Thursday, December 31, 2020

Exploring "Family" in 2021


        Come in, come in and sit down,

you are a part of the family.

We are lost and we are found,

and we are a part of the family.

A few days ago Pope Francis announced an 18 month focus on the family with an invitation to revisit a document which explores what family means and how families might be strengthened. 

It's an interesting and worthwhile choice, it seems to me, given that the "givens" of family life have been altered and at times shattered by the pandemic.

Far too many families experienced the loss of loved ones, particularly the elderly, without being able to provide in-person support in the final days and hours because of imposed isolation, and this was trragic. 

Some families have chosen inter-generational living as a way of coping with the disruption and this has extended far beyond the original expectations for time together. 

We are amongst those families whose primary loss in 2020 was contact with grandchildren, and while we had a few months of blissful "bubbling" with one household we've lamented the loss of physical contact with another. Christmas certainly accentuated this. 

Many of us have figured out how to be family through FaceTime and Zoom and House Party and it has worked... kind of...sigh. 

We're aware that the strain of the pandemic has brought the marriages of some we know to the brink of dissolution and pray that there will be mending in the broken places. 

We've also seen that Christian congregational families have been stretched to the limit and many who rely on their friends at church are suffering. 

It will be interesting to see where these 18 months take the Roman Catholic church. Will there be an honest discussion about same-gender relationships and blended families, given the traditional views of what constitutes a family? 

We could all do well to ask ourselves what family means to us in these turbulent times, and how we can be intentional in nurturing and strengthening the "ties that bind." The painting above imagines the Holy Family as refugees on the move, and we can look beyond stereotypes of what family is as we enter a new year. 

        Blest be the tie that binds

our hearts in Christian love;

the unity of heart and mind

is like to that above.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

More on Medical Assistance in Dying

Christmas, even one limited by a pandemic, tends to distract from all other concerns short of a catastrophic natural disaster. I suppose a pandemic is a natural disaster, but you know what I mean. 

So, did you notice when the Canadian parliament passed changes to the legislation regarding Medical Assistance in Dying on December 10th? As CBC news reported:

MPs voted 212 to 107 in favour of the legislation. Several Conservative MPs supported it, while a handful of Liberal MPs voted against it or abstained.

The government introduced C-7 in February in response to a September 2019 Superior Court of Quebec ruling which found that the law's precondition for obtaining a physician-assisted death — that the individual seeking it must face a "reasonably foreseeable" natural death — was unconstitutional.

I have written a number of times about both my reservations concerning MAID and my cautious support in some circumstances. I've watched as people for whom I've provided pastoral care suffer unnecessarily, with medical technology keeping them from death but not providing hope of meaningful life. I've also been aware of physicians administering levels of pain medication for terminal patients which likely hastened their deaths. 

Just the same, I'm grateful that advocates for those with disabilities, members of opposition parties in the legislature (as well as a few in the Liberal party) and some voices in the media expressed concern and objection before the new legislation was passed. 

The argument that this is the "slippery slope" of acceptance for greater latitude for MAID may be overstated by some, yet we need to pay attention. There is an irony in the fact that many of us are outraged by the lack of protection of the vulnerable and elderly during this pandemic we aren't engaged in the discussion about assisted dying. 

As I've said before, as Christians we cherish the sanctity of God-given life, and while we may feel, as I do, that MAID can be a compassionate choice in some circumstances, we must also diligently  protect the vulnerable in our society. I still don't understand why the insistence of the Quebec Superior Court that choice be broadened should dictate what happens for the rest of the country. Why do judges have this power, and why do we frame this as primarily a matter of human rights when there are profound moral and ethical issues we must address? 

While the deadline was December 18th for approval of new legislation, I think there was another extension for review by the Senate, which refused to be hurried in its response. I hope there is thoughtful reflection on what has been proposed. 

It is worth going to the United Church of Canada website to find the original statement about MAID and to read the the revised statement includes the following updates:

  1. that the criterion of “foreseeable death” for access to Medical Assistance in Dying be maintained
  2. that ending suffering due to mental illness not be a category for MAID, and that the church advocate for increased mental health resources
  3. that advance directives in relation to MAID not be permitted
  4. for mature minors, capacity to make a decision for MAID be judged on a case-by-case basis, by medical professionals in consultation with family and community

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Regency and Equality?

I hopped on to the Bridgerton (Netflix) bandwagon with some reluctance because I'm not a huge fan of period pieces which are about the intrigue amongst nobility and the privileged. Someone has described Bridgerton as a mash-up of Jane Austen and a trashy romance novel and that about sums it up for me. I'm hanging on the edge of the wagon with Ruth, but barely.

What has intrigued me is Shonda Rhimes' emphasis on the racial diversity of British society during the Regency period around the turn of the 19th century. Mad King George III was monarch and it has been speculated that his consort, Queen Charlotte (Charlottetown PEI, Charlotte NC) was a Person of Colour because of Moorish heritage. According to the series, this opened the way for a diversity which history tells us disappeared during the Victorian era. 

