Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Women in Robert Lenz's Life

Yesterday was the feast day for Saint Catherine of Siena and an icon created by Robert Lenz was posted to accompany a tweet about Catherine, who lived in the 14th century. She received a call while in her twenties to challenge the status quo of the church, writing the pope and and monarchs. She also felt a divine call to heal in the broader world. 

The artist of this icon --essentially a painting for religious contemptation -- is Franciscan friar Robert Lentz (born 1946), Lenz gives a contemporary feel to to historical religious figures and also for incorporating current social themes and figures into his icon work.

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I'm so intrigued by Lenz's icons, many of which feature women. For several years I had his  image of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich (above)  on the cover of my day book. Lenz zooms in on the hazelnut which Julian speaks of in her Revelations of Divine Love.

“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”

I have a mounted copy of Lenz's icon of Kateri Tekakwitha (below)  a Canadian saint who was originally honoured for her willingness to convert to Christianity, her virginity, and her self-flagellation. Hmm. More recently she has been reclaimed for her love for the Earth and as a female counterpart to St. Francis, who is patron saint of the environment. This works for me, and I love that Lenz shows Kateri amidst the birches with the turtle as representative of the planet -- Turtle Island. 

Many thanks to Lenz for upholding independent, creative, faithful women. He's in his 70s now, but I hope he has plenty of images to share with us yet. 

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Monday, April 29, 2019

Hymns and Poetry Month

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When I was taking guitar and mandolin lessons my excellent teacher asked if I wanted to write a hymn. More than once he suggested I write the lyrics which we could then set to music. I responded that many of the hymns written by clergy seemed overly earnest and far too wordy. They were too often sermons crammed into music rather than spare and lyrical or poetic. There are exceptions of course. Walter Farquharson's collaborations with Ron Klusmeier can be quite poetic, including the lovely Stay With Me Through the Night. 

I figured I should write about hymns as poetry before Poetry Month comes to an end. Hymns and praise songs can be downright disturbing or embarrassing in their theology. Some such as There is a Fountain Filled With Blood are all gore and no poetry. The "me and Jesus" choruses are too often vapid. 

I really appreciate the lyrics of contemporary hymns such as Called By Earth and Sky (More Voices 135) and To Show By Touch and Word (Voices United 427). Ya, they are "earthy" hymns, and I have a bias that way. I'm partial to Come and Find the Quiet Centre (VU 374) as well.

I love oldie goldie's such As Comes the Breath of Spring and Joy to the World and Be Thou My Vision and Come Down O Love Divine for both words and music. Sometimes I enjoy the "heirloom" lyrics of those time-honoured hymns. Wait, wait...I'll add Ride On, Ride On in Majesty.

My all-time favourite? It has to be I Feel the Winds of God Today (VU 625) which may have been written as a tribute to the Celtic saint, Brendan the Voyager. Whenever I sing it I want to cry and set out to sea at the same time.It's been argued that this is the greatest hymn of the English language, and I would readily agree. I love some of the new-to-me World Music hymns as well, but the translation from other languages may undermine the poetry.

What do you think? Can hymn lyrics be poetry, or do they need to be? I should probably read the book pictured above. And do you have poetic favourites?

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Riffing on the Last Supper

Our younger daughter, Emily, was out celebrating her birthday with friends this past week. As they ate dinner they noticed that the wall behind them was, well, rather pious. Emily has been known to be a tad irreverent at times, so an impromptu Last Supper ensued, with homage to Leonardo DaVinci. She shared the photo with family, somewhat concerned that it would offend her minister Dad (not her minister brother?) My response was "You ain't no Jesus, Emsta, but you are remarkable. And you need to evangelized a few more disciples."  It is a rather clever take on Leonardo's late 15th century freeze-frame of Jesus' final meal with his disciples, one of the pivotal paintings of Renaissance art which monks eventually saw fit to defile with a door from the refectory.

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There is a 500-year tradition of artists creating versions of DaVinci's fresco, even though his work did not represent the way first-century Jews celebrated the Passover. The table is wrong, the food is not representative, and even the guest-list is sketchy. Yet this image is imprinted on our brains, even in the versions which venture into the realm of the sacrilegious. Jesus with a selfie-stick? Andy Warhol's version with corporate logos? This was one of the final works by Warhol, created in the 1980s and it was a commission sponsored by a bank in Milan , just across the street from the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie, where Leonardo's original can be seen. 
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I wasn't aware that Warhol was a Roman Catholic, attended Mass, and wrote often about religion in his diaries. According to great art historian and Picasso biographer, John Richardson, Warhol  “took considerable pride in financing his nephew’s studies for the priesthood. And he regularly helped out at a shelter serving meals to the homeless and hungry… The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour…”

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What do you think folks? Is this all shocking irreverence or homage to both artist and Jesus, the Christ? 

