Monday, May 31, 2021

Remembering a Catastrophe


 Today is the grim anniversary of a devastating weather event in Southern Ontario. A string of tornadoes swept through this part of the province, including the Barrie area where we lived at the time. I was driving home from the annual meeting of Toronto Conference of the United Church which was in Barrie that year when the tornado struck. I was forced to pull off the road as my car rocked back and forth and debris flew through the air. 

Within a couple of minutes the dark skies cleared and I continued home, unaware that the area I'd just passed through was chaos, with transport trucks tossed off the highway and large buildings destroyed. Sadly, a number of people died and later that same evening a couple from my congregation discovered the body of a boy who had been out cycling and was caught up in the tornado.

That evening I wrote about these bewildering events in my personal journal, which until then I'd kept sporadically. I decided to write every day for a month, not just about the aftermath of the storm but about the demands of ministry and the joys of family life. Our first daughter was three months old at the time. In the 36 years since I've only missed writing a handful of days.

My journal has also been an opportunity for spiritual reflection, a place to express gratitude through the seasons of the year, and to be concrete in my prayers. It's interesting how writing a prayer coalesces thoughts and emotions.

I offered a three-week study group on journal-keeping earlier this year with lots of participants and good conversation. I found the journal from all those years ago

I wonder how its going for the folks who took part with their journals. God know that these pandemic months have been momentous. This anniversary of a catastrophe is a reminder that reflection is important in every aspect of life. 

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Amnesty International: 60 Years of Human Rights



 This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Amnesty International, which means that this venerable organization is younger than I am. Yikes. Somehow I would have thought that it was older, in part because I first wrote a letter through Amnesty when I was in university decades ago. Was that letter to an imprisoned person or the government which had taken away his or her freedom as a violation of human rights? I have no recollection, but I felt it important to take action. The website for Amnesty offers: 

Amnesty International was founded in 1961 on the idea that together ordinary people can change the world. Today Amnesty is a worldwide movement for human rights, calling on the collective power of 10 million people, each one committed to fighting for justice, equality and freedom everywhere.  From London to Santiago, Sydney to Kampala, people have come together to insist that the rights of each and every human are respected and protected.


AI is a secular organization but through the years Christians have been vitally involved, because of our commitment to the Christ of justice and love. In my final congregation, Bridge St. United, there were letter writing 
events in our building, organized, in part, by a member. Folk came from across the community and a number of them were from other congregations. 

The participants were mostly older, and who actually puts pen to paper anymore? Yet there are times when powerful social media, which the organization does employ, can't replace the written word, and I hope the Amnesty candle continues to burn brightly. 

How do we measure 60 years of collective action? It’s there in the accused who is given a fair trial; the prisoner saved from execution; or the detainee who is no longer tortured. It’s there in the activists freed to continue their defence of human rights; the school children learning about their rights in the classroom; or the families escorted safely home from refugee camps. And it’s there in the marginalized communities marching to demand an end to discrimination, the marginalised communities who defended their homes from destruction and the woman whose government finally outlaws the abuse she faces every day.

Sixty years on, we’re still battling for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. And we won’t stop until it’s achieved. 

Thank you, Amnesty International.

     
                                                                        Christ of Maryknoll Icon


Saturday, May 29, 2021

Fairy Creek and Geezer Power

 


                                                               Geezer Power at Fairy Creek

Since 2018 when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began protesting climate inaction on her own, a movement of like-minded young people has developed. These teens and young adults realize that their future has been shaped by the greed and denial of adults who choose to ignore the realities of a destructively changing climate. Their advocacy and protests, including Fridays for Future school walk-outs and marches, have caught the attention of many world leaders, even as others have dismissed them. The pandemic has quieted the public rallies but the movement is far from over.

What about their elders, those of us in the geezer stage of life, including aging Baby Boomers? I am one, and I admire Thunberg and others, including I6-year-old Canadian Indigenous Water Keeper, Autumn Peltier. But is there a place for the senior set in environmental activism and Creation Care? 

You may have seen that a group of about 100 seniors were part of a protest march on Vancouver Island this past week. There has been a tense standoff between the RCMP, representing a forestry company and government, and those attempting to stop the destruction of a particular area of old growth trees known as Fairy Creek. The environmentalists and Indigenous peoples have been there with several blockades  and arrests have been made, despite the peaceful nature of the resistance. The press has been kept away from the site once again.


The seniors were there to show solidarity with those much younger who have been holding the line. Here is a portion of report from the
Terrace Standard from a couple of days ago:

A gang of seniors marched on logging roads in Fairy Creek on Tuesday (May 25) and said they completely overwhelmed the few RCMP officers who were there holding an exclusion zone.Saul Arbess, 82, said when the officers saw more than 100 seniors marching up the road, they just rolled up their police tape that marks the exclusion zone at Road 2000 and left. “We made quite an impression,” Arbess said.

