Sunday, February 28, 2021

Honouring Black History


Get me to the church on time...we are back to in-person worship for our Trenton United congregation because this region is blessedly Green, the healthiest category in Ontario's COVID-19 protocols. We'll leave in a few minutes so a quick word about this last day of Black History month.

Over the past year of Black Lives Matter and awareness of the injustices and inequalities in our societies, including here in Canada, regarding Blacks, Indigenous and People of Colour, I've done a fair amount of reading to deepen my awareness and understanding.

The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole was jarring and helpful in understanding our Canadian context today. I came to realize that there are Canadian connections as I read Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight, and how strongly Douglass's prophetic voice echoed those of the biblical prophets he often quoted. There is also a few Canadian notes in the The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les and Tamara Payne. Two tour de force books by Isabel Wilkerson; Cast: The Origin of Our Discontents and The Warmth of Other Suns  were awakenings I deeply appreciated. 

In addition, the film Harriet broadened my perspective on Harriet Tubman, even though it is so-so as a motion picture, and One Night in Miami is a worthwhile thought experiment. 

Well, gotta run!

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Is the MAID named Pandora?

This is yet another follow-up to previous blogs about assisted dying legislation in Canada, something I cautiously support as a provision of compassion, while having deep concerns about the broadening scope which could affect those most vulnerable in our society. The result of a Superior Court ruling in Quebec is new legislation in the form of Bill C-7 with changes which some see as opening a Pandora's Box of changes to the original intent regarding assisted dying. There is a sense that the federal government is rushing to comply with the Quebec ruling on a subject which requires careful consideration and which might require a couple of years rather than another month. 

I've noted that while I'm glad the United Church issued a statement regarding assisted dying and then a response to proposed changes, congregations and members haven't been equipped to make informed decisions about their personal choices, nor encouraged to respond to what are imminent changes to legislation. 

In the past few days John Ibbitson has offered thoughts in the Globe and Mail which are measured and worthwhile reading. I"m not sure if the link I've provided will open if your'e not a Globe subscriber, but here are a couple of paragraphs:

 Reasonable people can support MAID in principle while having serious concerns with Bill C-7, and with the Quebec court’s decision. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities condemns “the expansion of Medical Assistance in Dying as a legally- and socially-sanctioned substitute for assistance in living.”

Our utilitarian society appears to accept that the good of ending unbearable suffering for some surpasses the harm of needless deaths for others. It’s a hard bargain we’re making.

The Toronto Star editorial board has also weighed in, and again the thoughts expressed are important. Here is an excerpt: 

All this is a far cry from what most people accepted as a valid, indeed compassionate, reason for legalizing assisted suicide back in 2016. And none of it has been as fully aired as it would be — and should be — if the pandemic wasn’t dominating almost every public moment...

It’s important that we get this right. Better to put up with more delay than to rush through a flawed bill that hasn’t had the full public debate it deserves. The government should think again.

Amen and amen.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Praying for Real Peace in Ethiopia


Injured elderly woman in the Ethiopian city of Axum who later died of her wounds

In 2019 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was seen as a  forward-looking statesman, with a vision of peace and prosperity, and while some were surprised that by the award, others were hopeful that the 44-year-old leader would bring lasting stability to a troubled country.

By November of 2020 Ethiopia was careening toward civil war and there was confusion in the international community because media were restricted from entering the Tigray region where fighting was purported to be intense.

In recent days we've been hearing of massacres in  Axum, a Christian pilgrimage city and a  UNESCO  World Heritage Site. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that the biblical Ark of the Covenant was brought to Axum from Jerusalem in ancient times and present day believers would have gathered there in late November to celebrate the anniversary. Leaders are reporting hundreds were killed at the Church of St. Mary of Zion and Christians continue to be persecuted. Since then thousands more have been murdered and bodies are lying in the streets.

 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has not been honest about what is unfolding in the region, and countries, including Canada, which have provided humanitarian aid to the millions in Ethiopia facing starvation are wondering what steps to take.

We can pray that our sisters and brothers in Christ will be protected in the crossfire of civil war and that lasting peace can be brokered. 

                                                City of Axum or Aksum in the North of Ethiopia 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Power of Letter-Writing


You may have heard that you'll  be receiving a blank, postage-paid postcard in your mailbox in the near future, courtesy of Canada Post. The idea is that the 13.5 million Canadian households will jot a note to someone meaningful in their lives and then drop it in a mailbox. It seems like a rather whimsical initiative on the part of our national postal service, but it's lovely.

Do you remember letter-writing, and finding postcards with appropriate postage while on vacation to send to people back home? It seems antiquated now, as do those songs from our youth which were love letters in themselves. When Ruth, my then-girlfriend, eventually my wife of 45 years, were at different universities we wrote to one another all the time. Today I squirm at my expressions of devotion, but it was an important way to stay connected before email and texts. 