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Pulling Out All the Stops for Notre Dame

 Left: a view of the Grand Organ with the famous rose window behind.
 Right: the Notre Dame organist Vincent Dubois on April 7.
The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.

Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.

Johan Sebastian Bach -- professional organist

 I've had a love/hate relationship with pipe organs through the years. They are magnificent musical instruments, designed to create a sense of awe as their sublime music fills the worship space in which they reside. Apparently the infrasound of low bass notes creates a frequency lower than is audible to the human ear and causes peoples to experience a sense of spirituality. 

In four of the six pastoral charges I served through the years there were sizeable pipe organs meant to do just this, and the musicians who played them were, for the most part, up to the challenge. I have vivid memories of worship services and concerts blessed by the enveloping strains of those organs.

And...they were also a pain in the ass, to put it bluntly. They can be temperamental, influenced by temperature and humidity. We replaced an organ in one congregation and the debate over electronic or pipe nearly started a civil war. In another the beast stopped working and we discovered that mice had been munching on the wiring. Another spent $300,000 to restore the impressive musical instrument, yet struggled to find a new organist because so few musicians are training to play pope organs anymore.


Philippe Lefebvre at the console of the Grand Organ in 2013

I suppose it's a case of "can't live with 'em..." I was pleased to read that the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral survived the devastating fire two weeks ago. There had been an article immediately following the fire asking whether a recording made of a recital in January would be the last for this instrument which survived the French Revolution and two world wars.This organ is arguably a global treasure, as is the cathedral. A recent article in the New York Times offers:

The Grand Organ was one of Notre-Dame’s most important objects, with five keyboards and almost 8,000 pipes. It traces its origins to the 1400s, though the current organ is mainly from 1868 and had been added to and improved many times. It was “the most sumptuous example of France’s greatest contribution to the organ world,” wrote John Rockwell in The New York Times in 1992, after the instrument had completed a 30-month, multimillion-dollar restoration.

There are three organists for Notre Dame and they are thrilled that the organ will be cleaned, tuned and perhaps played well before the cathedral is fully restored, although one wonders whether this project will take much longer than the five years suggested. And would playing the organ prematurely be detrimental to the damaged structure? 

We'll find out. To God be the glory...

Friday, April 26, 2019

Measles and Stumbling Blocks

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At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 
   He called a child, whom he put among them, 
  and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, 
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 
 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
“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 18:1-6 

 As a boy, in the early 1960s, I contracted what was called Red Measles at the time, which made children much sicker than German Measles. Actually the two are different viruses and the global outbreak of measles we are hearing about is Rubeola -- Red Measles. I was young but I recall being sequestered in my room with the lights off and blinds down because of the possible effects on my eyesight. It was summer and children from the church Vacation Bible School played in our expansive yard. I peered out from behind the blind, even though this was forbidden. I was diagnosed with myopia a year or so later and it may have been related to the severity of my measles, an illness which can be fatal.

Fortunately a vaccine was developed and measles, one of the most infectious illnesses, was all but eradicated in Canada. Now it's back and religion can take a portion of the blame. There are all sorts of goofy, ill-informed reasons that some parents are "anti-vaxxers". They refuse to have their vulnerable children vaccinated and the internet has been instrumental in fear-mongering and misinformation. For some reason fundamentalists in Christianity and Judaism are inclined to buy into this nonsense and the benefits of what is sometimes called "herd immunization" is being undermined. 

Anti-vaccine Poster in New York

In New York some ultra-Orthodox Jews have been convinced that monkey, rat and pig DNA is being used to create the vaccine, which is untrue. The result has been a serious outbreak of measles with hundreds of children contracting the illness. 

This all makes me really angry. I suppose that parents ignorantly subjecting their children to serious illness is part of it. That religion is contributing to this infuriates me. There is a selfishness here, and a willful resistance to the best interests of all that is contrary to our Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus doesn't want us to be stumbling blocks to the physical and spiritual well-being of children, end of story. 


Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Equality Loonie?


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 On Tuesday a new loonie, Canada's dollar coin was unveiled by the Roval Canadian Mint. It has been dubbed the Equality/Egalite Loonie, or the LGBTQ2 Loonie, because it commemorates the 50th anniversary of an amendment to the criminal code to decriminalize homosexuality. Prime Minister Trudeau (that would be Trudeau the 1st) famously said “I think the view we take here is that there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” a phrase he actually borrowed from a journalist.

