Tuesday, June 30, 2020

When "Freedom" translates as "Selfishness"

What Was Being Worshiped Yesterday at First Baptist Church in ...

First Baptist Church Dallas Texas

By now most of us have seen the videos of  men and women raging away like spoiled toddlers because of the terrible expectation that they be considerate for the safety of others. They are in retail stores or taking up valuable time at town council meetings, literally screaming their outrage at the expectation that they wear a mask for a few minutes  so they won't spread a potentially deadly virus. Some of the store videos show men threatening violence against employees and women flinging groceries out of carts.  

Often these absurd, petulant people cite the right to personal and civic freedom as their reason for refusing to wear a mask or take other precautions. Somehow, in the United States (these all seem to originate south of the border) extreme selfishness and the resultant poor behavior are translated as some twisted conception of freedom.

A Viral Video Shows A Woman Berating Trader Joe's Employees And ...

What is worse, a twisted form of  freedom is often glorified in churches, usually with a conservative "me and Jesus" theology. At times there is no distinction between freedom to worship Christ and some sort of warped patriotism. This past Sunday was Freedom Sunday in one mega-church congregation with everyone present waving an American flag from their seats.

The Apostle Paul explores freedom in several of his letters and assures readers that they and we are set free in Christ. For Paul, though, we are set free from destructive self-interest and the bondage of sin. He also knew, as did the prophets before him, that religion dependent on power, including the state, was false religion.

Didn't Jesus say that if we want to find our lives we'll need to lose them, and that the truth will set us free?  Such silly talk...

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Persistence of Hope

I let you know that earlier this month the United Church acknowledged the 40th anniversary of my ordination as a minister in 1980. I've come to realize that our graduating class was sort of a "last hurrah" in terms of the significant number of people being ordained and commissioned by Emmanuel College in Toronto -- more than thirty that year. While the number of students entered into a steady decline, this was one of the last, if not the last year in which men outnumbered women as ordinands and commissionands. That shift was an important one for our denomination. 

Our year was too big to get to know all classmates well, but there were some who became more than acquaintances and a few who became lasting friends. I got to know one, Norm Esdon, through a small and theologically eclectic group who prayed together -- what a concept. I came to appreciate Norm as a photographer (he chaired the weekly bulletin cover working group for years) and as poet. A former chemistry teacher, Norm was committed from those seminary days to the present to exploring how "living with respect in Creation" is a vital and integral aspect of our Christian faith. 

Unfortunately Norm had to retire early because of a blood disorder which made the rigours of pastoral ministry unmanageable but he has continued to express his creativity through these years. Recently he has spent far too many hours in hospital receiving the treatments necessary to address his wonky blood cells. Last week, after a particularly long day of transfusion and treatment, he shared the photo and poem I've included above (with his permission)  on the nature of hope.

It seems to me that what Norm captures here is the truth we often reluctantly arrive at that hope is, as he says, not necessarily about "outcome" but "on-going." This is an important message in the midst of our personal trials, but also the tribulations of a pandemic, as well as the climate crisis. Faith may be assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1) but the hope part is not for the faint of heart.

I continue to pray for the "outcome" in Norm's sojourn, and I admire the gracious "on-going" fortitude of his hope which is an inspiration to all who know him. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Pride Without the Parade

Belleville Pride Parade 2019

The Coronavirus pandemic and the need for responsible physical distancing  has meant that many public events which are institutions have simple gone away for 2020. Graduations everywhere are happening online, the Boston and New York marathons have been postponed., and the Toronto Caribbean Festival Parade has ground to a halt.

Of course June is Pride Month and Pride parades have suffered the same fate with some becoming virtual and others cancelled. It's a sad reality because in many communities the parades allow a safe visibility for LGBTQ2 persons and those who support them. Increasingly politicians and faith leaders have shown solidarity. Last year there was a Pride Festival at the conclusion of the parade in Belleville and members of the Trenton United Church to which we belong had a booth to share information about the denominations policies and practices for inclusion. 

I saw the Pew Research Center report called The global divide on acceptance of homosexuality which has helpful and revealing graphics about attitudes and shifts around the world and over time. It is sobering to realize that in 68 countries homosexuality is illegal and in some it is punishable by incarceration and even death. Here in Canada 85% of people accept those from the LGBTQ2 community, or at least say they should be accepted -- there is a difference. 


Today we can all prayerfully ask what needs to happen in our attitudes and practices to be accepting and inclusive of others in every sphere of life. We can also pray for those who are under threat in the places they live because of sexual orientation. In too many countries Christians are part of the problem rather than active in finding solutions and providing safe havens for those who are stigmatized and persecuted.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Pope Francis, Brother Alois & the Work of Taize

Many years ago when son Isaac was in his early twenties he lived for the better part of a year in the ecumenical Christian community in France called Taize. The community welcomes tens of thousands of young people every year and Taize-style worship is now celebrated around the world and wee have several Taize choruses in the Voices United worship resource. Isaac was there when the founder, Brother Roger (namesake for one of their sons) was still the prior, although frail and in his 90's. Brother Alois was his presumed successor, a role he took on when Brother Roger was murdered by a deranged visitor to Taize. 

