Sunday, May 31, 2020
Mr. Bean goes to church
Come Holy Spirit Come
Come as the Fire and Burn
Come as the Wind and Cleanse
Come as the Light and Reveal
Convict, Convert, Consecrate
Until We are Wholly Yours
Somehow yesterday we ended up watching an episode of Mr. Bean, the comedy sketch series starring the brilliant Rowan Atkinson. Mr. Bean went to church and it was...hilarious.The entire sketch was funny as Bean sits "up close and personal" to another congregant, but the singing of the hymn "All Creatures of Our God and King" made us laugh out loud. (easy to find the clip online.)
Nobody will be in church in Ontario today, thanks to the coranavirus, unless the gathering is either illegal or in a carefully spaced parking lot. It's particularly strange on this Sunday, because it's Pentecost, the celebration of the birth of the Christian church. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles we read that the Spirit of the living God infused a band of bewildered followers of Jesus with the courage to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in the public square .
This is a powerful story but I never found that United Church folk were enthusiastic to observe Pentecost the way they did Christmas and Easter, despite its importance. And we now live in a largely secular culture where it wouldn't occur to most people to attend worship of any kind, even if they had the freedom to do so.
This Pentecost we may all be considering whether the Holy Spirit has left the building, so to speak, and what the future holds for us. When will we be allowed back into our familiar places of worship, and will we comfortable doing so, even when we are given permission? Will we give the side eye to friends who are now potential killers? (I may be exaggerating!) Will it feel like church if we're required to sit a couple of metres apart, or we can't pass the peace? The word is that communal singing is a very effective way of transmitting, so the choir is now a gang of trained assassins.
We are already re-inventing the way we come together for worship, discern the Spirit in meetings, support one another pastorally as the Body of Christ. We're having discussions about celebrating our sacraments of communion and baptism online. Is this just a stop-gap or will we become more effective in our public witness in these new ways. Surely we realize that we can't fall asleep at the wheel, or in the pew, of our new reality.
Perhaps on this Pentecost Sunday we emphasize that when the Holy Spirit came two millennia ago those frightened believers were inside, only to be swept outside into a new and powerful form of witness. Is that where we're headed? God only knows.
1 Creative Spirit, come to us,
give vision to the minds you own,
and fill the hearts which you have made
with gifts whose grace is yours alone.
2 For you are called the Comforter,
the glorious gift of God Most High,
the living water, fire and love,
outpouring of eternity.
3 Kaleidoscope of sevenfold light,
power of the strong right hand of God,
enriching with the promised truth
the prophet's and the preacher's word.
4 Make our imaginations blaze,
and fill our hearts with flowing love,
that we, who have no strength, may know
the strong flight of the soaring dove.
9th Century Hymn -- Voices United 199
Saturday, May 30, 2020
I just finished the highly entertaining series called The Last Dance which explores the extraordinary Chicago Bulls basketball team on the 1990's. As you might imagine, the focus is on the incomparable Michael Jordan, perhaps the best player to ever take to the hardwood.
We are reminded that Michael was focussed and even driven from the time he was a boy in North Carolina. He was always talented but he was willing to push himself, learn from coaches, adapt to new strategies through the years. even though he was considered one of the best of his era he bulked up physically to withstand the pounding he took from opponents.
It's fair to say that his drive to win meant that at times he was a bully with his teammates, hectoring them in practices to excel, even those who were really the bit players on the various iterations of the team through the years.
The final episode introduces a different perspective when one observer of that decade suggests that Michael was a "mystic", able to be totally in the moment, shutting out all distractions. It is the brief observation at the beginning of the segment and there is another allusion near the end.
The coach of the six championship teams was Phil Jackson, son of a fundamentalist preachers who probably would have taken a dim view of any sort of mysticism. even though it is has strong roots in Christianity. Jackson left that background behind but he embraced Buddhism, or at least incorporated aspects of it into his personal practice and philosophy. He also introduced this into the team dynamic and somehow convinced players with tremendous individual skills to diminish their egos for the sake of a greater good -- championships.
Jackson introduced a "One Team, One Breath" program when he moved on to the Los Angeles Lakers (five more championships), bringing in a meditation teacher to work with his players.
Was Michael Jordan a mystic? That's a bit of a stretch, but what a reminder that the contemplative life can make a difference in virtually every sphere of life, even with alpha males.