The headline made me chuckle as I conjured up a picture of a slow motion invasion: Seniors overwhelm RCMP barrier past Fairy Creek blockade:About 100 elderly hikers swarmed the RCMP exclusion zone, no arrests were made

There is no replacement for youthful passion and enthusiasm. And, hey, younger people have knees and bladders which still do what their told. But there are opportunities for those of us who are aging to make a difference in the affairs of our world, everyday. We have seen this with refugee sponsorship, and meal programs, and a host of other community-changing projects. 

Often these elderly participants are members of communities of faith, and they are making a difference with time, and money, and voices which are essential to these causes. 

A lot of us on the shady side of 65 are realizing that the safe and prosperous lives we have lived have exacted a toll on the planet and on those who are not white, and privileged. It's not that we set out to be pleasant plunderers, but that's who we have been. I for one am trying to figure out how I can park that privilege and work for the betterment of all. As a Christian I can't retire from compassion, and justice, and living the love of Christ for my neighbour. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

Justice for Joyce Echaquan

 


There is a coroner's inquiry underway in Quebec into the death of hospital patient Joyce Echaquan. Joyce was 37-years-old, a mother of several children, and a person with lots of health problems. She was also Indigenous and this was likely a strong factor in her death. Despite her pleas for help she was mocked and scolded by nurses until she died. Yesterday there was expert testimony which said that despite her medical conditions if she had been medically treated properly she would have lived. The nurses were fired and may face criminal prosecution, but Joyce is dead, her husband and children bereft.

How does this anti-Indigenous racism occur again and again in Canada, a country which prides itself on justice and equality? This is a wonderful country in which to live, unless you are Indigneous...or Black...or a Person of Colour...

Today we hear that the remains of more than 200 Indigenous children have been detected by radar on the grounds of a Residential School in British Columbia. Some of those children, abducted from their families, were as young as three. For the longest time governments insisted that the deaths of children were rare, but this was a lie. The Canadian government choked on admitting that it was involved in genocide, but else would we call what transpired for over a century in Residential Schools? This school in Kamloops was one of many run by the Roman Catholic church but others were under the authority of several different denominations, including the United Church. 


                                                              Residential School Classroom 

Look to the news and you'll find stories of ongoing protests by Indigenous people over land claims and simmering disputes over fishing rights in Atlantic Canada. 

In the past few days a First Nations hockey player for the Edmonton Oilers has responded to a wave of vile, racist comments on social media.

Indigenous communities await decades-old promises for clean drinking water. 

The federal government is close to passing legislation (Bill-C-15) which brings Canada into the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but this has been a shamefully slow process and there are concerns that it isn't strong enough. 

We keep saying that we want Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. . Governments and Christian denominations make their apologies. Yet many of these examples are from the present, not the past. God, help us repent in ways that matter. 





Thursday, May 27, 2021

Learning to Read the Bible

 


Scripture is our song for the journey, the living word

   passed on from generation to generation

   to guide and inspire,

   that we might wrestle a holy revelation for our time and place

   from the human experiences

      and cultural assumptions of another era.

God calls us to be doers of the word and not hearers only.

         from A Song of Faith, United Church of Canada, 2006

We finished up our three week discussion of prayer in its various expressions and forms yesterday. and once again I was impressed by the insights and readiness to learn from the participants. This was my eleventh week of leadership through three study groups in 2021, with a combination of in-person and virtual earlier in the year and entirely online for this most recent study. Sometimes the technology has been a...challenge...but Rev. Isaac has helped us navigate through the mysteries. With a few exceptions the participants have been seniors and it's amazing how well we do with a format which was unknown to us only a short while ago -- Ike might beg to differ!

At the end of yesterday's session I asked participants to ponder what we might look at together in the Fall. I wondered about a series on reading the bible. Delving into scripture is something we would probably agree is important even if we are often mystified and even alarmed when we do so. In our United Church tradition we are more inclined to listen to the bible on Sunday mornings than read devotionally. .And while we decry biblical literalism which actually twists and tortures scripture in the service of empire and supremacy, our tendency might be toward biblical indifference. 

I mentioned a working title borrowed from John Dominic Crossan's book How to Read the Bible & Still be Christian.  I do feel that this is possible but it requires intention and devotion on our part. 

Do you think we can learn how to read the bible so that it can be a "Word of Life?" 

Are there other subjects you wish were the focus of study groups? Perhaps it should be A Song of Faith!

The Spirit breathes revelatory power into scripture,

   bestowing upon it a unique and normative place

   in the life of the community.

