Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Giving Tuesday, and Wednesday, & Thursday...

 


The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 

2 Corinthians 9:6-8

Today is Giving Tuesday, dontcha know, the day following the buying orgies of Black Friday and Cyber Monday when we are invited to be generous toward charitable causes which always are in need of our financial support. 

There are an overwhelming number of these organizations, foundations, charities and it can be a challenge to choose. Many of them have become very adept at reaching out to existing and potential donors. This morning I opened my email inbox and the first four messages had the headers: Make a Difference This Giving Tuesday! We Have Been Challenged! We'll Boost Your Donation! Today is Your Chance to Double Your Impact! Yikes. I'm tempted to responde with Enough Already!!!!

Religious organizations including the United Church have been doing their best to catch our attention amidst the onslaught, and the pandemic has made the need even more acute. I regularly get messages now from the philanthropic arm of our denomination and the number seems to have increased. I have no qualms with the UCC using the methods which are available whether nationally or through local congregations. Why not?

This all reminds us that we need to be intentional in our giving as an expression of practical gratitude. Our Trenton UC congregation has sought our financial support so we have given a year-end donation and will increase our weekly giving, which we make through Pre-Authorized Remittance. 

We have also decided to make a second contribution to the vaccination equity initiative which the United Church supports. https://giftswithvision.ca/products/pay-it-forward As countries scramble to respond to the Omicron COVID-19 variant by closing borders experts point out that the lack of support for vaccinations in poorer nations leaves everyone vulnerable. The weak response by wealthier nations such as Canada is truly a shame.

Ultimately, our relationship with the living and lavishly generous Christ will be our transformational motivation for giving. We all have a propensity for selfishness, it seems to me, which is part of the human condition -- be cautious, protect ourselves and our own. Yet we are set free through generosity of spirit. Practical, informed giving is what we do on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays...


A WHO Malawi representative gets the COVID-19 vaccine at Mzuzu Central Hospital.

Credit: © UNICEF/UN0429068/Mvula


Monday, November 29, 2021

Happy "Early" Hanukkah!

 


                                                      Eight Branches of Hanukkah -- Zoriy Fine 

Hanukkah! How could that be? It sneaked up on me this year -- Adam, my friend, why didn't you give me the heads up?!

Hanukkah, a Jewish celebration of the miracle of light, is one of those moveable feasts, as are so many in different religions, including Christianity. I checked and while this year Hanukkah began last evening, November 28th, in 2019 it began on December 22nd, nearly a month later. Our menorah lives in one of our boxes of Christmas decorations because the two celebrations coincide so often. 


If we hadn't been asleep at the dreidel this year we would have searched out one of our favourite childrens' books Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins which we read with our kids and now with grandchildren. Two who love this book were with us on the weekend, so we missed that opportunity. 

Something showed up in my email inbox this morning about dreidels created for Jews in China, a reminder that the Jewish diaspora is evident it what we might think are unlikely places. I'll include the news release below, but I'll also wish any Jewish readers a Happy Hanukkah!

Shavei Israel produced hundreds of Dreidels with Mandarin text for Chinese Jews
Kaifeng, China (November 29, 2021)  – In honor of Chanukah, the Jerusalem-based nonprofit Shavei Israel designed and produced hundreds of Dreidels with Mandarin lettering for the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, China, as well as for 20 members of the community who have already made Aliya to Israel with the organization's assistance. Kaifeng is a city in the central Chinese province of Henan located southwest of Beijing and is home to hundreds of descendants of a once-thriving Jewish community that resided there for well over a millennium. The Dreidels are probably the first ones which has Chinese text on them which appears as follows:
伟大的 - Big; 奇迹 - Miracle, 发生过 - Happened; 这里曾 - here.
 