This Canada Post project reminded me that early Christianity was nurtured through letters to various congregations. These epistles written by the apostle Paul - exhortations, admonishments, teaching - circulated through the fledgling congregations, eventually becomiing a key aspect of our New Testament.

Never underestimate the power of a letter!

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

More About Medical Assistance in Dying


As many of you know, I am not opposed to Medical Assistance in Dying, or MAID. While I am strongly believe in the sanctity of life and once felt that anything which hastened death threatened the most vulnerable in our society, including the disabled and the fragile elderly, including those with dementia. My experience in ministry helped me realize requiring people to suffer because medical technology could prolong their existence but not their life, could be morally and ethically wrong as well. God did not create us to be experiments in longevity. My support for MAID has been cautious, yet I have definitely changed my point of view over time. The blanket condemnation by some faith groups makes no sense to me. There doesn't seem to be much grace or love involved. 

I am still watching what our Canadian government is doing to expand the original parameters of MAID, although I find it rather baffling. The lengthy process of amending the legislation which included consultation with the public, presentation to the House of Commons for a vote, and review, with amendments by the Senate is drawing closer to an end. Yet it must come to Parliament again, and may go to the Supreme Court before we're done. 

I'm trying to figure out what changes are proposed to allow advanced directives for MAID, which would address the conundrum of informed consent by those with dementia, as an example. And now I hear that mental illness may be a condition which warrants permission for MAID.

I understand the concerns of those who are seeing a "slippery slope" and I'm grateful for some of their  thoughtful voices, including from those involved in supporting those in the mental health field and advocates for the disabled. How do citizens find out the particulars about amendments, and how they will be instituted? 

I do wish our United Church would draw upon the wisdom of ethicists, and those who are following what it unfolding, to offer an ongoing response to the complex and ever-changing developments. United Church members would benefit from a framework for response and personal decision-making, based on their Christian faith. And a lot of us are getting closer to being "promoted to glory!"

Does anyone else feel this way? 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Praying for Rulers and Their Governments


The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live.

                                                              1 Timothy 2:1-3 The Message 

When I was young  the "prayers of intercession,", what we usually call the " prayers of the people" now,  seemed long and tedious. My brother and I would sit in the balcony and blow paint flakes pulled from the stairwell wall onto the hats of the women below  while most eyes were closed-- until our minister father caught us in the act. The outcome wasn't pretty. 

I do remember, though, that most Sundays those prayers would include the well-being of the nation, and leaders, including the Prime Minister. During my Queen's University days I attended my father-in-law's church and he was diligent in praying for Queen Elizabeth. That was in a day when Canadians still sang "God Save the Queen" on occasion, a prayer set to music, and sometimes we sang it within our worship services. 

As you can see above, this practice was grounded in scripture. It is a reminder that Christians live in two realms, under the reign of Christ, and within the temporal systems and governments of the given moment. We are in peril when we assume allegiance to a government or leader is devotion to God -- look at the mess in the United States -- yet we understand that empires and rulers influence the world in which we live. Jesus, the Palestinian peasant,  was put to death by the Romans, yet the apostle Paul's Roman citizenship allowed him to travel extensively to share the Good News of Jesus, the Risen Christ.

Today Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, will have  virtual meeting with Joe Biden, the recently elected President of the United States. The response of these leaders of neighbouring countries which share so much to issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and human rights, are vital. 

Both Biden and Trudeau have Christian backgrounds (both Roman Catholics) and we can hope that their faith, and prayer, help provide a moral compass. Regardless of their faith, we can pray that they act with wisdom and with a desire for justice. 

 It sounds as though the Queen could use a prayer boost these days as well. Can I hear you humming? 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Remembering Malcolm X

Yesterday I finished reading The Dead are Arising, by Les and Tamara Payne,  a 540 page biography of the Black American activist of the 1950's and 60's, Malcolm X. I was surprised to see on social media that it was the anniversary of the assassination of the man born Malcolm Little in 1965, the son of a Baptist preacher. How is that for serendipity?

When I was growing up there was a sense that Martin Luther King Jr. was to be admired because he was a Christian minister whose civil rights movement was rooted in non-violence. Today he is revered, even though during the 60's polls identified him as the most hated man in the United States. The FBI watched King's every movement and eventually he was assassinated by a white man.

Malcolm X was a different story.He identified as a Muslim and in those days Muslims were regarded with suspicion, sad to say. And Malcolm, a central figure in the Black Muslim movement called the Nation of Islam, literally believed that whites were the devil incarnate, never to be trusted. As with others in the movement, he gave up his "slave-owner" name and adopted X,  and he rejected Christianity as a religion which oppressed Black people.

