Friday, January 31, 2020

Quiet Quest

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This past Saturday we were "chief cooks and bottle washers" for one of our grandson's seventh birthday parties. Even though we were sort of in the background as the kitchen crew the noise level grew and grew, especially during the Pokemon card scavenger hunt. At one point I pulled out my phone and used the SoundPrint decibel app (free) and we were spiking above 80 decibels, the equivalent of a diesel truck rumbling past on the street. As I write in the quiet of my study it's just over 30. But what else would be expect from a fun kid's party!

The thing is, do we really want to live in a constant children's party? If your answer is "yes" then seek professional help immediately. Yet that seems to be happening in our culture, seemingly inexorably and exponentially. . 

A week ago in the Globe and Mail there was an article entitled The Quest for Quiet by Gayle MacDonald in which she muses on her growing desire for silence. Her husband is a little surprised by this development but it is important to her. 

Silence is a precious commodity that is disappearing, according to the World Health Organization, which has been tracking noise levels for over a decade. In its newest guidelines for Europe, it described noise pollution as an “underestimated threat” that hurts our health, contributing to everything from stress to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, dementia, diabetes, and of course, hearing loss. This comes at a cost of one million healthy life years – every year – in Europe alone, to the tune of more than €40-billion ($58-billion).

MacDonald also quotes Vancouver acoustic ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp who takes up to 60 people on one-hour silent walks in the city through the seasons:

“Many people are afraid of silence – find it oppressive or depressive – but the ones who join the walks are comfortable in it or they want to learn how to be comfortable in it. We don’t speak. We listen to the environment and I encourage them to listen to their own thoughts and reactions,” he says. “After the walk, we do an assessment. People tell me they feel a bond with the people in the group – without saying a word. In quiet, we listen to the world around us differently. We get better insight into ourselves and often to the people around us.”

I feel that we would all do well to become "acoustic mystics", finding the quiet places and spaces which we hear about in scripture for Hagar and Moses and Jesus and others. Hey, Jonah came out of the belly of the fish more attuned to the voice of God!

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Ice Formation on the Moira R. during a quiet walk this morning 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Contagion of Fear

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It is influenza season in Canada which means that even though many of us got our flu shot, lots of people will come down it, and some will die -- usually the very old, and those with compromised immune systems. An estimated 500 to 1,500 people die from the flu each year in Canada, and in January about 12,000 people have come down with influenza, with no reports on the number of deaths so far.

This puts into perspective the concern about coronavirus, which has developed in China and resulted in nearly two hundred deaths and infected thousands. Not surprisingly, given global travel, coronavirus has shown up in countries around the planet, including a couple of cases here in Canada. We have been subjected to incessant news and information stating that this is not a significant health risk here but in a variation on "if it bleeds it leads" we are dealing with "it is coughs it leads." The reality is that coronavirus is actually an umbrella term for a family of different viruses, everything from the common cold to the deadly SARS.

Some of us are thinking back to the last major infectious virus scare -- remember SARS? In 2003 there were 438 probable SARS cases reported in Canada including 44 deaths. I remember this time well, even though we were living in Halifax at the beginning of this significant health challenge and the risk was relatively low in that city. Just the same, our congregation chose to install hand sanitizer dispensers and a colleague was struggling because her elderly father in Ontario was in isolation in a hospital where she was not allowed to visit because of SARS. Sadly, he died without her being to see him in his final days.

When we moved back to Ontario that Fall there were strict protocols for clergy in terms of visiting congregants in hospitals and other institutions. For a brief period there was talk about restricting public gatherings, including church services. And denominations which celebrated the eucharist/communion with a common cup had to consider alternatives. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge beyond the efforts to contain the spread of SARS is the one we face now -- ignorance which results in fear. Already we've heard of Canadians with Chinese heritage who have never been to China who are facing discrimination from strangers. A parents' petition has started in one school board to require students with a Chinese background to stay home. Even though common flu is a far higher risk, this new "plague" has literally scared some people silly.

While we should all take reasonable precautions during flu season, including at church, we should remember how often our scriptures encourage us to "be not afraid" and that "perfect love casts out fear." With prayer and calm we will find our way through this, God being our helper. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Mental Health & Adult Children

Joshua Wall, 26, went missing during Newfoundland's historic snowstorm.

