Monday, November 30, 2020

Honouring Our Elders


 Honor your father and your mother, 

so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Exodus 20:12 NRSV

Last week I listened to a CBC The Current interview with In Yukon, we talk to Dana Tizya-Tramm, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Yukon, about the challenges facing his community; Many communities in the North were able to go COVID infection-free during the first wave but are now dealing with outbreaks. They have inadequate access to health care at the best of times so the coronavirus presents a disturbing challenge.

I was struck by Chief Tizya-Tramm's comments that it is vital to protect their elders, who are the repositories of wisdom and culture.As he put it:

I could not imagine losing the elders in our community or some of the elders in our community. We have a higher per capita ratio of elderly in our community and as a first nation was moving towards modern times and looking at our traditional values as well. Our elders are really key in this modernisation, in this real guidance for our next generations and I mean their living history books with what they have seen and witnessed and what they know about the land. Losing one elder in our community is like losing a library...

These observations express such obvious respect,  and the contrast with what has happened in much of the rest of the country was striking. In the first COVID wave in Ontario the vast majority of deaths were amongst the elderly in long-term care institutions. It was obvious that these facilities did not provide adequate safeguards for their residents. Between the profit motive in some, and a lack of government oversight and funding, these elders perished, often with family members shut out of the facilities. It was a travesty. 

It has been shocking to read about the shrugs of some officials both in Canada and the United States about the expendability  of our elders, with the implication that their lives can be sacrificed for the sake of the economy. 

Recent announcements about funding for and increased staffing in long-term care here in Ontario won't be fully implemented for years when the support is needed immediately.. 

Three thousand years ago a set of commandments, an ethical code, emerged from a Jewish community on the move. The Ten Commandments contain prohibitions, the "thou shalt nots", but there are also positive directives which include honouring parents.  As this society coalesced in the wilderness, compassion and respect for elders was considered essential and ordained by God. 

We would do well to listen to our Indigenous communities and to our Judeo/Christian tradition. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Advent in our Hearts


1 All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,

and open furrows await the seed of God. 

All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty; 

it cries out for justice and searches for the truth.

                               Voices United # 5

Today marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year, and I think it's accurate to say that after more than 40 years of observing Advent in the United Church there are many members who find it to be a curiosity of sorts, rather than a beloved time of preparation for the coming of Christ. Sure, most congregations have Advent wreaths and may sing a few of the hymns for the season. Most clergy try to observe Advent with sincerity and employ the themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. At the same time they're feeling the pressure to "Christmas it up", both from parishioners and society as a whole..

This is a year like no other for the Advent season. 

A season of waiting? What are we waiting for? A vaccine of course, but when will that come. Yesterday our five-year-old grandson told us, authoritatively, that COVID-19 won't be over until there is a vaccine. It broke our hearts that someone so young would have to even think about this.

A season of holy patience?  Even as the numbers of those infected with the coronavirus grow across the country and in many other nations some are growing restless and belligerent about lock-downs and distancing. Wearing a mask in some circumstances is such a simple thing, yet there is a baffling push-back against this basic public health measure.

We've also been experiencing a less than holy irritation about the mixed messages of leaders when it comes to what we're supposed to do and when. Advent blue and rose are being challenged by the  green, yellow, orange, red and...grey of pandemic alerts. How did they decide that grey was the colour for lock-down?

Perhaps we need Advent more than ever in 2020. God is with us, always, yet we await God-With-Us in Jesus, the Christ. There is a paradox here, to be sure, but life is like that. Our faith can help us to take a deep breath and live with expectancy rather than dread. 

This morning we'll attend worship because we're in a zone where this is still permitted. We'll mask up and observe the new liturgical precautions of physical distancing, and not singing, and...blah,blah, blah.It's not ideal, but there is profound meaning in gathering as the body of Christ. There will be smiles beneath our masks as we wave our greetings to the others who have come together at what promises to be a lovely late November day. 

We'll also experience hope, on this Hope Sunday, because two children will be baptized, including that same five-year-old grandchild. Two baptismal fonts will be used, one for each child. I can hardly wait. 

May the blessings of Advent be with you all today and all through this season.  

God of all wisdom,

our hearts yearn for the warmth of your love,

and our minds search for the light of your Word.

Increase our longing for Christ our Saviour,

and strengthen us to grow in love,

that at the dawn of his coming

we may rejoice in his presence

and welcome the light of his truth.

This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

                Advent Prayer -- Voices United #11

Friday, November 27, 2020

The United Church Apologizes Once Again

The other day the United Church of Canada apologized for something I hadn't realized our denomination had been involved in.That is a fair accomplishment given that I've been part of the UCC my whole life and spent nearly four decades in pastoral ministry.

In the news release from November 20th we find:

The Executive of the General Council of The United Church of Canada issued an apology today for its role in separating mothers and their babies in maternity homes it operated from the end of World War II to 1980. “Women told us that they felt, pressured, coerced, or forced to give up their babies and the church recognizes it participated in the culture of shame that surrounded unmarried mothers at that time,” says the Rev. Daniel Hayward, chairperson of the church’s Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee that recommended the apology.