Early on, Malcolm had great disdain for King and the notion of non-violent protest because he was convinced that Blacks needed to be ready for violent engagement with the enemy. The Nation of Islam trained young men as fighters in what was called the Fruit of Islam, which was a menacing force. Paradoxically, in an age of segregation he actually met with the Ku Klux Klan to see if there could be some accommodation for a separate state-within-the state for Blacks. Not unexpectedly, that conversation went nowhere. 

The Nation of Islam was headed by Elijah Muhammad, who was regarded as a semi-divine Messenger from Allah, but it was the eloquent, charismatic Malcolm whose tireless efforts turned a quasi-Islamic sect into a force to be reckoned with in America.

The irony is that eventually Malcolm converted to orthodox Islam, and began to separate himself for the NOI. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca and interacted with Muslims of every race and colour, changing his outlook on whites. Because of  visits to other nations where women were empowered he saw that the strength and advancement of cultures depended on women who were not relegated to subservient roles. 

Because of his personal transformation,  nurtured by his study of Islam with effective mentors, he began a new movement and denounced the NOI. He reached something of a rapprochement with Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, although it was a wary relationship. 

This shift made Malcolm  a target to the organization he had effectively built, and at a public lecture he was shot and killed by NOI thugs, in front of his pregnant wife, Betty Shabazz (a remarkable woman) and their four daughters. 

I'm glad I read to the end of the biography because I didn't like the Malcolm of his NOI days. I came to understand why he has widespread respect in nations around the world. 

There is a curious Canadian twist to the story of Malcolm X. Only weeks before his murder he came to Toronto and visited one of the first mosques in the country, where he was met with acclaim. And he appeared on the CBC quiz show called Front Page Challenge. Go figure. 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Christ in the Desert

On this first Sunday of Lent the gospel lesson in the ecumenical lectionary is about Jesus' wilderness sojourn of 40 days, which is why this liturgical season is 40 days. Jesus would have needed his wits about him in the harsh Judean wilderness where the days can be scorching hot while the nights are often  bone-chillingly cold. The emphasis in this story is usually on the temptations Jesus endured from Satan or the Devil, depending on the version we read. We tend to downplay the spiritual significance of time in the desert or wilderness, even though this has been an important aspect of our Christian tradition through the centuries/ 

Christ in the desert got me thinking about Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery in the high plateau region of New Mexico which I've visited a couple of times through the years. This sparse and rugged area is home to the monastery, a Sufi Muslim retreat centre, a Sikh centre, and Ghost Ranch Conference and Retreat centre. You could say it is spiritually auspicious!

I went to an event at Ghost Ranch and discovered that Christ in the Desert, which I'd followed online for years, was about 25 kilometres away, although 20 kilometres of that was along the Chama River and often impassable. 

                                                  Ceramic Wall Image, Christ in the Desert Refectory

I timidly made my way along the road in my rental car, even though the caution was that it would be wiser to use a four-wheel drive vehicle. The Benedictine brothers established this remote Christian community in the early 1960's, and have always lived "off the grid."  Thomas Merton declared it the perfect monastic chapel while painter Georgia O'Keeffe attended worship there from time to time despite being an agnostic.

There is something about remoteness and natural beauty which opens us to the holy even as it threatens to overwhelm us at times. It removes the chaos and the clutter and helps us to find the quiet centre of our relationship with Christ, as the hymn says. 

These were powerful experiences for me which I'll never forget. 

Chama River -- Georgia O"Keefe

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Holy God, Inside and Outside


                                                Transfiguration of Jesus -- Armando Alemdar Ara

Tomorrow we'll return to in-person worship at Trenton United for the first Sunday since just before Christmas. We did gather for Ash Wednesday earlier this week  but this will be the first Sunday service post lockdown. Our region never had the high rates of COVID infection of other parts of the province and we're in the Green category, so Ruth and I are returning with lots of confidence in our congregational safety protocols. 

As important as it is to come together to be the body of Christ, when the time is right, I'm thinking of the gospel passages for last week and this week. It was Transfiguration Sunday last week, which is the story of Jesus climbing a mountain with some of his disciples and experiencing the presence of Moses and Elijah. Tomorrow is Lent 1, and we will remember Jesus' sojourn in the wilderness, the forty days of privation and temptation before his public ministry began.

 In neither of these stories is a building, a synagogue or church, involved. When the disciples are tempted to build a booth on the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus steers them elsewhere. When Satan tempts Jesus with a spectacular leap from the temple in Jerusalem, he declines. It is in the wild places that Jesus experiences the holy, discerns the truth, and God's glory is revealed.

