Saturday, July 31, 2021

Emancipation Day in Canada

 In days of yore when we watched television networks there was the institution called The Heritage Minute. We got a 60 second shot of Canadian history alongside commercials for various and sundry products. One of those minutes was about the Underground Railroad, the clandestine system developed from the Southern United States to Canada which spirited an estimated 30,000 escaped slaves to freedom through the years. In this Heritage Minute anxious Black family members watch as a coffin-like box is opened in a church to reveal their father, as though Lazarus is arising from the grave. It certainly reinforced for me that Canada was the country where Black people were free from the scourge of slavery.

To some degree this was true, and there is a church in the Niagara region where Harriet Tubman, the fearless 19th century"conductor" on the Underground Railroad worshipped while living in St Catherines, along with 700 other escaped slaves. Just the same, slavery had existed in Canada until August 1st 1834 when the Act for the Abolition of Slavery in Canada was enacted. Before this emancipation of slaves several thousand Black and Indigenous persons were chattel, as they were across the border, although never as vital to the economy. The Quebec Gazette of 12 July 1787 had this advertisement:

For sale, a robust Negress, active and with good hearing, about 18 years old, who has had small-pox, has been accustomed to household duties, understands the kitchen, knows how to wash, iron, sew, and very used to caring for children. She can adapt itself equally to an English, French or German family, she speaks all three language

Tomorrow marks the first official Emancipation Day in Canada after the House of Commons voted in March to unanimously designate August 1st for the commemoration. It really is about time, and we can hope that communities of faith and all Canadians will learn to recognize this important day.  

Here is a CBC Radio Sunday Morning interview which may be helpful for you:

Friday, July 30, 2021

6 Billion Earths & the Creator

 O Lord, our Sovereign,

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.

    Out of the mouths of babes and infants

you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

    the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

    mortals[a] that you care for them?

Psalm 8:1-4 NRSV

A group of astronomers at the University of British Columbia appears to be intent on blowing our minds, reporting that on the basis of their using NASA's Kepler space telescope there could be as many as six billion Earth-like planets which could host life in our galaxy alone. That is, like, cosmic, man. This is both exciting and humbling, from my perspective. I have no problem with the concept that we are not alone in the universe and that as well as other intelligent life there could be superior beings. If the Trump era has taught us anything it is that applying the term "intelligent life" to humans can be a stretch at times.

From a Christian perspective I'm content that the God who has entered into earthly existence in the person of Jesus, the Christ, could be equally inventive in other solar systems and planets. Christian writers have mused about these possibilities, including CS Lewis in his sci-fi trilogy.

The prospect of six billion inhabitable planets puts the hubris of a a few billionaires circling the Earth for an hour or so at a time in perspective, doesn't it?  Perhaps our interplanetary cousins have visited, seen what a mess we're making of this gem and decided to pass on meaningful contact!

In the meantime, we can look at the night sky during August and take it the Perseid Meteor Shower with a sense of awe and wonder and gratitude to the Creator al all. 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Jacob's Pillow, Past and Present

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  And the Lord stood beside him[ and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 

Genesis 28:10-16

 Recently I came upon an article which made reference to a dance retreat centre in Massachusetts called Jacob's Pillow. The property was first settled by Europeans in the late 18th century and the zigzagging road to the hilltop became known as Jacob's Ladder. And a prominent rock was called Jacob's Pillow.

I find this quite enchanting -- what a "dreamy"  name for a dance centre -- and of course both of these names are references to the story in Genesis about conniving Jacob, on the lam from his angry brother Esau, who has an auspicious encounter with angels and God which change the trajectory of his life.

So often I see references and allusions to the bible in different spheres of life which bring to mind the book by the late, esteemed Northrup Frye called The Great Code in which he argues cogently that it is almost impossible to have a full grasp of Western art, music, and literature without some understanding of Judeo/Christian scripture. For his title Frye draws on William Blake, whose painting of Jacob's Ladder is above. 

In our time we are increasingly aware that this dominant narrative has minimized the stories of other, including Indigenous, cultures. It may well be that Jacob's Pillow had a First Nations title long before settlers arrived. Still, it is intriguing that this biblically-rooted name has persevered, even though many might not appreciate where it came from. 

                             Jacob's Pillow Dance founder Ted Shawn reclining of Jacob's Pillow Rock

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Oka Crisis and Beans

This morning I heard an encore CBC Radio Q interview with filmmaker  Beans is a 2020 Canadian drama film directed by Mohawk  filmmaker Tracey Deer which explores the 1990 Oka Crisis at Kanesatake. Deer lived through these traumatic months  as a child, and the film looks at the events through the eyes of Tekehentahkhwa a  girl whose nickname is Beans. It was gripping to hear her recollections about what unfolded, her bewilderment and fear along the way. 