I'm old enough to remember the shame attached to the term "unwed mother' and when I was a teen one of my classmate became pregnant. I was unsettled by the disdain expressed by my minister father, and was confused as to whether as a "moral" person I should feel more critical of someone I'd gone to school with all my life. I've never forgotten the conversation in our household. 

We know that the circumstances were even more horrific in some denominations where unwed mothers became virtual slaves of the church in the laundries as punishment for their sinfulness, as well as having their children put up for adoption. The film Philomena and the story it told of one such mother in Ireland comes to mind. 

We can wonder whether these apologies for historic wrongs really matter. I hope that this one does, that women who felt shamed and who have lived with the loss of a child all these years will be aware of what has transpired. There are no "illegitimate" children and we are all loved by a God or mercy and compassion. The last paragraph of the news release says: 

The effects of the adoption practices still reverberate in the lives of those affected. A single apology cannot erase a lifetime of silent suffering, but it may be the first step toward blunting the culture of shame that surrounded young women who became pregnant in an era when moral judgments were quick and severe. The writers of the apology state, “We have heard how you lived with shame and stigma placed on you by the church and society. We are truly sorry.”

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving & Gratitude Amidst the Grief

Canadian Thanksgiving is just a speck in the rear-view mirror, having occurred early in October. Today is the celebration of abundance and gratitude in the United States, although with more roughly 270,000 COVID deaths and a million new cases a week there is a pall over the nation. We've seen the lines of vehicles stretching for miles in some American cities as unemployed people wait for food. Millions are choosing to stay away from family gatherings because of the coronovirus, even as many more will be mindful of those whose lives were ended by an invisible virus. 

It is a rather bleak picture, but one US writer reminds us that while Thanksgiving is a day for feasting and gratitude, history suggests that from the very beginning there was an powerful element of grief attached to the occasion. In a piece with the long-winded title Thanksgiving has always been about grief. Pass the mashed potatoes.Marking both grief and gratitude isn’t antithetical to the Thanksgiving holiday; in fact, it’s baked into its very history author Jana Reiss notes that of the 102 Pilgrims who came as settlers in 1620, 51, or half, died in the first year. If it weren't for the Indigenous people who aided them, the death toll would have been much higher. 

Through history people have figured out how to give thanks at meal tables and worship settings despite the realities of epidemics and wars and personal losses. 

I've wondered, through the years, what it was like to celebrate Christmas during WWII and I regret not asking my late mother, who was 14 when the war broke out, about her recollections. We are experiencing some anticipatory grief at the prospect of a family Christmas sans cherished members of our family because of COVID restrictions. And yet I feel so grateful that our adult children are healthy and employed, and that our school-age grandchildren are able to attend each day. 

Because we live in an Ontario "green zone" we are still able to participate in Sunday worship and we're looking forward to the baptism of one of our grandsons this weekend. We are literally choosing to count our blessings, one by one, while acknowledging our losses and being mindful of the pain of so many. 

At the end of her article Reiss offers this:

So this Thanksgiving, I’ll be celebrating the joy of life while also reflecting on its transience and the terrible losses 2020 has dealt so many people in our country and around the world. Marking both grief and gratitude isn’t antithetical to the Thanksgiving holiday; in fact, it’s baked into its very history. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Violence Against Women in a Pandemic

                                                         Audrey Hopkinson

 I was busy getting ready for this morning's Zoom and in-person study group so I didn't blog earlier. I really appreciated the participants and the reminder of how insightful the body of Christ can be, even when scattered hither and yon. 

I am aware that today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, although I wasn't until reading a CBC News article about a pregnant woman in Brockville who was murdered by her partner on April 1st of this year. Audrey Hopkinson was a 33-year-old nurse and mother of two other children who was loved by many. Her partner took his own life as well, but Audrey is gone because of his cowardly act.

Many of you know that Ruth, my wife, worked as an outreach worker for a women's shelter for nearly a decade when we lived in Bowmanville, Ontario. Her work with clients often happened in secrecy because the women feared the repercussions if discovered by controlling partners, and often the conversations were about the implications of leaving verbally and physically abusive relationships. When people wonder why women don't leave situations that are violent and life-threatening they don't appreciate that the well-being of children, the dislocation from the familiar, the prospect of poverty, and shame, are all factors. 

During the pandemic there has been a rise in the number of cases of domestic violence along with concerns that women are not reaching out for support because of the complications associated with COVID-19. There is also the even greater reluctance to go into a shelter with strangers when the consequence could be serious illness.  All this can be a deadly combination.

Please be aware that these issues have been accentuated during the pandemic and the danger is as real for vulnerable women and children as ever. As we are preoccupied with our strategies for staying safe from the virus, remember those who live with fear of a different kind, often daily. As Christian communities just attempting to get by, we can pray for and support those who are vulnerable, sometimes our own congregational members. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

"Says I to myself" Keeping a Journal


"Says I to myself” should be the motto of ,my journal. 

It is fatal to the writer to be too much possessed by his thought. 

Things must lie a little remote to be described.”

― Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861

Tomorrow morning I'll be engaged in an experiment at Trenton United Church. I'll be leading the first of two or three sessions on keeping a journal, a regular writing down of thoughts, impressions, emotional responses to circumstances, and conversations with God.

