Friday, November 30, 2018

The Grinch and General Motors

 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, 
for we are members of one another. 
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 
and do not make room for the devil. 
Thieves must give up stealing; 
rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, 
so as to have something to share with the needy.

 Ephesians 4:25-28

I grew up just north of Oshawa, Ontario, so a lot of people I knew worked at General Motors. It's been suggested that 40,000 worked there in its heyday and I imagine that my youth corresponded with that era. Many of my peers couldn't imagine wasting time with college or university when a high-paying job was just down the road and some wangled employment as high school drop-outs. Most of them have been living off decent pensions for a while now. I returned to the area for a decade when I served a congregation in Bowmanville, just down the road from Oshawa, and lots of locals worked for GM.

The work force has dwindled to 2,500 over the decades, thanks to out-sourcing parts, robots, and NAFTA. When the company almost went under a decade ago there were concessions on wages and benefits. Still, these were good jobs and the announcement this week that GM will close down its Oshawa plant in a year is a harsh blow to those who work there and the local economy. It's likely that 15,000 people derived their livelihoods in GM related work, not to mention the thousands whose businesses were buoyed by their spending. 

 GM Oshawa

What a reminder that corporations may have a form of personhood under the law, but they don't have hearts. That may sound harsh, and GM did a lot of good through the years in charitable projects and sponsorships. But in the end it all comes down to profits. This global company claims that it must retool for the future of electric and autonomous vehicles, and I do like that notion. Change is coming in our world and fossil fuel powered vehicles are likely fossils themselves. Just a few days ago we passed three tractor trailer loads of Tesla electric vehicles on the 401 and there are plenty of companies ready to grab a chunk of the market. China's Nio claims its electric vehicles are better than Tesla's and cost much less. 

Should we be angry at GM for it's Grinch-like announcement? Yes, and no. Unlike the Dr. Seuss character this corporation's heart is not likely to expand with compassion because its not in the compassion business. GM builds vehicles as inexpensively as possible to maximize returns for shareholders. At the same time these plant workers are human beings who seek meaningful employment to live worthwhile lives. It's up to our society and governments to require ethical behaviour from employers, not only in terms of working conditions but in the social contract with those who create their wealth. If a corporation has the status of a person under the law, surely we don't want it to be a sociopath. 


Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale Revisited

Embedded video

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light. 

When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her – freedom, prison or death.

With The Testaments, the wait is over.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story 15 years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.
Coming September 2019

Image result for the handmaid's book

Our younger daughter, Emily, lives and works in Toronto and recently she saw a crew filming an episode of what is likely Season Three of The Handmaid's Tale. I've written about trying to keep up with all the scripture references and religious allusions in Season Two of the stark series. I resorted to entering them on my phone notes page as we watched, sometimes aware of the quote while frantically doing a search for others. 

 Image result for the handmaid's tale season 3 toronto filming

Margaret Atwood is writing the sequel now, with the working title The Testaments, which certainly continues the chilling theme of the twisted and tortured abuse of scripture. We'll have to wait, but I can only hope that our Canadian icon will include The Handmaid's Christmas Trees, now on display at the dystopian White House. God help us all.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Extraordinary Harry L Smith

 Image result for harry leslie smith
 Harry L Smith visiting a refugee camp

A darling of social media died last night after a brief battle with pneumonia. For a change Harry Leslie Smith deserved to have a broad following, with a quarter of a million people around the world following him on Twitter. Harry was 95, so he had an excellent run in this life and he was mentally sharp to the end.

Harry's story was both ordinary and fascinating. He grew up in poverty in the York region of Great Britain and at the age of seven he was supporting his family. As a serviceman in WWII he saw first hand the desperation of refugees displaced by conflict. He met his wife Friede in Germany but they realized that they needed to leave England because of the antipathy toward "the enemy." So the guy with the generic British name emigrated to Canada with his bride and began a plain Scarborough life. They prospered in a middle class way, buying a home, raising three kids, retiring comfortably. Friede died almost twenty years ago and Harry began writing books. He wasn't so ordinary after all, offering heartfelt, insightful commentary on his own good fortune, the grim realities of poverty, the challenges for younger people today,  and the need for compassion toward the plight of others. He was a big supporter of the Canadian initiative to bring refugees from Syria to this country for a new life. 

