Saturday, October 31, 2020

Shared Legacies and Human Dignity


Are you all ready for the Toronto Jewish Film Festival? I have to admit that I hadn't heard of it either, but this is the 28th year, and it's been on all week with what look to be some fascinating pictures. Tomorrow and Monday the festival will be showing a documentary by Sheri Rogers called Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance. I have seen photos of Jewish leaders taking part in civil rights marches and events but I wasn't really aware of the extent of the connection. It goes back to the early years of the 20th century, long before the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 60's. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi and one of the great Jewish philosophers and theologians of the 20th century.strongly supported respectful dialogue between religions. He appreciated the common struggle of Jews and Blacks as marginalized and persecuted peoples. The biblical stories of slavery and exodus spoke to both groups in American society. Heschel once offered that "it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses."

                                 Martin Luther King Jr. & Abraham Joshua Heschel (far right)

Heschel was a participant in the Selma to Montgomery March, accompanying Martin Luther
King and John Lewis. It's not surprised that MLK called Heschel "a truly great prophet."

This film really intrigues me, and if I don't see it during the next two days (virtually),I hope to in the near future. From the standpoints of learning more about Jewish/Christian dialogue,and of the courage demonstrated by people of faith during the Civil Rights movement, this doc will be illuminating. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

Scared to Death of Halloween?


                                                                          The cast of Coco

Have you figured out what to do about Halloween yet? It's tomorrow, so we should have decided by now, but we're getting so many mixed messages it's hard to know what to do. Never before has trick or treating seemed so tricky, and possibly lethal!

How did we get to our version of Halloween as a colossal Sugarfest anyway? We can't blame the Druids or the Celts. Their festival of Samhain, was the "thin place" between this life and the next. Spirits roamed the Earth and carved faces warded off the malevolent ones. This became Christianized as the three days known as All Hallow's Eve (Halloween), All Saints, and All Souls. 

In Latin America the tradition has its own twist, although it too has become commercialized and tamed. November 2nd is the Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos)  and it has its own flavour for honouring those who have gone before us. I was in New Mexico years ago for a Celtic Christian seminar, coincidentally, when I had my first jarring, fascinating encournter with the imagery of Dia do Los Muertos.

There are two animated films which do a fine job of addressing the grief and fear and hope which are part of the Day of the Dead. Coco is a wonderful film, both enchanting and suspenseful. A short film called Dia de Lost Muertos (go figure) is  acclaimed and an award-winner as well.

Isn't it ironic that this is an unprecedented time when we are "scared to death" of Halloween, which is an important aspect of its origins? The hope is that we move beyond the dark spirits and fear of death to our  resurrection promise. So, please stay safe. And get a grip, pass the candy, and praise the Lord!

                                              a scene for the short film, Dia de Los Muertos

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Love Beyond the Grave


                                      Susanna Moodie grave -- Belleville Cemetery

Yesterday we walked in Belleville Cemetery, a lovely place of winding roads, large and varied trees, and a great view of the Bay of Quinte. Many of the graves are fascinating including that of famed author and settler Susanna Moodie and Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell.

 I've spent a lot of time in cemeteries, presiding at committals, but we came across what was a "first" form me. We noticed a new and substantial grave memorial, with inscriptions for two men who will eventually be buried as a couple. Sadly, one died earlier this year at the age of 70. The other is 69 and still living. They had been a couple since 1976, the year Ruth and I were married. While we were a few years younger they too were in their twenties when they got together..  

The contrast is that when we married we had the full approval of our families, friends, and society as a whole.Everything leaned toward stability and success in our marriage relationship. Well, we were very young, so there were moderate concerns. but our ceremony was celebratory, in a church, with clergy fathers presiding. I know that through the years it was a "plus" for me to be married to a woman and to have children when I went to job interviews, even though my marital status wasn't mentioned.

When this other couple got together Canadian society was still decades away from actual marriage for LGBTQ persons and who knows how careful they needed to be with their families and in their workplaces.

It is remarkable that their relationship endured and thrived.The grave site is anything but understated. There is an above-ground vault with etched portraits of both men.It's on a corner in the cemetery -- it's hard to miss!  It's as though they were determined to declare their love beyond this life, and why not? As I mentioned, there are significant grave markers to note the accomplishments and societal prominence of others in the cemetery. In many respects this couple blazed a trail, so why not recognize it? 


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Gratitude for the Legacy of Father Charles Brandt


Father Charles Brandt—a priest and modern-day contemplative—on the steps of his hermitage overlooking the Oyster River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo by Grant Callegari

It is early morning with its quiet coolness. I walk out the old logging road. … The logging road along with other trails through the forest is where I practice walking meditation. I do not think of the road as leading anywhere. It is the road to nowhere, the path on which I journey and have been journeying for a lifetime. Although it is the path to nowhere, in reality it is the way to everywhere, because it enables me to enter into communion with the whole community of beings.