There has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding this coin. Some argue that many were working for gay rights for years before 1969 and this anniversary seems arbitrary. Others note that the amendment didn't bring an end to discrimination in the civil service or elsewhere in society. In 1974 four lesbian women were evicted from the Brunswick Tavern, a working-class beer hall in Toronto, subsequently arrested, and three were later tried in Ontario Court for obstruction of justice.There were bathhouse raids in Toronto in 1981 during which police humiliated and arrested gay men. LGBTQ2 couples had no rights under Canadian law for many years.

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Homosexuality was listed as a psychiatric disorder until the 1980s and while the United Church made significant decisions about accepting and including LGBTQ2 persons in the 1980s it was divisive and led to condemnation by other denominations. 

So, what would be the right date to choose? Probably none at all, yet this is a step toward acknowledging an important shift in societal attitudes which must continue. In the photo above I see MP the Rev. Rob Oliphant, a United Church minister. I've known Rob for nearly forty years and I realize that when he was ordained in the early 80s he was probably constrained in being open about his sexual orientation, fifteen years after the historic amendment. Rob spoke at the unveiling: 

"I was 13 years (old) when (Pierre) Trudeau issued those words and I was proud. It did not make me equal, but it gave me a fighting chance. I knew I was different, but just those words gave me a fighting chance and a sense I could have meaning. I wasn’t equal at that point and I’m not sure if I am yet equal, but this coin recognizes the journey. This coin is a small token of a huge effort that has happened and made Canada a better place.”

I also see former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is a United Church member. Wynne was the first openly gay premier of a Canadian province. 

What we can say is that this coin is tangible, it can be held up and recognized as one important moment in a journey toward justice and equality. 





Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Faith and the Black Death

 book cover of The Turn of Midnight

Minette Walters was a highly successful writer of psychological crime novels for years, then she stopped. There was no end of speculation why, although she offered that she'd just had enough of the genre. 

Recently she changed directions altogether, exploring another era in two novels totalling roughly 1,000 pages. In The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight Walters ventures into the 14th century and what was called The Black Death in Europe, likely the bubonic plague. This scourge wiped out between a third and half of the population of the continent and spare no one. Some villages and town ceased to exist because of a disease which was transmitted by fleas and poor hygiene.

Walters discovered that the plague came ashore not far from where she lives in Dorset and that there are mass graves in proximity to her home. It prompted her to explore further and these novels are the result of her curiosity. They focus on a community which manages to survive and thrive thanks to the leadership of a strong woman.

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Thanks to our local library I've read them both, just finishing The Turn of Midnight. I must say that I enjoyed the first of the two more, but I appreciated the exploration of the role of religion in explaining what was an apocalyptic disease. The simple explanation was that the plague was God's judgement, even though if didn't differentiate between the devout and the profane in terms of who it struck down. Priests were often among the first to die as they offered solace and last rites to the afflicted. 

I recall eco-theologian Thomas Berry suggesting that The Black Death caused a monumental theological shift in European Christianity, tilting from God's grace to judgement and from a more communal understanding of the world to individualism. Decades ago Berry maintained that our failure to honour Creation and the threat of environmental catastrophe was strongly influenced by that change of direction.

I would certainly recommend reading them to gain a better understanding of that time in history in a format that is very readable and entertaining. 

Have any of read one or both of them? 

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Monday, April 22, 2019

Green Wedding Bells

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Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May has been a fierce and accomplished eco-warrior for decades and she "fights the good fight" well. May, a lawyer, was an activist in her younger years, then worked for the environment ministry in the Mulroney years, contributing to his reputation as the "greenest prime minister" in Canada's history. She's led the Greens for more than a decade and sits as the only Green Member of Parliament.

I've had the chance to chat with her, briefly, on a couple of occasions and she affirmed my commitment as a Christian minister to addressing environmental issues through the Lands for Life consultation process in Northern Ontario, twenty years ago. May is a Christian and claims, somewhat tongue in cheek, that after she serves as Prime Minister she'll become an Anglican priest.

Today, Earth Day, Elizabeth May will marry, just a few months shy of collecting her Old Age Pension. She and her fiance, John Kidder, seem quite smitten with each other and it's delightful that they've found love at this stage of life and despite her demanding schedule as an MP and Green Party leader. She has been busy preparing for the wedding and a Fall election campaign.