 Harry Leslie Smith at his wedding to Friede.
Harry and Friede

Even though Harry spent a good part of his life in this country he had a huge fan base in his native Britain. Many Brits figured he still lived there. In his last years Harry resided here in Belleville and died here. I regret not inviting him to speak to the dedicated team of volunteers from a number of faith groups which brought a passel of Syrians to this town. 

Thanks Harry, for your ordinary, extraordinary life.The world is a better place because of you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

God and Giving Tuesday

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 NRSV

 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, 
if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  
 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,  
and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” 
 and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  
 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2:14-17 NRSV

Image result for giving tuesday

This is Giving Tuesday, dontcha know. It is intended as a response to the weekend of consumerism which begins with Black Friday and concludes with Cyber Monday, as though it could be the activated charcoal antidote to the poison of spend, spend spend. Everyone is aware of Black Friday while Giving Tuesday would probably draw lots of blank expressions. What a concept -- generosity rather than acquisitiveness. Supposedly that's what Thanksgiving is supposed to be but sadly that concept is fading like the Cheshire Cat.

Our son, who is 36, reminisced after his grandmother's death about a conversation they'd had when he was young. She had grown up in a household we might consider poor today. Her father used a horse and wagon to deliver bread for a modest wage. Still, he would sit the family around the table at the end of the week and count out his pay, including the tithe for God's work. This was so instilled in her that she was always generous herself, although ways which didn't draw attention to herself. I grew up in a home where I was taught about the church envelope and the importance of generosity to others. We had similar conversations with our own children.

Giving takes many forms and through the years of ministry I was very impressed by the gifts of time, talent, and money which made such a difference within congregations and in the broader community. We know that you don't have to be religious to be generous yet every major religion identifies  generosity as an imperative of faith. If you don't give you just aren't paying attention to God's desire for shalom in this world. 

Perhaps we can all do a "giving inventory" today, assessing our commitment to generosity and what we might do. But don't you figure that for Christians every day is giving day?

Monday, November 26, 2018

Violence Against Women in the Light of Day

 Artwork for the UN Women interactive website

I'm fairly certain that there was an event marking the Elimination of Violence against Women's Day in Belleville yesterday but I can't find a news report about it anywhere. I'm not sure what that says about the perceived importance of this day which marks the launch of 16 days of activism that will conclude on 10 December 2018, International Human Rights Day. 

The truth is that violence against women happens daily. Sports stars are charged with abuse and often cut from their teams, only to resurface elsewhere. Supposedly religion-based terrorists groups such as Boko Haram kidnap school girls whom they use as sex slaves.

Violence against women can happen next door and in the next pew (metaphorically speaking)  as well, and often in situations which might shock us. A memory from the past surfaced yesterday which I hadn't recalled in at least twenty years. I was a little higher profile as a United Church minister concerned about these issues after a memorial service immediately following the Montreal Massacre of college women in 1989. I got a phone call from an agency which was trying to protect a woman who was under threat from an abusive husband. She was a pharmacist with a good position she wanted to maintain. Her partner controlled their bank accounts and the agency was wondering if our congregation could help with funds to get her an apartment which would be unknown to the husband. Even though there was a restraining order he didn't observe it, but the police were trying to help with her protection. It was all rather bewildering that this could happen to a professional woman whose circumstances were known to law enforcement. In hindsight it showed my naivete about the insidious nature of violence against women.
Image result for nicole kidman big little lies

Recently we watched the first season of the excellent series called Big Little Lies. Nicole Kidman is a lawyer whose husband has a mercurial temper and wants her at home with their children. From the outside their relationship seems loving and they are obviously financially prosperous. There are the repeated promises that he will deal with his "demons" and he plies her with gifts, but it becomes obvious that he will not change. Kidman won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for this role, and it is important that she received the recognition for doing a fine job of addressing a subject that was the deep, dark "domestic" secret for too long. 