Joshua Wall, 26

Newfoundlanders proved once again how tough and generally good-natured they are, enduring the recent snowstorm which dumped in excess of 75 centimetres -- that's 30 inches -- in just over a a day. The storm was so severe that everything on the Avalon Peninsula and in the city of St. John's was shut down for a week, and the army was brought in to help dig people out. Newfoundlanders are experienced in hunkering down, so we didn't get reports of serious injury or death, with one exception. 

In the height of the storm Joshua Wall decided to leave the shelter of his home and walk through a wooded area to see a friend, despite the protestations of his parents, with whom he lived. Joshua had mental health issues and was not taking his medication so he may have struggled with making sensible decisions, including this one. He called the friend on his way, lost, and he perished in the storm. His family tried to search for him but realized they were endangering themselves and the RCMP found his body several days later.

I hope we can all remember Joshua and his family on this Bell Let's Talk mental health day. I am thinking about all the families in congregations through the years which had to address mental illness with adult children. Attempting to provide loving, practical support to adults who often resist help while in the grips of mental illness is incredibly demanding and often terribly lonely. Sometimes it is dangerous, yet parents are regularly shut out from essential information about the diagnoses for adult children even when they are still living at home. For parents there can be a sense of shame, along with the helplessness, which keeps them from sharing what is going on with even their closest friends.

Today we can pray for the individuals who are trying to live meaningful lives and striving toward mental health and wholeness and independence.  We can also uphold the parents and other family members who are doing their best to be that loving, non-anxious presence for their adult children. God comfort those who have experienced alienation and loss, that they would know they are loved by the Christ who entered into human existence, with both its joys and sorrows.  

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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Next Steps for Medical Assistance in Dying?

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Yesterday was the deadline (no macabre pun intended) for Canadians to respond to the Medical Assistance in Dying Questionnaire created by the federal Department of Justice. It appears that there were nearly a quarter million responses, a total far exceeding any other public response questionnaire offered to Canadians.

Two Sundays ago I led an information session and discussion at our church, Trenton United, following worship and I was impressed by the number of people who attended and the conversation which ensued. When I filled out the online questionnaire I was disappointed by its brevity and the lack of straightforward resources to help respondents make informed comments. I named this concern to my Member of Parliament, Neil Ellis, and to his credit I received a helpful response. I also suggested that a two-week time frame wasn't nearly long enough to gather those who might be interested in group discussion before filling out the questionnaire. 

The issues of providing MAID to those with mental illness, to those younger than 18 weren't really addressed. Certainly the subject of an Advanced Directive and the waiting period were at the forefront of the discussion at Trenton UC, but those other areas are also very important. 

It does seem that the hurry for the DOJ comes from the Superior Court decision in Quebec. We've just learned that there have been revisions to that courts original ruling, so we'll see what's next. 

Here is my email to Neil Ellis, for what it's worth. 

Hello Mr. Ellis,

You may recall that in May 2016 Bridge St. United Church in Belleville hosted what proved to a well-attended and informative conversation with MP Rob Oliphant, who co-chaired the joint committee which made recommendations to the federal government regarding Medical Assistance in Dying. Rob was engaging, clear, and helpful to the approximately 125 people who showed up that Friday evening. Many of those present spoke about their desire for a provision of advanced directives prior to mental incapacity. which would exclude them from MAID. 

I was the minister of Bridge St. at the time and initiated this event, as well as moderating it. I have maintained a strong interest in MAID since it was legislated into existence in June 2016.

I have responded to the MAID questionnaire currently available as part of a public consultation and I have strong concerns about its brevity and therefore its value. It's as though we've been invited to look through a telescope from the wrong end.

We are given no information about whether there has been the increased provision of palliative care which was at least implied at the time the legislation was introduced. Nor are we provided with any information about the demographic realities of MAID in terms of provision in rural and remote areas during the 3 1/2 years since it's introduction. In my response I asked what unique safeguards would be provided for those who are seeking advanced directives, given their heightened vulnerability. Surely this should have been framed as a question?

I am concerned that the time-frame for this supposed consultation is so brief, and that there is no provision for groups of people to discuss this important topic in an informed manner.  This past Sunday I facilitated a discussion in the United Church congregation I now attend in retirement and discovered that the participants wanted to be better informed and to engage in discussion before responding to the questionnaire. 

