Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Heckling in Christ's Name?

Image result for pastor heckles sessions
heckle --
past tense: heckled
interrupt (a public speaker) with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse.
  1. "he was booed and heckled when he tried to address the demonstrators"
    synonyms:jeer, taunt, jibe at, shout down, boo, hiss, harass;
    informalgive someone a hard time
    "he was heckled by the drunk in the back of the room"
This has been a bleak couple of weeks in the United States with murderous attacks on minorities and a white supremacist threatening political figures and their supporters. Along with this the current administration has responded to a rag-tag caravan of desperate people from Central America as though it was an advancing army, mobilizing the military and spreading false information about who is part of this group of a few thousand.

In the midst of this came word of a United Methodist pastor who challenged Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a speech on religious freedom. Most reports suggest that Sessions was "heckled" by Pastor Will Green, followed then by Baptist Pastor Darrell Hamilton. There was nothing derisive or abusive about what they did, unless quoting Jesus and speaking prophetically could be categorized as heckling. Oddly, it was Green who was "heckled" by others in the audience. Most reports fail to name the pastors nor do they identify the powerful words from Matthew 25:

"I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.
I was naked and you did not clothe me,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me...
I was in prison and you did not visit me,"
Green went on to say "Brother Jeff, as a fellow United Methodist, I call upon you to repent, to care for those in need. To remember that when you do not care for others, you are wounding the body of Christ."

Both men were escorted out by security guards -- so much for religious liberty. Sessions responded by describing this as an attack and claiming that the bible didn't have anything to say about secular states defending their immigration policies. Curiously, Sessions had quoted the bible to support the harsh approach the States has taken only a few months before. He misused a verse from Romans 13, but apparently he has the freedom to cherry pick bible verses.

I admire these pastors for having the courage to challenge what they consider unethical and unlawful behaviour as citizens who are also Christians. It seems that evangelical Christianity has been coopted by empire in the United States and have lost any sense of providing a critique of the immorality of the current regime at every level.

What do you think about what they did? Too impolite and un-Canadian? Or was it prophetic?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Cancer Coaches

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Sooner or later all of us will be affected by cancer. Even if we aren't diagnosed personally someone we love or care for will be. Ruth, my wife, lost a step-sister who was also one of her closest friends to a rare form of cancer and a brother is addressing this disease as well. Dear friends have been side-swiped by cancer in the prime of life. Certainly in ministry cancer was a  constant reality for folk in congregations and I had too many funerals of those I regarded highly who were taken by many different forms of this illness.

The positive news is that cancer treatment has taken tremendous steps forward in the nearly forty years since I was ordained. Therapies are no longer worse than the disease, in most cases, and outcomes are far more hopeful. Still, the settings for treatment can be daunting, and the way information is shared is often clinical. Even when family and friends are supportive there can be the sense that they aren't as informed as they want to be and they are often struggling as well.

I heard an interesting CBC radio show White Coat Black Art  piece on the development of Cancer Coach programs to walk alongside individuals dealing with cancer.

Here is a description from the website of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation:

How Cancer Coaching Works
You will be paired with a personal Cancer Coach (healthcare professional with background in oncology), who you can connect with throughout your cancer journey. Your Cancer Coach will work with you to identify what’s most important to you in your care. Your Coach will be there along the way to provide support, education, practical guidance and navigation assistance, to help you meet your health and wellness goals and improve your quality of life. Your Cancer Coach will also work with you to anticipate and identify barriers to meeting your goals and brainstorm solutions that work for you.

Apparently the presence of a cancer coach in a patient's life helps to address anxiety, and reduce the number of visits to medical professionals.

This sounds like an excellent initiative to me, especially for those who may not have other support systems, but even with them. So often congregations provide a circle of love and prayer and practical support for those with cancer and other illnesses. Still, every aspect of returning a person to health or helping him or her leave this life in peace matters.


Monday, October 29, 2018

Putting Witches in Their Places

Image result for margaret hamilton flying monkeys
Holy flying monkeys! The headline or lede has been everywhere in the Ontario media in recent days. A woman in her twenties has been charged with witchcraft, as well as fraud. Who knew that the crime of witchcraft still existed anywhere in Canada? It appears that she is a fraudster who scammed  (bewitched?) a guy in his 60's out of $600,000, promising to break the spell of evil spirits in his life. While the fraud and theft is real it appears that she was actually just impersonating a witch.

This momentary fascination will pass but it got me thinking about witches as we approach All Hallows Eve. Kids aren't as enamoured of witches as they were but there will probably still be some naughty witches at parties this year.

Christianity hasn't been friendly to witches through history. There are only a few references to witches in the Older Testament but even they aren't that accurate. There isn't a Hebrew word for witch and these were sorcerers and what we might call psychics. The New Testament has even slimmer pickin's. 

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Witchcraft took on infamy during a period in European and American history where women were tried and executed for crimes which had more to do with male control and hysteria than any actual spiritual hocus pocus. Ruth, my spouse, has a relative who was a prosecutor in the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century, which she doesn't exactly brag about.The outcome was often brutal.