I'm pleased that we're going "back to church" tomorrow but it's important to remember that we worship God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, who is present in all places. During this past year we've remained grounded by walking, paddling, cycling, skiing, literally hundreds of times, and we've delighted in the goodness and variety of Creation. Of course, we also sit and ponder the beauty around us. So, as we warm up a pew tomorrow in the sanctuary we'll be looking forward to being outdoors again. Inside, outside, God is there. 

                                                  Temptation of Christ -- Briton Riviere

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Olympics and Human Rights


                                                         Uyghur Concentration Camp 

Are you looking to forward to watching the Summer Olympics in Japan this summer? It's rather hard to believe that this massive athletic event will actually take place, given the ongoing reality of the COVID-19, but hope springs eternal. I certainly feel for the athletes who are living with uncertainty when it comes to their preparatory training and the brief window of elite performance. 

There is considerable discussion these days regarding the Olympic games only six months beyond Tokyo. The Winter Olympics are scheduled a year this month in China, and there is a call to boycott them because of China's miserable human rights record. The specific concern is the systematic persecution of the Uighur or Uyghur ethnic group which is a Muslim minority. An estimated million Uighurs have been incarcerated in camps where their religious practices are suppressed and indoctrination takes place. There are reports of forced labour, forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced birth control, rape and torture.A growing number of critics are describing this as genocide. 

Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, has spoken against this mass incarceration, only to be blasted by the Chinese government. A couple of days ago Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole called for the relocation of the 2022 Winter Olympics because of the Chinese government's treatment of its Muslim minority population.He also cited the country's actions in Hong Kong and the ongoing detention of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Of course there were protests against the Summer games being held in Beijing in 2008, and Olympic officials, then and now say that Olympic boycotts are not effective. Is it time to end the Olympics with their bloated cost, devastating social impact (think Brazil), and ignoring human rights transgressions? 

There is also the specific concern about religious freedom,  and as people of faith who enjoy that freedom we need to respond with prayer and encouragement to our government to be a voice for the voiceless. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Legacy and Gift of the Black Church

 I have stayed up really late the past couple of evenings - okay, 11 PM is my idea of burning the midnight oil in my dotage. I watched the two, two-hour segments of The Black Church: This is My Story, This is My Song on PBS. The host was Henry Louis Gates who led viewers through 400 years of the Black church in America, beginning with worship experiences in the early days of slavery which combined the religions of Africa with Christianity before there were church structures for worship.

The second evening included an exploration of the role of women in the Civil Rights Movement, which was strongly associated with the Black church. Most of us are aware of Rosa Parks, but there were many prominent women in the movement, even though their contributions have been less recognized. 

One of those women was activist, theologian, and eloquent speaker, Prathia Hall. In one meeting which included Martin Luther King Jr. Hall prayed using the recurring phrase "I have a dream.". MLK was struck by this phrase, and told Hall that he would use it at some point. He did, in what was one of his best known addresses, often called the "I Have a Dream Speech" at the Lincoln Memorial as the culmination of the March on Washington.

Women were key to the organization of the March on Washington and half a dozen were acknowledged on stage. I've heard that while some of the Black male Civil Rights leaders were invited to the White House to meet with President Kennedy, none of the women were. And apparently none of those men insisted that women be included. 

I would like to know more about the Black Church in Canada. Union United Church is a Black congregation established in Montreal in 1907 by a group of African Canadian railway porters and their wives so that they might  worship in their own style after having been excluded  from other congregations. Union United has had visits from Nelson Mandela, Sidney Poitier Marcus and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it's where jazz pianist Oscar Peterson learned to play, and offered music lessons in his youth.Surely there were prominent women as well!

If you get the opportunity to watch The Black Church, I highly recommend that you do. 

                                 Nelson and Winnie Mandela visit Union United Church, Montreal in 1990 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday, Lunar New Year -- Contrition and Celebration

We will be attending a "touchless" Ash Wednesday service this evening, our return to in-person worship after nearly two months of lock-down. I'm thinking of a recent providential contact on what is a solemn day for Christians. 

Recently I was added to an email list of seminary classmates, one which I hadn't realized existed. It felt rather biblical, given that it is 40 years since we graduated from Emmanuel College, part of the University of Toronto. The United Church of Canada is a national denomination so the majority of us were sent forth to pastoral charges where we had little opportunity to be in touch. I was fortunate to be settled in Newfoundland, in proximity to several classmates, but the majority I've not seen or heard from in decades.

One is Greer Anne Wenh-In Ng, whose background I knew nothing about at seminary, and I regret not inquiring during our three years there. She began life in Hong Kong in a family of Chinese origin, which  eventually made their way to Canada. Educated in missionary schools in Hong Kong she had English names (I knew her as Greer Anne) as well as her Chinese name. 