Charlotte's background is certainly the source of scholarly debate, but there is some truth that during George's reign Black's and People of Colour were more widely accepted and represented in different strata of society. This may have been because of the concerted effort to abolish slavery, a movement which was hotly contested but eventually received popular support long before emancipation in the United States.  Leading the way were devout Christians, including William Wilberforce, who did have the king's ear and was an eloquent speaker decrying slavery in Parliament. 

In so many British period pieces the cast is uniformly white, although the recent Sanditon series, based on an unfinished novel by Jane Austen, has a significant Black character, Austen's only one. 

It's worthwhile to imagine society outside of stereotypes and Bridgerton certainly does so. Why not? 

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Innocents Today



The Massacre of the Innocents by Léon Cogniet (1824)

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[

he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children 

in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, 

according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

Matthew 2:16

I could never convince folk of the value of observing the Twelve Days of Christmas as the shortest liturgical season of the Christian Year. Once Christmas Day was past everyone was ready to pack up the decorations and seemed bewildered when we sang carols. Through the years I did a couple of services where we sang the Twelve Days of Christmas and I talked about mummering and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as  reminders that the season was important in another time, but it didn't really fly. 

I never emphasized this day in the calendar which is the Feast of the Massacre of the Innocents. It is the acknowledgment of the story in Matthew's gospel of  Roman ruler Herod's paranoid decision to murder children in the vicinity of Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem, after the Magi visited him looking for a king. 

This is a grisly footnote in the story of the arrival of the Magi from the east and the decision of the the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. Yet this year it got me thinking about the vulnerability of children in our time. 

Recently hundreds of boys were kidnapped in Nigeria by the Boko Haram militant group and some of them died. 

Just before Christmas a boat full of migrants capsized in the Mediterranean with a number of pregnant women and children amongst those who drowned. 

In the United States migrant children have been kept in detention camps for years, some permanently separated from their parents. Several children have died in these camps, a reality almost beyond comprehension in a democracy which wears its Christianity on its sleeve. 

Here in Canada there are thousands of Indigenous children who have been separated from their families and communities, supposed for their good. Thousands more are growing up in communities where the water supply has been unsafe for human consumption for decades. 

We may consider the story of the flight of the Holy Family and the verse about the slaughter of children as curious footnotes in the larger narrative of our Christian faith. Instead we might shine a light on them as reminders that we are always called to respond to the needs of the young and vulnerable and innocent, for Jesus' sake. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Wenceslas and Remembering the Poor

Good King Wenceslas looked out/ on the Feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about/ deep and crisp and even:

Brightly shone the moon that night/ tho' the frost was cruel

When a poor man came in sight/gath'ring winter fuel.

This is the first verse of a mid-19th century British carol, set to a much older tune, and which tells an even older legend of a Bohemian duke who was posthumously recognized as a king for his generosity. How is that for a mouthful? 

This carol wasn't originally written for Christmas and it's only vaguely Christian. The jaunty tune doesn't really fit with the serious subject matter, so some music critics dismiss it. For some reason, though, it has persisted. There are a lot of us who can sing the first couple of lines and hum the rest of the tune. 

Until yesterday I'd never made the connection between what we know as Boxing Day and the Feast of St. Stephen, an occasion for alms-giving. There is an irony in the fact that a day which shouts "buy! buy! buy!' in our culture was "give! give! give!" in another era. 

                                                        Alms Box "Remember the Poor"

The 26th of December was the day when the rich boxed up gifts for the poor of their parishes.It was also a day off for servants, when they received a Christmas box from their employers. The alms boxes in churches were opened on Christmas Day as well and their contents shared with the needy on Boxing Day, or the Feast of St. Stephen.

 I realize now that my late mother shared this with me when I was a teen and new everything-- she emigrated from Britain as a child -- and I was dubious about this origin. We should always listen to our mothers. 

Generosity is a good plan, especially for those of us who believe that God has been lavish in love through Jesus, the infant and the resurrected Christ. We can make sure that our society does more than engage in occasional acts of charity. We can seek justice for all because it is the right choice and the Christian way. 

Go now, and hum the carol!

In his master's steps he trod/ where the snow lay dinted

Heat was in the very sod/ which the saint had printed

Therefore, Christian men, be sure/wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor/shall yourselves find blessing. 

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Remembering the Boxing Day Sabbath

 We have been all Christmasy and Jesusy in our household the past couple of days, despite the societal realities of the Virus-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Jesus was born a Jew, of course, and this is the Jewish sabbath, as you will know. The beginning of the lock-down has reminded me of the importance of sabbath time for rest, reflection, communion with God and Creation.

 In any other year of the past 50 years or more today, Boxing Day,  would be a frenzy of buying activity, with throngs of people descending on shopping malls and big-box stores to purchase stuff and stuff and more stuff. As a 70's teen I would head to Toronto and Yonge St, with my best friend so we could stand in the ridiculous scrums at Sam the Record Man and A &A's to buy sale records -- actual LP's -- of our favourite rock bands. It was some sort of retail pilgrimage which we solemnly undertook. 

We all feel for those who are trying to make a living in retail these days, especially small business owners who are hanging on my their fingernails. And sure, online shopping for bargains will be insane today. The word is that working conditions for Amazon employees are miserable.I can hear the "ahem, we don't get a sabbath" from a farmer or two out there, but I hope you'll understand!

