Saturday, June 29, 2019

Canada Day & Respect for Indigenous Peoples

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Debwe, led by Mushkiiki Nibi Kwe (Lindsey Lickers) with artists Leah Roberts, Maybella King Reynolds, and Shaneixqui Brown, forms part of the art installation Red Embers dedicated to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

I pulled our furled Canadian flag from the rafters of the garage yesterday and put it out front in anticipation of Canada Day. I wanted our grandsons to see it as they arrived for a double sleepover and it is a statement, every year, of my love for this country. In part it is the scenic beauty which moves me, and the prosperous life I don't take for granted, and our desire to provide the "socialism" which so many Americans despise but which provides some dignity and wellbeing for even the "least of these." I am proud in a modest Canadian manner that this country welcomed more refugees last year than any other nation on Earth. This too reflects a gospel imperative in Matthew 25 and many passages in the Hebrew scriptures. Canada tends to be a secular nation, sad to say, yet we choose many values which are upheld in the Judeo/Christian tradition.

Here's what bothers me heading into this Canada Day weekend. We have a shameful history of imperialism and injustice when it comes to the First Peoples of this vast land. Too many Indigenous communities are impoverished without the basics of clean water and decent housing and affordable food. They die younger than the national average and have triple the suicide rate. Not only have we become comfortably numb to this inequality, we are lousy listeners.
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If we think this is a matter of the past, consider the aftermath of the release of the Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. We continue to hear pronouncements from those outside the Indigenous community who dismiss the premise that what occurred and is still happening was the outcome of "race-based genocide", the term used by the framers of the report. It is staggering to me these people have so little respect for those who have spent years on this study and that their white privilege immediately gives them a superior understanding of the issues. Beyond that, many have a limited understanding of what genocide as the systematic and systemic dismantling of culture and perpetration of violence really is.

Enjoy this weekend and celebrate Canada. Participate in worship tomorrow and give thanks for what Canada is, and the blessings of being a citizen of a great country. Ask yourselves what we can do as Christians to ensure equality and justice for all, including the Indigenous people amongst us.  God knows we have been part of the problem for centuries. Listening with respect and humility is a spiritual discipline we can all practice.

You might take a few minutes to read Pam Palmater's piece in NOW over the weekend.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Sacred Bread

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O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.
Psalm 34:8 (NRSV)

There was an excellent article by a Bosnian Canadian, Aleksandar Hemon, in the Guardian recently. t It has the title ‘Bread is practically sacred’: how the taste of home sustained my refugee parents and in it he reflects on the essential nature of food for his immigrant family, a source of joy and expression of love. Gathering around a table is more than just consuming a meal:

In Bosnian, the verb that describes such an activity is sjediti, which means to sit, as the whole operation consists of sitting around the table, eating, drinking and being together for the purposes of well-earned pleasure. If I want to invoke an image of my parents being unconditionally happy (not an easy task), I envision them with their friends at a table, roaring with laughter between bites of delicious fare and sips of slivovitz (damson or plum brandy) or grappa.

Hemon has lots to say, all of it thoughtful, and he eventually gets to the importance of bread:

Bread, on the other hand, is practically sacred. In Bosnian, there is an idiom applicable to a saintly good person: “As good as bread.” Although it does take land and hard work to produce wheat and grind it into flour that will become dough to be kneaded and baked into bread, its symbolic value has less to do with all the effort than with the fact that it is the poor people’s most basic staple – if you have bread, you have food, and if you have food, you live. Bread, in another words, equals life.

This all makes me think of Christian communion and how little what we usually do is like an actual meal. We describe it that way, even as a feast. It's supposed to be the table where refugees find a place and are filled, but it tends to be slim pickin's. In the United Church we've made sure there isn't a whiff of alcohol in the already stingy thimble. And the doughy little squares of bread were always microscopic and tasteless.
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I'm delighted that in retirement we're in a congregation where folk are so happy to have Ruth's tasty bread for communion, something participants comment on every time. She has made it with love for four congregations now, always with generous portions, and always with the same reception. It tastes good and bread is life -- Jesus is the Bread of Life -- thanks be to God.

Read about fluorescence, phosphorescence and God's light show in today's Groundling blog

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Mr. Canoehead & the Soul-Boat

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Yesterday was National Canoe Day and we had no opportunity to get out on the water. Our vehicle is on the DL due to an accident and rentals don't have roof racks. Frustrating! We tend to kayak more than canoe these days but canoeing has taken us to some wondrous places through the decades. We canoe-tripped with our kids in Lake Superior and Killarney Provincial Parks and we've explored a hundred wild nooks and crannies in several provinces and states.