Just to be clear, I support the provision of MAID, although with strong precautionary concerns in a number of areas. At the same time I am convinced that this is both an ethical and spiritual issue. Yet it appears to have become primarily a legal issue and one driven by somewhat arbitrary deadlines. 

What has been provided in this unsatisfactory process feeds the "slippery slope" concerns of many. I feel that the federal government must do better in helping all Canadians make informed decisions.


Rev. David Mundy

Monday, January 27, 2020

Auschwitz and the Human Spirit

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Prisoners liberated from Auschwitz under the entrance motto "work sets you free"

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a bestselling novel about the seemingly impossible flourishing of love amidst the horrors of one of the cruelest places that every existed. It is based on a true story and while some aspects of the novel have been challenged in terms of accuracy about the extermination camp at Auschwitz it is a powerful perspective on the lives of two human beings who found hope in the midst of despair and unimaginable evil.It's good that events which are now recalled directly by fewer and fewer survivors are brought to the fore, lest we forget. 

There ware twenty main extermination camps run by the Nazis during WWII with six million Jews perishing through direct murder and incineration, and from disease and starvation. The camps were also used to kill LGBTQ persons and Roma (once called Gypsies) and the disabled, as well as others designated as undesirable.  

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and this is the tweet posted by the Auschwitz Memorial

Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum)
75 years ago today over 7,000 prisoners of the German Nazi #Auschwitz camp, including ca. 700 children, were liberated by the soldiers of the Soviet army. 1,689 days of murder, humiliation, suffering, and pain were over. Today we all remember. | #Auschwitz75 #OnThisDay

The estimate is that one million people perished at Auschwitz and that the Nazis were marching prisoners away from the camp to murder them almost to the day of liberation. This willingness of humans being to kill children, women and men who had done nothing to harm them based on religion and perceptions of racial affiliation is chilling. These victims were loved and gave love and did not have happy endings to their stories. 

It is important to acknowledge this day, even though the liberation occurred 75 years ago. Just recently there was a rally in the United States where armed participants gave Nazi salutes and carried Nazi and Confederate flags. Before the rally the FBI arrested members of a White Supremacist, Neo-Nazi group, including a Canadian, who were plotting violence at this event. Hatred and evil don't have an expiry date, and it is "ordinary" people who give themselves over to the darkness who perpetrate it. We really must be vigilant and prayerful as we "seek justice and resist evil" (UCC New Creed) wherever it exists. 

God be with those Shoah/Holocaust survivors who will be at Auschwitz today and those remembering in places around the world. 

Alessandra Dee Crespo (@AlessDeeCrespo)
‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.’

- Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and acclaimed writer

#HolocaustMemorialDay #Auschwitz75

The Virginia Citizens Defence League has estimated as many as 100,000 demonstrators may descend onto the Capitol grounds in Virginia during its annual Lobby Day demonstrations next week.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

No Unity Please, We're Christian

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The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ended yesterday, which you will all know because the events held in your community involving Christians from different denominations celebrating the uniting truth of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism," as the author of Ephesians declares. Are you confused? What events?

There was a day when a genuine effort was made to hold joint services in communities as a witness to unity in diversity. Yes, we have our differences, yet we humbly acknowledge that Christ gives us a common life which should be celebrated. 

In the latter years of my pastoral ministry this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity faded into obscurity, a puzzling development given that many of the mainline denominations which once supported it just don't anymore. We are "shipwrecked" and need to extend kindness and encouragement to each other, as this year's theme from Acts 28 suggests. 


Over the decades I found Christian unity a challenge, often because I just didn't like the conservative theology of some colleagues. And to a degree it was easier for me than some of my female UCC colleagues who weren't even recognized as ministers of the gospel by the "old boys club." Just the same, some of the most generous, remarkable Christians I've met through the years are from denominations with which I disagree, fundamentally. They are often deeply committed to prayer and a strong devotional life grounded in humility and praise. 

It has been deeply satisfying to be involved in shared projects such as Syrian refugee sponsorship where congregations which have never worked together in the past bring their varying gifts together. 

In this time of social media I follow pastors and theologians who challenge and inspire me. This may shock you, but we "progressive" types can dig ruts so deep that we can no longer see the horizon. Conversation, worship, prayer with those with different outlooks can sharpen our own theology and invite us to consider different perspectives.