Hey, in these days of isolation there is opportunity for all of us to become a little more contemplative. For Christians it can mean connecting with the presence of the living God in ways that go beyond the conventions of our regular religious patterns. Less Netflix, more prayer?
Friday, May 29, 2020
Blah, blah, blah, COVID-19. Blah, blah, blah Coronavirus. Blah, blah, blah, pandemic. The reasons are obvious for the incessant attention to the virus which has killed hundreds of thousands around the world and sent the global economy into a tailspin. We would probably agree that the unknowns are as scary as the knowns and that's had a profound effect on the mental health of so many. But aren't there other issues of importance as well?
The answer is yes, and one which was supposed to be addressed in Canada by now was the possibility of widening the parameters for Medical Assistance in Dying, or MAID. As you might recall, in the olden days (last September) the Superior Court of Quebec struck down some restrictions to MAID and asked the federal government to revise the provisions. Early this year Canadians were invited to comment and hundreds of thousands did so. I led an information session in our congregation and encouraged participants to go online and respond.
Now the United Church General Council has issued a statement about the possible revisions and Broadview magazine has reported this (my emphasis):
stated its support for mature minors to request MAID, but that those situations be judged on a case-by-case basis.
It's important that the United Church is responding in the midst of so much turmoil, and interesting to read the conclusions from General Council. They lean toward caution in decision-making, which is not surprising given that we are attempting to balance compassion with a deep respect for life and protection for the vulnerable.
It's also interesting that Broadview recently published a cover article about Ron Posno, and 80-year-old in cognitive decline who want to be able to create an advanced directive for his own death:
And he wants to request one now, in advance, while he’s still mentally competent and able to make decisions about his future. Posno worries that by the time his suffering becomes intolerable — a requirement to access medical assistance in dying, or MAID — he’ll no longer be capable of giving his informed consent to the procedure, which is also necessary by law.
A reminder that the United Church is willing to take a "broad view" on difficult subjects?
There is nothing straightforward about this, and we will need prayerful, thoughtful vigilance in the days ahead. I'm grateful that the UCC is not asleep at the wheel.
Ron Posno and his wife, Sandy, have been married for almost 60 years.
The pair met when they were both 17. (Portrait: Anya Chibis)
Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Everyone is on the search for binge-worthy series these days and we are trying to suss out the good and avoid the bad and ugly -- of which there is a lot. While we still rely on Netflix we've also found excellent series on Crave, Amazon Prime, CBC Gem, Britbox, Apple TV+. In some instances we subscribe for a month, glut ourselves, then cancel. No, we are not just couch pommes de terre, but we've needed more screen diversion these days.
I've been trying to recall whether I blogged about the Netflix series Unbelievable. We watched it a few months ago and were captivated by this drama based on the actual events leading to the arrest of a serial rapist by two determined women cops collaborating from different jurisdictions.
The acting is excellent and the story compelling. I was really intrigued by the portrayal of the one police woman played with dignity by Merritt Wever. She is a family person and a Christian who goes to church regularly. What? No tortured past? Or screwed up relationships? When she is shown in church with her family they sing a song I recognized and the pastor seems like a decent guy. What's wrong with this picture?
I'll be honest, I kept waiting to find our that there was something dark behind her determined and honest exterior -- a secret addiction? -- but she is consistent to the end. I would like to know more about the actual Detective Stacey Galbraith and her faith. She once offered :“I know He (God) gave me certain strengths, so I just have to use them. Even when it’s painful.”
I would certainly recommend Unbelievable, .if I haven't already!
Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday -- aka Woodstock
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.
For with the judgment you make you will be judged,
and the measure you give will be the measure you get.
Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye,
but do not notice the log in your own eye?
Or how can you say to your neighbour,[
‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’
while the log is in your own eye?
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye,
and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus of Nazareth
Nobody likes selfish cheaters except, perhaps,the cheaters themselves. So, when we saw what appeared to be throngs of scofflaws in a park on Saturday it provoked widespread outrage, and justifiably so.Not only did some of these people flaunt COVID-19 distancing regulations, they were also disgusting as they defecated and urinated on the lawns of residents nearby. Shortly thereafter a doctor who has been selflessly working in a hospital for weeks, separated from his family, posted an emotional response of disbelief and disappointment which certainly touched me.
