Thursday, May 30, 2019

Revisiting Les Miserables

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We had long-time friends from Newfoundland visiting us overnight on May 19th, which was a conundrum. It meant that we couldn't watch the final episode of Les Miserables on PBS, or at least not without seeming rude. Hey, the story doesn't change, but this six-part version with Dominic West as Jean Valjean was excellent and we were sorry to miss the conclusion. Then, a couple of nights ago I discovered that we could watch past episodes. something which usually isn't possible with PBS. Divine intervention?

The conclusion was as melodramatic as the rest of the segments, but that's the nature of Victor Hugo's story. Within the actual novel there is this explanation:

 The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details ... a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.

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This really does sum it up, and it is a stirring tale. I was pleasantly surprised with how sympathetically religious figures are treated. Hugo did not like the ecclesiastical control of the church of the mid-19th century in France but the Bishop of Digne, based on an actual bishop, is compassionate toward Jean Valjean when no one else is. The nuns who care for the dying Fantine, Sister Perpetue and Sister Simplice, are also kind and devoted.

I'm glad I was able to see this excellent version and have the reminder of a great story with themes that still resonate today.

Did you see this PBS version or see the musical? Is this a story you appreciate?

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Searching for Truth on the Internet

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We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies Mr. Biel.
The world is a college of corporations.
Inexorably determined by the
Immutable bylaws of business.
The world is a business Mr. Biel.
It has been since man crawled out of the slime.
And our children will live Mr. Biel
To see that
 perfect world
In which there’s no war,
Or famine,
Or brutality.
One vast ecumenical holding company.
For who all men will work to serve a common profit,
And which all men will hold a share of stock.
All necessities provided.
All anxieties tranquilized.
All boredom amused.

You remember the scene in the brilliant 1976 film, Network, don't you, the one with the speech about corporations ruling the world?  News anchor Howard Biel has lost his mind yet becomes a ratings-winning prophet for his time. Howard's "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" becomes a rallying cry for millions but eventually he is called on the carpet by a shadowy corporate mogul who lets him know how the world really works and then sends him on his way.

Forty-plus years later we are seeing how this speech is even more cogent and applicable than it was a generation ago before the internet, and social media and...blogs. In the past couple of weeks there was an international conference on the influence of the internet on privacy, and good old fake news and elections, and what strategies could be developed to curb abuses.  

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Sanberg and Zuckerberg

Then yesterday the House of Commons's privacy and ethics committee was joined by elected officials from around the world to discuss data collection, privacy online and democracy and to question witnesses. The committee had extended invitations to some of the most well-known tech players, including Facebook, Twitter and Google. Earlier this month, the committee voted to subpoena Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to appear as witnesses They chose to ignore this request, essentially holding up a middle finger to the Canadian government. Why subject your corporation to our scrutiny when you have two billion monthly users?  

It seems to me that this should really matter to all of us in a world of increasing "truthiness", where we are constantly manipulated for financial and political gain. Facebook's motto is “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”, but surely we realize that this is not its purpose and never was? 

It's tough because most of us use social media and Facebook has become a go-to communication tool for many churches. What do we as communities of faith have to say about what is unfolding?

Prophet Howard doesn't heed the warning and offers his own on-air polemic which might be worth repeating oftenf:

So, you listen to me. Listen to me! Television [the internet] is not the truth.
Television's [social media's]a god-damned amusement park.
Television [Facebook, Google, Twitter) is a circus, a carnival,
a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers,
sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players.
We're in the boredom-killing business.
So if you want the Truth, go to God! Go to your gurus. Go to yourselves!

I'm partial to animal videos myself, but that probably falls under lion tamers.

Perhaps it's time to listen and "go to God" for the truth.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Are Drug Money Donations Blood Money?