—from Self and Environment by Charles Brandt

This quote from a book by Father Charles Brandt begins an excellent article from 2018 in Hakai magazine called The Oracle of Oyster River. At that time Father Brandt was 95 and had been living as a Roman Catholic hermit on Vancouver Island for decades. I've written about him several times, mentioning that I visited him at his riverside hermitage more than 25 years ago while in Victoria as part of a national committee for the United Church of Canada.

 I first heard about Father Brandt on an episode of the the CBC television show Man Alive. I tracked him down and asked if I could visit. I was fascinated by his combination of contemplation as an eco-Christian, and the activism which compelled him to organize neighbours who worked together with a logging company to restore the habitat of the river. He was hospitable and gave me a tour of his workshop, where he restored antiquarian books, and the chapel within his hermitage. Father Brandt was also a fly fisherman and I imagine that this was as much a part of his spiritual practice as the liturgy of the chapel. 

I saw last night that Father Brandt died on Sunday at the age of 97. Last year I blogged that James Wood, a journalism student who had attended Bridge St Church, then moved to Vancouver Island as a reporter, tweeted that Father Brandt had worked out a legal agreement with the Comox Valley Land Trust to have his 27 acres on the Oyster River protected in perpetuity while the hermitage would continue to be used for that purpose. I commented then: 

The term used for the agreement is "covenant" which I like because, well, it is so biblical. Covenants in scripture involve God and a person or people in a relationship which is like a contract or more. While I doubt there will be God-talk in the language of the covenant I like the implicit presence of the Creator whom Father Brandt honours in his worship life and activism. Who knows, there may be a rainbow involved.

It's wonderful that only a month ago Father Brandt had been recognized  with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Museum of Nature. He was healthy enough to respond to the news in a gracious and thoughtful manner. 

I will be grateful for the rest of my life for the witness of Father Brandt as a true Groundling, a person of Christian faith whose eternal hope began in this earthy and Earthly lifetime. This hermit had a broad influence on the people and the environment around him.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Rationalization, Then and Now


We have now watched the first two episodes of the CBC television series called Enslaved. As the title implies, it is about the centuries-long slave trade which forcibly removed 12 million human beings from their homelands in Africa to become the property of slave-owners in the Americas. An estimated two million of these people didn't survive the perilous journey across the Atlantic because of disease or starvation or shipwreck. 

The host of the episodes is actor Samuel Jackson (yes, the Pulp Fiction star) who is an American of Gabonian descent. He travels back to Gabon, the country of his ancestors, where he is made a member of the Benga clan. 

                          Samuel L. Jackson and Benga Elders

The second episode is called Rationalization and portions of it explore the way European Christians justified trafficking in human lives, keeping their prisoners in deplorable conditions and engaging in depraved cruelty.

Jackson and a host visited what is now known as Elmina Castle in Ghana, a 15th century fortress where slaves were gathered before boarding ships. There is a church at the focal point of the central courtyard where slavers would worship a God they presumed would endorse their trade. The documentary also mentions the first pope to officially allow slavery. 

It got me thinking of the things I've rationalized and justified through the years, sometimes with the notion that God approved. Repentance of our sins of omission and commission is important. Having the prayerful humility to have a change of heart and mind is essential, otherwise we are worshiping false gods rather than the God of compassion and redemption. 

Enslaved is streaming on CBC Gem. 

                      Elmina Castle and the Church in the Courtyard

Monday, October 26, 2020

Religion and Universities

I am a graduate of Queen's University, for my bachelor's degree and the University of Toronto for my master's. As part of that first degree I took several courses at Queen's Theological College, which was part of the founding of of Queen's in the mid-19th century. Even though this seminary was my father's alma mater I chose to attend Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto for my masters of divinity degree. Our son Isaac attended United Theological College which is part of McGill University. There is a long history of Christian denominations founding or being affiliated with institutions of higher learning. Excellence in education and educated clergy were vital to the ethos of these expressions of Christian faith. 

In recent years traditional denominations have been closing seminaries (QTC is an example) while the colleges affiliated with more conservative Christian groups have grown and sought status as universities.Trinity Western University in BC is one, and Redeemer University in Southern Ontario is another. Both of those schools have faced public scrutiny because they have rules for students, faculty and staff regarding sexuality, including same-gender relationships, which some argue are not consistent with the laws of the land. They, in turn,  would both contend that they have respected human rights and have acted within the law but are applying their own Christian charters. 

In some other circumstances these expectations have led to students feeling that they are not welcome at the institutions. In some cases expulsions and firings have resulted, which are then contested as human rights violations. 

These conflicts have come to the fore again in Ontario with the Ford government's announcement that Canada Christian College, a fundamentalist Christian school, will soon to be granted university status. This is outrageous, in my opinion, and a move which is based more on political back-scratching than on academic credentials. The president of CCC is Charles McVety, a nasty bit of business who is anti-LGBTQ and was strongly opposed the sex-education curriculum in public schools, which was removed by the Conservative government before being largely reinstated. I feel that the only reason CCC is being considered for university status is currying favour with the conservative base which helped Premier Doug Ford get elected.