The Spirit judges us critically when we abuse scripture

   by interpreting it narrow-mindedly,

   using it as a tool of oppression, exclusion, or hatred.

 

The wholeness of scripture testifies

   to the oneness and faithfulness of God.

The multiplicity of scripture testifies to its depth:

   two testaments, four gospels,

   contrasting points of view held in tension—

all a faithful witness to the One and Triune God,

the Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.

   from A Song of Faith, United Church of Canada, 2006




Wednesday, May 26, 2021

God, They Were Only Children

 


Jesus called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 

Matthew 18:2-6

There has been a cessation in fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas, the resistance or terrorist group situated in the tiny, human-packed enclave of Gaza. A conflict over housing which began in Jerusalem escalated into rocket attacks by Hamas countered by air and artillery strikes by Israel. We can certainly pray that this ceasefire will hold so that the destruction and loss of life will end.

As always, civilians died, and among them were children. Two Israeli children and 66 Palestinian children were among the dead, which should cause us all to be outraged. What in God's name did these children do to have their lives snuffed out. Simply writing about it infuriates me. This is a blasphemy and no one can rationalize which has occurred. 

I've included a New York Times piece called They Were Only Children which shares the photos of the children who died, including four from the same family. One of these precious souls  is pictured above.

The words of Jesus are echoing in my head. I am a grandfather of four and my heart is broken. 

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/26/world/middleeast/gaza-israel-children.html?referringSource=articleShare

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Rev. Meets Jesus, Thanks be to God

 


Not long ago I wrote about a funny and clever series called
Rev. on Britbox. The central character is an earnest and hapless Church of England priest in an inner city church struggling for survival. It's a wonderful cast and Tom Hollander is brilliant as the vicar. 

The Rev. Adam Smallbone is compassionate and genuinely has a sense of mission to the lonely and lost. He loves the liturgy and rolls his eyes at thriving contemporary congregations which attract young worshipers yet seem shallow.

Adam muddles along, praying all the while, until a number of calamities occur. These include a personal indiscretion which turns just about everyone against him, including his patient lawyer wife. It's in the third and final season that there is a turn from comedy toward tragedy. Adam is suspended from duties and he becomes convinced he no longer has a vocation. Still, God isn't done with him. In a stupor of despondency he carries the cross used for the annual joint Good Friday service through the streets of London to a neighbouring parish. He is mocked by a few and stumbles in his exhaustion. 


Finally he finds  himself in a park with a vista and improbably, deliriously, begins singing the hymn
Lord of the Dance. As he dances he is joined by a jogger, played by Liam Neeson, who dances with him, then assures him that he'll never be left alone. Despite the tedium and disappointment he has experienced,  Adam meets the loving Christ. All the elements of the Passion are there, and kudos to the writers and those who advised them 

This is the penultimate episode, and the final segment is a story of redemption and resurrection, although not in a predictable way. I won't describe it and spoil your opportunity to discover it for yourself. After laughing our loud often through the seasons we were both moved by the ending. If you can, watch. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Victoria and First Peoples Day?



 I enjoy a beer, especially on summery days, but I'm not impressed that this has become the "2-4" weekend, a reference to a case of suds. Mind you, it is rather odd that we have a holiday weekend in Canada which celebrates Queen Victoria, whose lengthy reign was during the 19th century. Victoria has undergone an image upgrade thanks to a popular television series but that doesn't change the fact that is was during her reign British imperialism and colonialism was at its height. 

It's unusual that this holiday Monday actually falls on May 24th and this year we're "all dressed down with no place to go" because of pandemic restrictions. Is this a good time to ask what this day should mean for Canadians, beyond a barbecue and a case of beer? 

During Victoria's reign the expansion of empire meant that Indigenous groups in many parts of the world were marginalized and subjugated. While the premise was that civilization was brought to these peoples the truth is that cultures were destroyed and those who inhabited the lands were treated with contempt. Treaties were established recognizing Indigenous sovereignty, only to be broken almost immediately. 

Several years ago a group of well-known Canadians which included then Green Party leader Elizabeth May and celebrated author Margaret Atwood began a petition calling for this day to be called Victoria and First Peoples Day. According to a 2013 Globe and Mail article the petition addressed to Prime Minster Harper had just over 900 signatures: 

The group argues changing the name will continue to honour Queen Victoria's birthday but will also recognize the role that First Nations, Inuit and Metis people played in the development of Canada and the country's history.

According to the petition, "The newly named holiday would be an opportunity to commemorate that venerable relationship, to celebrate unique Indigenous cultures, to revisit our shared history, and to provide an opportunity for all Canadians to participate in the diverse and extraordinary heritage of our country.