I was aware over time that she had become an accomplished scholar in the field of Christian Education and a professor. It was Wenh-In who let us know about an online service to celebrate the Lunar New Year last week, and in that service she read her poem from an earlier time when Ash Wednesday and Lunar New Year coincided. As you'll read, she explores the juxtaposition of the sombre tone of this day which marks the beginning of Lent, and the celebratory promise of the New Year. I thought I would share this with you.

Ash Wednesday/Chinese New Year’s

Will there be ashes on my forehead today,

or will there be rejoicing instead,

all dressed in bright, cheerful red

because it is New Year’s Day?

Should there be sobering thoughts of death,

when all of me wants to spread wings and sing

because it’s the first day of a fresh new year

and the coming of a long-awaited spring?


there should be flowers in every home,

smiles on every face,

new clothes on every child

delicacies on every table

as New Year visits are made;

Yet, today,

there should also be

meditation on the state of our souls,

discussion of the state of our faith,

resolves to fast, to abstain, to pray,

even if not everyone

has ashes on their forehead.

Today you see in me

the intersection of two stories:

which should I honour above the other –

my people’s, or my faith community’s?

Do I have to choose?

O God of life as of life’s end,

God of faiths and cultures and everything,

teach me how to be your child:

teach me how to feast, yet not forget the fasting,

how to repent, yet not forget the rejoicing,

how to ponder and pray alone, yet not forget

the visits to every home,

remind my children of this holy season,

yet not forget their red packets too.


Ash Wednesday or Chinese New Year’s,

this day/year is still the day/year you made:

let all the world rejoice

and be glad in it.


Written for February 20, 1985, Day 1 of the year of the Ox,

and February 7, 1988, Day 1 of the year of the Dragon

Greer Anne Wenh-In Ng, Toronto and Vancouver

Shared at Lunar New Year Worship Service-Celebration

at Emmanuel College, February 10, 2021 (2 days before the Year of the Ox)

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

A Promised Land and a President's Faith

We've finished up digging out from under what was the first significant snowfall of 20/21 and even our 15-20 centimetres was not overwhelming. Now, to blog...

I've been thinking about the title of the next stage of former president Barack Obama's ongoing biography. This volume is A Promised Land, and that title certainly invokes the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt by the people of Israel and how they eventually crossed the Jordan River into the land promised to them by God.

I haven't read A Promised Land although I may at some point. I'm an admirer of Obama, and find it refreshing that he is able to pen something more than a misspelled, angry tweet. He is a person of substance and integrity, and a person of Christian faith with what might be described as "generous orthodoxy." He was never a darling of the religious right, as his successor, Donald Trump, inexplicably was, but that was because he had a respect for women and their reproductive choices and a willingness to listen and learn about LGBTQ2 rights. Oh yes, and he is Black. 

I've read that in the book he admits to a certain skepticism about organized religion but has been a Sunday worshiper through the years and valued private prayer. Fair enough, when it comes to religion. It has been weaponized on the American political scene in ways that are abominable and divisive. 

We have already heard and seen how faith matters for recently-elected Joe Biden, who has brought aspects of his Roman Catholicism into speeches. On Sunday Biden signed an executive order reestablishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an agency which Trump left unstaffed during his tenure. He was probably too busy doing photo ops with evangelical leaders in the Oval Office. 

Here is a faith-related quote from Obama's inauguration in 2009: 

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. … To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

Monday, February 15, 2021

Family Day in a Pandemic


        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.

                           Voices United 395

The past three years we were at the home of our older daughter and her husband and children on this Family Day Weekend. They live in the country and have a hill out there back door which is long and steep and amazing for sliding. Their immediate families, and those of friends come together for food, conversation and plenty of play. 

The sliding party happened last year and the 30 to 40 people who gathered were blissfully ignorant of what would unfold over the next twelve months. That was the last time our family would be gathered together because of the pandemic, except for one outside, distanced visit. We've enjoyed "bubbling" with one household for a period of time, and sporadic get-togethers, with one family unit or another but it hasn't been what we once took for granted.

Family Day only began as a statutory holiday in 2008 in Ontario, so its not as though it's a longstanding tradition. Yet it has become a welcome reprieve in the depths of Winter and this year many families are adjusting to the restrictions which will make it difficult to do anything exciting or different.

We also know that many families are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed because children have been attending school online. and parents are often attempting to work from home and oversee education at the same time. Many families which are multi-generational under one roof  are contending with the reality that some members must go out to work and so put elders at risk of contracting COVID. 