                                               Doug Ford and Charles McVety at Canada Christian College

Last week Ford congratulated former Premier Kathleen Wynne for being a trail-blazer as the first woman in the role, as well as being the first LGBTQ person as premier. With almost his next political breath he offered support for an institution which holds regressive views on women in leadership and actively opposes inclusion of LGBTQ persons. Wynne stood in the legislature shortly after the announcement and pointedly asked: 

Why this government would extend the mandate of the most publicly and vocally homophobic man in Ontario? Why, in the name of all that is decent, would this minister validate the hateful, vicious, racist and homophobic rhetoric of Charles McVety by extending the reach of his Canada Christian College?

Why indeed. There is really nothing in the academic record of CCC to warrant this change in status from college to university, and it's disturbing theological and human rights perspectives should disqualify it as well. I pray that the government will back away from this endorsement. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020



Breathe on me, breath of God,

fill me with life anew,

that I may love what thou dost love,

and do what thou wouldst do.

We've been reminded that there are multiple pandemics unfolding on our planet in 2020. The most obvious is the virus called COVID-19, a term which didn't exist a year ago. At least 42 million people have contracted COVID, although the actual number may be twice that, or more. Those who are seriously ill have a variety of symptoms, including extreme difficulty breathing. As the numbers of infected people is on the rise again globally there is considerable concern that there aren't enough ventilators for those who will need them. 

During the past few months we've also been aware of the outcome of the climate crisis pandemic. In the Amazon region and in the western United States there have been massive wildfires consuming forested areas. These unprecedented fires darken the sky with smoke and force humans indoors because breathing is too difficult. 

These grim realities which are truly global lead to anxiety and fear which also make it difficult to breathe at times. 

I thought about all his when I saw the title of a book for children called Breathe: A Child's Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time. It appears to be part of a series of books helping kids to understand the seasons of the Christian year, and Pentecost is a time when the Holy Spirit, the ruach or pneuma -breath-- enlivens us as people of faith. I don't have a clue about how this is addressed, but I like the idea. And I felt better just looking at the cover with it's illustration of a child blowing dandelion fluff into the breeze.

We probably know the expression "let's take a deep breath here!" an invitation to calm oneself in the midst of a challenging situation. The Holy Spirit invites us to take that deep, restorative, cleansing breath. Yes, it can be difficult to catch our breath at times, and our challenges are monumental. Prayer is a form of breathing, and we can pray and act for healing on this good, God-blessed Earth. 

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

As the in-breath grows deep,
The out-breath grows slow.

Breathing in makes me calm;
Breathing out brings me ease.

With the in-breath I smile;
With the out-breath I release all tension.

Breathing in I know I am alive;
Breathing out, in this present moment.

Breathing in, there is only this present moment.
Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.

Breath Meditation -- Thich Nhat Hanh 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

When a Fool Rushes In

Tomorrow morning I will lead the in-person worship service at Trenton United Church and it will be recorded for those at home and elsewhere who want to watch. The events of Rev. Isaac's schedule have resulted in my leading two of the six services since we resumed. 

I was given permission to speak about a topic which is current and from my perspective should be addressed openly. It is Medical Assistance in Dying or MAID, what is sometimes called assisted suicide. It is legal to request MAID in Canada because of legislation passed in 2016. 

Consciously ending one's own life is a profoundly important decision and one fraught with emotion. Some Christian denominations and other faith traditions condemn it as a violation of the gift of life and consider it a sin, even evil.. When the MAID  legislation was introduced  Roman Catholic bishops in Alberta warned that those who chose this way of dying could be denied a Christian funeral, which to my mind is a ghastly and cruel threat to families dealing with grief. So much for compassion. 

There are now proposed amendments to the legislation from four years ago and in the midst of a pandemic we may not be paying close attention. I wrote about this recently and noted that the United Church has responded to the legislation in a way that I can support, for the most part. 

I feel that there can't be a simplistic and rigid response to Medical Assistance in Dying. Neither denial nor threat help. A decade ago I would have told you that I opposed it, largely to protect the vulnerable, including those with disabilities and the elderly. Every life must be valued. While those concerns haven't gone away, and I strongly support providing palliative care for the dying, I realize that there are circumstances when MAID is the compassionate choice, one which respects the wishes of the sufferer.  

I can't claim to be an expert on this subject, so I come to this humbly, and prayerfully. This may be a case of a fool rushing in, but I have endeavoured to become informed, and I'll do my best. I do feel that MAID needs to be addressed honestly and openly, Our faith is embodied in the person of Christ, who died an untimely death and whose resurrection gives us hope. Surely this can help us as we consider what we desire at the end of life. 

You're welcome to join us tomorrow, in whatever format you choose!

Friday, October 23, 2020

Pope Francis & Same-Gender Unions



Angelo Carconi/EPA, via Shutterstock

I don't think that it's an exaggeration to say that millions were stunned earlier this week when Pin a new documentary Pope Francis advocated for civil same-gender unions. This is not the same as same-gender marriages blessed by the Roman Catholic church but it is a huge departure from anything expressed before by a a pope. Upholding his previously expressed support for children of God he said “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”

Of course there are conservative Roman Catholics and other conservative Christians who will be stunned by this because it is antithetical to their conviction that homosexuality is a sin which must be condemned rather than condoned. For many within the Catholic church this is a step which they have prayed for and worked toward. And for those of us who are part of denominations which have moved beyond this to the acceptance and support of Christian marriage for LGBTQ2 persons this is encouraging news.