I don't recall hearing about this petition, and apparently it wasn't embraced, but I appreciate the focus. And as a Christian who is part of a denomination which was allied to empire rather than those First Peoples for far too long, God knows we'e still doing a lousy job at honouring those Crown treaties. 

I would hoist a brew in support of a name change.

What do you think? 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Pentecost & the Strip Club


                                                                          Worship at the Manor

The Feast of Pentecost is one of the three great festivals of Christianity, along with Christmas and Easter. That's what we stubbornly claim in the United Church, although it would be interesting to hear how many of our members would respond if asked to name the three. And over the years cottage.camp season expanded from July and August to early May through Thanksgiving so Pentecost worship was often something of a remnant congregation when it landed on this, the Victoria Day weekend. 

The story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost is powerful and unconventional and deserves our attention as the birth of the church of Jesus Christ. But what can we say in a year when most congregations in this province and much of the country will choose to observe the law and keep their doors closed because of the pandemic? 

I liked a lengthy story I just read in The Walrus  magazine about a small congregation which meets in a seedy club in Guelph, Ontario: Welcome to the Manor: Church by Day, Strip Club by Night -- Saturday nights are for dancing, but Sunday mornings are for Jesus. Jack and Sharon, the couple who pastor the eclectic flock are loving, welcoming evangelical Christians who are non-judgmental about who shows up for worship and they are kind and communicative with those who work at the club. They've developed a mutually respectful relationship with the Jewish owner whose adjacent motel houses some of the lost and lonely of the city. That began when a Roman Catholic nun asked him about accommodation for some of her outreach clients. This ministry is dependent on support from another larger congregation and it could end at any time. Yet this is Christ's church for this place and time. 

Who knows how some congregations will emerge from the pandemic and how the winds of the Holy Spirit will blow? Son Isaac, pastor at Trenton United (our congregation) commented that this Guelph faith community is reminiscent of the St. Jean congregation which he attended as a student for the ministry in Montreal. They were in a church building alongside a strip club with an outreach program run out of the basement. It too was quirky yet had it's own vitality. 

What new Pentecostal moments will sweep through our conventions about being Christ's church? God only knows, but let's be open and ready. 

https://thewalrus.ca/welcome-to-the-manor-church-by-day-strip-club-by-night/



Friday, May 21, 2021

Are Bees a Blessing?

 


                                                         St. David blessing bees and a beehive

7 The law of the Lord is perfect,  reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Psalm 19:7-10

Yesterday I wrote about World Bee Day in my Groundling blog, speaking about my pleasure at seeing the first bees, including bumble bees, this Spring. Bees are threatened in many parts of the world because of habitat loss and pesticides. There is a  movement to stop the war on dandelions because they are "Redbull for bees" as one researcher puts it, but it's hard to let them just grow when it invokes the ire of neighbours. Letting wildflowers, including dandelions, bloom means that our beleaguered pollinators have a chance.

Well, lo and behold, yesterday we drove past a new bee supply place near Port Hope called Dancing Bee. I was delighted by the coincidence, especially since I was once a very amateur beekeeper with a member of one of my congregations. Our hives produced a fair amount of honey and we didn't get stung all that often. When we gave it as gifts recipients acted as though we had flown around collecting the nectar. 

I also discovered later in the day that there is a patron saint of beekeeping, St. Ambrose. According to legend  a swarm of bees settled on the face of the infant Ambrose as he lay in his cradle, None stung him, but one left a drop of honey -- why are so many saint stories so freaky? This prompted his father to declare it was a sign that his son would become a sweet-tongued preacher of great significance.  He did eventually get the title “Honey Tongued Doctor” because of his speaking and preaching ability. 

It gets even better in the saint department. There is a stained glass window depicting St. David blessing a beehive. Why? Many monastic communities have cultivated bees through the centuries and I've visited Buckfast Abbey in Great Britain which is famous for its own bees, which are shared with others. 

Well, make of this what you will. I do hope we can interpret Jesus' encouragement to "love our neighbours as ourselves" to include bees, even if our human neighbours might not appreciated our outlook on the dandelions. 




https://groundlingearthyheavenly.blogspot.com/2021/05/celebrating-bees-today.html

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Ongoing Challenge of Homelessness


 Yesterday Toronto Police arrived at the area around the old Lamport Stadium in Toronto and began removing the unhoused people who call an encampment there home. The film footage certainly made this eviction appear to be chaotic as the residents resisted, people yelled and screamed, and arrests were made. 

After the dust settled we heard from advocates for the homeless who decried what transpired. It's important that this voiceless segment of our society has people who will speak boldly on their behalf. We also heard from representatives of the city, including the mayor, who insist that they've been working on shelter beds of various kinds for those who were evicted but this has been resisted by encampment residents. 