I've been writing in journals for decades now, and doing so is as much a pattern of my day as brushing my teeth. This strange time of apprehension and ennui and a fair amount of anxiety because of the pandemic might be the ideal time to begin a journal or return to writing one. 

I don't write to keep an hourly record of my activities, the way I once kept a day book for work. Nor do I revisit what I've written through the years very often, although I have looked back in preparation for this study group.  I find that the discipline or habit of writing each day leads me reflect on what I considered important in  my personal thoughts, my interactions with others, my gratitude for life, and my impressions of the events of the world. 

I'm often surprised that I have something to reflect upon, even on days when I figure I'm the most boring person imaginable. Someone has suggested that "writing in your journal is the only way to find out what you should be writing about." The Thoreau quote, above,  implies that we need a little distance from our thoughts, through writing, in order to give them some focus and perspective. 

My journal isn't intentionally spiritual in focus, yet I regularly meander in that direction. God makes cameo appearances or is the focus of my thoughts, or is simply present in the background. 

Tomorrow will be in-person, with careful protocols, and on Zoom. If you would like to join us you're certainly welcome. Together we can seek some meaning in the muddle. 

If you missed our first session but would like to join us next Wednesday at 10:00, please contact Rev. Isaac Mundy at Trenton United Church and he'll include you on the Zoom list.

Monday, November 23, 2020

JFK and CS Lewis


Did you notice that yesterday was the 57th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? He was a flawed individual but an actual leader who  in his inaugural addressed said “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” as a challenge to American citizens to contribute in some way to the greater public good. This sentiment would be incomprehensible to the lame duck currently in office, clinging to power. 

That same day 57 years ago the Christian apologist CS Lewis died of cancer, an event overshadowed JFK's untimely death. Lewis was a remarkable man, an intellectual and atheist who was "surprised by joy", a conversion of both heart and head. He wrote 30 books through the years, including the beloved Narnia series. a sci-fi trilogy, a novel of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, as well as a number of books of popular theology and philosophy. He married later in life only to have his brilliant wife, Joy Davidman, die in her 40's. His book A Grief Observed is an honest reflection on loss and the challenge to faith it posed for him. 

This anniversary of Lewis's death I'm pondering how he became a darling of the evangelical Christian world in the 70's and 80's because of his robust, orthodox, intelligent faith. He probably wouldn't have used the term Evangelical to describe himself, but he was adopted as such, particularly in the United States.I read many of Lewis's books as a young man and was grateful that he appealed to the mind in understanding the Christian life. 

In 2020 evangelicals in The US steadfastly support a president who is brazenly self-absorbed, arrogant, and sneers at most Christian values. And evangelicalism has become anti-intellectual and far more committed to tribalism than the gospel.

 I have no doubt that both JFK and CS Lewis would have rejected the politics and religion which have infected US discourse and action. It's important to remember who they were and what their legacy should be. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Homelessness & Tiny Shelters

                                         Khaleel Seivwright -- Scarborough carpenter

 Later this morning we're supposed to get a dose of sloppy weather with a mixture of rain and snow, a combination which is really miserable. Of course we'll be warm and dry, but some won't. Homelessness is not seasonal, and while communities attempt to provide shelter, this year there is the added challenge of a virus which can be deadly when people are in close proximity to one another. 

Many who are homeless won't go into shelters because of fear of violence from other residents, mental health issues, and real concerns about contagious illnesses such as COVID. In addition, a city such as Toronto claims to have a certain number of beds for homeless people but those who work as advocates for the homeless claim that they are regularly told that there are none available.

                                                   Toronto Tiny Shelter

Khaleel Seivwright, 28, a carpenter who has been building stand-alone, insulated, movable shelters under the title of Toronto Tiny Shelters. So far he's constructed ten of them and placed them in various city-owned locations. The city doesn't like this and told him to stop, and there are obvious reasons why problems could arise with having these tiny homes in public places such as parks. The real solution to un-housed populations is to house them but most municipalities don't do a good job of this. Cathy Crowe, a Toronto street nurse, has been opposed to this sort of impermanent initiative but she has changed her outlook and considers Seivwright a hero. She says that there are approximately a thousand homeless people in Toronto at the moment, with Winter looming, and not nearly enough spaces in city shelters and hotel rooms to house them. . 

Apparently there are private property owners, including churches, who are considering being hosts to the tiny shelters. Who knows where this will go, but to date Toronto Tiny Shelters has received about $130,000 in donations, which would be enough for 130 shelters, 130 people who would be protected from the elements. 

God bless Khaleel Seivwright for his practical compassion and generosity.  

                                   Cathy Crowe -- Toronto street nurse

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Lemonade and Lament

Actor Michael J. Fox is one of those Canadian exports who makes us proud. He came to fame as Alex Keaton,  the driven Republican teen son of earnest ex-hippy parents on the hit series Family Ties. We went on to even greater acclaim in the Back to the Future films, then in another series, Spin City. What we didn't know was that half his lifetime ago, at the age of 29, he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease. He gave up acting for a time, then returned as a crafty lawyer who exploited a degenerative illness in the courtroom on The Good Wife. He has retired again, and short of a miracle this is likely permanent. 