Human rights organizations are grateful for Francis' stand as well. There are still countries where LGBTQ2 rights and protections are virtually non-existent. In a number of African nations neither state nor church supports LGTBTQ2 persons, let alone allowing marriage. In some of these countries there is persecution which is actually supported by right-wing religious groups in the United States. In Russia and Poland there is persecution as well, and Franklin Graham, a supposed Christian leader in the US has expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin for Russia's harsh laws. 

Some critics are dismissing Francis' support as bringing the Catholic church into the 1990's, and to a degree this is true. In 1992 I attended the United Church General Council in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where there was a break-through debate on same-gender unions within our denomination. I was part of the working group which wrestled with what should be presented to the broader court and it was a heartfelt and demanding discussion. We genuinely wanted to discern what was faithful as Christians and reflective of the gospel. This was reflected in the subsequent discussion amongst commissioners or delegates, even though it was emotional. 

Even though that was nearly 30 years ago, we can't dismiss what Francis has chosen to support today. There are more than a billion Roman Catholics around the world and we can pray that this is the beginning of a new direction for the denomination. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

What Does "Pro-life" Mean?

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, 

it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck 

and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Matthew 18:6 -- Jesus of Nazareth

 This evening there will be a second presidential candidates debate, if it can be called that given the wild first attempt.  Perhaps the microphone mute will make a difference, and perhaps pigs will fly.

It is hard to imagine how so many Americans continue to support Donald Trump as a viable option for president, given the disaster of the past four years. And it is shameful that without the supposedly Christian vote he wouldn't have a prayer. Millions of conservative Christians, including Evangelicals and Roman Catholics will vote Republican because they perceive Trump as a pro-life candidate. meaning that he is opposed to the ready availability of abortion. There is what I consider an obsession with this single issue, even though the rate of abortion in the United States has declined over the past 50 years.

It's important to be aware that there are coalitions of Christians including both Evangelicals and RCs who oppose Trump's re-election because they feel that being pro-life is not the same as being anti-abortion. Many of them do not support ready access to abortion. But they point out that incarcerating migrant children, building a border wall,taking a hard-line immigration policy, and supporting the death penalty are not "pro-life", if the teachings of Jesus are taken seriously. Some say that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans to COVID-19 because of government ineptitude, with many of them vulnerable elderly people, is not "pro-life" either.

We've just learned that the US government cannot find the parents of more than 500 apprehended migrant children, which means that they have been effectively orphaned. I can't describe how disgusted and angry this news makes me. This is a moral failure and human rights violation which should be opposed by any decent American. 

Jesus condemned those who would do anything to threaten the safety of vulnerable children, and suggested harsh punishment for this sin. It's one of the most condemnatory statements Jesus made. Those who purport to follow Christ might do a little bible study (Trump certainly won't) and repent of their foolish ways. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Sweating and Praising in Person


The YMCA here in Belleville reopened at the beginning of September but I was reluctant to return until there were reassurances that people from outside our region wouldn't be allowed to use the facilities. We have been fortunate to have very few cases of COVID-19 in Quinte/ Prince Edward County so I've been open to going back, with protocols and restrictions.

On October 15th, seven months to the day from my last visit to the gym I returned. March 15th was a Sunday, so I went for a work-out before heading to church. Little did I know that these visits would be my last for a long time, thanks to the pandemic.

As for church, we resumed in-person worship at Trenton United six weeks ago now, and this Sunday will be my second during that period to preside at a service because of Rev. Isaac's absence. 

I realize that there are similarities between the experiences. Both the gym and sanctuary are familiar places with routines which I had come to take for granted in some respects. Walking through the doors was mostly familiar, yet very different. There are protocols in place to ensure everyone's safety with masks and hand sanitizer and distancing expected from everyone. In both settings there are familiar faces (although somewhat obscured by the masks) and it's really good to see everyone. A fair number of us are, um, mature. At the same time attendance is lower and there isn't quite the same feel to the experience. 

I figure it's up to each person to judge their level of safety and well-being about being back in a setting with others. Why go places which are intended for health in body, mind, and spirit if the outcome is anxiety? And Trenton UC is broadcasting the services as well as offering the in-person experience. 

As a healthy, and relatively young senior citizen (don't call me an oxymoron!) I'm grateful for the opportunity to resume these important activities. I've discovered that the thought of going back was the greater psychological barrier than actually walking through the doors. 

A significant difference is that I want those who are not part of the regular flock in our congregation to join us That's an essential aspect of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

 Who knows, another shutdown may be on the way, but for now I thank God that I'm free to sweat and praise with others! 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Homeless Jesus Creates a Stir

 "Truly I tell you, 

whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, 

you did for me."  Matthew 25:40 

Several years ago Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, created a life-sized image of Jesus as a homeless man, reclining on a bench. His feet protrude from his blanket and his bare feet are pierced by nail-holes, reminders of the crucifixion. It is a powerful representation of Christ's identification with "the least of these" and the importance of our compassion toward those we might be inclined to pass by. The statue has been recast a number of times and can be found in places around the world, including the Vatican. 