Homeless encampments are a reality across the country, and often is smaller cities as well. Peterborough has been working to find compassionate solutions, as has Bellevill, but it isn't straightforward  Often those without housing are regarded as a nuisance, a logistical problem, but I sense that many municipalities are genuinely trying to get a sense of the systemic issues and the importance of recognizing the humanity of those who are without housing. 

Sometimes those who are advocates for the homeless speak truth to power, which is prophetic, and it needs to continue. Sometimes there are statements which just don't strike me as helping to address what needs to happen in providing safe and affordable housing. One critic of what unfolded yesterday wondered how this eviction could happen when some in the city are paying  huge sums for condos and homes. While the price of real estate is staggering in Toronto the issues of homelessness and the unsafe conditions in encampments would still exist if housing was a quarter of the cost. 

As a compassionate society we need to address affordable housing and living wages and all the conditions which can contribute to homelessness, including mental illness and addiction. I'm convinced that communities of faith can be important contributors to finding solutions. As Christians who follow the oft-times homeless Jesus, it is a moral imperative.Jesus never says that the poor will be judged by God, but he does say that those who ignore them will be. 

I hope and pray that there will be fewer and fewer confrontations like the one yesterday. Everyone loses, it seems to me, especially those who often "live rough" to have a sense of personal freedom and community. 


Evy Kwong
⁦‪@EVYSTADIUM‬⁩
it’s actually insane that we live in a city where we allow $800K condos and $2 million homes to exist and thrive and rise but send dozens of cops to enforce the removal of people living in encampments
 
2021-05-19, 3:25 PM




Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Joy of Unconventional Prayer




In a short while we'll begin our second virtual study session on prayer offered through Trenton United Church. Our group was relatively small last week yet this allowed for plenty of conversation and participation from those who gathered from hither and yon.

Today we'll consider what I've termed "right-brained" prayer, the forms of prayer may be more visual and tactile and intuitive. For thousands of years those who desire to be in communion with God have understood that this doesn't require words, whether verbal or written. 

I've enlisted the help of Ruth, my wife, in considering two forms of praying which may include words but can also be meaningful without them. They are prayer beads and prayer shawls. Prayer beads are part of many religious traditions as an opportunity to bring focus in a repetitive and tactile way. Ruth has led workshops on creating prayer beads which are personal, an opportunity which will have to wait for a healthier time in our society.



Ruth will also speaks about the prayer shawl ministry in which she's been involved in three congregations. Individuals prayerfully knit or crochet shawls which are then given to people as a form of comfort. Members of Trenton United have embraced this ministry and dozens of shawls have been given to those who are ill, or isolated, or bereaved. Rev. Isaac (our kid) has been able to deliver many shawls during the pandemic, observing rules about distance. A number of recipients have written touching notes of appreciation, including one from a five-year-old who claimed a delivered shawl after the tragic loss of a sibling. 

We'll look at a couple of other forms of right-brained prayer as well, time permitting. They are all reminders that our desire to be in conversation and communion with God can be varied, and even unconventional, and that all of them are valid and meaningful. 





Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Overcoming our Phobias


We have three children, all in their thirties, and it's great that we can stay connecting through family chat messaging. Yesterday morning our youngest greeted us with "Happy International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia," which we'd have to agree is a mouthful. Our kids and their partners have friends and family members who are LGBTQ2, so it didn't surprise me that one of them would acknowledge this day. What ensued was a conversation about the best resources for education in this area, if we're not including Schitt's Creek. They are obviously well-informed and this was good to see.

It occurred to me later in the day that this would have been a very different conversation in my family of birth, when we were in our teens or twenties. Being Gay or Lesbian was rarely discussed, and then in a negative light. There was neither acceptance nor tolerance and being LGBTQ2 would be considered deviant and sinful.My dear mother came to a different and accepting outlook as she aged, but my minister father never did. 

As we raised our children we shifted our perspective, and even repented of our prejudices. Our family had Gay and Lesbians friends, not by design but because people we cared about shared their orientation with us over time. Some had been in traditional heterosexual marriages but realized that this wasn't honest or whole for either partner. 

We're grateful that our three and their partners are more inclusive that we were at an earlier stage of life. They assume that what is important is how you love rather than who some segments of society and religion say you're allowed to love. 

Here is the United Church of Canada link if you'd like to learn more: 

https://united-church.ca/worship-special-days/international-day-against-homophobia-transphobia-and-biphobia


Monday, May 17, 2021

Momento Mori in 2021


                                                                        Sister Aletheia 

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 8:15

 we therefore commit this body to the ground, 

earth to earth, ashes to ashesdust to dust

in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.