May is aware that weddings tend to be an environmental danger zone, producing hundreds of kilos of garbage as well as all the carbon associated with flights and other travel. They have combined the church's Easter flowers with their wedding, they will move to the reception in a cavalcade of electric vehicles, and the honeymoon will be a train trip back to Ottawa. 

I certainly wish the happy couple well. And I hope that the Green Party gains traction in this Federal election. After years of holding my nose and voting strategically I'll probably take the plunge and vote Green in October, providing there is an active candidate in this riding who shows up for debates. I'm close to the same age as Elizabeth May and time's a-wastin' to step beyond the "tired and untrue" dithering of traditional parties when it comes to the environment.Perhaps this is a delayed wedding gift that many of us who care for God's good Earth can offer.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Resurrection Hope in Sri Lanka

 Sri Lankan church, after a bombing

This weekend we have been surrounded by family and enjoyed a veritable feast yesterday after a trip to Prince Edward County to see waterfalls which are hidden from the public the rest of the year. This morning we'll gather at Trenton United Church where son Isaac is the minister and we'll celebrate Christ's Resurrection and our hope. We are blessed.

We woke up to the news that a series of bombings at churches in Sri Lanka have killed upwards of 200 people and injured 400 more. Once again a hideous, cowardly attack by terrorists in a place of worship, and on the holiest day in the Christian year. Sometimes I wonder why we are so fortunate to experience the freedom to gather for worship in safety as Christians in this country while others live with the constant threat of violence. Of course, Muslims and Jews in Canada don't share that sense of assurance.

This Easter morning I won't take for granted the gift of gathering to proclaim the empty tomb and Resurrection hope. Christ be with you today, and with all who are suffering for the sake of the Good News. 


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Good Friday in Nicaragua

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 Good Friday protestors in Managua

Good Friday processions take place annually in many towns and cities around the world, including one in Toronto's Little Italy. It's strange to see photos from yesterday's march of the mayor and a bloodied Jesus yucking it up on the sidelines, but there it is. 

The processions in Managua, Nicaragua took on more than a devotional tone yesterday, as people took the opportunity to protest the oppressive government of Daniel Ortega. Ortega was a revolutionary leader in the 1970s and was key to the overthrow of the government of that time. Now he and his family have a stranglehold on power in the country and hundreds of people who opposed the government have been killed by security forces. 

It's chilling that Ortega has been both "saviour" and oppressor in Nicaragua. While he was never Jesus, he certainly seems to be Pilate today, using force to intimidate those in opposition to his corrupt rule. 

The Roman Catholic church walks a fine line in Nicaragua, and yesterday was no exception. Here's a portion of the report about Good Friday in the New York Times:

As hundreds of faithful walked in a traditional Stations of the Cross procession to the city's cathedral, dozens of protesters shouted for "justice" and carried wooden crosses bearing the names of those who died during the past year of protests. They waved the blue-and-white Nicaraguan flag, which has become a symbol of the opposition.

When the protest continued outside the cathedral, riot police moved in to disperse them with deafening sound grenade-type devices and tear gas. Some young protesters threw rocks and sought shelter among the faithful inside the cathedral's gates. Police surrounded the site.
José Pallais, a member of the opposition Civic Alliance who has participated in a dialogue with the government, said the Vatican's ambassador Waldemar Sommertag was mediating between authorities and the opposition to win the safe passage of the protesters out of the cathedral. Late Friday night, all safely left the site.

Jesus' Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem 2,000 years ago was seen as a threat by Roman authorities and the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows to Calvary was a statement to the pilgrims in Jerusalem that "might makes right."  Yet even the mightiest empires come to an end.

This Easter weekend we can pray for the people of Nicaragua who live in poverty and fear. May the God of deliverance and resurrection hope sustain them.

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 Good Friday in Little Italy

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday and Best Laid Plans

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 Best laid plans. Our minister, son Isaac, asked if I would preside at this year's Good Friday service and do so outside. Easter Monday is Earth Day, so why not have a service in which we contemplate the great mystery of the crucifixion near the water, in this instance the Bay of Quinte. Well, as I say, best laid plans, For ten days the forecast has been for heavy rainfall during this day and when we realized yesterday that nothing had changed we decided to come inside. Why is it that forecasts are so often incorrect when they promise sunshine? 

This morning we will recall in scripture and reflection the Passover full moon which was visible over Jerusalem two thousand years ago, aware that tonight is the full moon which sets the date for Easter.

We will consider the gospel claim that the sky turned dark as Jesus' body hung on the cross, as though Creation itself was mourning.

And we will will hold out the hope that even though creation groans, as in childbirth (Romans) God loves the world and so came to us in Jesus, the Christ. 