Fox has been the point man for gratitude and hope with his autobiographical books, Lucky Man, and Always Looking Up. He feels that he's led a remarkable life and is grateful for the unfailing love of his wife and children. His new book takes a different direction as the result of the bleak challenges of a cancerous tumour on his spine which threatened to paralyze him. No one wanted to operate but he found a surgeon who admitted that no one wanted to be the doc who paralyzed Michael Fox. He had to learn to walk ago but as he did so he fell and shattered one of his arms. In all of this he began to question his optimism and wondered if he had been misleading his readers who often faced monumental challenges themselves. 

Fox is doing the virtual interview circuit for a new book,  No Time Like the Future and on the CBC radio program Q he reflected on his emphasis on making lemonades out of lemonade, until he came to the point where he said 'I'm out of the freakin' lemonade business. I can't put a shiny face on this. This sucks, and who am I to tell people to be optimistic?'​

In the interview he want on to speak bluntly about his mortality and mortality in general:

But I thought about the idea of the future, and then it came to me that the future is the last thing we run out of. We run out of breath. We run out of everything. Then there comes a point where we have no more future and that's the end of it.But until then there's always something in the future to be optimistic about, to look forward to. It may change our circumstances or it may not, but that will run out, so enjoy it while you have it.

I found Fox's honesty disarming (no pun intended) and while it is a personal story it is also a reflection of the times we'e in. The coronavirus pandemic has us all wondering what the future will look like, and even if we feel that we're blessed and have enjoyed full and meaningful lives there is a pall of uncertainty over everything.

We are struggling to be hopeful in the midst of this, but is it okay to be "cranky", the word Fox uses to describe this latest book? It seems to me that his latest  memoir is in some ways a lament, which is a biblical concept -- there is even a book in the Hebrew scriptures called Lamentations. To lament is not to deny hope, it recognizes our realities and lets lament and hope live alongside each other, even if it is an uneasy relationship. 

We're on the brink of  Advent in the Christian year, which begins with the Sunday of hope. Will we even be able to gather for worship through this season, or celebrate Christmas with loved ones?  Perhaps we can figure out how Christ comforts us in our loss and lament, while showing us the way to hope. 

                                  Back to the Future

Friday, November 20, 2020

MAID & Living With Disabilities


                                         Catherine Frazee

A few weeks ago I preached about Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) at Trenton United Church and I wrote about the subject in this blog as well. I attempted to be measured, compassionate, and Christian in my approach. While I have come to a place of qualified support for MAID, in part because we have developed the ability to prolong life even when meaningful living has ceased, I continue to have reservations about it's ready availability because segments of our society are vulnerable, including the aged and those with disabilities. How do we ensure that these people don't become disposable in our society, or feel that the "honorable" choice is MAID? 

Through this year the Canadian government has been exploring amendments to the original MAID legislation from June 2016. The focus is on the provision for "reasonably foreseeable death."

You may have seen or heard that spokespersons for the disabled community are raising concerns about the proposals. Catherine Frazee, a professor emeritus at Ryerson University, was interviewed by Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's The Current yesterday and she raised some important questions and concerns. I'll share this from the transcript of the interview:

Frazee, who lives with a disabling medical condition, says that — through Bill C-7 — the government is making it possible for people with disability to kill themselves while doing whatever it can to prevent suicide for everyone else. Now this amendment proposes opening up an entire new approach to assisted death, where it's now an alternative not to a painful death, but to a painful life — to a life that is considered intolerable or not worth living. And that extension will apply only to people with disabling medical conditions, and so for those of us who live with — and many of us who live well with — disabling medical conditions, we think the question has to be asked: why us?"

Apparently these amendments will be addressed in Parliament by the deadline of December 18th, which by my math is four weeks today. We can keep our eyes and ears open and pray for discernment on the part of those who will make decisions about the legislation. We have a responsibility to do as people of faith and goodwill. This is a moral, ethical, and spiritual concern, not just a matter of the law. 

If you want to learn more just paste these addresses into a search engine/

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Justice for Bedouins in a World of Turmoil

A Palestinian woman walks in Khirbet Humsah in Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank November 5th 2020 REUTERS

 On the day of the election in the United States, when the eyes of the world were on the outcome, Israeli b.ulldozers demolished a Bedouin village in the area known as the West Bank. Bedouins are traditionally nomadic people but they do establish settlements for periods of time, often living in tents while using solar panels and availing themselves of the internet. The Israeli government has been involved in a program of destroying "illegal" Bedouin settlements for more than a decade, determined to concentrate tens of thousands of  Bedouins in small geographical areas. It sounds chillingly similar to what happened to Indigenous peoples in North America who ended up on reserves and reservations. 

On November 4th tented homes, shelters for animals , latrines and solar panels were among the structures destroyed in the village, according to the United Nations. By Thursday morning the residents had already moved back to the site, using tents donated by Palestinian aid groups. According to an article the next day in US News and World Report:

"They want to expel us from the area so that settlers can live in our place, but we will not leave from here," said resident Harbi Abu Kabsh, referring to the roughly 430,000 Israeli settlers who live alongside three million Palestinians in the West Bank, which Israel captured in a 1967 war...Yvonne Helle, a humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations in the Palestinian territories, said that relief agencies had visited Khirbet Humsah and recorded 76 demolished structures, "more than in any other single demolition in the past decade". Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said the structures included 18 tents and sheds.