Book of Common Prayer:

Over the years I've offered, wryly, that I've witnessed death and it is highly overrated. I've also observed that there are worse things than physically death, often after watching good people suffer at the end of this life. And through I ministry I affirmed our resurrection hope in Christ, that death doesn't have the final say. 

During the past 14 months we've all had our fill of death and more. Roughly 25,000 Canadians have died of a virus, while untold millions have perished around the planet. Even though the majority of us haven't lost a loved one to COVID, either in our personal circle or within the life of our congregations, the spectre of death has been very real. It's curious, though, that we are generally a death-denying a culture, less and less willing to have honest conversations about death, and unwilling to engage in rituals of grief even when it comes knocking on the door. 

I read an article in the New York Times about a 40-year-old nun named Sister Aletheia who is working to revive (pun intended) the discipline or practice of pondering our mortality. She has developed quite a following, including on social media:

... since 2017, she has made it her mission to revive the practice of memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning “Remember your death.” The concept is to intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future. It can seem radical in an era in which death — until very recently — has become easy to ignore. “My life is going to end, and I have a limited amount of time,” Sister Aletheia said. “We naturally tend to think of our lives as kind of continuing and continuing.

I wish I could share the entire article because it isn't about being morose and morbid. One person shares this observation:

“She has such a gift for talking about really difficult things with joy,” said Christy Wilkens, a Catholic writer and mother of six outside Austin, Texas. “She’s so young and vibrant and joyful and is also reminding us all we’re going to die.” Ms. Wilkens credits memento mori with giving her the “spiritual tools” to grapple with her 9-year-old son’s serious health issues. “It has allowed me, not exactly to cope, but to surrender everything to God,” she said.

I don't know how comfortable you are in addressing death and dying with your loved ones, or in your own daily thoughts. I do thinks Sister Aletheia is on to something. Perhaps the pandemic will nudge us toward honesty about the inevitable end of this life and the possibilities of another. I won't hold my breath. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

When Locking Church Doors is a Blessing



 If you have been following this blog for any length of time you'll know that I'm passionate about freedom of religion, whether it is for brothers and sisters in Christ who undergo persecution or those from other faiths who face marginalization or violence because of what they believe and practice. 

You'll also know that I have little patience for the pretend-martyrs who insist that they are not subject to guidelines and restrictions as pandemic responses because of their religion. In Canada most congregations have the technological ability to stream worship experiences to their congregations even when they aren't allowed to physically gather. 

For periods during the past 14 months communities of faith in some jurisdictions have been allowed to come together for weeks or months, although with clear expectations regarding masking and physical distancing. Yet certain congregations have insisted that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms permit them to ignore the best medical advice and the direction of different levels of government. To my mind this is arrogance and selfishness, not freedom, nor faithfulness. 

I was relieved yesterday when an Ontario judge ordered that locks be used on the doors of an Aylmer church where pastors and parishioners openly defied provincial restrictions. The clergy and the congregations were given hefty fines as well.

The lead pastor, whose name I won't use, seems to have a messiah complex, as many of the defiant clergy do.  He does not believe that COVID-19 or the pandemic is real and is already making statements about carrying on with worship gatherings. 

We are all looking forward to being able to resume in-person worship, but we aren't there yet. I spent nearly four decades upholding Sunday services as the "heart and lungs" of the Body of Christ. In 37 years of pastoral ministry I never cancelled a Sunday worship service, although there were occasions when only a few of us were present. Yet I would have willingly closed the doors on Sundays if I had been faced with the same circumstances as we are experiencing during the pandemic. 

I hope these defiant congregations will prayerfully see the light -- and the locks on their doors. 

"This location has been the crucible of the contemptuous activity. This place is part of the fabric of their lives, but these regulations were put in place to protect the community and to save lives."

- Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas, on Church of God decision




Friday, May 14, 2021

The Marvel of Blue Space


                           Maclean's ILLUSTRATION BY 
SEAN LEWIS Published 14:36, May. 10, 2021

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.

                        Psalm 42:1-2 NRSV

 Not too long ago Macleans Magazine published a piece by Dan Rubinstein with the title: Blue Space Is the New Green Space: Why being near water can be a boon for our health and wellness. One of the paragraphs in the piece explains it well: 

The restorative qualities of being in nature, or “green space,” are well documented, but researchers have only recently begun to focus on what changes when water is part of the picture, when we spend time in or near aquatic environments. Taking in the sea air, strolling along a peninsula, or simply sitting beside a pond have long been considered good for our well-being, but evidence is emerging that “blue space” may have a more profound impact on our bodies and brains than other outdoor environments do. 