According to Shavei Israel’s Founder and Chairman Michael Freund, the first Jews to have settled in Kaifeng, one of the ancient imperial capitals of China, were Iraqi or Persian Jewish merchants who traveled along the Silk Road in the 7th or 8th century CE. The community grew and prospered, and in 1163 built a large synagogue, which was renovated repeatedly down through the centuries. “At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty, Kaifeng had as many as 5,000 Jews,” said Freund.
Freund explains that widespread intermarriage and assimilation eventually set in, and the death of the community's last rabbi in the early 19th century heralded the community’s demise as a collective entity. The synagogue, which had stood for 700 years, was destroyed by a series of floods that struck the city in the mid-19th century. According to him, there are currently an estimated 1,000 people in Kaifeng who are identifiable via family trees and genealogical records as descendants of the city’s Jewish community.
 
“The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng are a living link between China and the Jewish people,” said Freund. “Despite the severe restrictions imposed on them by the Chinese government in recent years, the Chinese-Jewish descendants are anxious to learn more about the heritage of their forefathers and we hope these Chinese-language Dreidels that we’ve prepared for them will give them a dose of happiness and light during Chanukah.”





Sunday, November 28, 2021

Orange the World Amidst Advent Blue



 Well, about a dozen of us gathered for an early worship service at Trenton UC today, an intrepid flock, given the hour (9 AM) and the gently falling snow. We had a couple of people welcoming those who arrived at the door, including Rosemary, who has a number of involvements in the life of the congregation. 

Rosemary is also part of the group of grandmothers who have been promoting awareness of Domestic Violence and the month-long Orange The World awareness campaign.Last Sunday she was inviting us to take orange ribbons to pin to a jacket. 

The week before I was in the Belleville library and met two spirited elder women who were distributing lawn signs with this year's poster. They explained that they usually hold rallies and vigils but aren't doing so again this year because of COVID. I mentioned that someone at our church was going to be making the ribbons available following the service and they said "that must be Rosemary!"

You will likely be aware that the granny of our household worked as a counsellor at a shelter for women and children who left abusive situations for a decade. Ruth knows all too well that even after decades of public awareness, education, and stiffer penalties, abuse is still widespread in our society. We're told that the reported incidence of domestic violence has gone up during the pandemic and God only knows how many women have suffered in silence and fear. 

The liturgical colour for Advent is blue but it's essential to remember the orange in these weeks leading to Christmas. I'm grateful for those who are drawing attention to this issue and we can all be aware through this month. And we can prayer for those who feel that there is no hope in their personal darkness. May the light of Christ be with them. 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Advent Hope When all Hell Breaks Loose


 It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.

                                                          Luke 21:25-26 The Message

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 

                                                                 Luke 21:25-26 NRSV

Trenton United Church decided to offer occasional Sunday morning services for those who are reluctant to attend worship alongside those who may be unvaccinated (there isn't a proof of vaccination requirement at TUC.) I volunteered to preside at some of those services and I'm first up to bat at 9 AM tomorrow. I hadn't realized when I offered that this first service in the day would be at such an ungodly hour, but we are early risers. 

I like the beginning of Advent and the theme for this Sunday which is Hope. Often the readings appear to be less than hopeful, either saying "wait for it" or downright gloomy, at least as they begin. The gospel lesson for Advent 1 is an example. Fainting for fear because all hell has broken loose doesn't exactly set a hopeful tone. 

Once again I've been reminded that Christian hope in not the same as optimism. Through the centuries the "signs of the times" have been bleak and Christ's people have been encouraged to hold on, even though it may be by their fingernails 

During the pandemic most of the people I know have tried to receive the gift of God's hope as well as practicing hope as a spirtual discipline. Our Advent Hope Sunday will be a sort of booster shot for the spirit, whether we're eligible for the other booster shot or not.  

Jesus goes on in the Luke passage to remind us that after Winter comes the promise of Spring, so we need to be alert and to keep our heads high. 

Now, about that Omicron variant...we'll find our way through this, by the grace of God.



Friday, November 26, 2021

Black Friday & Listening to Jesus


And Jesus said to them "Take care! 

Be on your guard against all kinds of greed:

for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. 