Ruth and I yearn to spend in-person, hug-lavish time with our children and grandchildren but aren't doing so for everyone's safety and well-being. But there is a psychological and spiritual toll on all of us. We had an outdoors, distanced walk with one of our families recently and the five-year-old advised us that we had to stay well apart. As we strolled along he reminisced about sleepovers at our place, and wondered if we could all just live together. It was both sweet and heart-breaking that he came back to the topic several times.

I wonder if anyone wrote a prayer which is specifically for Family Day in the midst of a pandemic.  

What might we include, knowing that we can't "come in and sit down"? Health and safety in all circumstances would be priorities. Solace for those who are separated from aging loved ones. Hope for an end to the restrictions on travel to be with children and grandchildren. Stamina and resourcefulness for parents who feel they have nothing left to give, and the "fruits of the spirit" when patience runs out. An opportunity to be part of our faith families, in person, once again, with the support they provide. 

We can also remember to pray for those dear to us each day, when we are tempted to fret about them, and the future.

I hope that this Family Day is meaningful for you, and that you feel the presence of the God of love. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Make Love, Not War this Valentine's Day

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  

From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, 

which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, 

and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

2 Timothy 4:7-8

"Make Love, Not War" was the slogan that a group of us who are now old and gray remember from the  idealistic and passionate days of our youth. I was too young, but only slightly, to be involved in the protests and marches where banners and buttons with these words were employed, but old enough to appreciate what was unfolding on the streets of our American neighbours. There was a tension reflected in this slogan because those seeking an end to the war in Vietnam and others working toward racial justice felt they were involved in a fight for what was right, but could this happen without violence. Even Dr. King, whose civil rights movement was nom-violent, recognized that  " in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.'

Today is the celebration of romantic love and it comes as a trial concludes for a US president who incited violence which led to a riot by those who thought they were unheard. His actions were a disgrace, and he clearly used "fight" language to stir up his hapless mob. The defense argument was that it was metaphorical, and that some of his accusers had used similar terms without the assumption that violence would ensue. This was disingenuous, to say the least, and everyone knew it.

Sadly, many of those who stormed Capitol Hill on January 6th claimed to be Christians and engaged in violence which resulted in the deaths of several people.

On this Sunday morning we remind ourselves that we are followers of the Christ who refused violence, even to save himself, and ushered in a reign of love, Through the centuries the disciples of Jesus, beginning with the apostle Paul, have used the language of "fighting the good fight" with the understanding that this was a spiritual battle, not a physical conflict. Paul also speaks about the principalities and powers with which we contend as people of faith:

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12

On this St. Valentine's Day we can express love to those who are dear to our hearts. We can also ask where and how we engage in the "good fight" for compassion and justice as an alternative to the anger and violence around us in the world. 

1 Fight the good fight with all your might;

Christ is your strength and Christ your right;

lay hold on life, and it shall be

your joy and crown eternally.

4 Faint not, nor fear, God's arms are near;

God changes not and you are dear.

Only believe, and Christ shall be

your all in all eternally.

                                     Voices United 674

Saturday, February 13, 2021

A Lenten Bird Census?

Look at the birds, free and unfettered, 

not tied down to a job description, 

careless in the care of God

Matthew 6: 26a The Message

It is -16 Celsius outside as I write this morning, and Southern Ontario is in the midst of an extended "cold snap" as we used to call periods of frigid Winter weather. Now we talk of Polar Vortexes and Alberta Clippers, as though we know what these terms actually mean. 

We are also in the midst of the Backyard Bird Count, which runs from February 12th to 15th. It is described this way:

The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird enthusiasts of all ages around the world in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are. Anyone can participate, from beginners to experts.

We have a bunch of feeders hanging so that we can see them from the warmth of our family room and we're constantly amazed by the resilience of these feathered creatures, There are roughly a dozen species which persist in this climate. As I noted recently, we get three types of woodpecker, two of nuthatch, different finches, cardinals and blue jays. The juncos and chickadees are usually the first to show up in the morning. with the chickadees puffed to twice their normal size. We wish the starlings wouldn't arrive and muscle away the other birds, but they land in, squabble with each other, fill up, and leave. 

I came upon the Mary Oliver poem, below, and I begrudgingly conceded there may be a room in my heart for the starlings, although this sentiment will probably pass quickly. I will soon begin a Lenten study group on the Sermon on the Mount which included Jesus' encouragement to live beyond worry and anxiety, like the birds of the air. Easier said that done? Always, yet by the grace of God, we aspire to this freedom of the spirit. 

I don't really consider the Bird Counts at different times of the year to be aspects of a spiritual discipline, but why not?  The season of Lent begins next Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and someone else who read the poem online commented:  

 That’s going to be my Lent resolution this year - to be light and frolicsome, and to soar upward without fearing danger.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Black Loyalists in Canada


During this Black History Month the Canadian mint has issued a commemorative $20 silver coin which will actually set you back a hundred bucks if you decide to purchase one. Here is the description accompanying the coin, or a portion of it: 

The coin is engraved with the armorial bearings of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society as a tribute to the free and enslaved Black people who re-settled to British North America before, during and after the American War of Independence.During the war, many slaves were offered freedom in exchange for joining the British Army.