Sure, it would have been better to walk to the water's edge and have the birds of Spring proclaim that hope without words, but we can experience God's saving love as a community of Christ's followers.

Join us!


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Notre Dame and Easter Hope

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When I was a long-haired 19-year-old I visited Paris, France, for ten days while in Europe. I was on my own and ended up staying in a hostel for Asian and African students, many of whom were Muslim. This was my first encounter with Muslims and they were kind and hospitable.

I rambled around the city and visited Notre Dame Cathedral, the 850-year-old masterpiece of Gothic architecture along the Seine. I saw the magnificent Rose Windows one day and went back to an evening concert on another. Notre Dame is of a remarkable style of church building which invited awe and wonder from those who entered, most of whom would have never seen another building which was more than two storeys in height. Gothic and Renaissance cathedrals could take hundreds of years to complete and employed generations of craftspeople to complete the work. 

My most recent and probably final trip to the cathedral was fifteen years ago and I stayed in a grotty little hotel across the river called the Esmeralda, another character in Hugo's story. 
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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) Charles Laughton as Quasimodo

There is also the classic novel Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) written by Victor Hugo nearly 200 years ago. Quasimodo, the hunchback, lurks on the ramparts of the cathedral and in our imaginations. This novel actually led to a 19th century renovation of the church which was in a miserable state of disrepair.

What a sad development yesterday when Our Lady of Paris caught fire and was quickly consumed by flames feeding on the timber-frame superstructure. While the walls are stone, the roof beams were 12th century oak beams. The fire has been extinguished but it's too early to know whether what remains can be saved. Already hundreds of billions of euros have been committed to rebuild. Someone in the States tweeted her hope that there will be the same enthusiasm for reconstructing church buildings of Black congregations recently torched by a young white supremacist. 

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Crowd sings Ave Maria

I was moved to see crowds watching the conflagration singing religious music, a testimony to the truth that God can be worshiped anywhere people of faith gather. Notre Dame is a magnificent structure which may rise from the ashes. Whatever happens the solemn and good news of Christ Crucified and Risen will be proclaimed in the coming days. 

The Sanctuary at the Dawn of a New Day

Monday, April 15, 2019

Peace March

  Entry into the City - John August Swanson

Yesterday we sang a Palm Sunday hymn and watched as a happy group of kids, including our two young grandsons,  paraded around the sanctuary waving palm branches. Palm/Passion Sunday was always such an important part of Holy Week for me while in congregational ministry and still is. 

I thought of Brian McLaren's book We Make the Road by Walking, a book about spiritual formation, and the title "Peace March" for the brief chapter on Palm Sunday. He invites readers to imagine the walk with Jesus from Bethany into the city of Jerusalem with a growing crowd of peasants who wave branches, likely unaware that theirs is a counter-march to the show of might which Pilate's military parade into the city represents. 

 Image result for october revolution parade

Parades are curious entities. with an energy which can be both life-affirming and menacing, sometimes at the same event. Many of us can recall the October Revolution parades in the old Soviet Union which originally celebrated the overthrow of the czar in !917 but became a display of military might during the Cold War. Last year the emperor wannabe of the United States, Donald Trump, proposed an expensive military parade but it didn't take place in part because of the cost, but also the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Pentagon. It would have looked eerily like the parades staged by "Little Rocket Man" in the totalitarian state of North Korea.

Other parades challenge the status quo in a peaceful way. Our family participated in a march through the streets of Halifax in 2003 to protest the Iraq War ,one of 600 in cities around the world to do so. Did we expect to change the mind of President Bush and his administration? Perhaps not. It was important to stand up and be counted, just the same, and or course that proved to be a disastrous war. 

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Remember the Pink Hat Women's March in Washington in 2017? There was a definite edge to that huge protest, but it remained peaceful. 

We are also aware of the Global Climate Strike marches around the world by students protesting inaction on climate change. These young people have been chastised by adults, including politicians, who dither themselves over how to respond to what is perhaps the greatest threat to peace on the planet. It's significant that the fearless leader of this movement, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Eat your heart out, Emperor Donald. 

It's important to remember that Jesus' entry into Jerusalem may have seemed celebratory, and peaceful, but it challenged the world order sufficiently to lead to his death. We can continue our walk with Jesus, the Christ, wherever he may lead us.

Is Palm/Passion Sunday important for you? Do peace/protest marches matter? Does following Jesus still make a difference?