I figure every congregation should find ways to let congregants know that there is support for those who may feel desperate and alone in similar situations. It made a difference in the congregation I served while Ruth, my wife, worked as a counselor in a shelter for women and children leaving abusive relationships. She was approached a number of times by women who were addressing this reality in their own lives or with family members. Violence against women can't be kept a secret anymore. 


Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sanctuary & the Reign of Christ


Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary,
 pure and holy, tried and true 
And with thanksgiving,
 I'll be a living, sanctuary, oh for you
More Voices 18 


a place of refuge or safety.

"people automatically sought a sanctuary in time of trouble"
synonyms:refuge, haven, harbor, port in a storm, oasis, shelter, retreat, hideaway

 On this Reign of Christ Sunday a small congregation in the Hague, Netherlands, will gather to worship. This might sound like a yawner (sorry folks) but the worship at Bethel  has garnered international attention because of a unique situation. For the past four weeks the congregation has been conducting round-the-clock religious services to protect an Armenian refugee family from deportation. 

By law, police officers in The Netherlands are not allowed to enter places of worship during religious services. So, 300 clergy from around the country have volunteered to "tag team"  presiding at services to prevent officials from arresting the Tamrazyan family, who have been in The Netherlands for nine years. “By giving hospitality to this family, we could give them time and place to [demonstrate] to the secretary of state the … urgency of their situation,” Theo Hettema, chairman of the General Council of Protestant Ministers says.


The situation is complicated, as immigration problems often are, but the decision to provide sanctuary for this family gives time for an appeal. As temporarily newsworthy as this might be there is a strong tradition of providing sanctuary in places of worship which can be found in the Hebrew scriptures and down through the centuries. From the fourth to the seventeenth century English law protected fugitives who found sanctuary in churches.

 Several United Churches have provided a haven for vulnerable individuals and families convinced that return to their homelands will put them in peril. From 2006 to 2008 a Winnipeg UCC housed a Pakistani family which was eventually granted the right to stay to Canada. It required an immense amount of effort on the part of volunteers from several congregations and the broader community.

It fascinates me that many essentially secular jurisdictions still have laws or traditions which allow for sanctuary and that police respect the sanctity of places of worship. We hear the horror stories of people being snatched and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the supposedly Christian United States. On this American Thanksgiving weekend an immigrant who sought refuge from deportation in a North Carolina church, staying there for 11 months, was arrested after arriving at an appointment with immigration officials.

We can pray on this day which celebrates the upside down reign of the Servant King that congregations such as Bethel will have both the discernment and stamina to live by their faith convictions.

What do you think about this notion of sanctuary? Do you applaud the Dutch congregation, or are you dubious? 

 Ice said Oliver-Bruno had been detained at a Raleigh-area immigration office.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Father Charles Brandt, Hermit and Saint

Father Charles Brandt at his hermitage

Father Charles Brand on the steps of his hermitage overlooking the Oyster River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo by Grant Callegari for Hakai Magazine

During my ministry at Bridge St. United Church an affable journalism student named James Wood attended worship. He did an exceptional photo-journalism piece on our meal ministries. When he graduated he found work in Alberta and has since moved on to Vancouver Island and the Campbell River area.

We've stayed in touch and I mentioned that Father Charles Brandt, the first Roman Catholic priest  in Canada to be ordained a hermit during the 20th century, lives on the nearby Oyster River. I visited Father Brandt nearly 25 years ago after seeing an episode of the venerable CBC Man Alive series which featured him. Father Brandt was an environmental activist, a contemplative, a fly fisherman, and a restorer of precious books. 