This could be a worthwhile and even holy pause for a lot of us who might be tempted to brave the crowds. I hope lives will be saved today and in the days ahead

I figure that somewhere I still have some of the material from a program years ago called Whose Birthday Is It Anyway? It encouraged simplicity and resistance, a sort of sabbath of heart, mind, and wallet. It seems next to impossible now, but couldn't we at least give it a try? 

 If you can, enjoy the quiet, maybe go for a walk, remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Jesus the Jew will be impressed. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Waving, Not Drowning on Christmas Eve


This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor & truth were trampled to scorn—
Yet here did the Savior make His home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

The Risk of Birth by  Madeleine L"Engle                

Yesterday some walkers by the shore of the Bay of Quinte in Belleville called 911 because of two people who'd gone through the ice and were frantically waving their arms -- or so they thought. First responders showed up and discovered that there were two bald eagles out on the ice, fanning their wings, not humans in distress. It's wonderful that these magnificent creatures which were all but wiped out in this region are making a comeback. And the emergency call was an honest mistake on the part of concerned citizens. 

This made me think of a chapter in Sandra Marinella's book The Story You Need To Tell: Writing to Heal From Trauma, Illness or Loss. Chapter 1 is Waving Not Drowning and the quote beneath the title is from Helen Keller  "All the world is full of suffering. It's also full of overcoming." The chapter heading is itself a reference to a poem called Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith. 

This is a year which has both flown by and seems like a decade, all at the same time. I'll speak for myself in saying that most of the time I've generally felt that I've been waving as I purposefully swam, only to have moments when I was trying to keep my head above water. 

It would be churlish of me to complain. I'm retired, we're healthy, we have a spacious home and yard, we've been active in a region with low case numbers know. Still, it has been a challenge, and I wouldn't mind getting out and toweling off for a while. We had a grandchild born earlier this year but we can't see him nor the rest of his family this Christmas, and an aged aunt who was lots of fun died yesterday. 

I have immense admiration for those who've carried on in their workplaces, and those who've had no work at all. Over and over I ponder those vulnerable people in long-term care facilities and those who care for them. i can't imagine the dismay of small business owners who've been told to shut down for four more weeks, the lump of coal in their Christmas stockings. And then there are all the people who are grieving the deaths of loved ones, and are restricted in actually doing so.

In the next few days many will be experiencing a different sort of grief, that of being separated from those they were sure they'd see at Christmas. Doing the right thing by staying away seems like the wrong thing, but such is 2020 when everything is upside down. 

This Christmas Eve I will remember the story of the unsettling events around the birth of Jesus, both the bad and the good. Hey, angels are good, but we can concede that they're not the norm.  Just the same love was born -- Christ was born.

I may blog tomorrow, but if not, have a wonderful Christmas. May you soar in 2021, by the grace of God. I'm waving enthusiastically toward you, dear readers, not drowning!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Soul of Christmas Bells


Near the wonderful conclusion of the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol (1951),  Scrooge awakens to the sound of church bells pealing to announce the birth of Christ on Christmas morning. The joyous clangour is the perfect backdrop to Ebenezer's reawakening to life's possibilities. 

 I love church bells and have heard ringers practicing changes at Canterbury Cathedral in Britain. A number of the churches I served had bell towers and functioning bells. And a couple of the congregations graced worship through dedicated hand-bell choirs. 

Often bells have been removed or silenced in creaky old churches for safety reasons. Sadly many of the older companies which have crafted bells for centuries are going out of business. Hand-crafted bells are expensive and in our age there are fewer and fewer churches which desire them. When you have a worship centre which looks like a big-box store, why would you need a bell? 

Master bell maker Antonio Delli Quadri, 83, was just 15 when he started helping cast bells inside Italy's oldest bell foundry, run by the Marinelli family in the town of Agnone. The workshop is one of five remaining foundries in Italy, which once boasted dozens. (Megan Williams/CBC)

You may have read or heard about the Marinelli family in Italy which has been making bells in the traditional ways for generations. They can trace examples of their work to the 1300's, but are sure that the family was creating bells for at least a couple of centuries before this. 

Their clients now include Buddhist temples and musicians,  but despite the world-wide clientele there are still the Christian roots. According to a CBC piece:

 The Marinellis refer to bells as "sacred bronzes" and describe them not as formed but "born," with the initial wooden and brick structure that gives shape to the inside called the "anima," or soul. To this day, a priest is called to the foundry to bless the bell, emitting a flurry of Hail Marys at the moment of fusion, when the bronze liquid is poured into the mould.

I am fascinated by this devotion to what is truly an art. The world will be a poorer place when these workshops cease to exist. 

I wondered whether our congregation, Trenton United, might sound the bell on Christmas Eve,  given that there won't be an in-person service because of the pending lock-down. It turns out that the tower is "all dressed up with no bell to ring." Alas!

I hope that you can get in touch with your inner Quasimodo during the next few days, and that the bells of Christ's hope ring in your heart. 

                                  Intricate decorations for the bells are carved in wax. (Chris Warde-Jones)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Virtual, In-Person, or Charlie Brown Christmas Eve?