Since then Torontonians have been posting photos of near-empty parks and public spaces where people were following the rules on the weekend. Our 33-year-old daughter is a Toronto resident and lives near High Park. She is a very social person with a wide circle of friends but she has been scrupulous about distancing for nearly ten weeks. She lives close to High Park and the lake shore, so she goes early in the morning to avoid contact with others and lives essentially to herself the rest of the time while she works from home.
In our pleasant suburban neighbourhood there are people who have been stealth visiting throughout the supposed lock-down. An elderly couple visits with family all the time even though they are not healthy. They don't bother to keep a safe distance. Others are doing the same, but they don't end up in the news. And we suburbanites have the privilege of relatively spacious and private yards for our clandestine behaviour. In Toronto the Not-As-Good-As-We'd-Like hundreds of thousands have been cooped up in condos and apartments in a city which doesn't have adequate green space.
It's all a reminder that we are invited to see the worst and experience the deep indignation which comes with it. That's newsworthy, and everyday compliance is boring.
I had a Twitter exchange yesterday with a former United Church clergy colleague who is a great guy. He ended up fairly "wrapped around the axle" about the selfishness of what had occurred in Toronto. He lives in the country and I reminded him that lots of those park miscreants are people who take public transit and don't own a car. They live in densified neighbourhoods and don't commute distances to work. Perhaps they would want to call us out for acting in ways that ignore a greater crisis, the climate emergency? I suggested we all take a deep breath on this one. We agreed to disagree.
I still think that what those people in Trinity Bellwoods Park did was wrong, and I'm confident that I'll be judgmental about COVID-iots From time to time I catch myself being a total hypocrite and the reopening of society will likely be no exception. .
Still, I'll attempt to be aware for the logs in my own eyes as I take umbrage at the specks in the eyes of others.
Monday, May 25, 2020
I feel strongly that Ethan Hawke is one of the finest actors of his generation. He co-starred in the trilogy of films which began with Before Sunrise way back in 1995 when he was in his 20's. They have received critical acclaim as did his acting, and the same is true of films such as Boyhood and Maudie.
I've blogged about the powerful picture, First Reformed, in which Hawke plays a pastor in a failing congregation who is tortured by his past and quietly bitter about the present. It is a remarkable performance.
Now Hawke is cast in a series about one of the truly perplexing figures of 19th century American history, John Brown. The Showtime series (August) is an adaptation of the novel Good Lord Bird by James McBride which won the National Book Award in the States in 2013, which I've read.
Brown was probably mentally ill and he was a religious zealot who allowed his convictions to bring about poverty and disaster for his family. He was also opposed to slavery as anti-Christian abomination, which was one of his strengths. He gave up on pacifism as a road to change and became convinced that violent revolution was the only solution for the emancipation of slaves. This led to the ill-fated attack on an armoury at Harper's Ferry. Brown was captured after a bloody battle and eventually hanged.
It's intriguing that Ethan Hawke has played religious figures and brings a spiritual sensibility to other roles he's played. In a 2017 interview with Relevant magazine he reflects on the value of faith:
On why he sees faith as a “moving thing.”
“Faith is a supple and moving thing, because you see a lot of adults with different points of view. A lot of people turn off when you talk about religion because they think they’re about to be preached to or told they’re lost. My family never really did that. I grew up with a lot of different people who had very supple minds, and it made talking about why we’re born and why we’re here and why we have to die a lot more of an exciting conversation. I was raised in a dialogue of faith. I’ve always been trying to figure out how to integrate that aspect of my life into my creative life.”
On the value of Church.
“One of the great things about going to church is you see yourself as a member of a community. I think it gave me a great framework to survive the pitfalls of early celebrity. It teaches a fundamental humility. One of the problems of making it in the arts is how it fans the flames of your ego. It’s really easy for young people to lose context. You need a sense of humility to keep learning and keep growing.”
Are you an Ethan Hawke fan? Are you curious about searching out some of his pictures?
Sunday, May 24, 2020
Sundays are disorienting these days, aren't they? No getting up and out the doors to our various places of worship. Granted, some congregations live-stream services with the pastor and a musician or three, but the majority "can" worship and share it with the flock. This morning Rev. Katy (another retiree) and I offered reflections for Trenton United because Rev. Isaac was taking a week of stay-cation.
We were in a canoe on the Salmon River near Roblin shortly after 8:00 this morning and it was a tranquil, worshipful 90 minutes or so under the canopy of leafing trees.