Father Charles in his bookbinding laboratory

 Brandt, 95, continues to breathe new life into old books in his bookbinding laboratory at his hermitage. Photo by Grant Callegari for Hakai Magazine

His story fascinated me so I contacted him before a church committee trip to Vancouver Island and arranged a visit which had a lasting impact. He had a small chapel within his hermitage home but the road in has often been a "prayer walk" for members of nearby parishes while the river itself is a flowing, singing place of contemplative worship.

Well, James found Father Brandt, who is now 96 and still living in his rugged little hermitage pn 27 acres overlooking the river. James discovered that Brandt is planning to hand over his land to the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) when he dies, which will be a wonderful legacy. Here is an excerpt from James' article:

[Brandt] believed that preserving the land would be one small way to give back the “dignity of the earth”.

“We’ve stripped off all the timber, all the way, miles up the Oyster River, and we’ve polluted our rivers, atmosphere, so I have to give back the dignity to the earth,” said Brandt.

“It’s not just people, but it’s the earth. I would say, the human community and the natural world has to go into the future as a single sacred community. Not two communities, but a single sacred community. The human community and the natural world, we have to work together as a unit, not separately.”

Thanks, James, for honouring someone I consider an unsung "saint" in the tradition of Thomas Merton and the early Celtic hermits who lived in the wild places. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Surviving Black Friday

 Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, 
what you will eat or what you will drink,
 or about your body, what you will wear. 
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 
  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
 and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 

Matthew 6

I hate shopping malls. Hate 'em. I go from time to time because there are stores which I like to frequent, infrequently, in the flesh, but I find the experience soul-destroying. So what did I do this morning? I went to the mall with my beloved ON BLACK FRIDAY! We were in and out quickly and we did score a few timely deals which addressed some of our Christmas shopping. I did feel vaguely ill in the "I buy, therefore I am" press of people. Mind you, no one was trampling the competition or any of the other nonsense we used to witness across the border before the phenomenon of the American Thanksgiving weekend sales frenzy migrated northward. 

What is the antidote for this strange compulsion to have more stuff? We're told that Canadians have a dangerously high level of personal debt yet we are enthused about piling on more, it would seem.

The "sale" offered by a nature trail in Newfoundland is a clever response to consumerism. There is even a guarantee of sorts with a 100% chance of a positive mood change brought about by spending time in the natural world. 

The past couple of days we spent time outside despite the cold. I did some work around our daughter and son-in-law's place on Wednesday as my nose dripped with impunity. I enjoyed several hours in the cold crisp air. On the drive home we were surprised to see a rainbow, even though there was no precipitation. As we turned eastward toward home we witnessed what seemed to be an enormous moon rise above the horizon. In the rear-view mirror the brilliant red sun set.

This was the best "deal" we could possibly get, and I thank God for it. 

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving Breathing Lessons

 Breathing is good for wellness.

 Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Edwin Hatch

Don't give up
'Cause you have friends
Don't give up
You're not beaten yet
Don't give up
I know you can make it good.
Peter Gabriel 
Many Americans are struggling to express gratitude on this, their celebration of Thanksgiving. The President of the United States posted a self-serving sentiment this morning on Twitter with no sense of the irony of doing so on a day which expresses gratitude that the first European settlers survived because they were welcomed and aided by Aboriginal peoples. A couple of days ago he admitted that the Saudis may have brutally murdered a resident of the United States, but what are ya gonna do? The States needs Saudi oil and they buy lots of US armaments.

If those who are worn down by the mean-spirited tone of the nation claim that they're having trouble breathing we Canadians would understand. It seems that justice and mercy are on life support with our neighbours to the South and we're seeing signs of it here. The political tone is shifting to grievance rather than gratitude and generosity.

It's interesting that a couple of Thanksgiving reflections for the day by American Christians I respect use the imagery of breathing. 