I visited Isaac during his time there, two weeks in February,  with one of those weeks in the House of Silence. I was not supposed to speak or communicate with others during this week of contemplation, and I was reasonably successful doing so.I was allowed to leave for daily worship and for walks -- kilometres and kilometres through the countryside. 

I was also permitted several meetings with a spiritual director who happened to be Brother Alois. I appreciated his gentle yet direct spirit even though I had no idea of what would unfold in the community.

I noticed that Brother Alois met with Pope Francis recently in an audience which was originally scheduled in March but postponed by the pandemic. According to the Taize website:

During this half-hour meeting, Brother Alois was able to share with the Holy Father recent news from Taizé, in particular the latest stages of the pilgrimage of trust on earth and the recent resumption of welcoming young people to Taizé after the period of lockdown. He also told him how much the encyclical Laudato Si’ stimulates the research of the community, and he spoke about the work on safeguarding and the welcoming of refugees in Taizé.
Brother Alois added: "I am particularly touched by the warm and fraternal welcome of Pope Francis. In Taizé, we feel very close to his ministry and I wanted to tell him how much we pray for him.”
Reading about this brought back a wave of fond memories about being at Taize, including seeing Isaac daily for a couple of weeks when we had been apart for months. I couldn't speak with him for those days but I could wave as we went for worship. It was also an important reminder to pray for the remarkable ministry to young people that the community has offered for so many years. 

58 taize house of silence le puits | Duncan-pics | Flickr

House of Silence

Friday, June 26, 2020

Insanity at the Top of the World

Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers guard a highway leading towards Leh, bordering China, in Gagangir on June 17, 2020. -

Indian Border Security Force soldiers guard a highway leading towards Leh, bordering China, in Gagangir [Tauseef Mustafa/AFP]

1 Let there be light, let there be understanding,
let all the nations gather, let them be face to face;

2 open our lips, open our minds to ponder,
open the door of concord opening into grace;

3 perish the sword, perish the angry judgement,
perish the bombs and hunger, perish the fight for gain...

Voices United 679 (3 of 6 verses)

Last week there was a  report about a skirmish along the border between India and China which involved troops from both those countries. High in the Himalayan mountains there is an area whose ownership has been disputed for decades. Both countries, each a nuclear power, has a contingent of unarmed soldiers who keep watch against incursions. 

While the details are sketchy, it would seem that the soldiers entered into brutal hand-to-hand combat over a period of six hours, in the dark. Some of them fell or were pushed to their deaths with 20 Indian solders and possibly even more Chinese killed. One report described the skirmish as medieval but I was thinking "neanderthal." 

INTERACTIVE: India-China border dispute May 27,2020

What a bizarre and destructive species we are. While in the greater scheme of war this wasn't a major loss of life, but what was this fight at the top of the world really about, and why did these human beings have to die in such a brutal and senseless way? 

We want to view ourselves as a sophisticated and advanced species,yet we act like spoiled children playing with gasoline and matches in a garage. It wasn't long ago that the dictator of North Korea, and the dictator of the United States -- excuse me, president -- were trading ridiculous insults and threats about using weapons of mass destruction. 

All this reminds me once again of why I follow Jesus, Prince of Peace, the one who resisted the temptations of power and empire to embody a gospel of love and forgiveness. When his disciples wanted to respond with violence in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus restrained them saying "the one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword." Christians through the centuries have steadfastly ignored Jesus' teaching and example, often claiming that God was on their side in conflicts. 

Will humans ever repent of their foolish ways? It seems unlikely, but we can pray for peace and live it in every aspect of our lives, Christ being our helper.  

I stopped my cycle the other morning to admire a cottonwood tree, and I'll tell you about it in today's Groundling blog entry. 


Rocket man – mackaycartoons

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Do We See the Sin?

                                         Adam Pendelton

From time to time I refer to or quote from Op-Ed pieces from various publications on a variety of topics. These Opinion-Editorial pieces offer what is usually personal perspective and insight into issues rather than providing "just the facts" news.

I like the notion of Op-Art, which political cartoons present, and other forms of artistic expression. Visual images can provide a glimpse of reality in an entirely different way than words. This Op-Art by artist Adam Pendleton in the New York Times "spoke" loudly to me. What does it mean to "see the sin" of racism, which is his focus here, or economic inequality, or misogyny?

Jesus regularly invited those who gathered around him to see and hear the individual and collective sins which too often are masked by power and even religion. This invitation may have been Good News for the poor and oppressed but it made those in authority uncomfortable and angry. Would the Romans have used tear gas on Palm Sunday if it had been available? 

When we sin by commission or omission,  which is turning away from God, we can choose to re-turn, which is repentance. This is what we do, by the grace of God, to enter into right relationship. 