                                       Luke 12:15

I'm currently reading JB McKinnon's thoughtful and well written book The Day the World Stops Shopping. The prologue sums up what is to come with the heading We must stop shopping but we can't stop shopping. Many of us realize that we are part of a society which is addicted to accumulating stuff in a way that would have been unimaginable to our grandparents let alone the majority of the world's population alive today. b

We are bombarded with advertising offering bargains for items it hadn't occurred to us we want, which isn't the same as what we need. There are almost fanatical trends in gadgets which end up in yard sales. Remember when it seemed that every home had an electric bread maker? Where are they now? My sensible spouse, Ruth, is an excellent cook and baker and she regularly warns me against buying the current indispensible kitchen item, insisting that we don't need another small appliance cluttering our counter. 

A consumers' society cannot possibly know how to take care of a world...

the attitude of consumption spells ruin to everything it touches. 

                                                   Hannah Arendt

I have resisted purchasing most outdoor "time-savers" which are constantly being updated, are costly, and usually noisy. How many of us are complaining about losing weight during the pandemic? Yet we are convinced that we need stuff which actually reduces our physcial activity. 

I've been scouting the flyers for months now in search of a rechargeable, lightweight vacuum cleaner. I almost bought one yesterday, except the one we have now works fine even though it is heavier and has to be plugged in. So I talked myself off the buying ledge, once again. It amazes me that there are some vacuums which cost more than my first couple of cars. 

McKinnon points our that the technosphere -- everything we build and make, our stuff -- is now estimated to outweigh all living things on Earth. In North America that volume of stuff is colossal and the irony is that the weather events related to climate change can wash it away in a flash flood or incinerate it in a wildfire. 

You have probably already noted that I'm writing this on Black Friday, a shopping spree which began in the United States but is now a pandemic around the globe. This is the day after US Thanksgiving, a day when Americans have supposedly celebrated God's provision through generous Indigenous neighbours. How did we get here?

I'm pleased to say that McKinnon's book is from the library, something I've been doing regularly because our home is awash in purchased books. I haven't exactly broken my addiction but I'm in therapy. He begins the books with several quotes about what we think we possess, what ends up possessing us, and how to be content. I've shared a few here. 

For some this is Buy Nothing Day. Could you do it?  

Earth provides enough for everyone's need

but not everyone's greed. 

                                     Mahatma Gandhi



Thursday, November 25, 2021

Giving Thanks...Every Day


Rejoice always, pray continually, 

give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

 Canadians know that Thanksgiving was actually nearly two months ago but we will indulge our American neighbours who celebrate today. In both countries Thanksgiving used to be a big deal for Christian communities with a connection to gratitude for the harvest and strong attendance at Sunday worship. That doesn't seem to the reality any more, as this becomes just another long weekend on both sides of the border.

One Thanksgiving Sunday I rolled out a big chalkboard for the children's time and wrote the words Thanks and Giving then wiped them clean and put up Giving and Thanks. I was surprised by the number of adults who commented afterward that this simple rearrangement nudged them to ponder what the term Thanksgiving actually meant in terms of conscious gratitude. 

Gratitude and thankfulness are essential to the spiritual life and as Christians we are called to be grateful for God's extravagant gift of love in Jesus, the Christ. While most of us are generally grateful for the fullness of our lives we may not be as inclined to be specific. I've kept a personal journal for decades and I go through periods where I intentionally finish each entry with something I'm thankful for in that day. Then I drift away from the habit until something nudges me back into the rhythm of expressing gratitude to God.

Today I'm hugely grateful that our two school-age grandkids are booked for their COVID-19 vaccinations next week. We are as happy about this development as we were to get our own jabs. What a wonderful country we live in where this is possible and the vast majority of us have been innoculated. God is good. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Shining a Light on Child Poverty in Canada


 In days of yore -- 1989 -- Christian denominations in Canada, including the United Church, got on board with the federal government's commitment to end child poverty in this affluent country by the turn of the millenium. This initiative by the Liberal government was called Campaign 2000 and while it was ambitious it was also encouraging because of the specific target. I was ten years into congregational ministry at that time, serving a congregation in Sudbury, and I recall the commitment of the Canadian Council of Churches to support the campaign as an expression of compassion and justice for "the least of these." I spoke on the issue at the time. 