Is there any more popular term these days than"pivot?" Everyone, it seems, is pivoting away from conventional ways of doing things in order to survive and even thrive. 

Unfortunately the Ontario government's announcement on Monday about the upcoming lock-down has pastors and other religious leaders pirouetting like drunken ballerinas as they try to figure out what Christmas Eve and Day services will look like. There are regions of the province, such as ours, where in-person worship has been happening for months, along with the virtual option. Even though the lock-down doesn't begin until Boxing Day many congregations are choosing to go dark beforehand. This never happened for me through the decades of ministry, thank God. All we had to contend with were straightforward ice storms and blizzards. 

And what about the messages to be preached for this "on-again, off-again" Christmas?  What homily or sermon could possibly seem adequate in the midst of such uncertainty? Does the message written for an in-person gathering translate to the at-home experience.

I like Diana Butler Bass's reminder that perhaps the most famous Christmas sermon ever was virtual, and was first shared more than 50 years ago. She has been watching  the animated Christmas special,  A Charlie Brown Christmas since 1965, As you may know, TV execs were skeptical about a kid's special which featured jazz music an anemic Christmas tree, and a morose little boy. And then there is the 'sermon" delivered by Linus, in the form of a few verses from the gospel of Luke. It was so...Christian, even for 1965,

As Butler Bass thoughtfully puts it: 

My first recollection of hearing Jesus called “Savior” comes from a much more mundane source—A Charlie Brown Christmas, the classic holiday cartoon, first aired on television in 1965. I was six, my little brother four, and my sister a toddler. We gathered around the new color television, turned to CBS, and watched. Poor Charlie Brown! No one remembered the true meaning of Christmas. He was so depressed! At the climax of the show, he cried out in frustration, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” His friend Linus stepped on stage and recited verses from Luke 2: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not . . . for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior which is Christ the Lord.”

We were planning to head to Trenton United for son Isaac's carefully monitored Christmas Eve service, but it looks as though it won't be happening now. at least not as a physical gathering. We'll stay tuned for the official word, and perhaps we'll tune in to the animated proclamation of Good News, the birth of Christ our Saviour (with a u!)

Monday, December 21, 2020

The "Solstitial Yaw" and Leaning Toward Hope

Solstice Drive to St. Anthony Christopher Pratt 2008

So, will Christmas be cancelled this year? The simple answer is no, because our celebration of the birth of Christ is not dependent on coming together in buildings to sing carols, light candles, and hear the hear the story from Luke 2. Okay, all those things really matter, and I'm bummed that they won't this year because of another lock-down. 

We know that Jesus probably wasn't born at this time of the year anyway and that Easter would be a more accurate time for Christmas --- are you totally confused now? It's likely that the persecuted Christian minority in Rome celebrated the birth of the Son under the cover of celebration of the rebirth of the Sun around the Winter Solstice. 

Lots of cultures, from the ancient Romans, to the Druids, to Indigenous peoples around the world, acknowledge what can be a bleak day in the Northern Hemisphere as the beginning of something new, a rebirth. Why wouldn't we include ourselves in this as Christians? 

There was a thoughtful opinion piece in the Globe and Mail newspaper on Saturday on repairing our relationship with the Earth by James Maskalyk  and Dave Courchene. Maskalyk is an emergency room physician and author, while Courchene is the founder of the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education. 

In the article they say:

On December 21, as the Earth reaches equilibrium  and begins its solstistial yaw, we are all invited, Indigenous and those displaces from our traditional fire, and keep it burning throughout the day. A fireplace, a candle,. In its flame, the sun's light, the Earth's gifts, and our own spirit. It is the first step toward knowing our nature, and that of the planet, as not two, but one. 

I love this imagery, and have no qualms about combining this encouragement with my conviction that God-with-Us, born in a stable, is the Light of the World. On a gloomy weather day, with gloomy news on the horizon, I yaw toward hope for Turtle Island, and Christ's abundant life.  

                                           Newgrange Neolithic Chamber, Ireland, on the Solstice

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Advent Love and Lock-down

                                              Annunciation -- Tanner

It's snowing this morning, but not heavily, so we'll cautiously make the 25 kilometre trip to Trenton for morning worship. The is the Love Sunday of Advent, following the themes of Hope, Peace, and Joy. I've certainly been thinking about loving choices in this unprecedented year. 

Tomorrow Premier Ford will announce new lock-down measures to help stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases in the province. I don't know about you, but I'm weary of the government announcing that they will be making an announcement -- why can't they just "out with it" instead of teasing and torturing every proclamation? 

I accept that restrictions are necessary, and we've been much more stringent that our neighbours, even though we live in a region with blessedly few cases of COVID. Don't get me started on the anti-maskers who are the epitome of arrogant and rude. 

That said, is it loving to exclude family members from our lives for the sake of a greater good? So many are suffering from isolation and loneliness, so saying no to any Christmas gatherings can seem cruel. 

And what about Christmas Eve services? When we attend worship on Sundays we literally touch nothing during the time we're there. We wear masks, sit at a distance from others. The same protocols will be in place on Thursday evening, but it feels now as though this would be more of a wild card. 