A few days ago one of these sculptures was installed outside an Episcopal (Anglican) church in an affluent  suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, and almost immediately someone phoned the police to report the vagrant. This has happened elsewhere, sometimes out of genuine concern, and sometimes because the caller expects that the homeless person be removed. 

The priest of the congregation wanted the piece to provoke conversation and it obviously has, with widespread media coverage and plenty of social media attention. Father Martin says that the police officer who responded was respectful and interested, and the general response from the community has been positive. 

When this sculpture was first created I contacted Timothy Schmalz and appreciated his openness during our conversation. He is a devout Christian, a Roman Catholic, and it was deeply meaningful that he met Pope Francis at the Vatican when the first, smaller version of his work was blessed by the pontiff. 

Timothy kindly sent me a small version of the sculpture which I have in my study at home. I must confess that I tend to take it for granted, barely noticing as I walk past it. I wiped off the dust before I took the photo, above. It was  a reminder that it is so easy not to notice those on the margins of our society,  including the homeless, even though they may be close at hand. .

During the pandemic there has been increased discussion of the reality of homelessness as encampments have grown in a number of Canadian cities. There have been promises and announcements about new strategies to address this form of poverty which can be the outcome of joblessness or mental illness or dislocation or all of these.  As the cold weather approaches I hope that there is a concerted effort to do what is necessary and moral in response to those who are vulnerable. 

May the Christ who walks on wounded feet

walk with you on the road.

May the Christ who serves with wounded hands

stretch out your hands to serve.

May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart

open your hearts to love.

May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet,

and may everyone you meet

see the face of Christ in you. Voices United 349

Monday, October 19, 2020

Learning from The Skin We're In


The increase in awareness of racial injustice since the murder by police of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis in late May has prompted me to do more exploring of the subject, including in my reading. The issues affecting Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) have been on my personal radar for decades, in no small part because the United Church of Canada has attempted to address them. We are a predominantly white denomination, which may say something about how well we've addressed racism and multi-culturalism, but we have not been blind to what has been brought to the fore through Black Lives Matters and other groups.

In my reading I've worked my way through two excellent books by Isabel Wilkerson, the latest being Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Wilkernson is an American writer, and I felt I needed to listen to a Canadian voice as well. Yesterday I finished The Skin We're In by Toronto journalist and activist, Desmond Cole. Cole does balk somewhat at being described as an activist yet that's the way I see him and an effective one at times. 

The book,  was not an easy one for me to read, even though it is well written. Cole focuses on a year in his life, 2017, and describes, month by month, the realities of racism in "Toronto the Good" and beyond, and how he was involved in responding. It was difficult because as an aging white guy I'm unsettled by the prospect of systemic racism in this country. As with so many of us, I'd prefer to feel superior to the United States rather than listening to BIPOC voices which tell me otherwise. And Cole is blunt, unrelenting, to the extent that other Black people have suggested that he take the edge off his rhetoric and activity so that he isn't alienating potential allies. 

More than once I figured I'd had enough, thank you, I'd got the gist. I'm glad I persevered though, not as an act of white guilt self-flagellation but because I learned a lot about situations in that year which were reported from a media perspective which leaned toward the "powers that be." I do feel that Cole's voice is a prophetic one, and as I've often pointed out, the biblical prophets in both Older and Newer Testaments, "comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable." 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

A Royal Prerogative of Mercy

 Last year a terrorist attacked people on a bridge in London, Great Britain, killing two. The death toll could have been much higher but for the courageous response of bystanders. One of those people, Steven Gallant. is a convicted murderer himself,  out of prison that day to attend a prisoner rehabilitation program. On a break he saw what was unfolding, ran into a bar where he grabbed a narwhal tusk off the wall, and used it as a battering ram against the knife-wielding killer. 

Gallant was commended for his bravery at the time and now he is being considered for  a royal pardon which would commute the final ten months of his mandatory sentence. It will likely happen, in part because the son of the man whom Gallant killed in 2005 supports the initiative. The now 21-year-old son figures that if someone has genuinely changed they deserve another chance. Impressive from a young man who lost his father at an early age. 

In Britain this early release is called Royal Perogative of Mercy, a rather high-falutin' term, yet one with a certain gravitas about what is transpiring. We probably agree about the importance of a system of justice which takes into consideration the seriousness of crimes for punishment and sentencing. At the same time we may reluctantly concede "that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind." 

 As Christians we often wrestle with the challenging concept of God's mercy. Forgiveness may be central to our faith, but it doesn't always come easily. Surveys have shown that while we may agree that we are forgiven in Christ, we are more reluctant to agree that God extends forgiveness to those we feel have wronged us. Ultimately though, forgiveness if the Royal Prerogative of Mercy God extends to us rather than something we can pick of choose.  