Today we're hearing that addressing child poverty in Canada has stalled. The Campaign 2000 national coalition still exists and continues to advocate for children and families living in poverty. It says Canada's mission to eliminate child poverty stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the group is urging the new (same as the old) federal government to take bolder and more decisive action to protect children. 

The newly released report says that more than 1.3 million Canadian children, or 17.7 per cent, are living below a poverty line used by Statistics Canada.The highest child poverty rate in Canada is in Nunavut, at 34.4 per cent. Manitoba, with a rate of 28.4 per cent, has the highest of any province.

 One of the 60+ recommendations is a significant increase to the Canada Child Benefit which has not been keeping up with inflation. We are hearing about steeply rising food costs across the country and this is a huge issue in the North. 

It's appalling that in any region of this country more than a third of children live without the basic necessities for a healthy and whole life. 

During the past two years so many congregations and the United Church as a denomination have reeled in the midst of the chaos created by the pandemic. Still, efforts continue to respond to poverty, which is a glimmer of hope amidst so much bleak news. 

https://united-church.ca/social-action/justice-initiatives/ending-poverty

As Advent commences this weekend we will celebrate the theme of Hope, which is the light of Christ, born in a stable. We can pray and act for a different reality for those who struggle to make ends meet every day.  

Here is a link for the Campaign 2000 report:

https://campaign2000.ca/no-one-left-behind-strategies-for-an-inclusive-recovery/





Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Death of a Gentle Martyr

 


Br Jean-Pierre Schumacher, meeting Pope Francis in Morocco in 2019.

I have written a couple of times through the years about the Thirbhirine monastic community in Algeria, a small group of Christians who lived peacefully amidst a predominantlyMuslim village, sharing in their sorrows and celebrations.  When civil war erupted n the 1990's the brothers stayed out of solidarity with that Muslim community. Eventually seven of them were kidnapped and assassinated despite providing medical aid to their rebel murderers. Some of the monks survived and now the last of them, Jean-Pierre Schumacher, has died at the age of 97. 

This is a story of gentle Christian witness, not through proselyzation but by living with respect and compassion amidst neighbours.  It is beautifully told in the 2010 film Of Gods and Men, which I highly recommend. The term "martyr" means witness, so they were martyrs in the best sense. 






Monday, November 22, 2021

Saving Forests, One Church at a Time



One of the more enjoyable and inspirational books I've read lately is Arbornaut, by acclaimed biologist Meg Lowman. It's the story of a very shy and not very athletic child who is nonetheless very inquisite and determined. She wins a science fair prize early on, much to her surprise, an achievement which seems to have been the slingshot for the next six decades of her life. The slingshot reference is my attempt at humour, as I'll explain.

 Lowman studied forest biology at college, a discipline with virtually no woman in it. She excelled despite the misogyny and ended up in Scotland as a graduate student. This led to an opportunity to study rain forest canopies in Australia, a move which eventually resulted in working on every continent with trees in research, academia, and other projects. Lowman realized that the conventional ways of studying trees rarely included the "up close and personal" examination of the forest canopy. She felt that this was akin to a physician examining only the big toe of a human patient. 

Lowman developed ways of getting into the canopy by literally using a slingshot to launch lines over the branches of trees, often 30 metres up. She adapted and invented climbing pulleys and harnesses to hoisting herself to dizzying heights. There she discovered what she describes as the "eighth continent" which is home to tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of species not seen from the forest floor. Her methods of getting aloft have changed the study of forests around the world and have opened the way for women in her field. She became an arbornaut, a term adapted from astronaut (the exploration of space) and aquanaut (think of Jacques Cousteau beneath the ocean surface.)

Lowman has been able to study and act in unconventional ways, including her openness to seeing the connection between the scientific exploration of forests and the traditional sacred forests of religious groups on different continents. 