Father Greg Boyle has walked alongside gang members in Los Angeles, described as the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. On Twitter this morning he offered an antidote to He Who Shall Not be Named saying "Today may we choose to ventilate the world with tenderness and a thankful spirit. Best wishes and Happy Thanksgiving."

Ventilate. I like it. 

 Then Parker Palmer, the Quaker Yoda, asked:

 And where does generosity come from? Perhaps from another life-giving virtue, the one called gratitude. When I take the time to breathe in my life and breathe out my gratitude for the gifts I’ve been given, only one question arises: “How can I keep these gifts alive?”

So we choose to breathe as the followers of Jesus, the Holy One who appeared to breathe his last on the cross only to be raised to new life. We don't give up as people of faith, do we?

"So when Jesus shows up at that table on the evening of the empty tomb in the room where a feast had become a funeral, a new table is set. It’s a table of gratitude – the gifts of God for the people of God – with the power to drive out fear.”

Grateful -- Diana Butler Bass 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Children's Day & the Millstone

 Image result for world children's day 2018

 People were bringing even infants to him that [Jesus] might touch them; 
and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it.  
 But Jesus called for them and said, 
“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; 
for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 
 Truly I tell you, 
whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

                            Luke 18:15-17 

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 

                            Matthew 18:6

 Yesterday was World Toilet Day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and International Children's Day. How can we possibly keep up? Sometimes these special days, weeks and months can seem, well, a bit much, don't you think? I laughed out loud a couple of years ago when comedian Mary Walsh noted that women get a day while turnips get a whole week. 

Actually, all three of yesterday's causes are very important and deserve our attention. It is Children's Day which really grabs me because here in wealthy Ontario the Regressive Conservative government announced that it was eliminating the position of Child Advocate. 

Really Premier Ford? I can't tell you how much this disgusts me. While cronies receive jobs paying hundreds of thousands of dollars and a spiteful firing could cost us half a million in severance, the office which gives a voice to the vulnerable and voiceless is eliminated as a supposed cost-saving measure. 

While the office of the Child Advocate works on behalf of individuals who need someone in their corner, there are also broader initiatives such as the collaborative Feathers of Hope for First Nations kids. We are aware that there is an exponentially higher incidence of self-abuse and suicide for Native children, particularly in the North, and Feathers of Hope has been developed to respond.

Jesus sure seemed to hold children in high regard even though their personhood was considered less than that of adults in his culture. In the gospels he cautions those around him that if they impede the development and safety of children they would be better off dead. How's that for a hard-hitting observation? 

Perhaps Ford and Vic Fedeli and the rest of the cabinet should stop grinning and do some bible study. I'd be willing to offer one, but I won't hold my breath for the call. 


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Waging Peace

 Image result for blessed are the peacemakers

Earlier this week The Sunday Edition on CBC radio host Michael Enright interviewed a guest named Paul Rogers who has worked in the field of international security, arms control and political violence for more than 30 years and is Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in Great Britain. Apparently Enright and Rogers have spoken often over the past quarter century but usually in response to conflict. 

This time they deliberately addressed peace and Rogers was confident that the 21st century is a more peaceful period than much of the 20th, which is good news. The post-WWII era has been a time of relative peace, of treaties and multilateral bodies devoted to ensuring that the worst human tendencies to inflict death and destruction on a massive scale are held at least partially in check.
He did express concern that neither Trump nor Putin are peace-makers by nature. He see the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal as a mistake but pointed out that the other nations involved have all remained in the framework. 

Rogers was also confident that working toward peace rather than engaging in war has better outcomes in virtually every circumstance. War is costlier by nearly every measurement. He noted as well that even when nations are engaged in conflict they are often in conversation with the enemy to bring about resolution. Often this isn't revealed until after the conflict has ceased.

Enright wondered why nations don't pursue peace, if this is the case. War is more immediate and appears to demonstrate strength. Rogers observed that not only did World War I kill millions in the field of battle, millions of civilians died as well. And the influenza pandemic which followed killed 50 million more, world-wide, and may have been so virulent because of conditions created by the war.