The Oka Crisis, also known as the Kanesatake Resistance or the Mohawk Resistance at Kanesatake, was a 78-day standoff (11 July–26 September 1990) between Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian Army. 

It took place in the community of Kanesatake, near the Town of Oka, on the north shore of  Montreal. The crisis erupted because of the proposed expansion of a golf course and the development of townhouses on disputed land in Kanesatake that included a Mohawk burial ground. Tensions escalated after an exchange of gunfire resulted in the death of police officer Corporal Marcel Lemay. Eventually, the army was called in and the protest ended. The golf course expansion was cancelled and the land was purchased by the federal government. 

I remember sitting alone early that first morning in July 1990 listening to a CBC Radio report which included the sound of gunshots and I had no idea what to think. As the days progressed I came to realize why this land was so important to the people of 
Kanesatake and I was dismayed by the open racism of so many in Quebec which included threats of violence. 

We lived in Northern Ontario at the time and this was one of a series of events which awakened me to the inequities regarding Indigenous peoples in Canada. And we had moved to Sudbury in 1988, only two years after the United Church offered its first apology in Indigenous leaders. I began reading, listening, attending events which changed my outlook, which had largely been one of indifference. 

The film Beans hasn't been on my radar but now I would like to see it. --if Mr. Bean would move over I might have greater success finding it!

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Gospel According to Facebook

 Over the past few years the global social media platform called Facebook and one of its founders, Mark Zuckerberg, have found themselves under scrutiny because Facebook is used, purportedly,  to promulgate hate speech, foster conspiracy theories, and even to influence the outcome of elections. There are issues about the privacy of users and misinformation about COVID vaccines.  Zuckerberg and his minions are artful dodgers when they are called on the carpet of government inquiries, although the Z in Chief has looked quite sweaty at times.  

It's curious that something that began as a way for college students to connect, became so popular that it was abandoned by young people because it was deemed "mom-book" and is used by businesses and organizations world-wide, has these other sinister lives.

Churches and a variety of religious organizations have used Facebook for years, and I know that when our son Isaac was a youth minister it was an effective way to communicate with teens and Sunday School teachers. 

Credit...Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, via Getty Image

It appears that Facebook is doubling down on the connection between their platform and faith groups, from individual congregations to denominations, Jewish synagogues to Islamic mosques to Buddhist meditation leaders are exploring the possibilities. It's noted that there are more Facebook users -- roughly 3 billion -- than there are Christians or Muslims. Facebook is reaching out to faith groups to form partnerships for online presence, an intriguing trend which has been accelerated during the pandemic when so many religious groups went online for the first time to stay connected, including worship services. According to a New York Times article: 

Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ. 

Last month, Facebook executives pitched their efforts to religious groups at a virtual faith summit. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, shared an online resource hub with tools to build congregations on the platform. “Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection,” Ms. Sandberg said. “Our hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well, or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith,” she said.

While this is being promoted as a way to be connected virtually, and to evangelize, there are also possibilities to "monetize" Facebook to financially support faith groups. Hmm. There does seem to be a "deal with the virtual devil" unfolding here, but I'll confess that I have never been a Facebook user, ever, which probably puts me in the company of a dozen other humans living today. 

We'll see, won't we? Just so you know, I am never bowing down before the Dark Lord Zuckerberg, even though my every moment is now being tracked!

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Moral Dilemma of War on a Sunday Morning


It's Sunday morning and for an increasing number of congregations in Canada this means that members will be physically gathering for worship thanks to easing restrictions. I am thinking about the description of a moral dilemma in Malcolm Gladwell's current book The Bomber Mafia which is about the aerial bombing strategies which developed during WW2. The Allied air command moved from strategic bombing to carpet bombing, from choosing specific military and industrial targets to supposedly crushing the morale of German, then Japanese citizens by razing houses and killing civilians. A bombsight device for planes was developed by a brilliant engineer named Carl Norden , a Christian, who felt that his invention would allow a precision in hitting targets which could minimize the loss of human life, but there were conflicting views on what would be most effective. Unfortunately it was never as effective in combat as it was in testing. 

The incident which comes to mind is a mission by a squadron of enormous bombers which was assigned to take out the core of a German city. The crews were instructed to sight on the broad steps of a church, this on a Sunday morning when congregants would be attending worship. One pilot, a Christian, balked at this assignment but was reminded of the consequences of not complying, so he flew the mission. 

The descriptions of what happened in Japan were even more chilling. Before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than 60 Japanese cities were carpet bombed under cover of night. The planes were dropping incendiary devices delivering the new invention called Napalm. Japanese homes were made of wood and the interiors had bamboo and paper screens. The devastation of Tokyo resulted in more than 100,00 lives lost and as many of half a million civilians killed across the country, this before the use of atomic weapons.Did these conflagrations hasten the end of the war and ultimately save more lives than were lost? 