For decades the United Church of Canada has spoken out about Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the heavy-handedness of the military in evicting Palestinians from their traditional lands, Because of this we have been accused of being anti-Jewish, which is not the case, and of supporting terrorism, which is nonsense. We have long been committed to interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The UCC's objections have been to injustices which have been condemned by the United Nations and many Western governments. Sadly, the current right-wing government in Israel has been emboldened by the Trump administration and the support of evangelical Christians in the United States. 

It would be wonderful if the corrupt Benjamin Netanyahu was finally evicted from office. And we can pray that the Biden administration will return to policies which are more measured than under the Emperor Trump. His administration's "Vision for Peace" in the region has been anything but, Why would we surprised by this? 

In the midst of many other pressing problems in the world this still matters and people of good faith can stay informed and hope that peace and justice will prevail. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Prayer for Putting on a Face Mask

                                                Moderator Richard Bott -- United Church of Canada

I am grateful that we live in a region where the donning of masks in shared spaces is treated neither as a virtue nor an infringement of personal freedom. People just put them on when around others, including at church, or the gym, or the shopping mall.Nearly all of us have figured out how to make this part of our routine, and while it can be inconvenient at times, it is for a greater good, In our fairly large geographical area there are only a handful of active COVID-19 cases and we want to keep it that way. 

Back in August the moderator of the United Church, the Rev. Richard Bott wrote a prayer for putting on a mask, and somehow I missed it at the time. Recently I began seeing links to the prayer on Twitter from pastors and priests across the country and in the United States, where there is such nonsense about wearing masks and people are getting infected as a rate of more than a million a week.

One Roman Catholic priest in the US posted the prayer for his parishioners and was attacked for this "heresy." There are only seven sacraments in Catholicism, some fussed, and to suggest otherwise is dangerous! Of course, Moderator Bott is not suggesting that an eight sacrament be added to the tradition of the church. So much for metaphor to the self-appointed true defenders of the faith. 

You can decide what you think for yourself. I really appreciate the notion of transforming an irritant into a blessing for all. Thank you Richard. 

as I prepare to go into the world,
help me to see the sacrament
in the wearing of this cloth –
let it be “an outward sign
of an inward grace” –
a tangible and visible way
of living love for my neighbours,
as I love myself.

since my lips will be covered,
uncover my heart,
that people would see my smile
in the crinkles around my eyes.
Since my voice may be muffled,
help me to speak clearly,
not only with my words,
but with my actions.

Holy Spirit,
as the elastic touches my ears,
remind me to listen carefully –
and full of care –
to all those I meet.
May this simple piece of cloth
be shield and banner,
and each breath that it holds,
be filled with your love.

In your Name
and in that love,
I pray.

May it be so.
May it be so.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Second Wave & Human Loss


At a recent COVID-19 news conference featuring Ontario's premier, Doug Ford, and members of his cabinet CBC reporter Mike Crawley asked a pointed question. Crawley noted that recently Ford has spoken of how his "heart breaks" for small business people who may lose everything if the province moves back into strict lockdown because of the alarming rise in COVID cases. Why wasn't the premier talking about the growing number of people who have died because the virus was spreading? Ford took umbrage at this, saying he regularly phoned families who had experienced losses and was working long hours to address the resurgence of COVID.

Ford didn't really answer the question, still, I commend Crawley for asking it. The number of deaths is on the rise, but this figure is usually tacked on after the statistics about actual cases, and the press conferences certainly don't dwell on these statistics. Yet these are beloved human beings who are dying, and the majority of them are elderly and fragile. They live in institutions which are failing in providing protection in too many instances, and the proposed solutions to this tragedy are years away. 

When the first wave of COVID hit, most of us were appalled by the number of deaths in nursing homes and knew that this wasn't acceptable. Have we now decided as a society that a certain number of these losses of people who contributed to society, who love and are loved, is acceptable? Surely mentioning them on a regular basis in a public forum is one way of keeping a human face on what is transpiring. 

We know that one of the distinguishing features of the early Christian church which was an important part of its growth was compassion for the vulnerable, including the elderly. This care became a defining aspect of societies where Christianity was at the core, and even though we have become far more secular these values are still part of our ethos. Our hearts should break at the growing number of deaths, whatever the age of those who are lost. 

I'm not suggesting that Premier Ford is not a caring person as an individual,and God knows he has a tough job. We should all care about businesses which are struggling to survive. But as Premier of Ontario it is essential that he and his government regularly remind all citizens that the deaths associated with COVID-19 are more than numbers, they are cherished human beings. 

It would seem that despite the hope of vaccines we are in this for the long haul, and we must remain steadfast as a society. I'm glad that there are people such as Mike Crawley asking the challenging questions. 

                                                                              Mike Crawley

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Temptation of an Edifice Complex

                                         Basilica of Our Lady of Peace -- Cote D'Ivoire

Because I studied art and architecture in my undergraduate degree I've always held an interest in the design of places of worship. I've visited some of the great cathedrals of Europe as well as more modern structures such as the remarkable Ismaili worship centre in Toronto.