Pendleton included some commentary with the image which is also powerful:

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Is the Anti-Christ Among Us?

Cartoon Movement

I spent several of my teen years in friendship and what we termed fellowship with evangelical Christians. To this day I am grateful for the encouragement to experience Christ as a living, active presence who loved me as the person I was and could become. I became increasingly concerned about the "me and Jesus" focus with little concern for social justice, as well as an underlying judgmentalism about so many others, and a systemic misogyny which I couldn't abide. 

There was also a preoccupation with "End Times" which baffled me, and the earnest desire to identify an ominous figure called the Anti-Christ, with a number of candidates in the running. It was supposedly based on prophecy from the Book of Revelation but it had a Superhero/Nemesis feel to it all that excited people.

Let me say that I emphatically agree with the proposal that virtually everything about the Emperor Trump is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I cannot understand how millions of Christians who claim that the bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God can read it and not make the sign of the cross to ward off his evil words and deeds. It is as though they have been swept into a cult and nothing seems to shake their trust in an entirely untrustworthy human being. While I may not describe Trump as the Anti-Christ, he is anti-Christ. 

I was intrigued to see an article in ABC Religion and Ethics by D. Stephen Long titled Should we call Donald Trump “antichrist”? Of course I had to read it and I found it worthwhile. I would encourage you to read Professor Long's piece in it's entirety, but I'll include a couple of paragraphs here: 

Yet I think it appropriate that reasonable people of faith begin to refer to Trump as antichrist. I don’t come to that conclusion lightly. When Trump was elected, I regularly referred to him as the “Orange Vulgarian.” I still find that reference descriptively accurate, but a friend admonished me that calling the president names was not the best strategy to win over his supporters. Since many of those supporters are family, friends, college classmates, and others, I thought it best to refrain from such epithets and attempted to make reasonable arguments on behalf of a different kind of Christianity and politics than the one that gained ascendancy with Trump...

Calling Trump an antichrist may give him too much credit. He is, after all, more of a carnival huckster who has turned the US presidency into a reality show sponsored by one continuous infomercial, but he is a carnival huckster who has the power of the US military at his command. Watching Mark Milley and William Barr stand in solidarity with him as they made their “brave” campaign against the people gathered at St. John’s Episcopal Church should cause all people of true faith to turn to the book of Revelation for political wisdom.
When this is all over, when the smoke from the tear gas (or whatever chemical agent used) has cleared, American Christianity will stand condemned for following the beast.


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

One Who Showed the Way Forward for All Our Relations

All Our Relations - Finding the Path Forward ebook by Tanya Talaga

As you are likely aware there has been a lot of discussion of systemic racism in Canada, even as we are watching what has unfolded in the United States over the past few weeks following the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a police officer. 

Initially politicians and officials in police forces downplayed the notion of racism which is inherent in our justice and governance systems, but that has changed. 

It happens that one of the books I've had from the library for months now (it's almost impossible to return them!) is All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward by Tanya Talaga. The book is the print version of the CBC Massey Lectures offered in 2018 examining the shameful history of systemic racism and injustice for Indigenous peoples in North America and Brazil and Australia. 

These lectures are an informative and  grim read, a reminder of why some people want statues of Prime Minster Sir John A, MacDonald to be removed. There are plenty of agonizing reference to of the role of Christian denominations in this subjugation of Indigenous peoples in Canada, as well as individual clergy who were abusers.

Laurentian University | Our Tricultural Mandate

Ed Newbery

A glimmer of light is Talaga's reference to Rev. Dr. Ed Newbery, a United Church minister who founded the Department of Indian Studies at the University of Sudbury, part of Laurentian University. The department, which is now Indigenous Studies, was unique in Canada at the time, even though it had its limitations.

 I met and talked with Ed while serving for 11 years at St. Andrew's UC in Sudbury. Ed and Rena's daughter, Mary. was in the congregation and on occasion they were in the congregation. Ed shared documents with me he thought might be helpful in understanding some of the issues around Indigenous culture and rights and I attended events at Laurentian. They were fine people, with such depth. 

Ed and Rena were recognized with the Order of Canada in 1989 with the description that they "demonstrated spiritual, cultural and practical support to natives, non-natives, foreign students and others, with open-hearted generosity and an intense faith in human kind."

Perhaps we can look for inspiration to those who went against the flow of settler/colonizer culture, including those who were motivated by the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Stonehenge and a New Discovery

Durrington Walls in Wiltshire

 Durrington Walls in Wiltshire is located at the centre of the newly discovered prehistoric site 
known as Durrington Shafts. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty

In yesterday's Groundling blog entry I reflected on the Summer Solstice and the virtual gathering for half a million registrants at Stonehenge, in Great Britain. Many of us have visited the 2,500-year-old Stonehenge and since I'm bordering on Neolithic myself I'll admit that when I was there nearly 45 years ago visitors could still walk up and touch the monumental stones.