Rubenstein consults Mat White  perhaps the world’s leading authority on blue space (who knew there were any experts on the subject?):

The quality of blue spaces affects their therapeutic properties, as does how we interact with them, variables influenced by geography as well as by cognitive and cultural differences. For example, people often prefer places they visited as children, according to White. But, on the whole, when we’re near water, we tend to lose track of time and are more active, he says, and every extra minute of movement is good for our physical health. Moreover, “people benefit more mentally when they’re visiting blue spaces than when they’re visiting green spaces,” adds White, although the ideal, he clarifies, is where the two spaces meet.


I would certainly say "amen" to this and add that I'm convinced that there is a deeply spiritual quality to being near water, on water, or in water. Last year we were on the water in our canoe and kayaks nearly 50 times and despite unseasonably cool weather during the past month we've been on lakes and rivers and the Bay of Quinte half a dozen times this year. This morning I headed out for a cycle which took me along the Bay here in the city.. We almost always encounter wildlife because water is life, and we tend to choose places to paddle where it's just us and the critters. 

Yesterday we were on a section of the Salmon River north of Napanee with no humans but dozens of turtles, several blue herons, a muskrat and a beaver. The trees are coming into leaf and the water lilies are beginning to surface. It was wondrous, and we were mindful of the Creator. As I've written before, we often take a moment in the quiet to give thanks and receive the gift of what is all around us, and literally as close as reaching out a hand. 

Scripture often refers to water as both physical necessity and spiritual metaphor, and Jesus is Living Water. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Praying for Family in Israel



Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

    “May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
    and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
    I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.

                                Psalm 122: 6-9

 I thought I would follow up on my blog post from yesterday about the escalating violence between Palestinians and the state of Israel. You are probably aware that what began as protests on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem near the Al Aksa Mosque have become widespread. Rockets have been fired into Israel by the militant group, Hamas, and the IDF has responded with airstrikes into Gana. There have been injuries and deaths on both sides, including children. 

Yesterday we received a message from one of Ruth's step-sisters who has lived in Israel for decades. They are in a town which hasn't been targeted by missiles to this point, but they have hurried to air raid shelters twice by sirens, sheltering with neighbours. While this is not the first time attacks have occurred through the years, each occasion is scary. They asked us to pray for their safety and for peace between Palestinians and Israel, quoting the verses above. 

The message we received is a reminder that dire situations from across the world can come close to home in a hurry.



Wednesday, May 12, 2021

An Unholy Mess


Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces on Temple Mount aka the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, May 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

I have visited Israel on three occasions, all of them during my 30's -- so a million years ago. During our second visit our excellent guide, Miriam, was taking us through the old city of Jerusalem and as we headed toward the Temple Mount she took a call and moved us deftly in another direction, saying that we would return later. She explained to me as the group leader that there had been a confrontation near the Al Aksa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, and authorities were clearing the area. 

Those few hectares of the old city are significant for Muslims, Jews, and Christians and sadly this has led to strife rather than harmony through the centuries. There is a constant dance between the secular Israeli government and the Muslim authorities which have oversight of the Mount itself, and at times this becomes the nexus of confrontation and even violence. 

In the past few days there have been protests by Muslims in this area related to evictions of Palestinians to allow Jewish settlers to build homes nearby. The confrontations between youths and police have resulted injuries and escalation of violence, the worst in years. Muslim officials have called for calm, but the militant group, Hamas, a terrorist organization, fired rockets from Gaza into Jewish neighbourhoods. The Israeli military launched airstrikes in retaliation, resulted in the deaths of civilians, including a number of children.

Once again the situation is a mess, all this coming at the conclusion of Ramadan, the holiest season in Islam. The United Nations and the United States have called for restraint.

These are disheartening developments and there are injustices. Sadly, every time conflicts arise the preponderance of injuries and deaths are on the Palestinian side. Rather than attempting to unfold the intricacies of this situation I would suggest that we pray for calm so that innocent lives will not be squandered. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Lunch, a Jab, and Laundry at Bridge St UC


 Yesterday Ruth, my wife, did her weekly shift for the lunch program at Bridge St, United Church, the local congregation I served before retiring. Bridge St. had extensive meal ministries before the pandemic and shifted to providing takeaway lunches, which they have done with community partners every day for nearly fourteen months now. The program draws on volunteers from many walks of life, receives government funding, and couldn't accomplish its goals without those partners. There are upwards of a thousand lunches shared each week. 

Today those who come to Bridge St. will also have the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Often people who are living on the margins of society don't have ready access to the internet, so booking appointments for anything can be a challenge. This vaccination program is an important step. 

In the next few days the laundry and shower facilities which have been installed at Bridge St. will be completed as well, again important for those who may be living in rooming houses or other circumstances where there isn't easy access to either of these basics. I'm not sure where the funding came from but it just makes sense that these are now available.