In the late 1980's  I read about what a puzzling construction project in a small city in Cote D"Ivoire, an African nation. It was a Roman Catholic church to be called the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace and when completed it would be the largest in the world, surpassing even St. Peter/s in Rome. Cote D'Ivoire was only about 30% Christian at that time, and only half of them were Roman Catholic. It really was a vanity project for the president of the country who had actually been a benign leader, creating economic prosperity and avoiding the extremism and religious strife of neighbouring countries. He wanted a monument in the place of his birth, so he essentially created a city with a magnificent place of worship seating 18.000. Pope John Paul II came to consecrate the edifice in 1990. 

Recently I saw another article about the same church, nearly a generation after it was built. Today many of the government buildings in the city are empty, and the church attracts 300 to 400 for worship. The future of the church in uncertain in a country where there is now turmoil and fighting amongst religions.

While this building may seem like folly, and it really is, it is also a reminder that religions and religious people always run the danger of an "edifice complex", revering the structures of their faith to the point of idolatry. When Notre Dame in Paris burned 19 months ago there was an almost immediate commitment to rebuild in the neighbourhood of a billion euros. This is a staggering sum in a country which has become quite secular in its outlook.

                                            Notre Dame in flames 2019

Through the years I served three congregations which seated 400 people, one of which could hold double that number. Each is beautiful in its own way, and all have required lots of money to maintain and repair -- sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for certain projects. There were large congregations on occasion, even filling the sanctuaries, and one Easter in Halifax we had an estimated 600 in worship, but these were exceptions. 

I was often frustrated that it was harder to muster conversation about Christ's mission for the congregations as members wrung their hands about the buildings. In some of the smaller congregations of my first pastoral charge in Newfoundland any discussion of amalgamation was met with hostility because the buildings were cherished, yet two of the five are now closed. 

It never seemed to occur to folk that the Christ in whose name these churches were built had ambivalent experiences in places of worship, no Christian church existed during his lifetime, and he never owned property of any sort, as far as we can tell. 

I still love fine examples of architecture from a variety of religious traditions and always will. I also feel that we need to maintain a sense of perspective about the bricks and mortar, the vessels  in which the body of Christ is housed. Those vessels can take on different shapes and forms, as we carry out our mission of love and compassion in Christ's name. If we don't acknowledge this we too are engaging in the folly of an "edifice complex."


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Indigenous Peoples & the Marriage Act


Indigenous wedding ceremony for Sanford White & Ann Marie Proulx -- Cape Croker, Ontario

When we lived in Northern Ontario I served a larger downtown congregation in Sudbury. A couple began attending worship and approached me about presiding at their wedding. While they were both Christians and wanted a Christian ceremony, she was Indigenous and hoped to incorporate aspects of her First Nations heritage in an outdoor ceremony. I agreed, with the provision that is we were outdoors we had the option of shelter, should the weather be inclement. It was a good thing because the rain teemed down that afternoon. It was so intense that it crept in under the protective tent where the ceremony took place!

I thought about this couple when I saw news that the Marriage Act is being revised in Ontario to include Indigenous ceremonies. It surprises me, given that the Marriage Act includes religions other than Christianity, as well as secular marriages,that there is no specific provision for Indigenous ceremonies. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised since we have so consistently marginalized Indigenous customs and spirituality for centuries in this country.

The changes in the Marriage Act will allow a person to solemnize a marriage in Ontario if they belong to the band, a First Nation, Metis settlement or Inuit community and for communities to designate persons as officiators. Ceremonies can include Indigenous languages and the subtleties of culture and spirituality which those languages denote. 

This all makes sense to me. What do you think? 

Oh yes, the Sudbury couple found me as they were celebrating their 20th anniversary, so their vows "took" despite the wedding day deluge. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Diwali & Advent, Light in the Darkness

Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.

                          Taize chorus 

 Happy Diwali! That was the greeting from a member of my Sudbury congregation one Sunday morning years ago. Brenda was, and likely still is, a quirky spirit who on her first Sunday after my arrival walked into the sanctuary with bicycle helmet and tire in hand. This was a congregation of suits and jewelry, not cycling gear. She was an intelligent, inquisitive person, a psychiatric nurse who then studied to become a lawyer and was a key person in starting a meal program from the church (resisted by some of the suit an jewelry folk.) I had no idea what Diwali was and she explained that it was a Hindu festival of light and that she appreciated the theme. As I learned along the way, Diwali uses the theme of light in the darkness to celebrate goodness overcoming evil, kindness over hatred. 

Diwali is another moon-related festival and so it moves around the calendar. Today is the first of the five days of Diwali in 2020 and this year Hindus are adapting as Christians and Jews did with their moon-related festivals of Easter and Passover in the Spring because of the pandemic. In North America the social gatherings are being curtailed and family gatherings will be small, or virtual. Yet Hindus are determined to uphold the themes and values of the festival in spite of and in response to the psychological and spiritual gloom which has resulted from the invisible and potent coronavirus. 