Gladwell makes a point of telling the grim story from the perspective of the moral and ethical issues. He employs biblical stories on a couple of occasions, including Jesus' temptation by Satan when he is taken to a high place and offered the kingdoms of the world. I found this approach intriguing and sobering. What does war do to us individually and collectively? He even introduces the notion of cult-like behaviour inculcated in those who "just follow orders." 

Near the end of the book Gladwell notes that today the emphasis is on precision bombing which can be done with chilling accuracy, perhaps a vindication of Norden and others who were part of the so-called Bomber Mafia brain trust. In the end though, our human propensity to solve our differences by killing each other, then finding more powerful and efficient ways to do so is absurd -- could we say, diabolical?

Okay, not a cheery start to the day, but food for thought!

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Vax Compassion & Global Justice



Readers of this blog will be aware that the United Church of Canada has invited its nation-wide flock to contribute toward providing vaccinations and other pandemic support through partner agencies in those parts of the world where the risk is greatest and people are poorest -- they go together. As is often the case, when the United Church makes an appeal 100% goes for relief, with 85% going to that specific situation and !5% kept in reserve for the next emerging crisis. This seems to be a prudent choice.

In addition, the Canadian government is matching donations to the Unicef "Give a Vax" initiative:

Over 95 million vaccine doses have been administered globally through the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility and partners like UNICEF, but millions more are needed. Canadians can make a difference by helping to ensure that life-saving COVID-19 vaccines reach people in developing countries, humanitarian and conflict situations.

On July 12, 2021, the Government of Canada announced that it would match, dollar for dollar, donations made by individual Canadians to UNICEF Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination fundraising campaign, up to a maximum of $10 million.

A fully funded matching fund campaign would cover the vaccination costs of approximately 4 million people. Funds will enable UNICEF to cover the per-person cost to transport vaccines to destination countries, keep vaccines viable by protecting the cold chain during the journey, and training health care workers to effectively administer the vaccines and safely dispose of needles and waste.

The matching fund campaign, called “Give A Vax,” will run to September 6, 2021. Canadians who want to donate to UNICEF Canada’s fundraising campaign can do so by going to or by texting VACCINES to 45678 to donate $10.

Whichever form of donation we choose, this can be an expression of gratitude for our opportunity to be fully vaccinated and to demonstrate our Christian commitment to global justice. 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Praying for Today's Summit on Anti-Islamic Attitudes & Behaviour

                                Four members of Muslim family murdered in London Ontario hate crime 

Today the Canadian government is convening a summit on Islamophobia as a response to a series of violent attacks that killed or injured Muslim Canadians. According to the Globe and Mail: 

Diversity Minister Bardish Chagger says the summit will be an opportunity for Muslim Canadians to express their ideas and insights on how Ottawa can stop these attacks and implement policies that protect their communities. She says there is a need for more work to protect Muslim communities against hate and discrimination fuelled by Islamophobia and the government has worked with national Muslim-led organizations to convene the summit.

 This summit has me thinking about my first encounter with Muslims. At the age of 19 I headed off to Great Britain for a few months with an excursion to Paris for ten days. I arrived in the City of Lights on my own, the obligatory Canadian flag on my backpack. Late in the afternoon I arrived at a hostel which turned out to be for women only and I had no idea what to do next. As I wandered the streets three young Black men approached me and commented, in excellent English, on the Canadian flag -- was I need of any help? They were former Nigerian military officers attending the Sorbonne and they took me to the hostel they were staying in which was for African and Asian students. I was not a student at the time and I was neither African nor Asian, but I was allowed to stay, a Godsend. 

There were bunk beds in my room with several other residents and I was surprised to wake up my first morning to the sight of some of them outstretched on mats on the floor. This was my first encounter with Islam, a religion I have barely heard about to that point in my life (1973). I doubt that I'd ever met a Muslim, at least not by introduction or conscious interaction. As an earnest, fairly evangelical Christian at that time, I wasn't sure what to make of what I was seeing, although I was quickly impressed by their devotion to prayer. They were also very kind to me and helped me navigate a strange city, including making sure that I was fed.

Looking back, this probably shaped my outlook on Islam through the decades. As a United Church minister I participated in interfaith events with Muslim leaders from mosques, including imams and invited some of them to the congregations I served. When Bridge St. United Church and a coalition of congregations and faith groups sponsored Syrian refugee families we worked closely with members of the Muslim community who were, as I was inclined to say, an Allah-send. We broke bread together on a number of occasions and  we were always received graciously. 