Last week I wrote about an initiative called Activate Space which has the goal of helping congregations excel as community hubs. The founder, Jordan Wright describes it this way:

One way that I found to buck this trend is to help churches formalize and expand their de facto role as community hubs. The first key service of Activate Space is to help churches partner with local changemakers, and transform their relationships with community groups that already casually use their space into more meaningful holistic partnerships. The second service is to secure alternative financing opportunities through partnerships with municipalities or local anchor institutions.

When I was at Bridge St. these discussions about partnerships were already happening and in the past four years have come to fruition in impressive ways. There was some resistance to the shift in focus om the congregation but most members realized that this was a  necessary and needed reimaginiing of ministry and mission. I do hope that this work in collaboration with partners will continue to happen and expand with a clear sense that it is God's work. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Revving Up Our Prayer


 On Wednesday morning I'll begin a three-week Zoom study and discussion of prayer.with folk from Trenton United Church and anyone else who wants to join us. During our Lenten study of The Sermon on the Mount we spent time talking about what Christians call The Lord's Prayer or the Our Father. It got me pondering prayer which has been part of my life since my earliest memories. I say that with the admission that prayer has waxed and waned through the decades, sometimes coming readily and at other times difficult. I feel as though I will be a beginner in prayer until the day I take my last breath. 

It happens that Ruth and I are watching a series on Britbox these days called Rev which is about...you guessed it....a Church of England clergyperson serving an inner city congregation in London. St. Saviour's in the Marshes has a leaky old building, a creaky largely elderly congregation, and a priest who is earnest, compassionate, and somewhat hapless. 

The Reverend Adam Smallbone, played brilliantly by Tom Hollander, has a tendency to drink too much, he is a secretive smoker, and he will never be a "move and shaker" as a vicar. He has crises of faith fairly regularly, yet he has a strong sense of vocation and in every episode he prays, often while sitting in the quiet of the church sanctuary.They are heartfelt and honest and fascinating conversations with God. It's so pleasant to watch a series which is a sitcom yet manages to convey depth in each episode. We laugh out loud every time and yet are often quite moved. 

It seems to me that most of us are imperfect pray-ers, engaging in those conversations as best we can. It's important to keep exploring what prayer means for us, and how we can deepen the relationship with God-three-in-One. Here are the titles for the three sessions. If they intrigue you, your're welcome to join us. We won't know what is actually in your water glass. Just contact Trenton UC for the Zoom info. 

Week 1 Pray as You Can, Not as You Can’t – An Introduction to Prayer

Week 2 Prayer for Right-Brained People – Praying Creatively, Beyond Words

Week 3 Praying Inside Out – Prayer in the Natural World

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Mother's Day in the 21st Century


                                                Modern day Madonna and Child -- Jessica Russo Scher

I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart. Hosea 13:8

When Ruth and I moved from downtown Toronto to begin ministry in outport Newfoundland in the summer of 1980 we had no idea that we were entering into a different culture in our own country. In May of the following year we were introduced to Mother's Day worship, outport style, which was actually the worship of Mother's. I was assured that the Sunday Schools of the different congregations would prepare and lead the service, giving me the opportunity to sit in a pew. It turned out that these presentations didn't bother with scripture, or prayer, or references to God, if I remember correctly -- there was definitely no "momma bear" imagery! . There was just a succession of treacly recitations about mothers. We were quietly aghast. 

Why is Mother's Day on a Sunday? The occasion began as a worship service in the early 20th century, created by Anna Jarvis to honour her late mother who tended to wounded soldiers during the Civil War, along with all other departed mothers. Somehow it became the commercialized Momapalooza we engage in today.

 

                                                           African Woman with Child -- Gail Zavala

There seems to be more push-back to the sentimentalized, commercialized version of Mother's Day each year, and that's probably a good thing. Women are not defined by their ability to bear children and this day can be frustrating and painful for those who can't be or choose not to be mothers. 

That said, I  am remembering my mother today, a person who overcame considerable personal hardship to become a loving, generous parent and establish a successful career. Her Christian faith was at the core of her life and she was a strong example of the spiritual life for me. Ruth has been a wonderful mother and grandmother and is adored by our three kids and their families. I am in awe of her commitment to them in a host of ways.

Today we can offer a prayer for all those mothers who will be separated from children because of the pandemic. Some haven't experienced an embrace from family members for more thatn a year.

And let's remember today that Jesus had a mom, that what we describe as the incarnation of God could not have happened without Mary. Not only did she give birth to Jesus in the most unusual of circumstances, she was present when her child was executed. Her veneration may seem curious at times to Protestants, but she has represented the divine feminine is a religion dominated by male imagery and males for two thousand years.