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Canada's rivers were the first highways for Indigenous peoples and explorers and missionaries, so not surprisingly canoeing has inspired everything from humour to beer to legends. The Flying Canoe or La Chasse Galerie is the story of lumbermen in the deep woods who sell their souls to Satan for a trip to Montreal, and the Prince of Darkness guides their way in the bow.

There are more ancient motifs of the soul-boat in many aboriginal cultures, carrying the dead to the afterlife.

Painted Rock Lake pictograph - source here

I also think of Canadian canoeing icon Bill Mason whose film Waterwalker includes a song of the same name by Bruce Cockburn and lots of Mason's Christian musings to go along with his explorations of Lake Superior country. You can now watch the film online and I'd recommend it, just to witness the most beautiful solo paddle stroke of any human.

I would also encourage you to visit the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough. The last time I did it was with two great old guys from Bridge St UC, one a 90-something who had paddled from the time he was a boy. My great regret is that in his last days Ruth and I were going to take him for a last canoe outing but a cautious family member overruled his enthusiasm. His daughter (also a Bridge St member) figured that if he died in the canoe it would actually be fitting. Wouldn't that have been a soul-boat?

Thank God for canoes. Didn't Jesus' disciples fish from one?

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Bill Mason

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Migrant Children & The Banality of Evil

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Hannah Arendt listened to the war crimes trial testimony of Adolf Eichmann and realized that he relied on euphemisms, clich├ęs, and Nazi "officialese" to justify his complicity in the incarceration and the Final Solution mass murder of Jews. She made the controversial observation that Eichmann had no insane hatred for Jews and in his view he was "doing his job", following orders and obeying the law. The book she eventually wrote, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was the source of a phrase which is used often to describe how ordinary people can engage in extraordinarily destructive acts without seeming to have a conscience.

I thought of this phrase as a Department of Justice lawyer, Sarah Fabian, calmly and persistently argued that the horrendous conditions under which migrant children in detention in the southern United States does not violate the law about safety and sanitary conditions. She conceded that small children are held in facilities that amount to cages, sleep on the floor under foil blankets and that they aren't provided with basics such as toothbrushes and soap. But she also argues before a panel of justices that there is nothing in law to require these provisions. The justices are baffled, one going so far as to ask whether she would personally consider these provisions as necessities for safety and sanitary conditions. She calmly evades the question, returning to the twisted logic that there is nothing in writing requiring them. The judge responds that this may be because the assumption was that they are a "given."
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Sarah Fabian DOJ lawyer

In a later post on Facebook Fabian said she shares “many people’s anger and fear” about the nation’s future. Saying she is “not an official of any administration,” Fabian points out that she’s a career federal employee who’s served in her role since 2011, long before President Donald Trump took office. While that may be true it sounds too much like "I was just following orders."

It's interesting that employees of Wayfair have organized a protest because the company will be providing beds for these detention centres. The workers don't want to be complicit in the inhumane treatment of children.

I've heard supposed Christians in the United States maintaining that the children shouldn't be in the country in the first place, so what can their parents or "bleeding hearts" expect? It is a chilling response from those who are probably moved to tears by the suffering of Christ two thousand years ago but can harden their hearts to the suffering of children on their doorsteps today. Children do not make these choices, and many of the parents have actually made formal requests for asylum rather than entering the US illegally. The failure of compassion and the de-humanizing of these children stuns me.

No, Fabian is not a Nazi -- she may well be an exemplary person in her daily life and she doesn't deserve to be harassed and threatened, as has been the case. Nor are those people of faith who are so inexplicably cold in their response to fundamental human need. Still, what is happening violates any code of moral decency. Arendt argued that Eichmann failed to apply the "Golden Rule", a basic principle of many religions, and so are those who treat those who treat children so cruelly.


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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

No Adult in the Room?

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Trump's Nest of Hawks

A couple of days ago Donald Trump told an interviewer that while he had ordered an airstrike on Iran he called it off with ten minutes to spare because he felt that the outcome would not be "commensurate." He had been advised that as many as 150 civilians might die and that seemed an inordinately high number of casualties in response to the downing of an American drone by the Iranians.