While I realize that Islamophobia exists the term suggests that the issue is hateful and aggressive acts toward Muslims, such as cowardly attacks on women wearing hijabs or actual murders. This is a real threat, but I wonder if it would have been better to term it as a summit to address anti-Islamic attiudes and behaviour. There are many people who would never consider overtly violent attacks yet hold attitudes toward Muslims rooted in  destructive stereotypes and prejudices. These attitudes create the societal climate in which hatred festers and manifests itself. Sadly, these views are often held by Christians, those who claim to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace. 

Let's pray that concrete action and the funding to support it comes out of today's summit. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Anti-Judaism, Close to Home


                                                                  Vandalized Synagogue Montreal 

Today the Canadian government is convening what they term a summit to address antisemitism. What the feds are referring to is anti-Judaism, acts of hate directed toward Jews whether as individuals or through vandalism of places of worship or online. Systemic anti-Judaism has existed in Canada for a long time through discrimination in employment and social ostracization. In recent years social media has ramped up the attacks and during the pandemic this has worsened. But physical assaults and vandalism have been on the rise as well. 

Often hate campaigns are orchestrated by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, some of whom claim a quasi-Christian affiliation. It is so bizarre given that Jesus and most of his disciples were Jews, as was the apostle Paul. 

This came close to home early yesterday morning as we were putting our kayaks in the water at a boat launch on the Bay of Quinte.  For the ten minutes it took to untie our boats and set up our gear a man standing nearby loudly bent the ear of another guy with every possible hate and conspiracy theory. He included the "Jews and Zionists", a major right-wing theme.  Actually, he was probably 15 metres away but he was so loud we could here every vile word he spewed. He was so intense that the other person didn't say a word, and eventually left.

What was remarkable, other than the sheer volume of hatred in such a short time, was that this man was standing next to a work vehicle for a major cross-Canada company. Ruth did not want me to confront him and I restrained myself. But after our paddle we passed his vehicle at a job site on our route home. We stopped and took a photo of the license plate and the driver, which must have puzzled him. I managed to track down someone in the company's human resources division who assured me that this diatribe in no way reflected their company values. That was by email yesterday but this morning I will have a phone conversation with this company rep, and it will be interesting to discover how this incident will be addressed. Please say a prayer for this interaction!

Obviously this summit is necessary, as is the one tomorrow addressing the rise of anti-Muslim activity. It's hard not to be discouraged, but those of us who follow the Jewish Jesus of love and acceptance need to be vigilant. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Billionaires and Babel

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them...

                                             Genesis 11:4-6 NRSV

Well, gajillionaire Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon,  launched into space this morning and may actually back on Earth by now. He's one of the Three Obscenely Rich Stooges who've decided to deploy portions of their wealth toward a competition to fly high.

 Last week billionaire Richard Branson won the "my rocket's bigger than your rocket" race, edging out  Bezos and Elon Musk. Branson and his team flew at thrice the speed of sound for about an hour, 85 kilometres above the Earth. Apparently this qualifies him for the title of astronaut.

Branson enthused that his narcissistic endeavour is the dawn of space travel for regular folk -- you know, those have a quarter to half a million to indulge themselves in such an enterprise. I find these self-indulgent spectacles sickening to be honest. We are still in the throes of a deadly pandemic, hundreds of millions are waiting to be vaccinated, millions have lost their jobs. Amazon has been criticized for its treatment of employees and Bezos made many billions during the past year and a half. 

At the same time the marvelous planet which is our home has a life-threatening fever and needs the resourceful of everyone, including the wealthy, to create solutions. Ironically, we are hearing that the Amazon region of South America is now emitting more carbon than it absorbs because of deforestation and fires. 

Recently a Noah's Ark theme park in in Kentucky announced that it will now build a Tower of Babel on site. It's a head-scratcher because that story from Genesis 11 is a cautionary tale about arrogance and hubris. But it may actually speak to our time because these  present-day billionaires with their massive egos aren't speaking the same language as the rest of us mortals. Why settle for a tower when you can launch into space?  

                                               Tower of Babel Pieter Brueghel the Elder 1563 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Pilgrimage in a Pandemic


A year ago May celebrated author Lawrence Wright saw the release of his novel The End of October which is about the development of a pandemic with the potential to change the face of the planet. Even though it was written well before COVID-19 there was an eerie sense that Wright had written this chillingly prescient story for that precise moment in human history.

In the novel a super-spreader event was the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage  which draws millions of the faithful to Mecca from every continent. Of course there is a heroic scientist who does everything possible to avert the catastrophe. It's a suspenseful and worthwhile read, so I won't tell you whether he is successful. 