The Druidic Stonehenge was probably built as an astronomical, astrological, and religious mash-up. While for centuries it was largely ignored, surrounded by farmers' fields, it is now protected and revered by many, 

Neolithic structure discovered near Stonehenge

Recently researchers discovered another remarkable circle of shafts about two kilometres in diameter and three kilometres to the east of Stonehenge, the largest prehistoric structure ever found in Britain. In a Guardian article Prof Vincent Gaffney, a leading archaeologist on the project is interviewed:

While Stonehenge was positioned in relation to the solstices, or the extreme limits of the sun’s movement, Gaffney said the newly discovered circular shape suggests a “huge cosmological statement and the need to inscribe it into the earth itself”.

He added: “Stonehenge has a clear link to the seasons and the passage of time, through the summer solstice. But with the Durrington Shafts, it’s not the passing of time, but the bounding by a circle of shafts which has cosmological significance.”
The boundary may have guided people towards a sacred site within its centre or warned against entering it.
Once again we're reminded that throughout time humans have expressed their spiritual selves as an essential aspect of culture. Often it is connected to the cosmos, a sense of wonder that goes far beyond the mundane demands of everyday life
Here is the link to yesterday's Groundling blog

Sunday, June 21, 2020

National Indigenous Peoples Day

National Indigenous Peoples Day | CFNR Network

I like the image above for National Indigenous Peoples Day even though, sadly, the activities listed can't happen this year, at least not in person. As we've moved through this month and toward this day I've thought a lot about the ignorance and outright denial of the systemic racism by some politicians and law enforcement officials which has led to the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and the injustice they experience. 

I first became aware of this reality at the tender age of 24 in the summer of 1979 when I was working as a chaplain intern at Kingston Penitentiary, a maximum security prison. There seemed to be a disproportionately high number of Native inmates, yet when they came to meet with me as a chaplain most of them seemed quiet and even gentle compared to others. At that time there was no recognition of Indigenous spirituality in the system and while a few came to Christian chapel services it wasn't many. Still, they wanted to talk, or at least to sit in the same room as a chaplain. They seemed content with long silences which were uncomfortable for me, at first. 

I don't doubt that these men were convicted of crimes in a court of law but I sensed that there was something not right about all this. Through the years I came to a fuller awareness of an "injustice" system which had a thumb on the scales and incarcerated Indigenous people so readily. It still hasn't changed sufficiently, not by a long stretch, and we hear far too many stories of Indigenous men and women held in inhumane conditions, including lengthy periods in isolation. 

I have also experienced Indigenous culture through both reading and actual interactions, everything from one-on-one conversations, to educational events, to pow wows. My life has been enriched and perspective altered. I'm convinced that we need to support Indigenous stewardship of the land around the world, and humbly acknowledge that European-dominated economic and political systems have made a terrible mess of Turtle Island, our planet. 

United Church Canada (@UnitedChurchCda) | Twitter
The United Church crest now includes "all our relations" in Mohawk and colours of the four directions

I appreciate that the United Church has upheld this month as a time for reflection and appreciation for at least a couple of decades. Through apologies, a reconciliation fund and reparations and involvement in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission we've taken steps to make amends for our complicity in colonialism There is so much more for those of us who aren't Indigenous to discover, if we are humble enough to do so. 


Creator God, Great Spirit, whose compassion has been known in our lives more times than we can count, we open our hearts and souls to the needs of this world. On this Indigenous Day of Prayer, we acknowledge the great injustices perpetrated against those who lived on and cared for this land long before our ancestors arrived. We pray that with compassion and determination we will continue to make ourselves aware of the impact of Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the suppression of Indigenous culture and tradition so that the legacy of colonization is acknowledged by each of us.

Creator God, Great Spirit, you call us to relationships rooted in equality and respect. This day we covenant to be more aware of the racism that the Indigenous, Métis and Inuit people of this country experience. We commit ourselves to raise our voices when we hear prejudiced comments, to guide others in the sacred direction of celebrating diversity that is Your gift to humanity.

Creator God, Great Spirit, in the quiet of our hearts and through the witness of our beings we pray thanks for Your accompaniment on the journey toward individual and communal wisdom and understanding. Let us who are the Church stand in solidarity and true to Jesus’ call to reconcile with sisters and brothers.

Creator God, Great Spirit, hear our prayers and guide our actions from this moment on. 

From the Covenant of Reconciliation: Worship Service for the Indigenous Day of Prayer 2020 

By Carolyn Wilson Wynne


Indigenous Health Care Workers

Wanna be a Druid? Maybe not, but take a look at my Groundling blog today about the Summer Solstice. 


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Enduring Devotion

A Long Revered Relic Is Found to Be Europe's Oldest Surviving ...

A global economy in the tank, wide-spread racial tensions and...oh yes, a pandemic. At the mid-way point of 2020 there is so much that seems like our worst nightmare, and we can never forget climate change.

Still there are moments of gentle wonder which may not seem like much in the bigger picture yet tell us that life still has its surprises. 