Friday, October 16, 2020

Still the "Inconvenient Indian"

 In the year 2000 we were living in Nova Scotia, a province where commercial fishing was an important part of the livelihood of many and the economy as a whole. It made sense then that a confrontational situation about fishing rights in nearby New Brunswick was front and centre in the news. The year before the Supreme Court of Canada had rendered what has been termed the Marshall Decision, allowing Indigenous fishers to harvest catches which weren't necessarily subject to the established quotas and rules of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans because of inherent and treaty rights. Yet when Mikmaq fishers began setting lobster traps it not only led to tensions with non-Indigenous fishers, the DFO took a heavy-handed approach to the point of violent confrontation.and arrests.

This confrontation at  Burnt Church, called Esgenoopetitj by the Mikmaq, resulted in a contingent from Christian Peacekeepers Teams (CPT) travelling there to observe what was unfolding. Members of CPT enter into situations of conflict and injustice in places around the world, At the same time Maritime Conference of the United Church was watching what was unfolding and congregations, including my own, prayed for peaceful resolution. 

Here we are again, twenty years later, with a tense and violent situation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers, this time in Nova Scotia. There are a small number of Indigenous boats which are catching lobsters outside of what the DFO has established as the season. The white fishers are angry and have resorted to intimidation, violence, and destruction of property in retaliation.

This group of Mikmaq fishers refers to the Marshall Decision and ask why this is being ignored, and why the RCMP is not protecting them from harassment and violence. Indigenous commentators from across the country are asking the same.They suggest that if Indigenous people were engaged in vandalism and violence against white people it would be dealt with swiftly by authorities.

 Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has condemned the assaults and urged police to keep the peace in the area.

As many of you will know, I'm a strong believer in sustainable harvesting of natural resources and appreciate the concerns about over-fishing. And everyone is concerned about their livelihoods here. It's been pointed out that what the Mikmaq fishers are taking is a very small percentage of the annual catch for south-western Nova Scotia. 

Is this yet another example of systemic racism against Indigenous people?  There is a saying, usually attributed to Mark Twain that :"history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

So often it seems that the dominant culture in Canada touts respect and reconciliation until it no longer suits it purposes. When Indigenous peoples protest or assert legal and treaty rights it often elicits anger and calls for heavy-handed responses. When the Indigenous protests in solidarity with the Wetsueten people of British Columbia developed earlier this year I heard white Christians suggest that the War Measures Act be invoked and the military sent in. We may make earnest PC noises, but in the end we don't have much patient for "Inconvenient Indians" to use Thomas King's term.

We can all pay attention to what is unfolding in Nova Scotia, perhaps voicing our concerns to Minister Miller and the Nova Scotia Department of Indigenous Affairs which claims a commitment to Partnership Negotiation Direction.

And, yes, we can pray, pray, pray, for peaceful resolution. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Jubilee 2000 and 2020 Vision


If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold. 

 If the person has no one to redeem it, but then prospers and finds sufficient means to do so, the years since its sale shall be computed and the difference shall be refunded to the person to whom it was sold, and the property shall be returned. 

 But if there are not sufficient means to recover it, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; 

in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned.

                                              Leviticus 25:25-28

 In the late 1990's the United Church of Canada encouraged congregations to participate in a multi-national  and interfaith initiative to forgive the crippling debt of developing and Global South countries. It was in anticipation of the turn of the millennium and the focus was Jubilee 2000. 

This is a reference to the biblical notion of jubilee, the forgiveness of debt every 50 years. Some would argue that there isn't a whole lot that's worthwhile in the Hebrew Scripture book called Leviticus but this is where we first find the extensive instructions for a Jubilee year in chapter 25. 

Jesus is probably drawing on this vision of relinquishing debt when he speaks in the synagogue in chapter 4 of Luke's gospel. It is also a specific petition of what we call The Lord's Prayer: "forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors" -- even though we say "trespasses"in our United Church tradition. 

Back in the 90's the high profile spokesperson for Jubilee 2000 was Bono, of the rock band U2. They were huge at the time, and Bono jetted about for the cause as both a music star and a Christian. 

I notice that a group of more than 140 Christian leaders from around the world have signed a letter urging the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to cancel debts for developing nations struggling in the pandemic. In a few days a meeting involving these organizations will take place to consider debt relief as part of a global economic recovery.  The letter exhorts them to demonstrate "courageous leadership" on behalf of the poor.

I hope these leaders are heard and heeded. In the midst of our struggles with COVID-19 we need to be mindful of those whose situations are even more desperate. We truly need a 2020 Jubilee vision. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Respecting our" Sacred" Texts

I'm not giving a lot of time or consideration to the hearings to confirm Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court judge in the United States/ Her hurried confirmation is one more example of the terribly compromised political system in the States. And it seems that Barrett is doing her best to avoid honest and direct answers to the questions presented to her, which is sad given her conservative Christian values. Didn't Jesus say "let your yes be yes, and your no be no..." in the Sermon on the Mount?

You may have seen or heard that  Barrett claims to be an originalist in her judicial philosophy when it comes to interpretation of the US Constitution, supposedly in the manner of the framers and the public at the time it was written. She also describes herself as a textualist, meaning that she interprets the law strictly according to its text without considering the larger goals of the legislators who wrote it. 