It turned out that the Hajj was all but cancelled in 2020 with only 1,000 Saudi participants, a symbolic gesture. We are in the middle of this year's Hajj and this year there will be 60,000 pilgrims, still a tiny fraction of 2,5 million who regularly attend, and again Saudis only. Instead of the great press of humanity which can actually make the event quite dangerous as well as thrilling there will be strict protocols and timed access. Robots will spray disinfectant in key areas. 

Saudi Arabia has been working to vastly expand Mecca's ability to host pilgrims with a $60-billion US Grand Mosque expansion, but some question whether what is one of the Five Pillars of Islam will ever be the same. 

One of the causes of the deadly spread of COVID in India was the falsification of vaccine certificates for pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela festival which attracted millions in May. 

There has always been something powerful about pilgrimage, with its risks, for the devout of different religions -- consider the Camino in France and Spain for Christians. We just don't what the future will hold for these endeavours, as with so many aspects of life. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

World Listening Sunday

 Shhh,,, did you hear that? This is World Listening Day, which falls each year on July 18th, and I like that it's on a Sunday this year. Christians are invited to listen to the Word when they gather for Sunday worship. We also acknowledge that there are two books through which God speaks, the book of scripture and the book of nature and we are to give our attention to both.

This morning we awoke at the country home of the older of our two daughters. We were up before the family so headed outside with our cups of coffee. Traffic on the often busy road nearby hadn't started, the young guys on their dirt bikes probably wouldn't be up for hours and construction workers on a job site nearby had the day off. So we could "hear ourselves think" and could listen to the birds around us in abundance. Our ability to give thanks to the Creator was greatly enhanced by the avian choir. 

We're told that noise, which is not the same as sound, is adversely affecting creatures in every nook and cranny of the planet, including the depths of the oceans. In some settings birds are increasing the volume of their mating songs in order to compete with human-made noise. I'm becoming an increasingly grumpy geezer because other geezers who live nearby see fit to use leaf blowers every day, as if their lawns are their living rooms. 

The theme for this World Listening Day is The Unquiet Earth, which could be a lament, a complaint, or a call to attention. I'm inclined toward a quieter Earth, with less human noise. Yet we can celebrate the "unquiet" if there is room for many voices without drowning out others with our noise. Here is the way this year's focus  is described: 

The theme for 2021 “The Unquiet Earth” is an invitation to reflect on and engage with the constant murmur of the Earth, sounds beyond the threshold of human hearing, to remind ourselves that we share this mysterious and awesome planet. Small, hidden, subterranean, aerial, underwater, infra- and ultrasonic sounds, inaudible to the naked ear, can bring a new, potentially hopeful, perspective on the future of the planet and humanity. Listening as activism encourages us to question our attitudes as listeners as we aim to construct a more inclusive and empathetic new world. Join the unquiet revolution!

Thank God for this World Listening Sunday.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Where our Treasure Will be Found


“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust
consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

                                                             Matthew 6:19-21

Yesterday was the start of Step 3 of opening various aspects of the provincial economy and public services, including more relaxed rules regarding worship. 

We drove back into Belleville from a pleasant raspberry picking foray and ended up passing the casino. We had forgotten that it was reopening day but the packed parking lot let us know that "gaming" and inexpensive lunches were back. 

I can't imagine that people will be thronging to church tomorrow to express their gratitude for resumption of a more normal life, whatever that will look like in the months ahead. If I were a betting man (I'm not ) my sense is that many congregations will wait until the Fall to reopen, although tomorrow will be week five for in-person worship at our home church, which is Trenton United.

In the seconds it took to roll past the "Shorelines" casino (none of the three is anywhere near a shoreline) I thought about our priorities as a society. Jesus spoke about our relationship with moolah more than just about anything else, but we tend to ignore this. The early church paid attention to what he said...for a while. 

 I suppose we'll just roll the dice and see what comes next. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Tikkun Olam & Vaccinations

Yesterday we spent a wonderful couple of hours with one of Ruth's sisters We haven't seen in several years. Ruth has two biological sisters, two step-sisters (a third dear step died), and a half-sister. This step-sister has lived in Israel for decades but was able to return to Canada, along with her daughter, to see her elderly father, someone we know well.  She is an evangelical Christian, married to someone from the American South, and our theology diverges in some significant ways. That said, she is a warm, loving person whose Christian faith shapes her as a forgiving and generous-hearted soul.

I was relieved to discover that she is totally supportive of the Israeli COVID-19 vaccination initiative which leads the world in first doses, alongside Canada, and she has received both jabs. She can't fathom why there is so much resistance to vaccinations in the United States and shook her head over the way evangelicals have led the way in this wrongheadedness.