Witches are few and far between, yet we are living in a disturbingly regressive moment when white males in the United States seem intent of controlling women's reproductive processes and putting them in their place. Hmm. Perhaps it is the warlocks who need to be put in their places.

 A Lament for Witches

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sharing the Tree of Life

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Tree of Life -- Gustav Klimt

When we lived in Halifax the rental home which was our first abode was close to both of the city's synagogues, one Reformed and the other Orthodox. One Saturday morning we were out and about and as we passed them we were startled to see guards at the front entrances while people gathered for worship. Was this necessary? Obviously the congregations felt that it was, and may have taken this step because of past experiences.

When was the last time you saw security at the door of a church in Canada? Sadly, it does happen in gun-crazy America, and the churches of many Black congregations now take extra precautions because of murderous attacks.

Too often there is a great divide between Christians congregations who worship a Jew who is recognized as the Christ and the far fewer Jewish congregations of our countries. In Christian churches we may read from the beautiful gospel of John which has been used through the centuries to justify anti-Jewish hatred. Recently Protestants celebrated Martin Luther who infamously wrote an essay called "The Jews and Their Lies." Many of us have attended a concert of Bach's St. John Passion which continues to be the source of controversy, although through the centuries Jews, including Felix Mendelsohn, were proponents of Bach's music. We share the "tree of life" yet Christianity has a history of anti-Jewish sentiment and violence.

All this brings us to the horrific incident at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, yesterday. Yet another white gunman with an assault rifle stormed the Tree of Life synagogue and murdered eleven worshippers and injured others, as well as several police officers who responded. As is often the case, the perpetrator was taken alive -- have you noticed how often white mass murderers survive police response? This was clearly a hate crime by a man who sent the signal he was about to kill others on a social media site used by racists. It is sickening.

Today Jewish places of worship will be guarded by police across Canada on the request of their leaders. Vancouver and St. John's may be a long way from Pittsburgh, but anti-Jewish sentiment has no boundaries and caution will be exercised.

I hope that Christian congregations around the world will offer up prayers of solidarity and even repentance today with our Jewish sisters and brothers.

Here is the Twitter statement by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in  response to yesterday's atrocity:

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Loving Our Neighbours

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
 “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  
 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind;
and your neighbour as yourself.” 
 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,
and fell into the hands of robbers...

Luke 10

It seems these days that suspicion, hatred, and racism flow out of the United States like raw sewage, and it starts at the top. It's important to remember that the majority of Americans want to live in harmony and that there are many stories from both the present and past which are examples of compassion and generosity of spirit, if we pay attention.

I read recently about a Good Samaritan (you know the story) named Bob Fletcher, a former California agriculture inspector who, ignoring the resentment of neighbours, quit his job in the middle of World War II to manage the fruit farms of Japanese families forced to live in internment camps. Bob died in 2013 at the age of 101 but I only learned of his kindness now. I'll let others tell his story:
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in February 1942 that made the relocation possible by declaring certain parts of the West to be military zones, Al Tsukamoto, whose parents arrived in the United States in 1905, approached Mr. Fletcher with a business proposal: would he be willing to manage the farms of two family friends of Mr. Tsukamoto’s, one of whom was elderly, and to pay the taxes and mortgages while they were away? In return, he could keep all the profits. Mr. Fletcher and Mr. Tsukamoto had not been close, and Mr. Fletcher had no experience growing the farmers’ specialty, flame tokay grapes, but he accepted the offer and soon quit his job.
For the next three years he worked a total of 90 acres on three farms — he had also decided to run Mr. Tsukamoto’s farm. He worked 18-hour days and lived in the bunkhouse Mr. Tsukamoto had reserved for migrant workers. He paid the bills of all three families — the Tsukamotos, the Okamotos and the Nittas. He kept only half of the profits.
Many Japanese-American families lost property while they were in the camps because they could not pay their bills. Most in the Florin area moved elsewhere after the war.

When the Tsukamotos returned in 1945, they found that Mr. Fletcher had left them money in the bank and that his new wife, Teresa, had cleaned the Tsukamotos’ house in preparation for their return. She had chosen to join her husband in the bunkhouse instead of accepting the Tsukamotos’ offer to live in the family’s house. “Teresa’s response was, ‘It’s the Tsukamotos’ house,’ ” recalled Marielle Tsukamoto, who was 5 when she and her family were sent to the Jerome center.

Image result for japanese internment canada

Most of the interned Japanese Americans and Canadians who returned to their communities after the war discovered that everything they had worked for was gone and they were forced to start again from scratch. This is such a heartening story. I'm glad Mr. Fletcher didn't live to witness another era of xenophobia, but I'm grateful for his courage to go against the tide of his time to love his neighbours.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Honouring Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard

Last week I noticed that it was the twentieth anniversary of death of a 21-year-old college student in Wyoming. Matthew Shepard, was a dimunitive 5'2" tall and from all accounts a gentle soul. He was in a bar when he was lured into a pick-up truck by two other young men. Shepard was gay, they were homophobic. They took him outside of town on a cold night, pistol-whipped him until his face was unrecognizable, and tied him to a fence. Matthew Shephard was found by a passing cyclist and taken to hospital, barely alive after spending 18 hours exposed to the elements. He died of his injuries and his two attackers were convicted of his murder. They told a number of people that hatred of Shephard's sexual orientation was motivation for their brutal attack, although they denied this during the trial.