The story of this Sunday of Advent and Christmas itself is that love is messy and bewildering at times. Yet God is present and active in our lives as the young, bewildered Mary exemplified.  We all have to make our decisions according to our circumstances. because one size doesn't necessarily fit all. That's the way it is with love as well. 

I have used the 1 Corinthians passage some years as one of the scripture lessons for Love Sunday. It  complements the Annunciation and Magnificat in Luke, certainly seems appropriate in 2020. 

God be with us all as we discern what love will look like this year. And perhaps Premier Doug could recruit the angel Gabriel to do his press conferences...

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Welcoming Refugees, 5 Years On

 Members of Belleville’s refugee sponsorship group welcomed their sponsorship family of five outside of Albert College for a short and intimate ceremony on Friday Dec. 11

A couple of weeks ago Canada recognized the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the airlift of Syrian refugees to this country, perhaps the finest initiative of the federal Liberals since they were elected to office. In September of 2015 the United Church congregation I served, Bridge St, began the sponsorship of a family of five. Our initiative, which soon involved other UCC congregations and members of other faith communities, including the local mosque, was not part of the federal sponsorship program but coincided with it. 

Thanks to an astonishingly dedicated group of volunteers, including readers of this blog, the emotional response to the photo of a drowned Syrian child on a beach in Greece became the reality of a family plucked from the limbo of a refugee camp in Lebanon. 

The family left Lebanon on December 6th, and arrived in Belleville to a warm welcome from 40 of those volunteers on the 11th. I went back to my journal entry from that day and the emotion rose in me as I recalled us standing on the steps of Albert College, welcoming the family. We sang O Canada, and a member of the mosque, an immigrant himself, greeted them in Arabic, in tears. What a moment. 

Now there are 23 members of this family in the community as we expanded our sponsorships. Children are being educated and receiving the health care they deserve. The adults speak English. Those who sought employment have found it and are contributing to the economy. Life in a new country and culture has posed its challenges, but they now consider themselves Canadians and a number of them have become citizens.. We've met other Syrian families who've come as immigrants to our community and when we see each other we greet each other warmly.

This work of welcoming immigrants is far from over, even though it may have slipped from the minds of many Canadians. A group in Trenton has been waiting five years for the family they endeavoured to sponsor and the persistent of these folk is admirable.

We know that people are still risking the trip across the Mediterranean in a desperate hope for a better life, and people still die in the attempt. Earlier in the Fall the Moria refugee camp in Greece was destroyed by fire. It was intended for 3,000 but housed 13,000. 

Despite this tumultuous 2020, a year when fear of the stranger and "taking care of our own" has prevailed, I pray that there is still space in our hearts for compassion and hospitality.

 If there was room in the stable for a family on the move 2,000 years ago, surely we can demonstrate the love of Christ for those who so desperately need us to respond. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

A Family with a Cold Gospel Heart

listened to an interview with a member of the Chapman family whose ice cream business is a leading employer in the small town of Markdale here in Ontario. Ice cream needs to be frozen -- that's my big reveal for the day -- and the company's freezers have been part of the regional pandemic plan for decades. When they heard of the necessity for ultra-cold freezers to store the first COVID vaccine they went to their supplier and bought two for the health unit. 

This generous act is entirely in keeping with the civic mindedness of the family. When the factory was destroyed by fire a decade ago they kept their employees on the payroll until it was rebuilt. During the early days of the pandemic they bumped up wages by two dollars an hour (they already paid above minimum wage) and as time went on decided to keep the increase.

Some online snooping reveals that the Chapman's have given millions of dollars to the local hospital and hospice centre. When the Markdale school was slated to be closed they committed two million to keep it open, feeling that it would help ensure that present and potential employees would see the community as an attractive place to raise families.

Chapman's also makes Yukon Caribou Bars, and they give 25 cents from the sale of every box to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society to protect caribou habitat.

During the pandemic we've heard that some corporations have applied for federal COVID relief even though they were profitable and paying dividends to shareholders.

Let's keep in mind the Chapman's Ice Cream business and the generous family behind it. I have no idea whether the family have a religious faith, but they sure exemplify gospel values of generosity and compassion. That's the cold, hard truth. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The End of "Conversion Therapy?"

Sarah Mullally, the bishop of London, sent a message of ‘heartfelt encouragement’.
 Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

"Conversion therapy" is one of those strange and dastardly phrases which are intended to sound positive when they are in fact the opposite. The "conversion" is actually the coercion of LGBTQ2 persons to renounce their sexual identity so that they will claim to be heterosexual. T "therapy" usually takes the form of brain-washing and even torture tactics. It is consistently shame and fear based, even though the love of God is invoked, and it simply doesn't work. Often those who run conversion therapy programs lie about their successes and some of the most aggressive leaders have eventually revealed that they are LGBTQ2 persons themselves. 