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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

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During the third and final session of our recent study on miracles we spent time discussing the Resurrection of Jesus as the great miracle of Christian faith. We looked at the account in John's gospel which focuses on Mary Magdalene as first witness to the resurrected Christ and the first to share this extraordinary news to the other disciples. I hadn't realized that Mary has been described as the "apostle to the apostles' and that in 2016 Pope Francis gave her unique status as such. It would have been meaningful if this had counteracted the declaration of a sixth century pope that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute whose encounter with Jesus reformed her, but that pernicious defamation persists in popular lore. Mary was often portrayed in Renaissance art with flowing red hair, a sign of special status and perhaps wantonness.

Last year I wrote about an upcoming film about Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara -- perhaps they should have called it The Girl With the Golden Halo? It was held from release because of the Weinstein scandal, which is ironic.The review I just read by Gareth Higgins in Sojourners says it's somewhat flawed and misses opportunities, yet is thoughtful nonetheless:

She finds her self-rescue in the form of dropping everything to follow Jesus. And it’s not just to follow, but to support him, to be his ally; she sees that his healings, resurrections, preaching to the masses, and the burden of wanting to save people from themselves without misleading them into a retributive revolution come with extraordinary pressures. That’s one of the more intriguing aspects of Mary Magdalene, for Mary both yearns for something more than her mundane life, and sees that it involves participation in liberating the voices and stories and bodies and lives of women — and she is invited into leadership, helping the male apostles consider what they might have missed about the teaching of their master.

Mary Magdalene deserves our respect and even our veneration as the "apostle to the apostles." Perhaps the film will help in that regard, although it is generally "splatted" on Rotten Tomatoes.

We can certainly choose to be mindful of Mary as we hear the story of the Resurrection once again.


Saturday, April 13, 2019

Un-Jewing Christianity?

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 White Crucifixion Marc Chagall
It seems absurd that at as we enter into Holy Week we might forget that Jesus was Jewish, as were most of his earliest followers. They would not have been in Jerusalem except for the Jewish festival of the Passover. Jewish authorities wouldn't have been in conflict with Jesus except for his unsettling interpretation of Jewish law. Pontius Pilate, his executioner wouldn't have been in the city either, but his role as procurator was to maintain the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, and the Jewish people were more inclined to proclaim fealty to Yahweh than the Emperor. 

Yet, through the centuries some Christians have distanced themselves from the Jewishness of Jesus to the extent that they have persecuted and killed Jews in many different cultures. 

In a recent article in Sojourners magazine by Deborah Pardo-Kaplan called The Un-Jewing of Modern Christianity she expresses her concern that Christianity ignores its Jewish grounding:

 I find myself continually frustrated by the culture and theology of Christianity that neglects Jewish people — the people through whom Jesus arose, the people he first addressed, and the people for whom he also sacrificed his life as an atonement. Christians clearly love Jesus and are inspired to deeply love others because of him — both of which stem from the Jewish commandments to love God and neighbor. But loving someone without familiarizing yourself with that person’s family or history, loving Jesus without knowing about his Jewish community, is like trying to love your spouse while you suffer from amnesia.

When I sought counsel from a close friend, who holds a doctorate in theology from Fuller Seminary, about the validity of love disconnected from Jesus’ community of origin, she put it in this illuminating way: “Like a tree with no roots, their actions can be virtuous,” said Jen Rosner, “while lacking a certain depth and anchoring in the fullness of the story of God and God’s redemptive plans for the world.”

Tragically, Holy Week has been a time  for anti-Jewish rhetoric and persecution to ramp up through history as Jews were vilified as Christ-killers. This year we can remember those who died at Beth Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh last October as the result of a hate crime. And we must remember that anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise in a number of democracies in Europe and even here in Canada.

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Friday, April 12, 2019

Not a Budget for those on the Margins


 A number of pundits and analysts are suggesting that yesterday's Ontario budget, the first for the Conservatives, wasn't as severe as it might have been in terms of deficit-seeking cuts. The finance minister assured us that this budget would be a "pathway to balance." The analysts may be correct to a certain degree but there were significant cuts in certain areas:

Legal aid, including aid for refugee and immigration claimants
Social services
Indigenous Affairs 

There are concerns about cuts to health care and education as well, but they weren't draconian -- although tell that to teachers whose job opportunities have dried up. 

 Once again there is a sense that the premier's motto "for the people" does not apply to the most vulnerable in the province, whether they are poor, or refugees, or are creatures other than middle and upper class humans. Many of these folk already live precarious lives and its hard to imagine that this budget will help them. This may not be as tough a budget as those in the Premier Mike Harris years, but there are overtones of disdain for the "lower classes" who won't benefit from this government's policies.