After the war, many Black Loyalists established roots in Lower Canada and the Maritime Provinces. However, their promise of a better life went largely unfulfilled and they faced many struggles and hardships.

Those who remained in British North America, despite adversity, helped re-shape Canada's culture and character, and the struggles and achievements of the Black Loyalists and their descendants are an important part of Canadian history.

If you have been reading this blog for a while you'll know that I have been interested in Black history in Nova Scotia over time because we lived in Halifax for a time. I was present  the July morning in 2002 when Sheia Copps named Africville National Historic site, a moving event.

I read Lawrence Hill's novel
The Book of Negroes while vacationing on the South Shore of Nova Scotia and realized that we were only minutes away from Shelburne and Birchtown where thousands of Black Loyalists came for a new life of freedom, only to be exploited. 

The Black Loyalist Heritage Centre at Birchtown is a place to spend hours considering what those immigrants experienced. It was there that I learned about pastor David George who   established a church in Shelburne and became the leader of the Baptist contingent of the  Loyalists. Some whites resented his influence in the community and his house and those of many of his followers were attacked and destroyed in July 1784 by racist mobs in the Shelburne Riots George and his wife moved to nearby Birchtown, but chose to migrate with other Black Loyalists to Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa, where the British provided some assistance in setting up a new colony and settlement. 

The commemorative coin doesn't turn my crank, but I'm glad the news about it's issue, prompted me to recall some aspects of Black history in Canada. Here is the link for the Heritage Centre, in case you're interested in learning more.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Justice of Paid Sick Days

A group of business owners in Ontario are calling on the Ford government to institute paid sick days for those who may be going to work because they fear the loss of income or employment. Other political parties have been asking for this provision for months now, but they have been ignored. 
The CBC reports:

According to a news release on Tuesday, the business owners are members of the Better Way Alliance, an organization that describes itself as a growing movement of businesses that support decent wages, paid sick days and fair scheduling laws. 

"Legislating paid sick leave for all workers helps level the playing field for small and mid-sized businesses who are already struggling to compete with bigger, better connected corporations that don't provide decent jobs," the alliance said in the release. 

I listened to one of those owners who has been doing so for his employees because it is both the moral and economic right choice. He and his brother have been supporting their employees in this way for years. They were raised to be ethical and care for others, but they also feel it makes good business sense. Sustaining a stable group of employees who are not anxious about job security is good for the bottom line. 

 I've heard that it costs about $4,000 a day to care for a patient in an intensive care bed in an Ontario hospital. Even at $15 an hour -- above minimum wage -- an employee would make that amount in six weeks, or more. The math tells us that ensuring workers stay home when they're ill rather than end up in an ICU makes sense.

 Surely we can see that we are "cutting off our nose to spite our face" when we deny those who must go to a place of work every day the opportunity for paid sick days. And that it is an ideological choice to be suspicious of the honesty of those who are performing the labour most of us don't want to do. 

As a Christian I feel that ensuring the safety and security of all is consistent with the gospel of Jesus, the Christ. In the end it's  probably good business and good politics as well. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Remembering the Sabbath

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.                                                                 Exodus 20: 8-11

The US Senate impeachment trial for former president Donald Trump will lurch along to its inglorious end, with little chance of a conviction. A number of Republican senators assured reporters that they wouldn't vote to convict before the trial began, thus indicating that they would not fulfill their oaths to carefully consider presented evidence (please read yesterday's blog about hypocrisy.) 

Trump's legal team is a dog's breakfast which argued, unsuccessfully, that it was unconstitutional to conduct a trial of a president who is no longer in office. It was a Hail Mary opening gambit which failed. God knows what will come next.

A few days ago I was intrigued to see that lawyer David Schoen, who repeatedly demonstrated that he could drink water and pat his head at the same time yesterday, requested that the trial be postponed on Friday evening and Saturday so that he could observe the Jewish Sabbath. According to the New York Times:

One of the lead defense lawyers for Mr. Trump has informed Senate leaders that he is an observant Jew who strictly adheres to the commandment against working on the Sabbath, and thus would be unable to participate in any proceeding that stretched past sundown on Friday or met on Saturday...“I apologize for the inconvenience my request that impeachment proceedings not be conducted during the Jewish Sabbath undoubtedly will cause other people involved in the proceedings,” Mr. Schoen said in the letter. “The practices and prohibitions are mandatory for me, however; so, respectfully, I have no choice but to make this request.”