One of these came for me yesterday in an article about a sculpture, a statue of sorts, but not one which people want to topple. There is a remarkable wooden crucifix, an eight-foot image of the crucified Christ, in a town in Italy. The Holy Face of Lucca has been the subject of improbable legend for centuries with claims that it was carved by Nicodemus, the religious leader who came to Jesus in the night with a question to which Jesus responded, "God so loved the world that he gave his only son..." While the statue is not 2,000 years old, recent scientific testing suggests that it was created as an object of devotion anywhere from 1200 to 1300 years ago, in the period sometimes called the Dark Ages. How is it possible that this image of Christ has endured through time? 

A New York Times article notes that  "By the late Middle Ages, the image was so well known in Northern Europe that it became an object of devotion of the French nobility. “By the face of Lucca” was an oath sworn by William II of England and it is mentioned in Dante’s Inferno."

My undergraduate degree was in Art History so I've long had an awareness that art, whether music, or painting, architecture or sculpture, express the sublime and divine in ways which words can't. At the time this crucifix was created life was too often "nasty, brutish and short" with little room for the luxury of devotional images. Yet the Holy Face of Lucca was lovingly crafted and has endured, now considered the oldest wooden sculpture on the planet. 

This little news item reminds me of the importance of recognizing beauty where it is found and of the importance of devotional expression in so many forms. Yes, it seems as though we are shrouded in "gloom and doom " but there has always been a desire for creativity, to seek something more profound. We can pay attention to the face of Christ wherever we are.  .

 Holy Face of Lucca - Wikipedia

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Widening Circle of Juneteenth

17 Ideas for Teaching Juneteenth in the Classroom - WeAreTeachers

June 19th is an important day in our family because it's the birthday of our firstborn, son Isaac. I took him out for lunch -literally eating outside and suitably distanced. It was a reminder that he's a great guy. 

A lot of us white folk are realizing that June 19th, or Juneteenth, is important for another reason. For years many Blacks have acknowledged it as special because it  marks the day in 1965 on which the announcement  was made that tens of thousands of African-Americans in Texas had been set free. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln nearly two and a half years earlier and he had been assassinated by the time in was publicly recognized and enacted in Texas, the final state to do so. 

A 1908 photograph of two women in Texas sitting in a buggy decorated with flowers for the annual Juneteenth Celebration parked in front of Antioch Baptist Church located in Houston’s Fourth Ward.

Credit...MSS0281-PH037, Houston Public Library, African-American Library at the Gregory School

While this day should be cause for celebration it is also a day of sober reflection, the acknowledgement that 155 years later so much has yet to be done to achieve racial equality and justice in the United States and in countries around the world, including Canada.

 With the recent resurgence of Black Lives Matter there has also been a renewed interest in Juneteenth and some have called for the day to be declared a national holiday in the US. 

Here is a prayer from Augsburg University Campus Ministry to mark this solemn, joyful, historic day: 

Liberating God, we offer a prayer of thanksgiving and praise for your hearing the cries of the oppressed.  Bless your name for giving us the victory and freedom over slavery.  We in gratitude unite all of our hearts to reflect on where you have bought us from. As we enter this Juneteenth holiday celebration let us remember all of our ancestors who longed to see this day come. Let us sing songs of joy and celebration.  God thank you for the freedoms we experience, let us not take for granted at what cost we experience it.   May we fill the land with songs of joy and thanksgiving in celebration in remembering your saving grace. 
Oh amazing and gracious God, may we all give a moment of silence to “breathe your breath of life”.  And  In all our times of tribulation and suffering you enabled us to endure, to build character as a people and  May we continue the fight for full liberation for all people, for our indigenous siblings.  Loving Parent, and always grounded in a hope  that did not disappoint. Your abiding love freed us and continues to free us for the sake of your love.  May we as a people begin to heal and be reconciled to each other freely in love and justice. 
Lord, we can’t fully celebrate while others are in need of liberation from poverty and persecution. We cry out on behalf of the families separated at our borders, as children who are detained in cages cry out for their parents. Send your word, oh God to save and free them.
And Lord after a time of celebrating, give us the strength, motivation, fortitude and courage to continue to fight for social justice, equity, and to dismantle all systems of oppression and supremacy. In hopes that we all shall overcome one day.  Amen
Rev. Babette Chatman

17 Ideas for Teaching Juneteenth in the Classroom - WeAreTeachers

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Virtual Ashes, Virtual Dust, Plenty of Love & Resurrection Hope

The lonely reality of Zoom funerals | MIT Technology Review

Some of the weariness of these strange pandemic days comes from trying to keep up with the ever-changing recommendations and regulations. A week ago I wrote about worship communities being given the green light to come together again at 30 percent capacity -- except that many denominations and religious groups discouraged doing so.In that same blog I mentioned that this didn't apply to weddings and funerals but a day later it did. Little wonder that clergy are exhausted as they try to navigate it all, often with divergent opinions within their congregations. 