This is important, and as we recognize what the Hindu community is doing I wonder how we will respond as Christians during the season of Advent and into Christmas. In the darkest days of the Northern Hemisphere we will be lighting Advent candles and Christmas lights, even in what is increasingly a secular society. A neighbour who isn't a religious person already has his Christmas lights up and is turning them on in the evening, far earlier than in previous year. We put our lights up as well to take advantage of the mild weather and even though we'll wait a while to put them on we may start earlier as well.

This has me thinking about what we might do in our household through Advent in terms of addressing the ominous darkness of rising numbers of COVID cases and the possibility that Christmas won't be the opportunity for family joy we've taken for granted in the past. Surely we can find ways to affirm Advent Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love as Christ's people, and as we honour the coming of Christ, the Light of the World? 

This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Friday, November 13, 2020

Addressing an Open Wound

This week a report was issued by the Vatican regarding one of the highest ranking clerics of the Roman Catholic church who was accused of being a sexual predator. Theodore McCarrick is ninety years old and rose through the ranks to the position of cardinal. He became a powerful figure in the church because he had the ear of powerful people in American society, including politicians, and he was an effective fundraiser. Through the decades McCarrick was accused of abusing young seminary students and children but somehow avoided criminal prosecution and censure by the Vatican. 

The report reveals that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict were aware of the gravity of the accusations yet McCarrick not only continued in his roles of responsibility, he was essentially promoted. After years of denial and financial settlements with accusers it was only in 2018 that McCarrick was "laicized" or expelled from the priesthood. He has never accepted responsibility for his actions, no genuine repentance or work toward reconciliation. 

I find this so appalling that I can barely control my anger and disdain for McCarrick and all those who enabled him. Pope John Paul was fast-tracked for sainthood yet he was complicit in cover-ups which almost certainly meant that more innocent and trusting young men and children were victimized. There is simply no excuse for this, and it undermines the credibility and spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic church. While Pope Francis has made repeated promises to address sexual abuse by priests he became pope five years before McCarrick's eventual ouster. 

The glimmer of hope in this sordid situation is that the investigation occurred and the report was released to the public.There is a level of transparency here which is essentially unprecedented in the Roman Catholic church. In an article in CRUX, an online newspaper which addresses Catholic issues, editor John Allen Jr. offers this:  

To grasp the full significance of what’s happened, let’s take a step back. Since 1870, when the Vatican lost its temporal authority and was compelled to become an exclusively spiritual power, operationally it’s had two core principles: Secrecy and sovereignty. Secrecy meant we don’t air our dirty laundry in public in order to avoid scandal, and sovereignty meant we don’t owe an explanation of our actions to anyone.

There have been far too many shadows, far too much dishonesty, and,most importantly, far too many innocent victims through the years. As John Allen observes in the article, this report is a fundamental shift, and the church can't go back now, whatever the consequences.In the Vatican's response to the the report there is both explanation and remorse: "This wound cannot be treated solely with new laws or ever more effective codes of conduct, because the crime is also a sin. To heal this wound, humility and penitence is needed, asking God’s forgiveness and healing. "

 We can pray for those who have suffered for years not only from the abuse by individuals but the ongoing betrayal of trust by the institution. Many of the survivors have been robbed of personal faith and the solace of the community of Christ. May the peace of Christ be with them, and may justice be done. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Congregations and Their Veterans

In one congregation I served I visited a tiny, crotchety man who never got out to church because he was dependent on an oxygen tank and had mobility issues. His beloved wife had died years before I came on the scene and his daughter lived at a distance, so he spent a lot of time alone. I came to realize that he was also anti-social and didn't like change, including the fact that my predecessor was a woman. It didn't matter that she was a very effective and beloved minister.

Despite a rocky start we ended up getting along and he became more open about his experiences in WWII. Initially he failed the medical because he was 5'4" short, and weighed next to nothing. He was determined though and attempted to enlist again. It was decided that he would actually be ideal for the tank corps because he was so small and was literally a good fit for a confined space. He had some harrowing experiences along the way and he was grateful that he survived. In old age he was frustrated that it was so much work to get support from Veterans Affairs, although he saw the irony in the fact that as many of his contemporaries died there were more resources for those who remained.

I'm grateful for the veterans and their spouses in all my congregations, including the war bride widow in outport Newfoundland who came from England and never ventured more than a few kilometres from the remote fishing village of her husband after she emigrated in 1919. She never saw her family again.I even had an ancient WWI veteran with a wry sense of humour in one of my earlier congregations. 

I also had contemporary military veterans in some of these churches and a handful of active service personnel, including a teen who joined the navy and another who served as a peacekeeper on the Golan Heights

I was always moved by the sight of the increasingly tottery veterans of past conflicts who carried the wreath on Remembrance Sunday. Some of them walked with a cane, so we would invite a child to assist with the wreath. It was powerful to see young and old together, and I won't forget. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Who Will We Remember?

 Our son, Isaac, shared in our family group chat that he was saddened by news that the local Santa Claus parade has been cancelled this year because of the pandemic. While it was expected, he looks forward to taking their two boys to participate in the energy and excitement of this joyful annual event.