Institutions around the world depend on donations from those who support their causes. While modest donations from the rank-and file folk are appreciated, big-bucks gifts from families and their foundations. For some reason I get a kick out of the regular reminder on PBS of support from Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III. That's a hefty name!
Of course these significant donations often include name recognition in the credits, as with PBS, and even on particular rooms in museums or the building itself -- think of the Guggenheim in New York City.
Also in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Sackler Wing in recognition of the wealthy family which has funded this venerable institution and others for decades. However, the Met has announced that it will no longer take money from the Sacklers to reflect the growing outrage over the role the Sacklers may have played in the opioid crisis through their pharmaceutical company. Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers are the accused in lawsuits claiming that the company oversold the efficacy of the drug, OxyContin, while downplaying the risk of addiction. Essentially the claim is that Purdue has hooked untold thousands in the US and Canada and elsewhere on drugs which destroy lives and have resulted in the deaths of many. It's not an exaggeration to say that opioid addiction is a health crisis in the US.
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The Met decision is a big deal and Daniel Weiss, the president, played nice in making the announcement: “The museum takes a position of gratitude and respect to those who support us, but on occasion, we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest, or in our institution’s interest. That is what we’re doing here.”
When I did my chaplaincy internship in Kingston Penitentiary 40 years ago there were inmates serving time for petty drug dealing of substances such as marijuana, as well as more hardcore dealers. We assume that the worst of drug dealers should be punished for their illegal activities, although some of those young men shouldn't have been in prison.
Through my years of ministry there were members of congregations or their family members who struggled with addictions, including opioids. It will be interesting to see if those who manufacture drugs will be held accountable. This is a moral and ethical challenge for our culture, as well as a legal one. We can hope that justice is served.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Christians in India

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate with a cutout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their party office in Gauhati, India, Thursday.

Can you name the largest democratic nation in the world? It is India, and more than 900 million citizens were eligible to vote in the recent election, which has been called the greatest election show on Earth and takes several weeks to complete. Despite this most of us in the West are relatively unaware of what unfolds in the Indian sub-continent. In the end the incumbent, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reelected even though the election brought to the fore the differences and disparities in the country based on religion. The majority in India is Hindu and Modi has emphasized the numerical superiority of this group rather than working toward a secular society.

There are approximately 170 million Muslims in India and 28 million Christians but these minority groups have felt marginalized under Modi's leadership. Christians in India trace their origins back to St. Thomas -- yes, Doubting Thomas -- who is reputed to have evangelized there in the first century.

While Christianity is an ancient tradition in India, many of the converts are relatively recent. They are the Dalits, the group known as Untouchables when I was young. They have been an underclass, poor and trapped in a caste system which relegated them to the worst jobs in society and considered less than human.  They too were Hindu but many have become Christian as a way to acceptance and worth. It is a brutal irony that while they are regarded as "untouchable" the women are often exploited in the sex trade.
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Modi won in a landslide, and now we will see what happens to the religious minorities who have felt pushed to the edge of Indian society and are persecuted in some regions. We can pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who desire a place of opportunity and equality.

Have you been aware of the election in India? Have you heard of the Christian Dalits?

Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Man Called Ove & Finding Life

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 Those who find their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Matthew  (NRSV)

When our three children were young Ruth read to all of us in our various vehicles as we travelled through Northern Ontario and as far away as Newfoundland. It's a warm memory for all of us. We moved on to books on audio tape, then CD's, and we're still listening although now it's a download onto a phone played through the car sound system.

We've just finished 9 1/2 hours of a Swedish bestselling novel, A Man Called Ove (OOH-ve). It's been translated into several languages and become a play and a Swedish film. Now it will "go Hollywood" with Tom Hanks as the star, although honestly I think he is ill-cast.

I didn't think we'd get beyond the first chapter or two because Ove is described in detail as a cantankerous, thoroughly unlikable man in his late fifties. He is gruff and suspicious of virtually everyone, a stickler for details, providing he gets to make the rules. Who needs this sort of story? Supposedly the novel is humorous!

We stuck with it, fortunately. The author, Fredrik Backman, slowly reveals Ove's life story, and we begin to appreciate the reasons for his sour way of being. We discover that he has recently lost his wife, the only person who ever understood his inner self. And with that loss he methodically plans his demise.

But despite his determination Ove keeps getting diverted from death by encounters with neighbours and acquaintances and strangers -- almost miraculously. And we realize that he is actually a compassionate and  -dare we say it-- generous person whose practicality is a godsend for others.

I won't spoil the ending, but I will tell you that we often laughed aloud at parts of the book, and at its conclusion we were quite moved. The man we found so unsavoury to begin with had found his way into our hearts.

I kept thinking about the gospel passage in which Jesus says, paradoxically, that if we hope to find our lives we will need to lose them. As someone who has experienced tremendous loss through life Ove wants to protect himself, yet he finds fulfillment in giving, from the heart.