Last Saturday we attended a funeral -- a memorial service, actually -- and we weren't physically present. It was in Colorado and the rules there only allow for five people to be present, as well as the presider. The service was live-streamed and we found out afterward that 75 people joined this cluster of family members, including the widow. 

I married this couple 18 years ago, two people who had lost their spouses to miserable illnesses and met in the most improbable way. After her husband's death in their home province of Nova Scotia she began renting their summer seaside  home to pay the mortgage. He lived in St. Louis and decided to visit this ocean province with members of his family. They hit it off and he began to commute to Nova Scotia for courtship -- how is that for romantic commitment?

 He was a devout Christian and sought out a church in Halifax which turned out to be the one I served. She wasn't religious but came along one Sunday and something stirred within her which led to a spiritual awakening as a Christian which has sustained her through many challenges, including her husband's lengthy decline due to Alzheimer's. 

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Zoom: Inside My Grandmother’s Virtual ...

We certainly admired them both, and while our friendship was in its early stages before they moved to the States we have stayed in touch through the years and visited together. We wanted to be congregants at this service and so we zoomed in. It was meaningful because he was so deeply respected and loved by many, and deservedly so. Everyone who gave tributes spoke well, and with obvious affection. Those who watched the service were everywhere from Alaska to Nova Scotia, Michigan to Florida. Members of their Colorado congregation were there, virtually, as well. 

Some families are choosing to defer funeral/memorial services or gatherings until a later date, and for obvious reasons. And perhaps the new regulations in Ontario will mean that families and friends are able to come together immediately rather than at a later date. The service we participated last Saturday was a reminder that we can still be the "Body of Christ," even when we feel rather disembodied. Love, respect, and resurrection hope are not confined to one place or time. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

More Time for Medical Assistance in Dying

Did you notice? There is so much in the news these days you might have missed that this past week the federal government asked the superior court of Quebec for a five month extension on revisions to the criminal code related to Medical Assistance in Dying, or MAID. The gist is that the Quebec court considered the current legislation too restrictive to access for MAID and sought changes pronto. That was early last Fall and suddenly the push was on. The feds created a questionnaire, available online and in other formats, which invited Canadians to comment on what exists and possible changes allowing for easier access through advanced directives, a shorter "sober second thought" period, and including mental illness as a reason.

Despite a brief window of only a few weeks in which to answer, this questionnaire elicited more responses than any other in Canadian history on any subject -- over 300,000. Some of these were orchestrated opposition by religious groups which were against the original legislation passed in 2016, Bill C-14. Still, many thousands wanted to have input and took the time to complete the questionnaire. 

I was disappointed that the United Church didn't provide any reflection or support to individuals or congregations which wanted to address the questionnaire. I gathered a group of obviously interested people from the congregation we attend to talk through it and chat about the implications. 

Since then the UCC issued an updated statement on the subject which I encourage you to read. It seems to support the existing legislation without substantive changes and I'm inclined to support this approach. I do have questions about advanced directives which is a significant concern for those who want to decide when they have the mental capacity to do so. Under the current law those with dementia can't choose MAID but people aren't allowed to decide in advance, either. 

We strongly believe in the sanctity of life in the United Church, that every life is precious and God-given. This is a biblical concept and imperative. At the same time we recognize that sustaining life in the midst of pain and with chance of recovery is not the same as abundant living.Unfortunately, in some respects our medical technology has outrun our moral and ethical framework. 

I hope the five-month extension is negotiated and that there is opportunity for Canadians, including those in communities of faith have the opportunity to delve deeper into a sometimes bewildering subject. 

Here are some resources for you to consider including the United Church statement, a Broadview Magazine article about an individual who wants the right to decide, a CBC article,  and some government background. 





Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Which Statues Stand the Test of Time?

Frederick Douglass

The good news? I've read 450 pages of  the fascinating biography of Frederick Douglass by David Blight. The thing is, there are still 300 to go.   I've been at this for months, putting it down and picking it up again. 

Douglass was born a slave, escaped to the North as a young man,  and eventually became the tireless spokesperson for emancipation. Douglass was not a clergyman but he was steeped in the bible. Many of his brilliant speeches were sermons, with countless  references to scripture.

Douglass's life intersected with that of the other great orator of his time, President Abraham Lincoln. It was Lincoln who eventually signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing millions of slaves, human beings who should never have been property in the first place.

I was shocked to discover that while Lincoln was committed to freeing slaves he by no means saw People of Colour as equals In fact he believed that they were intellectually and morally inferior . In one of the darkest moments of his presidency he summoned several Black ministers for a supposed discussion about emancipation. In was really a one-sided lecture on the great and insurmountable divide between Blacks and Whites which could not be overcome. The United States government had been in discussion with several countries about the permanent expatriation of US slaves, deporting them to one or more of these countries. They would supposedly be free, but they could not stay in America.