I chimed in that I had a similar reaction to the announcements that gatherings at cenotaphs in communities across Ontario will not take place tomorrow, which is Remembrance Day. I haven't missed many through the decades and when I was working I would arrange my work schedule so that I could slip away to a war memorial, or arena, or cenotaph to join in solemn gratitude for those who served and those who made the ultimate personal sacrifice. Both my father and father-in-law were veterans and while neither saw action in the European war theatre, their lives were shaped by service. My father-in-law did see the immediate aftermath of bombings and it must have been traumatic. 

It's been important for me to honour them, the veterans in my congregations, and those who could only be names without faces. We always acknowledged Remembrance Sunday in the congregations I served, even though we emphasized the importance of peace, and the Prince of Peace. I'm grateful that Isaac has continued this tradition. 

I listened this morning to someone from the Kojo Institute who invited us to reframe Remembrance Day so that we would expand the moment beyond acknowledging white men who served in wars that had their roots in European empires and colonialism. She reminded us that Indigenous, Black, and Persons of Colour served in these wars, often returning to second-class status in their homelands, or to colonial rule. She pointed out the important roles of those who stayed behind, including the millions of women who took on important roles in industry and community leadership, yet were returned to stereotypical roles after the conflicts ended. 

Her perspective is an important one which we can all keep in mind tomorrow. We may not be able to come together to remember, but we have the freedom to expand our scope of gratitude

Monday, November 09, 2020

What is "a Sustaining Faith" Alex?


After a lovely paddle at Bon Echo Provincial Park yesterday we got into our vehicle to hear the tail end of a news report listing the accomplishments of Jeopardy game show host, Alex Trebek. We were certain that this was not good news and within a few minutes we'd ascertained that Alex had succumbed to the pancreatic cancer he'd battled so valiantly, although in an understated Canadian way. It was a shock because he was on the air Friday evening, but of course that episode was taped several weeks ago. 

It seems that Trebek has become more of a Canadian hero in recent years and particularly since his cancer diagnosis. We were all amazed that he continued to work through his chemotherapy and joked about fulfilling his contract for a couple more years. It's surprising how many people of all ages have come to enjoy Jeopardy. Our younger daughter, Emily, never struck as a candidate for Jeopardy nerd-dom, but she has become an enthusiastic fan and is a strong home contestant.  Back in the days when people actually went to an office to work she had a Jeopardy calendar on her desk and her young colleague stopped by each day to test their knowledge. Jeopardy is the one show I really don't like missing, and while sometimes I mutter "c'mon Alex, you have all the answers!" when he was a little condescending to a contestant, he really was an excellent host. 

During interviews after he announced his cancer Alex nearly always mentioned the importance of faith, along with the prayers of many, in sustaining him through the challenges of the disease. I was disappointed that interviewers didn't delve deeper into what this meant to him, perhaps a comment on our secular age
. Guideposts magazine mentioned his comments in the video posted to his Twitter account in March of last year:

There were moments of great pain, days when certain bodily functions no longer functioned, and sudden massive attacks of great depression that made me wonder if it really was worth fighting on. But I brushed that aside quickly because that would have been a massive betrayal–a betrayal of my wife and soulmate Jean who has given her all to help me survive. And it would certainly have been a betrayal of my faith in God and the millions of prayers that have been said on my behalf.”

Trebek continues to rely on prayer and his faith to keep him motivated and uplifted, which he noted while accepting Fordham University’s Founders’ Award in January. As stated in Fordham News, he said, “If there’s one thing I have discovered in the past year, it is the power of prayer.

I appreciate Trebek's honesty and witness about what his faith meant to him. During my ministry I was inspired by the courage and sustaining faith of so many who walked through the valley of the shadow of death, even though they weren't celebrities and their stories weren't widely known. 

Thanks, Alex Trebek, for entertaining us through the years and for your faith. 

Any other Jeopardy nerds out there? 


Sunday, November 08, 2020

Eagles Wings and an Election


Last evening President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris spoke before a jubilant crowd to acknowledge the outcome of the US election. There was a degree of American glitz as 77-year-old Biden trotted down a runway as though he was an aging football hero being recognized before the Superbowl. The speeches by both Harris and Biden, were inspiring, articulate and blessedly free of grievances and conspiracy theories. 

Both of them are people of faith, even though they have been characterized otherwise, and Biden will become only the second Roman Catholic president in the history of the US. He attends worship on a regular basis and says that his faith has sustained him through life's losses. Biden's first wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident decades ago and he lost a son to cancer. These experiences would be enough to embitter most of us, but he embraces life.

At the end of his speech which was under 15 minutes -- imagine a presidential speech which was succinct!- Biden quoted scripture twice. The first reference was to Ecclesiastes 3, the passage which speaks about their being a time and a season for everything, including both living and dying. 

The other was the hymn adaptation of psalm 91 which many of us know as On Eagles Wings. It was written by Michael Joncas, a Roman Catholic composer, in response to the sudden death of the father of a good friend. Through the years it has found a home in various Christian traditions, and it is in a hymn resource of the United Church called Voices United as a version of  psalm 91. 

It's interesting that in a moment of victory and celebration Joe Biden did draw on scripture which has meaning for him and both passages are often used at funerals and memorials. This says to me that he is someone who understands loss and will be able to express empathy and compassion from the wellspring of his personal faith. Let's hope so. It is urgently needed in the United States right now.