Yup, I would certainly recommend A Man Called Ove. It's not great literature, but it still has life lessons.

Have you read it? Did you like it?

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Ark and the Insurers

Nusret Colpan was a Turkish painter, architect and miniaturist, renowned for his paintings in Ottoman miniature style depicting cities around the world, particularly Istanbul.

Nusret Colpan Turkish Artist

The Lord told Noah
There's gonna be a floody, floody
The Lord told Noah
There's gonna be a floody, floody
Get those children out of the muddy, muddy, children of the Lord

Rise and Shine (Arky, Arky)
I've written before about how often the biblical story of the Ark in the book of Genesis is used as a symbol or metaphor for refuge and protection from life's storms. Sometimes they are related to the environment and the efforts to preserve precious habitats and species. Other "arks" are the protective places and spaces for vulnerable people. The L'Arche movement of Jean Vanier comes to mind.

Then there are the conservative Christians who build arks because they take this important covenant story literally, often in support of a notion of biblical inerrancy and a six-day creation. Many of these folk also deny climate change (emergency) and feel that God wouldn't allow the Earth to be compromised or destroyed because of the Genesis Covenant. They seem to miss that God says He/She won't smite the planet again, not that we won't self-destruct.  

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Truth can be stranger that fiction, though. The Kentucky owners of Ark Encounter, a 510-foot long supposed reconstruction of the biblical vessel are suing insurer damage, maybe water damage. The good ship Noah itself is just fine, but the access road has suffered a million dollars worth of damage, and the insurers don't want to pay up. Actually, there is some dispute about the source of the destruction being rain events. There was a landslide though, and these are often water-table related. We also know that intense rainfalls are more common these days because of...well, you know.  

Landslide? Flood? Aren't these described by insurers as Acts of God? Just wondering.

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Friday, May 24, 2019

The Legacy of Ministry

On Sunday we had a lovely visit with long-time friends from Newfoundland. The elders of the group were parents of four tweens and teens when I served a five-point outport pastoral charge in the early 80's and the family was wonderfully hospitable to a pair of young mainlanders. far from familiar surroundings. They were virtually the first to meet our newborn son, born in Gander hospital, and they attended the worship service led by Isaac. One of the daughters is a United Church minister in Ontario and she brought her parents to the service.

It got me thinking about ongoing contacts with those I served in six pastoral charges through the decades. I have been conscientious about not meddling in congregations I've left, and rarely return for any reason. We've also been cautious about developing friendships in congregations because of concerns about favouritism. Respecting boundaries is important in the UCC. Yet in the past couple of months we've connected with folk from all six charges.

Earlier in May we attended the memorial service for the music director's wife in Sudbury, where I was minister for eleven years. It was both terribly sad and a welcome reconnection with many fine people from a congregation I left twenty years ago. Ruth has continued to be connected with a circle of women there, which included the person who died.

I have been corresponding with a friend in Colorado whose wedding I performed while in Halifax. This was a second marriage for two people whose spouses had died, and a very happy occasion. We have stayed in touch despite the move across the continent. Now the husband has Alzheimer's and I've talked with the wife about living faithfully alongside a loved one who is drifting away.

We've also shared meals with friends from my penultimate congregation and participated in a potluck here recently. We were invited to this event on short notice and it was wonderful to see people who have been vitally involved in the meal ministries of Bridge St. Church. We find that we need to be most cautious in this community because I both served and retired here.

These connections are deeply meaningful despite the expectations of keeping a respectful distance as the former pastor. God brought us together and as a couple we benefitted greatly from the kindness and hospitality and wise counsel of so many. Even though I was called to serve I learned the way of Christ in each community, and I continue to be grateful.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Speaking the Truth about a Climate Emergency

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Recently the Guardian which is both a newspaper and online chose to change the terminology it uses to report on climate and the imminent threat of catastrophic change. It has updated its style guide to introduce terms which it feels more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world. Instead of “climate change” the preferred terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favoured over “global warming”, although the original terms are not banned.    

In the Guardian's release about the new style guide editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner says that " We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for

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I saw this last week, then this morning CBC Metro Morning interviewed a climate reporter from the Guardian about this, as well as a professor from the University of Toronto who supports the changes in language. She offered that terms such as global warming sound rather comforting like a plate of fresh-baked cookies rather than a threat to humanity and all other creatures. We heard that the CBC is now open to using similar terminology in its reporting.