This proposal stunned the Black clergy, and it obviously never came to fruition. And slaves were freed, making Lincoln one of the great figures of American history even though he was a racist --how else would we describe his views and plans, other than racist?

Lincoln Memorial | Washington.org

I've thought about this as statues and public tributes to slave owners, slave traders, and others who expressed racist views have been defaced, removed, or toppled in recent weeks. Most of them shouldn't have been erected in the first place, given how egregious the actions were of those being commemorated. One of the first statues  to go, toppled into Bristol Harbour in Great Britain was of Edward Colston, a man who became wealthy through the slave trade. While Colston shared his wealth through worthy projects (hence the statue) an estimated 19,000 slaves on his ships died in transit to North America.

Lincoln's execution order

Lincoln's execution order for Dakota warriors

It's a different story with Lincoln who was not a slave owner as were other presidents. Still, he's not an unblemished hero. He also ordered the execution by hanging of 28 Dakota warriors and "half-breeds" in what is one of the darkest days of this First Nation's history. Does this mean the majestic Lincoln Memorial shouldn't exist? Do the expectations of 2020 apply to the 1860's or other eras?  We could argue that the elements of racism apply in any age, which is true. How revisionist are we willing to be in this regard? 

I'm here to say that I don't have an answer, but it will be part of the discussion is these turbulent times. God only knows where this will take us, but let's pray it's somewhere meaningful and lasting. 

See UK protesters tear down slave trader statue - CNN Video

Edward Colston goes for a swim

Monday, June 15, 2020

Quebec's Bill 21 and Racism

In recent weeks there have been protests against racism around the world, some of them huge. Only time will tell, but it seems as though we have arrived at one of those pivotal moments of awareness, if not yet practice, when it comes to injustice. It may take years and even decades for systems to change in regard to racial inequality and those we choose to enforce justice which is often injustice. 

Yesterday there were protests of a somewhat different kind in the province of Quebec, although related. We might say that they were about religious injustice which is related to racism.A year ago Bill 21 was passed in Quebec, a law which prohibited wearing religious symbols by public officials, including the hijab or kippah by public servants in positions of authority. Many saw this as blatant bias against Muslim women whose style of dress would be most obvious. Some school boards refused to enforce this controversial law with teachers and other institutions followed suit. There have been legal challenges but the law stands. 
Initially the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly was going to stay in place despite Bill 21 law, further pointing out that minority religious groups were being targetted, but it has now been removed .Last week, Premir Legault said the province is working to tackle racism in general although he has also said repeatedly that systemic racism is not an issue in Quebec.This sounds like double-speak to me. 

Bill 21 is a reminder that racism, and with it religious discrimination, can be masked by what are sometimes dubious appeals to secularism with the law as justification. There have been laws in Canada and the United States and other countries which institutionalized discrimination. They were eventually struck down but not without acrimonious debate at times. 

Laws can be the bludgeons of the powerful rather than protection for the vulnerable, From time to time it occurs to me that Jesus, and the apostles Paul and Peter were legally murdered by the state for their :sedition".

Racism is a sin which is persistent and which is antithetical to the gosple.   As we find our way toward societies which are fair and equitable we need to be outspoken and prayerful. . 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Charles Dickens and Faith

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I was reading about the 130th anniversary of Charles Dickens' death this past week and it got me thinking about the great English author. I knew that Dickens came to Canada and its capital at the time, Kingston. He visited Kingston Penitentiary and was impressed by its progressive design for its era, a sentiment I didn't share in the summer of 1979 as a chaplain intern.

I've also read that  the perennial seasonal favourite, A Christmas Carol, revived his flagging popularity and staved off financial troubles. A Christmas Carol made me wonder what his religious sensibilities were, given the emphasis on generosity and goodwill in the book which reflected his life-long commitment to the poor and oppressed. And of course there is Tiny Tim's Christmas dinner blessing "God bless us, everyone!", repeated by Dickens at the end of the story. 

It turns out that Dickens wasn't a conventional Christian in terms of his personal convictions and worship habits. He felt that lots of religious leaders were hypocritical and he was withering in his portrayal of clerics in his novels. According to The Dickens Project:

 In all his writings, Charles Dickens—a Christian of the broadest kind—is outspoken in his dislike of evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, but, especially in his fiction, he is very reluctant to make professions of a specific faith beyond the most general sort of Christianity. Nothing more surely aroused his suspicions about a person's religious faith than a public profession of it, and this aversion formed a fundamental feature of his dislike of evangelicals and dissenters.

Apparently Dickens decided that his children should have some religious instruction so he came up with his own children's bible:

It was in these years too that Dickens first felt the need to impart some religious instruction to his children and, significantly, undertook to do this himself by writing a simplified version of the gospels designed for reading aloud (not published until 1934...

Dickens was a remarkable author and we can take the best of his sensibilities at heart, as well as his skewering of pretentious and insincere religion.

Any Dickens fans out there? 

Charles Dickens' last Christmas turkey was lost in a freak ...