As I listened I was encouraged. War is costly and destructive and it is peace that makes sense. Militarism breeds militarism. I could hear Jesus' words "blessed are the peacemakers" as the unspoken backdrop for the discussion. Even though religions have often been complicit in wars or have incited believers to violence, Jesus encouraged his followers to "wage peace."

We really should pay attention, don't you figure?  Maybe listen to this episode on the Peace Sunday of Advent?

Monday, November 19, 2018

No Heresy Here, We're UCC

 Image result for marc chagall crucifixion paintings 
 Yellow Crucifixion -- Marc Chagall

By becoming flesh in Jesus,

   God makes all things new.

In Jesus’ life, teaching, and self-offering,

   God empowers us to live in love.

In Jesus’ crucifixion,

   God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.

In Jesus’ resurrection,

   God overcomes death.

Nothing separates us from the love of God.

The Risen Christ lives today,

   present to us and the source of our hope.

In response to who Jesus was

   and to all he did and taught,

   to his life, death, and resurrection,

   and to his continuing presence with us through the Spirit,

we celebrate him as

   the Word made flesh,

   the one in whom God and humanity are perfectly joined,

   the transformation of our lives,

the Christ.

A Song of Faith -- United Church of Canada

heretic: a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma

I've been wrestling with whether to weigh in on a recent decision by the United Church regarding one of the denomination's clergy who doesn't believe in God. It regards Gretta Vosper, a minister who has been open about her non-theistic convictions, even as she has served a United Church congregation. A review of her eligibility for ministry in what was Toronto Conference sputtered along and has now been abandoned. 

The Rev. Vosper (a strange honorific for a non-theist) has been quite skilled in drawing attention to herself through the years and seems to have enjoyed describing this as a heresy trial. It wasn't a trial, and I don't recall any suggestions that Gretta to be burned at the stake. In fact, I was involved in more than one wider church meeting where those who disagreed with her views emphatically nonetheless encouraged caution and compassion in responding to her views. But she may be a heretic, at least by the definition above. 

I've made no secret that I feel she should "go with God" or whatever the substitute might be because the United Church is still a Christian denomination in both creed and less formal affirmation. In his statement of November 8th our Moderator Richard Bott says:

Grace and peace to you, in the name of Jesus Christ.

As you may have heard, Toronto Conference, the Rev. Gretta Vosper, and West Hill United Church have reached a settlement on the issues between them. I am thankful for all of the work that has been done by these groups to find resolution...
In a letter to the church in 2016, my predecessor, the Very Rev. Jordan Cantwell, reminded us that “at the heart of the concerns being raised is a tension between two core values, both of which are central to our identity as The United Church. The first is our faith in God. The second is our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.” The dance between these core values, how they interact with and inform each other, is one that we continue to explore as followers of Jesus and children of the Creator.

So we are a Christian church, it would seem, it's just that our desire to be inclusive gives a pass to those who don't perceive Christ as being at the core of our inclusivity. It would appear that we are "dancing" like Elaine in the old Seinfeld series, all elbows and spasms. To wildly switch metaphors, I wonder whether we've become the Doughnut Church of Canada with an array of worthwhile passions and issues around the circle with no one at the centre. Could it be that we've created a graven image called inclusivity? 
 Image result for elaine seinfeld dancing

I have talked to three younger United Church ministers since this decision, if 45 and younger can be considered young (in the UCC they are virtual infants.) All are baffled , although not surprised. Another reflects in her blog that she left another denomination, drawn by the inclusivity of the United Church, but always assumed that she was entering Christian ministry. The same is true of a former Roman Catholic priest who is now a United Church minister

Ah well. I suppose that as a "pastor out to pasture" my opinion doesn't count for anything any more, although whose does? Maybe we should ask Jesus?