For the first time in his disastrous presidency I thought that Trump was being the "adult in the room," choosing prudence over a rash and excessive military response. Once that jarring thought sifted down I realized that this was a crisis of his own making in the first place. Trump and his hawks cancelled the international treaty with Iran which lifted some sanctions as a reward for not pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. And in recent weeks Trump's administration escalated tough talk with the Iranian regime, admittedly a hawkish group themselves. And after Trump's dove-like decision he returned to childish form, tweeting the end of Iran and total destruction.

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Powerful empires have always thrived on displays of force, although never has there been such catastrophic potential in conflicts. While Trumps and his hawks sure seem like kids in a garage with matches and a gas can (what could possibly go wrong?) they could literally blow up the planet, and the US is still the only nation which has used a nuclear weapon.

Two thousand years ago the Romans were a fine-tuned military machine (we've all seen Gladiator) but they also exercised grisly control by executing insurrectionists. One of them was a Galilean peasant name Yeshua, or Jesus, whom Pilate decided was just not worth the risk of leaving alive. We acknowledge Jesus the peasant as Jesus the Christ, and many of Trump's followers claim to worship him. It's strange that they adore the Tough-Guy-in-Chief and ignore the Prince of Peace, despite their claims of allegiance.

We'll pray that cooler heads prevail in the current situation, and perhaps Trump and evangelical Christians will undergo a conversion.

Monday, June 24, 2019

God's Revealed Truth about Inclusion

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There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28  (NRSV)

Over the weekend there was another massive Pride Parade in Toronto, along with other events which celebrated the LGBTQ community. While the TO festivities are the largest in the country many other communities join in during Pride Month, including in smaller towns. There was a controversy around the Pride Parade in Prince Edward County a couple of weekends ago because of a notice in the bulletin for a Roman Catholic congregation. It read:

“A reminder that Catholics and all other Christians should not attend LGBTQ2 ‘Pride Month’ events held this month. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to the Christian faith and morals. This is especially harmful to children because it could lead them away from God’s revealed Truth. Even in “The County,” there are Pride flags and banners flying courtesy of the Government. Think…these are your hard tax dollars at work!”

Not only is this statement homophobic and arrogant -- who is this priest who figures he can speak for all Christians? -- it is chillingly hypocritical in it's reference to protecting the faith and morals of children. The Roman Catholic church has not had a stellar record in this regard.

There are "positives" to this story. Members of the parish protested this statement, as did parents from the local Roman Catholic school. The regional bishop issued his own statement saying that he had not authorized it. There were demonstrations outside the church with LGBTQ-positive signs.

It's a challenge to discern what the official Roman Catholic stance is regarding LGBTQ persons because Pope Francis has sent mixed messages and bishops and cardinals seem to offer their own varying views as authoritative.

I'm impressed that everyday Christians who are Roman Catholics pushed back against what was an ugly denial of "God's revealed Truth" about love and inclusion.

Did you hear about this? What were your thoughts?

Read about Cathedral of the Trees in today's Groundling blog

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Crash Helmets at Notre Dame


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Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters  pp. 40-41.

We'll head to church soon and we know that worship will be thoughtfully, faithfully, creatively prepared by our son, who is the pastor. He often includes rather...unconventional...aspects to the worship experience and to the credit of the gathered they participate and seem to enjoy colouring outside the lines.  At no time has he handed out crash helmets at the door, and probably never will -- there are limits to what we can do, to be sure.

I saw that crash helmets, or at least hardhats were on the heads of those who participated in the first service at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris since the catastrophic fire. It was held just a few days ago and was by invitation only because of safety issues -- the vaulted ceiling is unstable in some places. There were clergy and some workers and that was about it. This was a symbolic worship service to quietly proclaim that the centuries old place of worship will literally rise from the ashes, and the congregation will figuratively.

There has been plenty of controversy about the rebuild. Some are outraged that more than a billion dollars was pledged within days when it is almost impossible to procure funds for humanitarian projects such as the famine in Yemen. Some of the donors offering huge amounts were accused of doing so for the fame and in competition with one another. This may be true.

Personally, I'm grateful that such a beautiful and historic place of worship will be restored. It is far more than a tourist attraction as a sanctuary for the glory of God in the heart of the city. Just the same, we must be prepared for the reality that all that we build of wood and stone and glass comes to an end. We need to invite "the waking god" of Annie Dillard's observation to "draw us where we can never return" if we have any hope for Christian renewal in our culture.