Plenty of people have noted that these claims are also disingenuous given that slavery was in full sway at the time of the framing of the Constitution, and that some of the framers were slave-owners And women could not vote, nor could they serve as justices of the Supreme Court. The Constitution has been amended numerous times as have laws, for the benefit of the society.  

When I heard this I thought of all the people who are conservative Christians who claim to take a literal approach to scripture, yet have all sorts of exceptions to that literalism when it suits their purposes. Through the years I've been scolded for not being a literalist, sometimes quite vocally and even aggressively, by women who apparently  missed the verse in the New Testament letter called 1 Timothy which says "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she is to keep silent." I think it's to my credit that I never quoted this verse to them!  I have certainly reminded literalist men about the verse, also in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says that one should pluck out an eye rather than lust after another. That one tends to be a show-stopper.

Jurists who respect the law, and Christians who respect scripture, should do their best to understand the original context and culture of their "sacred texts." But it is dishonesty and even idolatry to say that these documents will be interpreted without the perspectives of each successive generation, or without consideration of the benefit and edification of those who take guidance from them in the present moment. 

Ah well. Perhaps it's too harsh to label the candidate as Amy Phoney Barrett, but I can't say I'm impressed by her approach. Oh RBG, where are you in our hour of need? 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Where Will CRISPR Take Us?


Charpentier and Doudna 

In the fourteen years since I began posting on this Lion Lamb blog (more than 4,000 entries) I've endeavoured to address the issues of daily life from a faith standpoint. Although I retired from Christian ministry three years ago I've continued to muse away. I've always written because doing so helps me focus my perspective on what I'm reading, experiencing, feeling. The challenge I often face is coalescing thoughts about complex subjects in a few paragraphs. In some respects its harder to write a blog of a few paragraphs than a sermon or an essay. 

During the past week I've wanted to reflect on the awarding of a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.but it's hard to know how to begin, and end, and fill in the important part in between.  

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have been recognized for  the development of a method for genome editing that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA. They are the first women ever to be awarded the prize together. This field is often described with acronym CRISPR, which is stands for "clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats." 

The implications for this development arehuge. It opens the way for the alteration of defective genes which cause life-threatening diseases. This is wonderful, right? It always raises the spectre of using a medical technology which could widen the gap between rich and poor in treatment of illnesses, and even of creating children with attributes chosen by parents. What if Donald Trump could pay for gene editing which would enable him to live to age 200? Now you're getting a picture of the dark side!

While Charpentier and Doudna should be lauded for their achievement, there is the possibility that unscrupulous scientists will monetize this technology without consideration for the ethics of doing so. Two years ago, the Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies and was jailed for the reckless way in which he did so. 

One of Canada's leading ethicists, Francoise Baylis, has written a book on the subject, Altered Inheritance,  and thoughtfully explored the implications. Francoise was a Dalhousie University professor and  a member of my Halifax congregation. I have her book and we've exchanged messages about what is unfolding. She is certainly not an alarmist, yet she sees how the development of this field could create profound societal issues. Who will be asking the necessary questions for regulation? Will governments be up to the task, and will there be international cooperation? Will communities of faith get involved in asking the appropriate questions from a moral and ethical standpoint, and will anyone listen? 

Well, I hope this hasn't driven you back to bed on a sleepy morning! Again, I'm grateful to Doudna and Charpentier for their scientific genius. I also appreciate those who understand the importance of considering the wide-ranging implications of CRISPR. 

There is a copy of Altered Inheritance of the Belleville Library if you're interested. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Celebrating and Empowering Girls

In church yesterday there was a brief mention of Unicef's International Day of the Girl, which falls on October 11th every year. Of course it was Thanksgiving Sunday here in Canuck Land so not really the occasion to explore the theme. 

I was reminded of the Day of the Girl earlier by an CBC The Current interview with Rona Ambrose, the former federal Conservative cabinet minister who would have been my choice for a new leader of the party. Ambrose was instrumental in having this day created by the UN after an encounter with a group of girls from around the world who asked her to get involved. As she shared this story she became emotional even though the moment occurred nearly a decade ago. Recently Ambrose published a children's book 

We are aware of the vulnerability of children in many societies, including our own, and particularly Indigenous children. In some countries girls are forced into the sex trade at an early age.  Some become brides when they are still children. Others are forced to leave school for various reasons, including the current pandemic. 

Women perform a flash mob to occupy a street on International Women's Day in Manila, Philippines, on March 8. Ambrose says having the UN recognize a day to celebrate girls opens the door for young people to talk about women's rights. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

The interview got me thinking about children in the New Testament and I realized that there just aren't a lot of references. In many ancient cultures children were quasi-people because of the high rates of child mortality. Jesus is mentioned as a boy and as an adult he told the disciples to let children get close to him and suggested that if anyone did them harm it would be better if that person was drowned -- that's about as forceful as he gets! Jesus also raised from the dead the 12-year-old daughter of a man called Jairus.