I expressed my feeling that observing protocols and getting vaccinations fulfill the Hebrew scripture commandment to honour our mothers and fathers, along with Jesus' directive to love our neighbours as ourselves. She added that living in a country with a significant Jewish population there is also the notion of "tikkun olam" or "mending/repairing the world." It could be argued that there isn't much in the way of "tikkun olam" when it comes to Israel's policies toward Palestinians but I really like that perspective when it comes to vaccinations.

Not only do we protect ourselves from the threat of a global virus when we get jabbed, we collectively protect others. This aspiration fits for both Jews and Christians, as well as other expressions of caring faith and good will. It should compel us to work toward making sure that those in developing countries also have the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

The US is seeing a significant rise in new COVID cases, particularly in low vaccination states, which are often high in white evangelical populations.  Even in Israel which had returned to an open society there is a new wave of infections, largely of the variants. We may experience the same, so our vigilance and resolve are important. We can pray that our actions will mend the world, whatever time that requires. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Abiding Faith When Tragedy Strikes

                                                         The Tower of Siloam -- James Tissot

 [Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

Luke 13:2-4

The official death toll from the collapse of a condominium tower in Florida has risen above 90 and the search continues for at least another 20 victims. The investigation to establish how this could have happened continues but in these days the focus is on the sudden and catastrophic loss of life for innocent people. These residents would have been going about everyday life in the supposed safety of their homes and nearly all of them died in the blink of an eye.There are stories of residents who were away overnight and survived, and of a person who had lived in the building for years but had moved to the adjacent building. 

We shudder at tragic stories such as these, including the collapse of a construction crane in Kelowna BC which killed five people. Two of the construction workers who died were brothers. Someone in an adjacent building was killed as well. There is something about the sudden end to life which rattles us. 

After the condo building crashed down I thought of the gospel story where Jesus uses the example of a tragedy with his disciples to address why bad things happen to good, or just ordinary people. The Tower of Siloam collapsed, killing a very specific 18 people. It seems to be a "breaking news" story. Had those who died done something wrong? Were they worse sinners than others? Jesus says that this sort of "smiting" isn't how it works, but we can all be vigilant and prepared to meet our Maker. 

It happens that about a third of those who died were active members of the local Jewish community, including the four Canadians who died.Their deaths has been a blow to this family of faith and the surviving members must be asking "why our friends and loved ones?" Yet this has been the response: 

SURFSIDE, Fla., June 30 (Reuters) - Hundreds have gathered every day at The Shul of Bal Harbour, a synagogue near the Florida condominium complex that partially collapsed last week...Other members of Surfside's Jewish community have offered food, water and emotional support to search and rescue teams digging into the rubble of the 12-story Champlain Towers South.

Both responses are rooted in the Jewish faith, a source of hope and of strength to help others cope. "There's no rationality nor level of human intellect that can in any way encompass the enormity of what has happened here in Surfside, but... God has not changed," (Rabbi Sholom Lipskar).

 We can pray that the God of mercy will comfort them in the midst of such unfairness and devastating loss. The same for families in Kelowna and all those who experience this sort of pain.

                                                                  Kelowna Crane Collapse 


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Laudato Si and the Other Pandemic


There has been a fair amount of confounding and annoying news about the Roman Catholic church in the United States recently, including the veiled threat of excluding President Biden from communion because he support the right of women to make their own reproductive choices. 

I am encouraged to see that there is a RC conference currently underway which supports what is often called Creation Care, based on Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si: On the Care of Our Common Home. I've read this intelligent and theologically nuanced document twice, and led a study group on it before my retirement. Today and tomorrow there will be discussion groups on a number of topics based on several important themes which will encourage congregations and institutions. A few of them are:

  • Advocacy
    • Advocacy for God's creation and climate action are essential to the fullness of Catholic faith. Learn the theological foundations of this ministry, the various ways in which it is expressed, and how U.S. Catholics are equipping and galvanizing organizations and individuals to go forth in this work.
  • Communications/Media
    • Hear from Catholic editors, reporters, and other communicators about the role media and communications play in lifting up the messages and information from Laudato Si’. Connect to a network of communicators and leave with strategies, examples, and resources to overcome the challenges of communicating about care for creation.
  • Creation Care Teams (especially at parishes and dioceses)
    • Creation Care Teams are the heartbeat of care for creation in parishes, dioceses, and other Catholic organizations. In this session we offer inspiration, motivation, and a practical road map for building a significant response to the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform in your local organization.
  • Environmental Justice
    • Climate change and ecological harm disproportionately injure poor, vulnerable, and marginalized persons and communities—especially those of color. Learn from experts in the field as we consider how to “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” and integrate environmental justice into the U.S. Catholic embrace of Laudato Si’.
  • Preaching for Creation Care
    • What does it mean to preach for creation care? This session will offer resources to help homilists seeking to incorporate the wisdom of Laudato Si’ into their preaching and ideas to help parishioners support their pastors in this endeavor.
  • Youth & Young Adults
    • Hear from young adults in the Catholic sphere about the unique role of young people in mobilizing the U.S. Church for creation care and climate action. Leave with resources for educating and organizing your community and the opportunity to plug into a network of young people activating for our common home.
We should be impressed and inspired. Many denominations and congregations have been in survival mode during the COVID-19 pandemic and have not given much attention to what is an even greater pandemic, the climate emergency which affects us all. I appreciate this initiative and hope that other faith communities are inspired to do the same. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