Chapter 10 is entitled Building Trust Between Priests and Arbornauts: Saving the Forests of Ethiopia, One Church at a Time. A number of years ago Lowman flew to this African nation to work with the priests of Ethiopian church forests, on the invitation of an exceptional ecologist, Alemayehu Wassie Eshtie, who had first studied to be priest and realized the spiritual and biological importance of these enclaves of biodiversity.  The forests surround the church buildings at their centre and the priests consider them as an essential part of their churches. They have attempted to protect them even as much of the rest of Ethiopia has been denuded of trees. 

Meg writes about standing before a gathering of 150 white-clad male priests who spoke a different language, were likely dubious about a female presenter, and had been paid to attend. Despite the impediments the priests came on board and over time Lowman and Alemayehu have enlisted the help of biologists from different places in the world and locals who appreciate the sacred nature of the forests. 

In the chapter Meg Lowman promises that "I will continue to pray with the priests, host workshops, and merit the trust of the clergy as we partner between science and religion." She really is a remarkable human being and I highly recommend her book, even if you skim some of the nerdy scientist bits. 





Sunday, November 21, 2021

Still Waiting for Indigenous Justice

 


                                                                                Christi Belcourt

Two days ago a para-military force made up of RCMP officers and God knows who else invaded the Wet'suwet'en protest encampment in northern British Columbia. Even though these are non-violent Indigenous resisters who are convinced they are protecting their traditional territory from illegal encroachment to build a controversial gas pipeline they have been treated as criminals. More than a dozen of the protesters were arrested, including two journalists. 

There are a lot of things which could be said here, but what strikes me is that while those of us from what is sometimes described as settler culture are often initially disturbed by the stories we hear about conflicts between Indigenous peoples and those in authority, our indignation and sense of injustice soon gets pushed into the background of our lives. 

Remember the nation-wide concern over the treatment of Mikmaq fishers in Atlantic Canada? They continue to be in conflict with the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) who have seized gear. There was a widespread outrcy when the unmarked graves of Residential School children were discovered and governments publicly committed funding to do searches around those properties. But there is frustration on the part of a number of Indigenous communities that the money will be provided as reimbursement rather than proactively. There have been promises from the Roman Catholic church about financial compensation and a visit to Canada from Pope Francis to apologize for Residential Schools, but why has it taken public shaming to take action? 

It's little wonder that many Indigenous people are skeptical about anything governments and churches say about healing and reconciliation and that the notion of being part of Canada has little appeal? Our United Church has made efforts toward apologies, compensation, and reconciilation, which is a start. Yet all this reminds us that this is just a beginning and so much more must happen. 




Friday, November 19, 2021

What is, Acceptance of a Champion on Jeopardy?


 I am a
Jeopardy quiz show nerd and have enjoyed the shows this Fall because several contestants have not only been repeat champions but have won often enough to qualify for the Tournament of Champions at a later date. A couple of evenings ago one of those trivia smartypants' was defeated by Amy Schneider who won again last night. 

It turns out that Amy is transgender, and she pointed out on social media afterward that she is not the first transgender contestant nor the first winner:

FYI, I am not the first out trans person to appear on Jeopardy (a few friends have asked). There have been a handful before, including one, Kate Freeman, who was the first out trans champion on 12/16/20. My thanks to all of them for blazing the trail!

Amy Schneider (@Jeopardamy) November 18, 2021

It's importatnt to note that Amy was accepted as a contestant withouit issue and the others on the stage competed with her as they would with any other person. 

Slowly but surely we are coming to the conclusion in just about every sphere of life that people are people who can be accepted for their gifts and skills and intelligence without judgement..There is still resistance and even antagonism in some quarters, but change is happening.

Has this been slower to come about in communities of faith? The answer is certainly yes in some while others have actually led the way. The United Church has ordained transgender clergy and encouraged congregations to be welcoming and accepting. We know of a Roman Catholic school which is not only open to transgender students but has made practical efforts to educate both students and parents.Broadview Magazine of the United Church has published articles which tell the stories of trans persons. I'm of an age that transgender identity was once sinful in my mind, then the source of bewilderment. I have come to what I feel is a healthier and more Christian place of acceptance. I appreciate the transgender persons who have been patient and kind with me along the way. 

