we weren't pretending it was Spring when it was actually Sprinter. We spent lots of time outside, including chinwags with neighbours who are all recovering from the trauma of last weekend's snow/ice pellet/freezing rain storm.

Today's warmth was a blessing from the Creator, so why not click on my Groundling blog link to read about the Blessing from the Woods.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Boy on the Beach & Our Reponse

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In the Fall of 2015 I was approached by a member of the Bridge St UC, the congregation which I served until retirement. He was a retired military man, a physician who had also been a hospital administrator. A highly capable individual, he is also a compassionate Christian. As with so many of us he had been shaken by the heart-wrenching photos of "the boy on the beach," the young Syrian boy who drowned along with other members of his family as they attempted to escape to Greece. We had learned by that point that the boy had a name, Alan Kurdi.  My parishioner wanted to know if I would support efforts to sponsor a Syrian refugee family. I know that if Ian was behind this it would happen -- he's that kind of person.

I said yes and this sponsorship did happen, by the grace of God, along with the remarkable work of a coalition of church and community people in Belleville. Ours was a family of five, which arrived as the Canadian government sponsorship program was ramping up. In the end, more than 25,000 Syrian refugees came to Canada and the Belleville group which included Bridge St ended up sponsoring 23 members of the same family. It was one of the most satisfying and inspiring initiatives of my nearly four decades of pastoral ministry.

 The Boy on the Beach, by Tima Kurdi.

There is a new book called The Boy on the Beach by Tima Kurdi, Alan's aunt, as well as of his brother Ghalib. Tima lives in Canada and heads the Kurdi Foundation which provides nutritious meals, clothing, and medicine to youth in refugee camps in honour of her nephews. The Toronto Star offered this excerpt from the book and it is a reminder of the terrible family tragedy which sparked the compassion of a nation.

We must remember that the crisis of migrants and refugees in precarious circumstances continues and that we are able to live the love of Christ is practical ways.