When Churches Burn

 In days past I joked with colleagues that the United Church needed to equip a few dark vans with tinted windows and teams with flamethrowers to address the problem of far too many church buildings and not enough people. Needless to say I wasn't serious in suggesting this as a solution to the "edifice complex" of congregations which were no longer viable.

Now I am pondering the spate of church burnings which have happened since revelations of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who died while "students" at Residential Schools in Canada. These young people were often malnourished, abused in a number of ways, including as child labourers, and rarely given adequate medical attention. Thousands died due to neglect and what transpired is our national shame. Christian denominations were an integral part of this systematic destruction of Indigenous culture and lives so it is little wonder that anger is directed toward institutional religion in this fashion.  

While the Roman Catholic Church was the principal perpetrator and the denomination which refuses to formally apologize for the abuses, a number of the churches which have been destroyed are from other denominations, including two United Churches. Officials and congregants are on edge in many communities, wondering if their buildings are next. While the United Church we can never truly redress our participation in Residential Schools we have formally apologized, paid restitution, established a Healing Fund, and participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Several Indigenous leaders and survivors of Residential Schools have spoken out saying that burning churches is not the answer. A Pentecostal pastor, Jenn Allan-Riley, herself a ‘60s Scoop survivor and the daughter of a residential school survivor, maintains that these acts of  arson are fuelling further division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people: 

Burning down churches is not in solidarity with us indigenous people. As I said we do not destroy people's places of worship. We're concerned about the burning and defacing of churches bringing more strife, depression and anxiety to those already in pain and mourning.

Some of these torched church buildings were familiar sanctuaries for Indigenous Christians who've sought solace to address the resurfaced trauma of recent revelations. When we lived in Northern Ontario I regularly visited the Anishnabe Spiritual Centre near Espanola and Manitoulin Island which was developed by the Jesuits for Indigenous people. I recall sitting at a table over coffee, listening to two older First Nations individuals respectfully discuss their own spiritual choices. One was a devout Roman Catholic whose Christian faith sustained her. The other had stepped away from his Christian upbringing to explore traditional ways which were more authentic and meaningful for him. I appreciated their ability to listen to one another  and actually both participated in traditional practices despite divergent paths. 

What the various denominations perpetrated against Indigenous peoples was sinful and contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We woke up today to more grim news about the discovery of well over 100 unmarked graves in another community. It's inevitable that there will be more. I hope those who are tempted to express their legitimate outrage will find ways other than destroying more churches. Our willingness to bring about meaningful change will be vital to healing. 

Monday, July 12, 2021

Loving the Semi-Feral

                                                        Christ on the Mount of Olives -- Paul Gaugin

 On the two weekend mornings we took advantage of sunshine and low wind speeds to get out in our kayaks for what proved to be holy moments. We were enchanted and gratified by our sightings of wildlife, the visual encouragement that there is abundance of non-human creatures close at hand.

This morning I was cycling along the Belleville waterfront and up the Moira River where there was also a variety of feral and semi-feral creatures. Among them were the humans who sleep outdoors through these warmer months. I went past a spot on the water which is an encampment for several people, on and off and where i often smell wood smoke. I saw a couple of men asleep on benches, and evidence of someone else who had camped out beneath a bridge over the river. On my return trip I passed a firetruck, ambulance, and police vehicle with responders attending to a heavily bearded man on the ground -- an overdose? These stories of response seldom come to public attention. 

As I've offered before, we might assume that homelessness is a reality in big cities, not smaller ones. We hear the stories of large encampments and the confrontations between residents and authorities.Those who live and sleep rough in our community just aren't as visible but they are present as members of our community all through the year. There is faith-based shelter in Belleville which is helping to address the needs of both men and women with dignity. There is now a drop-in with laundry and shower facilities at Bridge St Church, the congregation I served before retirement. City council is attempting to address affordable and transitional housing. Sadly, there are citizens who don't want unhoused people on our streets who also grumble about these responses. 