Even though these programs are destructive governments have been slow to ban them, likely because they are reluctant to alienate a conservative segment of religious voters. It is illegal in Ontario but we know that some federal Conservative MP's in the province still support it. There is federal legislation introduced in October called Bill-C6 which would make conversion therapy illegal in Canada and includes these provisions: Specifically, the Bill would enact new offences to prohibit:

  • causing an individual to undergo conversion therapy against their will;
  • causing a child to undergo conversion therapy;
  • removing a child from Canada to undergo conversion therapy abroad;
  • receiving a financial or other material benefit from the provision of conversion therapy; and
  • advertising an offer to provide conversion therapy

You may heard or seen that a broad coalition of  370 faith leaders from around the world have spoken out against conversion therapy this week. Here is a description from The Guardian: 

 Senior faith leaders from around the world are coming together at an event backed by the UK government to call for an end to the criminalisation of LGBT+ people and a global ban on conversion practices.

More than 370 figures from 35 countries representing 10 religions have signed a historic declaration ahead of a conference on 16 December in a move that will highlight divisions within global religions.

he signatories include Archbishop Desmond Tutu and eight other archbishops, the Catholic former president of Ireland Mary McAleese, more than 60 rabbis, and senior Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists.

This is so encouraging and a reminder that faith in its various expressions can be a voice for good. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Christ's Light of Healing and Hope

God of hope; 

give us a glimpse of trust and assurance, 

a sense of purpose and possibility. 

Come into our hearts and our minds, 

bringing comfort, health, and peace. 

Re-create in us a sense of gratitude, 

which comes in experiencing the love of Christ. Amen.

 Lots of congregations hold services at this time of year which they call Blue Christmas, or Longest Night.  These worship opportunities are meant to be shelters, oases, for those who find this time of year difficult for a number of reasons. Some feel the loss of loved ones keenly around Christmas. Others struggle with the realities of the Northern Hemisphere with the bleak shrinking of daylight hours approaching the Winter Solstice. I always do my countdown to December 21/22 and the first day past the solstice is its own form of Christmas gift.

I'm not sure what will be happening for other congregations this year, but I will be leading a service this evening for Trenton United Church, which is our church home. I led them in congregations I served in the past and Rev. Isaac has asked if I would do so this year. In addition to the usual reasons for a gathering such as this one we have all been contending with one of the most, if not the most. disorienting and bleak years of our lives. The COVID pandemic has been the relentless spectre of loss and grim news through 2020.

 For a time we thought we'd made our way through the worst, and we do have the hopeful development of vaccines, the first of which are now being administered. 

Still, we're being warned that there could be even greater darkness before the dawn if we don't act responsibly. Many families have already dealt with the reality that they won't or can't gather for Christmas and this is painful. Congregations in red and grey zones in Ontario and elsewhere won't be holding Christmas Eve services, except online. 

We are calling our service today a Service of Healing and Hope, as I always have. While we will acknowledge that many are feeling emotionally and spiritually "blue",  and, yes, we are lurching toward the solstice, we also want to uphold the Christ-light in our midst. 

You are welcome to be with us in person (we'll have all the safety protocols in place) or you can join us for our first live-stream (gulp) for Trenton UC. The service is at 6:30 and won't be long, but we hope it will be meaningful and a balm for our weary souls. You'll need to contact the church for a Zoom link, but please join us. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Anita and the Covid Vaccine


The second Sunday of Advent may have been dedicated to Hope, but yesterday was Hope Monday as the first vaccinations against COVID-19 took place in Canada. These occurred in several provinces and in Ontario the first person to get jabbed was Anita Quidangan, a Personal Support Worker, or PSW. Anita has been doing this selfless and essential work for 30 years, and I imagine that the past nine months have seemed like a decade, all in their own. 

When I saw her face and then her name I wondered if she was originally from the Philippines, and that is the case. There are tens of thousands of Filipinos in Canada who work in roles such as this, as well as childcare. They often live far away from their families and a portion of their modest incomes is sent home to support loved ones. 

We now realize that many of the people in Canada who do the work which requires physical contact with the vulnerable, as well as countless more who are in service industries are immigrants. They can't work from home, as so many have been advised to do,  and as a result their neighbourhoods and communities have much higher rates of COVID. 

Sadly, areas in the Greater Toronto Area such as Peel Region are vilified for their soaring rates of infection. Some unfairly blame cultures which have multi-generational families in one home, or large family weddings, or religious celebrations such as Diwali. The bigger picture shows that areas such as Peel are home to lots of people who do the work we don't want to do, and which are much riskier in terms of transmission of the virus. 

As the monumental task of vaccinating this nation gets underway we might pray for those who will be on the front lines of serving others for months before the program is fulfilled. And as a healthy and "young senior" (yes, I am an oxymoron!) I would be content for a lot of these folk to get the vaccines before me. I have the privilege of abundant caution and even isolation, if need be. 

We can keep in mind the powerful gospel image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples the evening before his crucifixion. PSW's such as Anita are doing this, literally, day in and day out. 

We don't need to bang on pots and pans to express our gratitude, but prayers of thanks for these quietly courageous workers sure makes sense to me.


Monday, December 14, 2020

Hand-Washing and Surrender


This morning I listened to an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning program with a Spiritual Care Practitioner in the Toronto hospital system. I regret that I didn't catch her name, which I regret,  because she offered lots of wisdom and, well, spirituality as she spoke.