Ya, I know -- silly talk. Polarization is so much more attractive to those who are questioning the value of faith and disorganized religion. 


Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Kindness Gospel of Fred Rogers

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When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.
Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.

Fred Rogers

The disappointing reality of this community is that better films are in the cineplex for a matter of minutes, it seems, while the dreck pictures hang around like radioactive waste. So, we missed A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers during its brief run. We got a second chance to see the film this week when in was shown at the downtown theatre in town. 

Mr. Rogers has achieved virtual sainthood since his death in 2003, although his wife Joanne assures us that Fred was a loving, kind man who was a real human being. 

The documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? was excellent, so we wondered about what this dramatization would be like. We went with no preconceptions so both of us were a little surprised that it's actually about the relationship Rogers developed with a journalist who reluctantly took on doing what he considered a fluff piece about a children's entertainer for Esquire magazine. He was cynical about any person being as kind and positive as Rogers, but the experience changed his life. 

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I don't want to say too much about the plot, in the event that you haven't yet seen the film. I will offer that from the first frames this is a story about forgiveness and reconciliation which is moving, and challenges viewers to ask what holds us back from being the persons God intends us to be.  I wrote in my journal last evening that this was one of the most Christian, gospel films I've ever watched, even though there are only brief references to Fred Rogers' faith. He read his bible daily, and prayed for others by name, and as Joanne maintains, worked at kindness as a spiritual practice. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister who lived his vocation through deed rather than word on his long-running show. 

I actually feel inspired by the film to deepen my Christian faith, and I would watch it again. Have you seen it? I hope you will. 

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Friday, January 24, 2020

Hope for those Living with Cancer

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During the past year two friends who are dear to our hearts have gone through extensive cancer treatments, both of them undergoing chemotherapy which has been very debilitating and life-threatening. Both have been courageous and have a strong Christian faith. Many friends and family have prayed for them and both have benefited from the treatments. They are making their way back to health, but what a journey. 

Through the years as a pastor I've done my best to walk alongside scores of people who have undergone chemo, radiation, surgery, bone marrow transplants, because of cancer. Our conversations have often included conversations about whether the treatment would be worthwhile, given the prognosis. Some have experienced the return of cancer, or come to the place where they felt that were guinea pigs for research and chosen to forego further treatment. The possible cure can be worse than the disease with all the side-effects which mean that life no longer has joy or purpose. I never questioned the choices individuals made, although I hope I helped them move prayerfully through their decision-making at each stage.

I thought about all this as I listened to oncologist Azra Raza  on CBC Radio's The Current yesterday. She has been involved in research for decades and yet was blunt in saying that despite the billions of dollars spent and progress made, the way we treat cancer today is an “embarrassment.” She offered the observation that the way we treat cancer is akin to beating a dog with a stick to kill its fleas. That caught my attention!

The interview reminded me that while pastors/priests/rabbis/imams may feel rather helpless when providing support for those living with cancer, each patient is a person whose body, mind, and spirit is assaulted by disease. Our prayers, practical support, encouragement are vital on this journey.

Raza has a new book, The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last, argues we need to change the way we approach the devastating disease. I hope we can find different paths for those who desire abundant life, not simply survival. God be with those who are researchers and medical specialists in this field.

Here is the link to yesterday's podcast:

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Religious Influencers Who Left Us

Rachel Held Evans

Broadview magazine, formerly known as the United Church Observer has included a piece called 10 religious influencers who died in the last decade: From an atheist to the top expert on the world's faiths, these people played a big role in the religious sphere. It was written by Adelle Banks for Religion News Service. I  think it's excellent because of its diversity, with profiles of several people I greatly admired, others I didn't like at all, and one, James Cone, whose work I feel I must explore. I was deeply saddened by the death of Rachel Held Evans, who was only 37 and seemingly vital when she was hospitalized and succumbed to a mysterious illness. 

James Cone

 I'll let you read the article and perhaps you'll speculate about the ones I consider the good, the bad, and the ugly.!

“In all these wanderings through other traditions,
 Christianity has always been my religious meal.
 But I’m a great believer in vitamin supplements. 
I can’t tell you how much it has contributed to my life. 
I see in it no conflict with my Christianity.”

                               Huston Smith