Then I realized that by the standards of our culture Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a child bride, if in fact she was a teen when she discovered she was pregnant as many scholars speculate. For Mary there was the revelation that she was blessed rather than cursed by the unsettling and extraordinary news. For too many girls childhood and opportunities in life come to an abrupt end when they treated as commodities or restricted and demeaned by societal mores. 

 We can be proud that there is a Canadian connection to the Day of the Girl and pray that every child, every girl has the opportunity to live a meaningful life and to fulfill God-given talents. 

I am thankful for our two wonderful, accomplished daughters this Thanksgiving day, and want the very best for our precious granddaughter. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Nobel Peace Prize and Thanksgiving

There is a term, "Freshman Fifteen" (7 kg) to describe the tendency for first year university and college students to put on weight during the first year of post-secondary education. Well, many of us seem to have made a trip back to the days of our youth during these past six months packing on the puddin' thanks to the pandemic. Decreased mobility, varying degrees of anxiety, and the craving for what we like to describe as comfort food (Covid chips as an example) has meant that our clothes have mysteriously shrunk. While we may lament the encouragement  to keep our Thanksgiving gatherings small this year, doing so may actually be a good thing if we're hoping to avoid overindulgence. 

It may not occur to us that the turmoil of our world has resulted in the opposite effect for tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of people who struggle with food insecurity and even starvation. Cutting people off from a stable food supply is actually a tactic of conflict and war, as is the case in countries such as Yemen.

How appropriate that in the week leading to Thanksgiving, which in both Canada and the United States is associated with the sharing of abundance by Indigenous peoples with European settlers who were facing starvation, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Program "for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict."

In 2019 WFP assisted more than 100 million people in 88 countries around the planet, a staggering number. To help us imagine the numbers, this represents nearly three times the population of Canada. While conflict is a key factor in food insecurity, the pandemic is also disrupting supply chains and production in many places and the United Church of Canada has invited us to offer financially support its initiatives to address this reality. 

We can also be aware on this Thanksgiving weekend that many people in this country are going hungry because of reduced incomes or lost employment. The Daily Bread organization in Toronto has experienced an increase from 15,000 to 20,000 visits a day at member food banks. In our area, food and meal programs continue to be busy, including the lunch programs at Trenton UC and Bridge St. UC. 

Those of us who are able to attend worship today will likely join with others in a mask-muffled recitation of the Lord's Prayer, which includes the phrase "give us this day our daily bread." If we are truly grateful we will consider how to share our abundance with others, close at hand and around the planet. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Mental Health, Acedia, and Melancholy

“Acedia is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some weird Christian monks, but a force we ignore at our peril. Whenever we focus on the foibles of celebrities to the detriment of learning more about the real world- the emergence of fundamentalist religious and nationalist movements, the economic factors endangering our reefs and rain forests, the social and ecological damage caused by factory farming - acedia is at work. Wherever we run to escape it, acedia is there, propelling us to 'the next best thing,' another paradise to revel in and wantonly destroy. It also sends us backward, prettying the past with the gloss of nostalgia. Acedia has come so far with us that it easily attached to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.”

                       Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life

Last Sunday the new CBC radio program The Sunday Magazine with host Piya Chattopadhyay included an interview with classics professor, Peter Toohey about a state of mind and spirit called acedia. Since the early days of Christianity acedia has been the term to describe the emotional state which includes anxiety, lethargy and apathy and more. 

You may know that one of the Seven Deadly Sins is sloth, which is sometimes defined as laziness.In fact, in ancient times this supposedly deadly sin was known as acedia and described the indifference of religious persons to obligations and commitments to God. Along the way Toohey also spoke of melancholy, another word which is rarely used anymore. The discussion caused me to think of a book by Kathleen Norris, quoted above

This was fascinating because we are more inclined to use the term depression than either of those old-timey words. This is Mental Health Day, an important occasion to consider the debilitating effects of mental illness and the importance of honesty and societal support for those experiencing it. We can be grateful for all the famous entertainers and athletes and others who have come out of the shadows of stigma to identify their mental health challenges so that others can realize they are not alone.

I wonder if it would be helpful to use the clinical language to describe mental illness,  and at the same time return the terms acedia and melancholy to our vocabularies? I find that the twin pandemics of COVID and the Climate Emergency have been demons which affect me deeply even though there is lots I do to stay healthy in body, mind, and spirit. I exercise almost every day, usually outside, and I pray in both formal and informal ways. In recent weeks I've returned to in-person worship, which is uplifting. Just the same my spirit has been battered by periods of separation from our children and grandchildren. it seems that much of what seemed to be foundational in my everyday life is the same. 

Am I depressed because of this unsettled season in my life and the life of the planet? Perhaps I am, by times,although melancholy or acedia might better describe this sense of dis-ease I experience. I do think that recognizing that this may also be a profound and even paralyzing spiritual malaise is important. 

In the end, though, this isn't an either/or situation.  Mental Health Day is the reminder of how important it is to support each other and to seek clinical help, if necessary. This year's theme of kindness is certainly timely, especially in a year of finger-pointing and polarization.