It's important for those of us who want to express Christ's justice and compassion in the world to pay attention to what will unfold in the days ahead. 

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Meditative Moon Walk


Yesterday we zipped up to Toronto to take advantage of free admission into the Aga Khan Museum on Wednesday evenings. We were keen to take in the exhibit The Moon: A Voyage Through Time, which was designed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing and moon walk in 1969. 

As the brochure indicates (above), the exhibit takes us through the wonder, beauty, and knowledge of the moon in the Islamic tradition. As with Judaism, Muslim festivals and holy days are often tied to the phases of the moon. The Islamic practice of praying five times a day comes from a vision of the Prophet Mohammad who ascended at night-time into the heavens. 


We were also impressed by the significant advancements in astronomy by Muslim observers. As with Judaism and Christianity, a sense of awe and wonder in surveying the night skies led to scientific observation and discovery. 

Of course, this year the Jewish Passover begins on April 19th, the evening of the full moon. This is Good Friday for Christians and Easter is always on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox.

I would certainly recommend a trip to the Aga Khan for both this exhibit and the general collection. This museum is a tranquil jewel, a place of beauty and revelation about the history and contributions of Islam. It is an important antidote to creeping suspicion and anti-Islamic sentiment in North America. 

Oh yes, the Israelis landed a small spacecraft on the moon today!

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  Moon sculpture Aga Khan Museum

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Truth, Reconciliation & Bill C-262

 Image result for bill c-262 senate today

A year ago a coalition of Christian denominational leaders wrote Prime Minister Trudeau in support of Bill C-262, legislation which would ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They saw the bill as another step toward fulfilling the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The letter included these words: "The passage of Bill C-262 into law is an essential step in the journey of reconciliation.We hope that the Government of Canada will continue to support Bill C-262.Rest assured of our continuing prayers."
 Image result for bill c-262 senate today

In February and again in March of this year the denominations reaffirmed there support for this legislation and now it is before the Senate for approval. We've been encouraged to write senators in support, which I have done. I imagine it won't do much good with Senator Lynn Beyak who was kicked out of the Conservative caucus for racist, defamatory letters on her website aimed at Indigenous peoples. Even though she's been directed to take them down she hasn't weeks later. How can this be allowed to continue in Canada?

You can inform senators and government ministers of your support for the bill by going to this website (just cut and paste) 


And please continue with your prayers. prayers. 

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Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Children, the Justice System & the Quakers

Yesterday I wrote about the interview on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition with former Canadian General Romeo Dallaire about Rwanda, 25 years past. Well, here I go again with another segment from the same program.

The Quaker's have done a study of the children of those incarcerated by the Canadian justice system. They conclude that children are almost never considered when those convicted of crimes are sentenced and that pets get more consideration than kids. 

According to the 1989 United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children, including in courts of law. But when adults are sent to jail their children tend to be invisible. The lawyer with the Society of Friends who led the study, Verena Tan, says that "when we think about people who are being sentenced or incarcerated people ... we very rarely think about their families or their children." This affects the future of the children themselves, as well as women who are sentenced. While mothers are often principle caregivers and 70% of women in prison are parents there is little consideration given to these essential relationships.

As someone who did a chaplaincy internship in a federal prison I must admit that I never considered whether the inmates I worked with were parents. Ruth, my wife, had much more awareness of these issues, first as a crisis counsellor in a women's shelter, then as a court reporter in the justice system. 

Tan believes considering children's interests at sentencing could have far-reaching effects.
It's as though society is determined to stack the deck against children who live in poverty or distress. "These are children, and they will be people that we will interact with in our communities. What do we want in our communities?" she said. "We want people who are safe and healed. We don't want people who are struggling and facing a number of problems throughout their lives."

I applaud the Quakers for bringing this reality to light. Tan says her report, Considering the Best Interests of the Child When Sentencing Parents in Canada comes out of a long Quaker tradition of pushing for prison reform and prison abolition. The term "penitentiary" comes out that Quaker commitment to provide better prisons in the 19th century in which inmates might be reformed and "penitent" although their methods in that era were harsh by our standards today. 

Any comments about this hidden world? 

Monday, April 08, 2019

Remembering Rwanda

 Photographs of Rwandan Genocide Victims

Now that I am retired I have the luxury of doing other things on Sunday mornings before driving half an hour to Trenton for worship. Some weeks I trundle off to the gym, and I can also listen to The Sunday Edition on CBC radio, often as we are making the drive.