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Spiritual Gift of...Huggiing?

Sculpture (With images) | Charlie mackesy, Church art, Sculpture

The Prodigal Son -- Charlie Mackesy

Then Paul went down on his knees, all of them kneeling with him, and prayed. And then a river of tears. Much clinging to Paul, not wanting to let him go. They knew they would never see him again—he had told them quite plainly. The pain cut deep. Then, bravely, they walked him down to the ship.

Acts 20:36-38 The Message

First there was news this week that Ontarians can return to worship if there communities of faith choose to do so. As it turns out the United Church recommends that worship not resume until the Fall.

Then yesterday's news that we can "bubble up", create circles of up to ten people with whom we can associate. Yes, that was the sound of grandparents across the land weeping with joy. In our case we've been able to do so already with one family. We strictly quarantined for two weeks so that we could be with our 2/12 year-old granddaughter while her parents spent time in hospital for the birth of her brother. Lots of hugs and cuddles occurred during that far-too-brief time together.

Now we can have contact with the other household with grandchildren who, fortunately for us, have been very careful about their contacts. We never took the proximity to these families and our daughter in Toronto for granted before COVID-19. Now we are thrilled at the prospect of warm embraces and want to get in as many as possible before getting hugs from grandparents becomes anathema. 

This time of physical and social distancing has been a reminder of the importance of appropriate and consensual touch, and the ways in which it feeds our souls and expresses affection and love.

While in ministry I learned to be incredibly careful about physical touch, including hugs. Still,  during my longer pastorates I became a surrogate family member for some elders and when I was younger some of them regarded me like a son. I knew that a few had no physical contact with loved ones and I would give a hug when I departed a visit. A number of them observed that they hadn't been hugged in months. There were folk I embraced in the midst of grief, often at graveside, who I wouldn't consider embracing at any other time.

Joseph embracing Benjamin. (Art by Yoram Ranaan)

Joseph embracing Benjamin.-- Yoram Ranaan

The bible is surprisingly huggy, when you think about it. There is the moving story in Genesis of Joseph revealing his identity to brother Benjamin after years of separation. Probably the best known of Jesus' parables is the Prodigal Son in which a loving father hurries out to embrace his alienated son.  

I never think of the apostle Paul as a warm/fuzzy guy but in the Acts of the Apostles he says farewell to the fledgling congregation in Ephesus. After the intimacy of prayer they shed tears, embracing and kissing. Who knew?

Are you ready to get your hugs on? Are you willing to confess that you've been engaged in illicit embracing during the pandemic restrictions? Have you thought much about scriptural hugging? 

We need to address environmental racism during these turbulent times. My Groundling blog today

Paul's Farewell to Ephesian Elders — Stock Photo © ruskpp #105718274

Paul Departs Ephesus ( halo intact!)


Friday, June 12, 2020

Get Me to the Church On Time?

St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church has blocked off some pews to allow safe social distancing as it prepares to reopen this weekend.

Faith communities of every background were caught off guard earlier this week by the Ontario government's announcement that places of worship can open as of today. I'm assuming that this means mosques can welcome the faithful for prayers today, synagogues tomorrow, churches on Sunday. The word on the street is that this decision is due to pressure from the evangelical Christian crowd who have been lobbying for this in the categories of essential service and freedom of religion. 

While this may be the reality, most mainline churches will stay closed for the time being, perhaps to the Fall. I roll my eyes at those who seem almost sanctimonious about keeping the doors shut, as though it is virtuous. Sure, it is prudent for aged congregations to stay home, but  its hardly worth celebrating or shaming others. And as for the supposed evangelical/mainline divide, many of the churches which have been pressing for reopening are in the GTHA and the southwest of the province anyway, so they are still under prohibition. 

Curiously, this permission is not extended to weddings and funerals, both of which are traditionally services of worship. Mind you, in the past few decades both "match and dispatch" have drifted away from being celebrations and commemorations within the context of faith communities. By the time I retired three years ago I did very few weddings, in part because most couples chose venues other than churches and without religious content. This suited me fine, because I really didn't want to do weddings that didn't include an emphasis on making a covenant before God. I rarely did funerals or memorials for those without a connection to the congregation I was serving because too many were  odd and sometimes inappropriate gatherings which certainly didn't require my presence as a Christian minister. 

Actually, I feel badly for couples whose weddings have been postponed or cancelled. They should have the opportunity to celebrate with family and friends, although there is plenty of evidence that the party aspect is a recipe for infection. Funerals are even more poignant. We will Zoom the memorial of a friend tomorrow where only a few family members will be physically present. They deserve the support of their congregation and others. 

I would be open to returning to worship under certain circumstances but I can also wait for a few more months. We likely wouldn't be permitted to sing and certainly couldn't greet one another if we did come together. I appreciate what our pastor son Isaac has been doing online. 

What do you think about all this? Should churches and other faith communities be allowed to assemble? What about weddings and funerals? 

Home is where the faith is; so focus on the family