It's serendipitous and perhaps providential that Amy has been in the spotlight this week which is Transgender Awareness Week 

Transgender Awareness Week – celebrated annually in November – is a crucial time to uplift the voices and experiences of the transgender and nonbinary community through education and action. The week’s activities culminate on November 20th, Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day in which transgender and nonbinary people and allies across the globe come together to honor the lives lost to anti-transgender violence.

I'll be watching to see how Amy does this evening as a smart women who has earned this opportunity.to be on the Jeopardy stage.  

Now, who will be the new permanent host of  the show?...





Thursday, November 18, 2021

Is the New Slogan, Apocalyptic British Columbia?


                                               Rescuing livestock near floode Abbotsford, British Columba

 Not long ago I came across my copy of Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature, a profound book written nearly 25 years ago by the late eco-theologian, Sally McFague. An American, McFague moved to BC to teach at the Vancouver School of Theology and stayed until her death two years ago, almost to the day. 

McFague fell in love with the extraodinary beauty of the province and the tourism slogan at the time, Super Natural British Columbia, captured her imagination. She inserted a comma after the word "super" to create the title of this small but mighty volume, one which had a profound impact on me.

She would have seen the shifting reality of BC's ecology during the two decades she lived there and witnessed the increased frequency of intense weather events which are almost certainly the result of climate change. And I imagine she would have been devastated by 2021 which has included the terrible trio of a heat dome which killed hundreds of humans and millions of other creatures, wildfires which wiped out vast acreages and communities, and now catastrophic floods which have caused billions of dollars in damage and led to  large-scale evacuations.

 Super Natural British Columbia with its clever spiritual double meaning  could now be Horrifying, Apocalyptic British Columbia: Come for the Beauty & Run for Your Life. 

This terrible situation has something of a personal note. My brother and his wife are in BC to visit our nephew and his partner. The other day they left Squamish for a few days on Vancouver Island. The highway was closed behind them because of a rock slide and their ferry was the last for the day because of high winds. They arrived in the breath-takingly beautiful town of Tofina to find that power had been knocked out by high winds. Today they hope to fly out of Abbotsford, which you may have seen has been hard hit by flooding. 

British Columbia is one of the provinces which insists that it can't take more dramatic measures to address the climate emergency because it would undermine its resource rich economy. Yet these weather/climate catastrophes are huge disruptions to the economy and we can already see that this flooding will require billions in infrastructure repair and rebuilding. Experts are already pointing to clearcut logging as a cause for some of the landslides which have closed vital transportation corridors and killed at least one person. 

We can pray for all those who have been affected by the events of the past few days. And we can pray that the scales drop from the eyes of those who are supposed to provide leadership for this generation and generations to come. The slogan Super Natural British Columbia was inspired and needs to take on new meaning in these chaotic times. 






Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Adele and Maid & Leaving


 We have been big fans of the British singer Adele since the beginning of her stardom more than a decade ago. She is the Queen of Angst with songs of relationship pain powered by an amazing voice. And is there any better song to blast while driving down the highway than Rolling in the Deep?

So, we looked forward to her comback concert (she's been laying low for the past three years) outside at the spectacular Griffiths Observatory in Los Angeles. Somehow that event was a bit cringey as the glitterati audience leapt to its feet after every song. 

What really made me uncomfortable and eventually pushed me up the stairs to bed were the interview segments with Oprah. It was all earnestness in LaLa Land as Adele shared that she had hoped for the nuclear family she never had growing up yet just couldn't make her marriage work. She left for her own wellbeing and happiness after a year, admitting that she really cared for her ex and that they continue to be pals.Yes her son, who is nine, was upset by the breakup but someday he'll be proud of his mom for not hanging in there.Okay.