While we know that there are plenty of deniers and minimizers in the political realm, including the premier of this province,  the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, talked of the “climate crisis” in September, adding: “We face a direct existential threat.” The climate scientist professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a former adviser to Angela Merkel, the EU and Pope Francis, also uses “climate crisis.”

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Jimmy Carter, at the Head of his Class

GP: Jimmy Carter Teaches Sunday School in Plains, Georgia 190428
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter prepares to teach Sunday school
at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia on April 28, 2019.
Paul Hennessy | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Former President Jimmy Carter broke his hip earlier this month and had it surgically repaired. For many 94-year-olds this might be the beginning of the end. But Carter is a remarkably resilient man and while he was a little frustrated that he missed the end of turkey hunting season he was planning to return to teaching Sunday School almost immediately. He did miss the May 19th class but could return for June.

Carter has taught an adult Sunday School class for decades and it is very popular. It meets in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church in Georgia and while it seats 350, sometimes people are turned away. The class is at 10:00 but visitors are asked to be there for 9:00 and many are there before the doors open at 8:00. Impressive.

Various celebs attend the class from time to time and recently Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg  and his husband, Chasten Glezman, joined the large crowd. Buttigieg is rattling the cage of US politics because he openly gay and openly Christian. At Carter's invitation Buttigieg stood and read from the Bible as part of the lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church. Other Democratic candidates have attended as well.

I love that Carter still leads the class, and that his Christian faith is inclusive and welcoming. Nuff said.


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Gratitude for Two-Four Weekend

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In Canada this is the "find out who has a cottage/camp" for congregations with low attendance and a reminder of things to come for the next four to five months. Summer used to be July and August in most mainline congregations but now it stretches from this holiday weekend until the Sunday after Thanksgiving in October.

This is the Victoria Day Weekend, a national holiday honouring a British monarch from the 19th century -- go figure. A lot of people get in touch with their inner hoser on what is sometimes called the Two-Four Weekend, a reference to the case of beer which will be a staple at many gatherings.

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We will attend worship in the congregation pastored by our son with people who were among the first to meet him when he was born in Newfoundland. I served a five-point pastoral charge of outport congregations and Isaac was born in Gander. We loved the rugged beauty of the province and have revisited Newfoundland and these folk many times. One of the daughters of the family was a "tween" at the time and is now a United Church minister in Ontario.

Wherever we have lived we have enjoyed the gifts of Creation even though I also served downtown congregations in urban centres such as Sudbury and Halifax. Through the decades we've noticed that Canadians yearn for the outdoor experience on weekends such as these, yet insist on bringing urban/suburban life with them, as much as possible. This includes an impressive array of noise-making machines, including personal water craft and portable music. In many parks these are being curtailed or banned, and on this weekend alcohol is prohibited because people do goofy things when they over-imbibe.

After worship today we'll head to Sandbanks Provincial Park for a picnic with family and these friends. Will it be a religious experience? I know I'll be grateful to God, once again, for the remarkable gift of this extraordinary country, from sea to sea to sea.

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Whose Womb Is it?

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I haven't blogged much about abortion through the years, nor did I ever preach on the subject -- not even once. That doesn't mean that it wasn't a meaningful topic for discussion and in fact I did so on a number of occasions with members of my congregations. In some instances it was with those who were contemplating an abortion, and in one circumstance it was a woman who had an abortion and was wracked with guilty afterward, convinced that it had been an irresponsible choice based on convenience. I always attempted to be non-judgmental and supportive in the decision-making process and prayed with these individuals. I also had members who were former Roman Catholics and bewildered that this was virtually the only taboo topic in the United Church.

This is a tough subject for me because I have strong convictions about the sanctity of life. As an undergraduate student I took an ethics course with a wise professor who noted that humans are most vulnerable at the beginning and end of life and saw it as a moral and ethical and, I think, sacred responsibility for society to care for the vulnerable. I've never understand the hard and fast rules individuals and cultures establish about when life begins. I've mourned with couples who are devastated by the death - I use the word death -- of fetuses they considered children, even though they were still within the legal parameters for abortion.