In 2009 the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard Act which is hate crime legislation. There was a film and books and songs about Shephard's murder and legacy and his mother became a spokesperson about LGBTQ rights.

I was interested to see this week that today Matthew Shepard's ashes will be interred at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington DC. His parents appreciate this honour, although they aren't comfortable with any notion of sainthood for their son.

 All of us can ponder the legacy of a young man who died tragically for no other reason than being gay. We need to recognize that LGBTQ persons regularly feel ostracized and mistreated in our more accepting culture, and experience violence. In other parts of the world being LGBTQ is illegal, and too often results in brutality and death. So-called Christian groups in America financially support repressive laws in countries such as Uganda and Franklin Graham has praised Vladimir Putin in Russia because of anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Today is an appropriate day to remember Matthew Shepard and pray for change around the globe.

Note: The 4,000 seat cathedral was filled for the memorial service, a powerful tribute.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

God in the Shadows Revisited

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Not long ago it occurred to me that I hadn't seen two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank in a film for a while. Where did she go? Well, I heard an interview with Swank a couple of days ago on the CBC radio program Q and discovered that she had taken three years away from acting to be the principle caregiver for her father, who underwent a lung transplant. 

She is in a new movie called What They Had about a family dealing with the dementia of a parent. The story follows Swank’s character, who has to travel back home to help take care of her mother whose Alzheimer’s takes a turn for the worse after an incident on Christmas Eve.
Image result for what they had movie poster

This was a timely reminder of the multi-faceted challenges of dementia, which most families struggle to address together. And that our society is more and more willing to bring "cognitive frailty" out of the shadows.

Today I will begin a series at Trenton United Church which we are calling God in the Shadows: Dementia and the Spiritual Life. In some respects it is a reprise of a similar series which we offered at Bridge St UC before my retirement, although there will be some significant changes this time around.

This is personal for me, as many of you know. My mother, Margaret, nearly 93, appears to be in the final days of her life. She has been dealing with Parkinson's related dementia for the past three years or more. She has a sister who has Alzheimer's, and while she is still physically spry her cognitive frailty is very evident.

The series was well attended at Bridge St and apparently there are about twenty people signed up for the Trenton sessions. It's understandable -- who hasn't been affected by dementia in some way?  Three quarters of a million Canadians have dementia in some form and that number is expected to double in the next generation.

It's important that we discuss and address dementia openly, as a practical challenge for individuals, families, and as a society. And as people of faith we must consider what ministry to those with cognitive frailty and their caregivers will look like in the days ahead, and how we can find God in the shadows of these illnesses.


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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Eugene Peterson and The Message

 Eugene Peterson Enters Hospice Care

 The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, 
and the shops they keep are churches. 
They are preoccupied with shopkeeper's concerns - how to keep the customers happy,
 how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, 
how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity
The New Revised Standard Version is my go-to translation of the bible but I have also regularly used The Message by Eugene Peterson in both worship and bible studies. Peterson was an American pastor and theologian who also undertook the prodigious task of creating a contemporary, readable translation of the bible which became The Message over the course of a decade. He did translate from the original languages but used idioms which may not stand the test of time but were timely, nonetheless.

I use the past tense about Peterson because he died yesterday at the age of 85. I hadn't realized that he lived with dementia in recent years and was recently hospitalized with pneumonia, then moved into hospice care. 

Well before The Message I was an admirer of Eugene Peterson. He wrote thoughtful and direct books about the vocation of pastoral ministry which spoke to me. He was critical of the "shopkeeper" mentality for pastors, as though they were running businesses, and he was not a fan of the entertainment version of worship. Books such as Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer are classics about scripture and prayer.

Peterson was convinced that pastors were biblically required to "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy," which is the lengthiest of the ten commandments. He would step away from ministry obligations on Mondays and hike with his wife, which certainly appealed to my sensibilities. As he put it:

Sabbath means "quit." "Stop." "Take a break." The word itself has nothing devout or holy in it. It is a word about time, denoting our nonuse thereof, what we usually call "wasting time."

 Image result for bono eugene peterson

He touched many lives including that of Bono, the U2 front man who engaged in a dialogue with him about scripture and specifically the Psalms

He ended up being criticized by some evangelicals in the States when he supported same-gender marriage, a position which he unfortunately stepped back from when he was attacked

All in all, Eugene Peterson was a faithful, imaginative, Christian disciple and mentor. He will be missed and I am grateful for his witness.

Image result for five smooth stones book cover eugene peterson