I could never respect a lawyer who could defend a president who called for insurrection, but I can respect all those who feel compelled to observe their version of a sabbath on religious grounds. And I feel that our society has suffered from not honouring a pause day, whether that be Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews, of Sunday for Christians. 

When we lived in Halifax Nova Scotia still observed Sunday closings for businesses. It took some adjusting when we moved there, but I felt that this "old school" practice was actually progressive. I supported the law from the pulpit as steps were underway to get in step with the rest of frenetic Canada and some members of my congregation thought I was loopy. 

So much for the Ten Commandments.This is the most detailed of the commandments and includes the reminder that if God rested after Creation, we too should remember to cease and desist from our labours. Yet this is the one we regularly and enthusiastically ignore. 

In the end  Schoen withdrew this request, for reasons unknown. It is a strange and thought-provoking footnote in what is likely to be an embarrassing defense of a traitor and megalomaniac. See you in court!

A footnote: Schoen covered his head because this is expected of orthodox Jews when they eat or drink. I live, and sometimes I learn. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Hypocrisy on Trial?



I'm pleased that we already have about a dozen people signed up for our upcoming study of the book Sermon on the Mount by theologian Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is a Jew whose insights into the New Testament are really helpful, and she writes in a way that is accessible. As I read in preparation I feel that I'm an old dog learning new tricks about these three chapters of Matthew which both daunt and inspire me. 

In conjunction with the study group I'm preparing a Lenten daily reading regimen, essentially five minutes with the Sermon on the Mount each day. There will be a question to help ponder the verses for each of the 40 days, none of the passages being all that long. 

I've long known that Jesus warns about hypocrites in this teaching but my eyebrows went up when I realized that he warns against hypocrisy not once but four times. The Greek word from which hypocrite is derived actually means "stage actor" and there is a sense of this in what Jesus says. We're not to swan around making a show of our prayers or our virtue. Jesus asks us to "say what we mean and mean what we say', to use an old saw. 

How appropriate this teaching is as the US senate enters into the impeachment trial of the former president - what's his name? - today. There will be plenty of posturing and bombast and sanctimony in what will probably be more like political theatre than a search for justice. Not surprisingly, there have been articles in both the New York Times and the Globe and Mail in recent days which address hypocrisy in regard to these proceedings and both point out that the ex-president  in not on trial for this sin. Mark Kingwell, whose writing is always thoughtful and often thought-provoking offers this at the end of his Globe piece: 

Hypocrisy is certainly a vice, but it is not the most important one. Lack of character is worthy of contempt, but alas is not a crime. Advocating insurrection, conspiracy, storming a public building, threatening death, destroying property, subverting justice – now those are crimes. They should be prosecuted as such.

This is a curious conclusion from my perspective. It is because hypocrisy has become a political norm and that character no longer matters that justice is subverted. In a country where a weird brand of Christianity is worn on the sleeves of many "patriots", honesty and integrity are on trial, even if implicitly. Surely Jesus is telling us that our inner lives result in the "whited sepulchres" the painted tombs of our actions in the world?

I'm looking forward to the discussion in our Zoom and in-person study group at Trenton UC which begins on February 24th. We may have a trial outcome by then to give a little added spice to the conversation!

Monday, February 08, 2021

Canada's Harriet Tubman

We finally got around to watching the 2019 film, Harriet, which is about the remarkable life of 19th century emancipation hero, Harriet Tubman. She was born into slavery, escaped to the north as a young woman, then returned on a number of occasions to help others make the harrowing journey to freedom. She lived to be 90 or 91, which was a fitting reward for someone so willing to take risks with her own life for the benefit of others.

The film is certainly not bad, but it is a bit lacklustre because it's a hagiography -- O Lord, it's hard to be noble, even when you're a hero in every way. And the fictional aspects of this telling of her life detract from her actual accomplishments. Still, it was good to be reminded of what she did achieve, and there is even a passing scene from her time in Canada, which was a terminus on the Underground Railroad. .

Tubman suffered from "spells" of some kind through much of her life, likely because of a childhood head injury. In the film these trance-like moments are not so much an affliction as an opportunity for God to speak to her and through her. She receives direction and courage for what lies before her. Who knows how accurate this is, but it is meaningful in the film. 

I wanted to see the movie because of recent news that the the congregation Tubman helped found in St. Catherine's, Ontario, has been granted $100,000 by the federal government for much-needed repairs to the historic Salem Chapel building. 

We also heard recently that Harriet Tubman's visage will be on the American $20 bill, something which was supposedly to happen in 2020 but was postponed by the Voldemort administration. I do think it's important to know the story of Harriet Tubman, as a person of faith and of commitment to justice for all.