 In the earlier portion of the conversation she spoke of the challenges of offering support when interactions must be distanced or virtual. She acknowledged the importance of physical cues, the body language aspect of spiritual care, which is now absent from those conversations and encounters. And, of course. everything has changed in the pandemic in terms of the clusters of family members which are so important when people are ill and dying.

Near the conclusion host Ismaila Alfa asked about the ways in which she experienced spiritual care and support. She spoke of family and her faith community, even though that community can't physically gather at the moment. She went on to mention ritualising the constant hand-washing and use of sanitizer, which is a constant part of her work. She described it as a prayerful moment in which she "surrenders" to the experience. It's an interesting term, and one I associate with Islam, which actually means submission or surrender. 

This fits for all of us these days, wouldn't you say? Some fight the practices of mask-wearing and hygiene with the foolish and selfish notion that they rob us of freedom. Sadly, often the people who are most vocal consider themselves religious and Christian. 

Instead we can regard them as acts of humility and generosity, and allow them to be prayerful. We are still permitted to attend worship, with all the protocols in place. We're really going week-by-week now, wondering if and when this will be shut down. We accept the gift of the moment -- surrendering I suppose. . 

When we go to church the only time we touch anything from the time we enter until we leave is the pump on the jug of hand-sanitizer, I'm now going to consider this as a spiritual moment as I apply the COVID version of holy water. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Joy! Are You Out There Joy?

Joy comes with the dawn; joy comes with the morning sun;

joy springs from the tomb and scatters the night with her song,

joy comes with the dawn.

1 Weeping may come; weeping may come in the night,

when dark shadows cloud our sight.  R

2 Sorrow will turn, sorrow will turn into song,

and God's laughter make us strong.  R

3 We will rejoice, we will rejoice, and give praise,

to the One who brings us grace.  R

So, how is the joy holding up? I know, even asking about joy may seem callous these days. 

The Christian season of Advent is meant to patiently address the darkness before entering into the glorious light of Christ's first and second comings. This is a tough sell, as we've grown almost pathologically impatient as a society, and even within our church communities. 

This year is weirder than weird, and in those places where in-person worship is allowed the question is, do we include some Christmas in Advent, with the spectre of shutdown haunting every week? 

Today we get a break, with the Advent Sunday of Joy and the rose candle as relief from the blue. Where is the joy, though, in this confounding year? 

There is an op-ed piece in the New York Times this weekend about what the author describes as the " hidden 4th wave" of COVID-19,  which is the steady rise in mental health issues for so many. The pandemic isn't showing signs of abating, and even though there is vaccine hope on the horizon this is still months away. Living in the Northern Hemisphere means we are also contending with shortened daylight hours, which drags a lot of us down in the best of years.  As I talk to clergy it's apparent that they are doing their best to be pastoral with those who are slipping into despair. It's damn hard for these pastors as well, as they attempt to discern the trajectory for their flocks when there really are no certainties. 

Despite all this, I want there to be joy in my heart and mind this morning, and to somehow find it in each day. As a child of the Creator I venture outside whenever possible, and even in these bleaker days there are signs and wonders. The experience of worship can't be what I once took for granted, but I can be grateful for the community of Christ, virtual and otherwise. Last Sunday we were sitting behind a young mom whose infant was checking us out with curiosity, masks and all. I delight in the laughter and exuberance of grandchildren, which shines through, even on FaceTime.

Joy often emerges in the uncertainties, and it would be a sin not to celebrate each occasion. And I want to be intentional about supporting those who are feeling too overwhelmed to experience joy these days. I'm inclined to think of joy as spontaneous, and never really considered it as a spiritual discipline, but  surely this is the season for both. 

We had a joking exchange with one of my sisters-in-law (a faithful reader) about joy, after she sent us the photo below. We agreed with while we may not be able to sing for joy in church, we can at least jump. On second thought, I'm not sure my knees agree!

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Remembering Thomas Merton


At the beginning of our journal-keeping study group on Wednesday I read an excerpt from a journal by Thomas Merton from the compilation called Thomas Merton: When the Trees Say Nothing, edited by Kathleen Deignan. I hadn't realized that the next day was the anniversary of his untimely death in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968. He was there to meet with the young Dalai Lama, who would later say, “This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity. ... It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’” As the date of his death suggests, Merton was committed to interfaith conversation long before this became common. 

I have long admired Merton, who was a monk, a mystic,an activist, and a hermit. He had a brilliant, curious mind and his autobiography of conversion to Christianity,The Seven Storey Mountain, was an improbable best-seller with the hardcover selling more than 600,000 copies and millions more in paperback. 

I read The Seven Storey Mountain as a young man and it had a powerful influence on my spiritual life. As time went on I appreciated the way he sought to balance the inward and outward aspects of living as a Christian. Then I became aware of his deep and mystical love for the natural world and of his "marriage to the forest", as one biographer has put it. 

Needless to say, I would recommend seeking out Merton's work. I have the feeling that he would have left the monastic life if he had survived, in part because he had fallen in love with a nurse when he was hospitalized. Who knows! 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Hanukkah Light in the Darkness

 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. 