Yesterday I heard Michael Enright's interview with former Canadian Armed Forces general Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire was in Rwanda 25 years ago, heading a United Nations Assistance Mission during what has been described as the fastest genocide in history. An estimated 800,000 Tutsi children, women, and men were murdered in 100 days and it's likely that 40,000 more died of cholera in camps. Hundreds of thousands of others were mutilated, raped, orphaned. 

Dallaire was ordered not to intervene as he anticipated the horror which would unfold. His relatively small group of soldiers were ill-equipped to do so anyway. They were fortunate to escape with their own lives. The United Nations, the United States and other countries were aware of what was unfolding and chose not to act.

Romeo Dallaire returned to Canada a broken man and while he has been an example of dignity and courage he admits he will never be the same, commenting that"I still say a large part of my soul is still in Rwanda." 

Dallaire's award-winning book on his experience is called Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.  He has reflected on the palpable sense of evil which was unleashed in Rwanda and how churches were sometimes complicit in that evil. It all but destroyed his own faith, which is not difficult to understand.

 Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh
Rohingya refugees

Twenty five years later we need to remember what occurred in Rwanda and to realize that that the unspeakable and seemingly impossible could happen again. During the genocide neighbours turned on neighbours and spoke of them as "cockroaches" to be destroyed. I find it chilling when a president of the United States refers to migrants as "vermin" or a Nobel Peace Prize winner turns away from the slaughter and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Myanmar/Burma where she is now Prime Minister. 

Did I want to hear about the Rwanda genocide before attending a warm, welcoming church service yesterday? Not at all. Yet as someone who follows the Christ of compassion I can't forget.  

Oh yes, you might recall that I blogged regarding  Black Earth Rising, a Netflix series about Rwanda, on February 12th of this year. 

 Shake Hands with the Devil (book).jpg

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Parliament, the United Church, & New Beginnings

 A view of the House of Commons, including the Centre Block and Centennial Flame.

 Lots happens in the Canadian House of Commons, the body in which elected Members of Parliament vote on proposed legislation when they're not acting like ill-behaved five-year-olds. Some of the bills presented are ground-breaking and some simply necessary for governance. Some are just boring, or at least they would seem that way to the majority of Canadians.

This past Monday the House dealt with one of those "get er done" items which couldn't have mattered to MPs, for the most part, but marked a significant change for the United Church as a denomination. After nearly a century of functioning with four levels of church governance our structure was officially altered by an act of Parliament. Here is the UCC press release:

The House of Commons passed the amendments to The United Church of Canada Act on April 2, 2019 by unanimous consent. Bill S-1003 contained the amendments to the church’s governing structure that were voted on at the 2015 General Council in Corner Brook, N.L. They were then confirmed by the majority of pastoral charges (congregations) and Presbyteries and enacted by the 2018 General Council in Oshawa, Ont., marking the most significant change to the church’s structure since its founding in 1925.

The amendments replaced the two middle courts of the church, Conference and presbytery, with a regional council model, made up of staff and volunteers to oversee ministers and pastoral charges (now called communities of faith). The Denominational Council is now the legal title for the General Council; however, we will continue to use the familiar name General Council. General Council has new financial responsibilities and will maintain the church’s broader relationships across the denomination—relationships with other faith groups and partners in Canada and around the world.

I've supported a three-court system of governance since proposals were made to make the change in the 1980's. Our traditional system was a concession to the founding denominations and was both cumbersome and difficult to actually find those who would serve at every level as the United Church membership shrank. 

Will our new model be effective? Perhaps, by the grace of God. Given recent goofiness in the House it may also be time to find a more effective model than Parliament!

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Kanye and Sunday Service

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On Easter morning, which this year is on April 21st, many congregations will offer the opportunity for members to gather early for what is often called a Sunrise Service. I never served a church that did this and I was grateful, because it was so early in the morning in what was already a busy week, and in years when Easter was in March it could be freezing cold -- even snowing!

I was surprised to hear that musician Kanye West will be holding a gospel service on Easter morning at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. It will be outdoors, on a "mountain" (hill) at the campground for Coachella participants. Kanye already holds a regular "Sunday Service with a gospel choir and dancing and chanting. Those services are by invitation only...hmm...and seem more showbiz than "just a closer walk with thee." 

Some congregations may be envious of being able to sell tickets to services, but it all seems a bit weird, especially since Kanye has said some really bizarre things about slavery and seems to adore The Donald. Given his almost incoherent rambling at times, I hope he sticks to the music and lets someone else sermonize. 

Perhaps we file this one under, "just when you think the world couldn't get any stranger..."