Perhaps I should wear my bicycle helmet in the sanctuary some Sunday morning, or my kayaking PFD and just let folk speculate about the crazy guy.

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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Praying for Sabbath Safety for Migrants

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When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.
 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you;
you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:
 I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:33-34  (NRSV)

...for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  
 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.’

Matthew 25:35-36 (NRSV)

Thursday was World Refugee Day with it's reminder that there are more refugees and displaced persons on the planet now than at any time in human history -- about 71 million. For context, that's about twice the population of Canada. People are displaced for many reasons including war, persecution, economics. An increasing number are climate refugees, on the move because of conditions which make life untenable in their homelands.

It's terrible to realize that tomorrow the United States, a nation where so many claim to be Christians, country-wide raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will take place. Thousands will be deported, families will be separated, and some will no doubt die when they return to places they've fled because of danger. Many have lived in the US for decades, started businesses, pay taxes.

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That this will happen on Sunday, the Lord's Day, will make it even more hideous. What has happened to the hearts and minds of Americans that it is acceptable to treat others as less than human? Not only will these raids occur, thousands are living in terrible conditions in immigration camps where children are taken from parents. A number of children have died in detention. Those who show compassion to the "stranger in your midst" are being prosecuted as criminals in this Kafka-esque reality.

The good news this past week was that Canada took in more refugees in 2018 than any other country in the world. Sadly, this will probably be used against the current government during the Fall election by the xenophobes in this country, either overtly or covertly.

We must pray for those who are waiting in fear for what tomorrow brings in the US, and for those who are responding to their plight, including many in communities of faith. Christ be with them.

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Respecting Culture on Indigenous Peoples Day

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We were in Ottawa yesterday and would have been again today but our visit was cut short by a driver who blew a stop sign, resulting in a significant collision. We were unharmed, save some achiness, and somehow our vehicle was still drivable, while the other was a write-off. Thank God for small mercies.

We did get to the National Art Gallery for several exhibits before the drama, principally the Gaugin portraits (more on this later.) We made a point of going into rooms featuring Aboriginal art, which has become a higher priority for the National Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the McMichael Gallery. I'm grateful for this recognition Indigenous culture and creativity. The works we viewed, including a bowhead whale painting by the late great Tim Pitsiulak, have descriptions in the language of the artist above that in English or French, which is the respectful thing to do.
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Tim Pitsiulak

It's important to acknowledge these creative gifts on this National Indigenous Peoples Day, which coincides yearly with the Summer Solstice. This has been a sombre month with the release of the report on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls. There has been considerable criticism of the use of the word "genocide" in the report, push-back from white people who have the temerity to opine that what has transpired over the past 400 years doesn't fit their definition of genocide. How convenient.

We've seen the initial reluctance of the Prime Minister to use the word genocide and Andrew Scheer vaguely offered that what occurred was not genocide but "it's own thing." Brilliant.

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Brian Jungen -- current AGO exhibit

Indigenous art and spirituality are two expressions of the re-emergence of an array of cultures across this country which were systematically dismantled. As Christians we can commit ourselves to reconciliation and justice something that the United Church has committed itself to do over the past 30 years. 


Reconciliation Pole -- dedicated Friday in Vancouver

We can also honour Aboriginal culture as an act of humility and reciprocity. It isn't all about European culture and traditions, including faith. Wouldn't it meaningful if all congregations shared Indigenous art images on the Sunday closest to National Indigenous Peoples Day?

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Leland Bell

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Discovering Juneteenth

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June 19th is of special significance in our family because it's the birthday of our firstborn who is 37 today. How did that happen? A moment ago I was in dazed celebration of the birth of our son following a high-speed drive from the Newfoundland outport where we lived to the hospital in Gander, 60 kilometres away.

This is also Juneteenth, commemorating June 19th, 1865, which is believed to be the day the last plantation of enslaved Black people received their freedom - a full year after Lincoln “freed the slaves.” I had no idea of this anniversary even though I think I have a copy of Ralph Ellison's novel of the same name, a book I obviously haven't read.

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I am reading a biography of Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became an eloquent spokesperson for emancipation decades before it came to pass. Douglass was an orator, an activist, and a Christian who quoted scripture with ease and understood the themes of liberation which run through the bible.