But I digress, sort of.. I wanted to tell you that yesterday I finished a novel called The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave which has received strong reviews. It was one of three novels I gave Ruth for her birthday and when she finished it I picked it up.
It is based on actual events in 17th century Norway, during a period of persecution of people condemned as witches and sorcerers. They were mostly Sami, the indigenous people we called Lapps when I was young. It turns out that Lapp is a derogatory term for these semi-nomadic people who herded reindeer, as well as hunted and fished and foraged off the land. They had their own spirituality which might be considered animism, strongly connected to the land.
This made them targets of suspicion and condemnation which resulted in the executions of more than 90 in pathetic "trials" which involved little in the way of justice. The collusion of the Christian churches was both dismaying and predictable. Somehow clergy and other officials convinced themselves that the love of God could include torture to extract confessions and death by burning.
The novel is both fascinating and a tough read. It focuses on relationships within one village where an actual sudden and violent storm occurred led to the deaths at sea of nearly all the community's men, at least 40 fishermen. Eventually a couple of the women were tried for conjuring the storm through witchcraft as Sami supposedly had magical powers to control the elements. The guilt of one was amplified by her choice to wear trousers when the women took on the tasks of their deceased husbands, including fishing.
Sami Drummer Eirik Myrhaug
This was in an era when hysteria over witchcraft came to a destructive fever pitch in Europe and in America (think Salem witch trials.) The story also made me think of the persecution of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the extensive efforts made to extinguish their spirituality.. In the novel Sami drums are destroyed and we know that they were stolen to become artifacts in museums. In North America similar things were done with prohibitions on totems and other "suspicious" symbols.
We need to keep in mind that there are still Sami people in the north of Scandinavia, as there are First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people in Canada. There are efforts around the world to revive and preserve the pre-Christian spirituality of indigenous peoples.
We would both recommend reading The Mercies even though it is a sobering story. I have to wonder whether these murderous "Godly" men ever had pangs of conscience or whether they went to the grave without contrition. And if there is a hell, are they there?
I love turtles, rah, rah, rah! Today's Groundling blog.
Saturday, May 23, 2020
I know, I know, I've addressed the subject of church re-openings recently but I just have to revisit it because of the Emperor Trump. He has issued an imperial to allow congregations to gather in the faithful, and he will make it so, even if he has to override the decisions of state governors to do so. Of course Trump doesn't go to church because he plays golf on weekends and I have to agree with Pope Francis who commented that given Trump's actions and policies it's unlikely that he is a Christian.
Trump is a desperate politician who has seen an alarming decline in his support amongst evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians (finally!) They tend to be older and vulnerable to the coronavirus and Trump's response to the COVID-19 crisis has been abysmal. So, pretend you're on the side of religious freedom and use your magic royal sceptre to open the locked doors of places of worship!
Here is is though. Many congregations in the US have defied closures and they have paid the price. Thirty Pentecostal pastors in the south have died of COVID -- that's right, thirty. A priest at a Houston church died after legally reopening and because of the death they've closed again. There are lots of other examples in the States and in other parts of the world. Needless to say, congregants have also tested positive and some have died.
I'm relieved that many religious bodies in the US are convinced that keeping places of worship closed is the right decision and will not comply with what's-his-names huffing and puffing.
So far most congregations of various faiths here in Canada have complied with closures. Thank God we don't have a fool like the emperor encouraging people to try quack remedies for COVID-19, or using worship for political gain.
I will remind you that there is a petition by a group of pastors asking Ontario Premier Ford to allow congregations to assemble beginning in June. Their request includes limiting gathering size, us of sanitizer and using an honour system to affirm a lack of symptoms or travel outside the country. But some people would struggle to follow those guidelines, perhaps with a misguided belief that God would protect them. And not all congregations have the same resources to ensure safety. While reopening will eventually happen, I do hope that the petition is ignored in the shorter term.
We really must consider staying home from worship as the loving and faith choice, for this unprecedented moment.
Yes, we are struggling and even suffering from the loss of physical community. Yes, there are people who are finding the loneliness difficult to bear. But there are also a host of creative ways by which congregations are "gathering" and even celebrating the sacraments.
Stay strong folks, keep in touch with members of your faith family, and remember that the body of Christ is centred in the One who embodies sacrificial love.