I make an effort to say hello to those I pass, including the very few who are belligerent. Sometimes I stop to chat with those I see regularly, which I'm okay doing because I'm a sizable male. My experience is that the majority appreciate the conversation. I sometimes mention to those who have set up tents where they can get free meals and accommodation but they almost always say that they want their freedom. 

I keep telling myself that Jesus and his disciples lived rough at times and that the night of his arrest before crucifixion they were camped out in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem When I returned home I dusted off my Homeless Jesus sculpture given to me by the artist, Timothy Schmalz. His life-size versions are now in public places around the world, including at the Vatican. 

These semi-feral folk are not simply a problem to be dealt with, even though some individuals can be challenging. They are beloved children of God each new day. 

                                                        Homeless Jesus -- Timothy Schmalz

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Sunday Morning and Collective Effervescence


                                                                       Linda Merad

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

                                                                               Matthew 18:20

This morning we got out early for a kayak paddle on the Moira River. We were virtually alone, the conditions were perfect and we saw lots of wildlife. There was a veritable congregation of blue herons, green herons, and an egret. The swallows were dancing across the surface of the water. 

We went on to another sanctuary for a different sort of worship, this time at Trenton United Church. The congregation was small but we were in-person, singing, praying and hearing the Word proclaimed. This was the fourth Sunday of our third phase of being physically together and I appreciated the opportunity. For the first time since the pandemic began we sat with our two Trenton grandsons, all of us masked of course.

I read an essay in the New York Times by psychologist Adam Grant with the intriguing title  There’s a Specific Kind of Joy We’ve Been Missing. He began by sharing about a Foo Fighters concert with 15,000 vaccinated people in attendance, the closest he's witnessed to rapture since the pandemic began. Grant goes on to talk about the essential nature of shared experience and makes these observations:

We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescenceIt’s a concept coined in the early 20th century by the pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose. Collective effervescence is the synchrony you feel when you slide into rhythm with strangers on a dance floor, colleagues in a brainstorming session, cousins at a religious service or teammates on a soccer field. And during this pandemic, it’s been largely absent from our lives. 

This is so true and I'm glad he includes religious gatherings in his examples. Well before the pandemic many congregations have fretted that the fizz had gone out of worship as numbers diminished and participants aged. But there is no doubt in my mind that there is an effervescence in even the proverbial two or three gathered together which is not the same when worship is online. 

Virtual services made sense when they were the responsible, faithful alternative to dangerous super-spreader events. They are not a long term solution and many congregations are suffering mightily from not being together. Some ministers and active congregants have admitted that the will to return seems to be fading and they've heard that a segment are content with the virtual alternative, even as public health restrictions are eased.

This morning's worship was also shared online and it's good that those who are still uncertain about contact with others have the option. Trenton United is alternating indoor and outdoor services and more have attended in the parking lot than in the traditional sanctuary. 

I do feel that there was "fizz" in Rev. Isaac's leadership and in the intangible yet vital  congregational participation during our time together. God willing, I hope we are able to shake the bottle a little in the months ahead. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Indigenous Women Leaders

                                                                Mary Simon

The United Church has encouraged its congregations and members to be aware of the oft-times grim realities for Indigenous women across this land, both past and present.In response to the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls our moderator, Richard Bott and Indigenous Ministries leadership urged non-Indigenous members to read and study the report 

Recently we have been aware of Indigenous women in a different light, that of ground-breaking leadership. First was the announcement that Mary Simon would be the new Governor General ofCanada. Some of us question the very existence of this role, yet Simon, who is Inuk, would appear to be an exceptional choice who will fulfill her responsibilities with grace and wisdom. There is a fascinating video of an exchange between Simon and Pierre Trudeau from 1984 which demonstrates that she is articulate and fearless.

                                                                     RoseAnne Archibald 

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Yesterday  former Ontario regional chief RoseAnne Archibald was voted in as the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). This position is not without controversy amongst Indigenous people but she will be the first woman in this significant role. 

I hope that both of these developments will prove to be positive and a step toward recognizing the strengths of Indigenous women. 

At the same time we need to be aware that two Indigenous Members of Parliament have announced that they will not be running in the next federal election.  Current independent MP and Liberal cabinet minister, Jody Wilson Raybould, will be leaving the federal scene citing the increasingly toxic and partisan tone of politics. 

Three weeks ago the NDP's Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, Nunavut's only MP, announced her impending departure and spoke honestly about her sense of isolation and the times when she felt racially profiled within the halls of the House of Commons. Qaqqaq has been pushing the federal government to meet the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action but it is a lonely endeavour. 

Both these departures will be losses in representation and calling the country to accountability. 

So, with the steps forward there have also been unsettling steps back. Let's pray for meaningful change for "all my relations" in the days ahead with a willingness to listen and act. 


                                                                Mumilaaq Qaqqaq