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All this noted, I am appalled by what it happening in the United States as legislatures, usually comprised of powerful, aging men are passing punitive and restrictive laws around abortion. Alabama has passed legislation which all but makes abortion illegal and could punish women with lengthy prison terms, even in situations of rape and incest, including minors.

In the debate sanctimonious men waxed on about the preciousness of the life God had created. Meanwhile, Alabama has the highest rate of infant mortality in the United States and a high rate of maternal mortality.  Pro-life in many states appears to be pro-birth, with little regard for the safety of children and women. The day after the governor (a woman) signed this legislation into law an inmate was subjected to the death penalty. Again, pro-life seems to be pro-birth.

One woman legislator who had the courage to oppose this legislation challenged the men saying "now you're in my womb, and I want you out" - great line.  She wondered if they would propose a "castration bill" for the men who sexually assaulted women.

This situation is bizarre, yet not surprising given that the president makes up stories about women sitting with doctors planning infanticide. These are terrible lies, yet Trump's "base" which includes many evangelical Christians swallows them whole.

Here in Canada the number of abortions has declined steadily with the provision of freedom of choice, access to birth control, and clear sex ed in schools. However we might feel about the sanctity of life, we can't impose our values on those who will give birth to children and be entrusted with their care.

Perhaps this is the time to enter into honest conversation about abortion in this country, especially as Conservative governments are being elected in provinces and MPP's and MLA's (yup, men) are emboldened to publicly oppose freedom of choice.

What do you think, dear readers? Could this happen here?

Friday, May 17, 2019

A Historic Strike & a Living Wage

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  Prayers of the People: 

As we remember history, O God,may we be prompted to think about today, 
and hear your call to build a better tomorrow.
 From the “hello girls” of the Salter Street telephone exchange,
 who urged the next shift not to go to work,but to join the strike four hours early, 
may we learn from these 500 women
 there is no time like the present:the struggle for justice cannot wait. 
From the returning World War I veterans,
 who risked their lives for a better world 
and came home to find their families hungry, 
who marched down the streets of the profiteers,may we, too, 
speak truth to power, and sing the songs of justice.

 From Helen Armstrong and William Ivens and J.S. Woodsworth,

 may we learn to put our beliefs into action
 In a time when it was difficult not to be English,
 in a time when Indigenous and Metis peoples 
 were shoved to the margins of history, 
in a time of fear of those labelled “foreign”, 
may we, like the Winnipeg strikers of 1919, 
make common cause for justice,and call each other sister, brother.
 In a world that would divide us,may we bear each other’s burdens and know
 an injury to one injures us all.T
his we pray in the name of Jesus who turned the tables...

barb janes

You may have noticed that this week marks the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, a work stoppage which spread throughout the city.On May 15, 1919, women who operated telephones refused to go to work, followed by trade workers, soon followed by thousands of other unionized and non-unionized workers ranging from clerical workers and bakers, to streetcar drivers and police officers.The strike lasted six weeks, as workers fought for higher wages, better working conditions and the right to collective bargaining. This would be the largest strike in Canadian history with 30,000 workers off their jobs. 

The strike quickly became an ugly confrontation with politicians and business leaders claiming that Bolshevik foreigners were behind it, a claim that was never substantiated but supported by Winnipeg newspapers. The federal government stepped in to put down the protests, arresting leaders and attacking those at rallies. The violence injured about 30 people and killed two. Known as Bloody Saturday, the day ended with federal troops occupying the city’s streets.

 Photo of mounted troops galloping around a bend in the road at Main St 
and Market Ave on Bloody Saturday, 21 June 1919.
I had only a vague awareness of the strike but thanks to the research of long-time friend and colleague, Robin Wardlaw I discovered that faith leaders, Christians and Jews, were involved as an expression of their Social Gospel convictions. Robin collaborated with other United Church clergy to create a package of worship materials acknowledging these important weeks in the history of the Labour Movement in Canada.

Why should we care now? In Ontario the current government shelved plans to move the minimum wage upward to a more livable $15. There are many thousands in this province and elsewhere who are the working poor, with pay so low they must avail themselves of food banks and meal programs. 

It has become common for some to dismiss the labour movement and unions as outdated or protecting the undeserving or downright greedy. They have forgotten the sacrifices made by earlier generations to establish safe working conditions and reasonable pay,

There is still a need for voices seeking justice on behalf of those who are marginalized. And there is still a place for communities of faith to support this cause. 

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