It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 

                                           John 10:22-23

                                              Hanukkah Dreidels in the Midst of COVID-19

This is the first full day of the eight which celebrate the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago, and the miraculous provision of oil for the lamp within. Today candles are used in the menorah, with one for each of the eight days, along with the helper used to light them. Traditionally Hanukkah hasn't been a major Jewish celebration, although it has become more popular as a counter to the dominance of Christmas. 

This year some Jews are intentionally employing the theme of light in the darkness as a metaphor of hope in the midst of the gloom of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. Globally, 2020 hasn't served up much in the way of good news, but Jewish communities across the country have been getting creative in their celebrations. There are Zoom family gatherings, and the Calgary public library system is offering "Hanukkah at Home" book and craft packages. In Whitby there will be a parade of vehicles to mark the occasion. 

While we are Christians, we have participated in Hanukkah, after a fashion, for decades. We're not trying to appropriate the celebration but appreciate the themes. We light our menorah latkes, and now read Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins with our grandchildren, as we did with our kids when they were young. 

We can remember that Jesus was a Jew and when he went to the temple for the Feast of Dedication, as mentioned in John's gospel, that was Hanukkah. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Canada and Human Rights Day


Bob Rae was what we might call the accidental premier of Ontario when the New Democratic Party surprised just about everybody in the province, including themselves, by winning the election in 1990. After one term they were out, resulting in the Voldemort era of Mike Harris. Rae went on to serve as a Liberal Member of Parliament, federally, and was the interim leader of the party. 

Now Bob Rae is Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, and last month he created a stir when he called on the UN's  Human Rights Council to investigate whether China's persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang province should be considered an act of genocide.

The Uighurs are Muslim, and they have been subject to ongoing discrimination and persecution in China, a country which continues to have a horrible reputation when it comes to religious freedom. Christians have suffered as well, and I have encouraged readers to pray for our sisters and brothers in Christ. But the Uighurs have been treated even more harshly and hundreds of thousands have been forced into detention camps.where they do what is really forced labour. There are reports of brainwashing and sterilization and torture, although the government suppresses information and denies the allegations. 

In the United States there is proposed legislation which would prohibit the importation of products made by forced labour, although there is opposition to the bill by major corporations such as Coca Cola and Nike and Apple which are concerned about supply chains.They claim to support human rights, but they are committed to bringing us our stuff.   

Today is Human Rights Day, as it is every December 10th, and I'm grateful for Bob Rae's voice on behalf of all Canadians. Not surprisingly, China has told Rae and the Canadian government to mind its own business, but the dignity, freedom and rights of all people, everywhere, is our business. 

We can pray that "business as usual" will not override our commitment to human rights, values which reflect our Judeo/Christian tradition. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Unicorns in the Bible?

I am faithful viewer of the game show Jeopardy but I've been tuning in even more attentively in recent weeks. Long-time host Alex Trebek died of the dreaded pancreatic cancer a month ago but he lives on, so to speak, in pretaped shows and will do until the end of the year. Who wants to miss these final episodes?  

Two evenings ago the Final Jeopardy question was bible-based, but it stumped me:  

Huh? While the correct "question" was "what is a unicorn", this was factually incorrect. Yes, the King James Version of the bible translated the Hebrew word re'em into English as unicorn, but the king's scholars were wrong. In Robert Alter's excellent translation of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Revised Version of the bible we find "wild ox', which is less exciting but accurate. As I puzzled away I thought "auroch" which was a sort of proto-cow or ox, but they aren't in the bible either. I will say, though, that auroch is a lot closer than unicorn. 

I've never understood why Jeopardy persists in using the KJV as though it is authoritative.  Yes, the KJV is often more poetic, and it was a marvelous accomplishment for its time. But there are many errors because of the limitations of scholarship in the 17th century. 

I know you'll sleep better tonight with this information. No thanks necessary. Of course, My Little Pony is mentioned a number of times in scripture...


Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Empty Rooms in Bethlehem's Inns


                                Bethlehem Christmas Tree Lighting 2020

1 O little town of  Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;

yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;

the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

My late mother was a travel agent for many years and took groups of people on trips around the world. Often she was away at Christmas with folk who wanted to be in Bethlehem on Christmas Day. She said it was wonderful to go out into the countryside on Christmas Eve to sing carols. They would be in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity on Christmas morning with tourists from around the world. Although I have been to Israel several times, none of this appealed to me -- well, the Shepherds' Fields might have been a meaningful experience -- but my mother and thousands of others loved it. 

This year there will be virtually no seasonal visitors in Bethlehem, because of the pandemic and the resulting restrictions in Israel and the West Bank.  The events of 2020 have had a devastating impact on the tourism sector, a major source of income for the country. 

Bethlehem is largely an Arab Christian town, one of the few enclaves of Christians left in Israel. The Christian population in Israel has been shrinking steadily and I recall listening to the principal of a Christian school in Bethlehem who appealed to a group I was leading many years ago to remember brothers and sisters in Christ. He felt that the Israeli government discriminated against Arab Christians even though they were a peaceful segment of society. 

The Christmas tree lighting last week was attended by just a few officials and the same will be the case for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. 

In the midst of our own "hopes and fears" about gathering for Christmas we can remember the Christians of Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born.