Juneteenth falls into the category of "you learn something new every day." Thank God and Twitter that this has come to light for me.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Humbled by the Past

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In these days of streaming television it's rare to just flip through the channels anymore, at least in our household. I did come across a PBS program a couple of days ago about two marvelous British churches. York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral. Both are works of architectural genius and exquisite craftsmanship which took centuries to complete.

We had a conversation about the ceiling bosses in York Minster, the roundish gold thingies in the photo above of the nave. We have visited this church and no doubt we saw the bosses but didn't give them much thought at the time, or realize how detailed they were. They are, after all, 30 metres or nearly 100 feet above the floor.

Lo and behold, they tell a story, or stories. Some of them are hundreds of years old while others were created after a 1984 fire destroyed the historical depictions. As you can see from this photo, a number of them imagine the biblical account of Mary and some the devotional legends of Mary. There are the beautifully rendered "ox and the ass" as witnesses to the birth of Christ.

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What we found striking is that such attention was given to images which would be "hidden in plain sight," so far up that it would be difficult for even the sharpest eyes to make out the content. These were and are images of devotion, the creation of beauty to the glory of God.

We think ourselves advanced, modern, and therefore superior to those who have gone before us and perhaps we are in some respects. We can also learn from our forbearers if we are willing to put aside our hubris and self-importance.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Everyone loves a Parade

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Everyone loves a parade, the saying goes, and people have been lined up for hours to watch the victory procession through the streets of Toronto for the basketball Raptors. After years of moving toward respectability as a team the Raps finally won a championship and the city went wild. Officials have closed down much of the downtown to traffic so that the parade can wend it's way from the CNE to Nathan Phillips Square. How many people will attend -- a million, more? One of our daughters works for the real estate arm of the Tannebaum family empire which owns a big stake in the Raptors, so she will have an excellent viewing site with co-workers and I hope she has a lot of fun. Our six-year-old grandson is a bit jealous of his aunt.

I followed the Raptors faithfully all year, often staying up late to follow games from the West Coast. Then, during the final game in Toronto fans cheered the injury to Warriors star Kevin Durant and I turned off the TV. I didn't watch the title-clinching game a few nights later. Suddenly it all felt like gladiators in the ring of the Roman coliseum and I no longer had the heart for it.
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Parades can be wonderful celebrations of change and hard-won achievement, and they seem to be intrinsically part of the human condition. We love to gather for many reasons, including worship, and the more the merrier -- literally.

Parades can also be used to manipulate people or demonstrate power. Those on the sidelines, beware. Strangely, I think of Palm Sunday with the imperial Roman parade into Jerusalem from the west and Jesus' ragtag procession from the east. Pilate on a military charger, Jesus on the colt of a donkey. Sometimes we need the counter-cultural parades to remind us that "all that glisters is not gold," that what we assume is permanent is fleeting, and that there is always a cost to victory.

I'll probably tune in for a few minutes to watch the festivities, being retired and all. Go Raptors!?

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Trinity Outdoors

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty!
 Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
 holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,
 God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

With the Church through the ages,
we speak of God as one and triune:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We also speak of God as
   Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer
   God, Christ, and Spirit
   Mother, Friend, and Comforter
   Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love,
   and in other ways that speak faithfully of
the One on whom our hearts rely,
the fully shared life at the heart of the universe.

Song of Faith -- United Church of Canada 2006

It's always a tough choice to ditch church but we have been hankering to get out on the water for a couple of weeks so headed to the Salmon River north of Napanee early in the day. Our put-in spot near Roblin gives access to a portion of the river where there are no buildings and often (today included) we see no other human beings. We were in our kayaks for 2 1/2 hours, taking some breaks to experience what was a deep solitude with very little “anthrophony" (sounds made by humans) and a lovely choir of  “biophony” (sounds made by any other living organisms).

The experience was deeply worshipful and at one point Ruth sang the opening verse of the traditional hymn Holy Holy Holy. She didn't know that this is Trinity Sunday but she intuitively got it right in this cathedral of water and trees and creatures great and small. The breath of the Spirit moved gently over the waters and in the treetops, we had a profound sense of the interrelationship of Creator and Creatures, and we celebrated God-with-Us in human experience through Christ -- all without actually articulating any Trinitarian creed or formula.

On our drive back to Belleville Ruth found the lyrics of the hymn and the final verse which proclaims:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty!
 All thy works shall praise thy name in earth
  and sky and sea;
 holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,
 God in three persons, blessed Trinity!