Then Oprah asked the question, what would you say to women who are staying in relationships which don't make them happy about making the decision to start over? Here is a person whose wealth exceeds $2 billion asking someone who at age 32 is worth roughly $200 million to weigh in on this for women who are trapped in often abusive relationships, fearing that leaving will result in poverty for themselves and their children. It seemed so shallow and tone deaf, even as it was asked in all earnestness. 

On the weekend the CBC personal financial columnist  Rubina Ahmed-Haq spoke about the Netflix series Maid which is about a young woman who courageously leaves a destructive relationship but lives on the edge of financial disaster every day. For a time she returns to her abuser for the sake of her child but eventually breaks free. Ahmed-Haq did an excellent job of demonstrating how difficult it can be financially to start over and it doesn't have much to do with "finding your bliss." When Ruth, my wife, worked as an outreach worker in a shelter for women and children she had many clients who returned to their abusers out of financial desperation, only to be under threat once again. 

Of course we'll continue to listen to Adele's hits and admire her talent. It might be good for her to maintain the mystique of her music and avoid the interviews. We can pray for all those women who are between a rock and a hard place in relationships, and as people of faith we can ask what our congregations can do to provide support for the important work of shelters. And once again I'll remind you that in most congregations I served there were women who making those tough decisions without people beside them in the pews knowing about their struggles. 

Here is a link to the CBC piece: 

https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-78-all-in-a-weekend/clip/15878341-rubina-ahmed-haq-maid-real-life



Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Dopesick Pandemic


Durng the Covid-19 pandemic we've heard that there has been a sharp rise in alcohol and cannabis consumption, perhaps a form of "self medication" (I really dilike that term) which should be cause for coneern. What is really alarming is the epidemic of opioid drug deaths with many provinces setting new grim records for those lost in the past two years. 

It is certainly my hope that none of you have experienced the loss of a loved one to a drug overdose but it doesn't make this crisis any less real for society. We may have our stereotypes about  those who use and abuse drugs but the reality is that addiction and deaths occurs across the social and economic spectrum.

We hear about major drug busts which break up widespread networks of dealers who market  deadly Fentanyl, a potent opioid. Yet it is deeply disturbing that the drug dealers who may have profitted the most from opioid addiction are supposedly legitimate pharmeceutical companies, sometimes labelled Big Pharma. The company which has been at the focal point of what has unfolded over the past 25 years is Purdue Pharma which developed the drug OxyContin. This company was owned solely by the Sackler family, one of a number of successful companies developed by three immigrant brothers. They were the American Dream success story, the family arriving in the US with nothing, all three sons becoming physicians, and all eventually immensely wealthy.

OxyContin was marketted as a sort of miracle pain medication which could be used for just about any complaint and without the danger of other opioids such as morphine which were usually prescribed for extremed pain and end of life circumstances. In truth Oxy is highly addictive and resulted in millions of prescriptions made by doctors who usually unwittingly helped to create the crisis. Very quickly OxyContin became an illicit drug with a huge market for the pills. The nickname Hillbilly Heroin was used because it destroyed the lives of so many in rural areas where is was first prescribed for workplace injuries. 

I made my way through the well-written although very disturbing book Empire of Pain which tells the story of the Sacklers. You may have seen that they recently reached a settlement with prosecutrors. This included a penalty of $4.3 billion US, along with agreeing to divest themselves of Purdue Pharma. They assumed no personal responsibility, none of them will go to prison, and the family wealth is still about $11 billion. How is that for justice? 

There are also two current TV drama series which address the shady world of Big Pharma, the fourth season of Goliath and Dopesick. Goliath is a series about a reprobate lawyer who is a David taking on the Goliaths of politics and industry who often rule and become wealthy beneath and beyond the law. Dopesick is actually about the Sacklers and the affects of the opioid crisis they allegedly understood but continued to promote for personal gain.

I do feel that there is a deeply spiritual aspect to all this (surprise, surprise). Why is it that so many hunger to escape into an alternate reality, with all the risks? Why has our society moved steadily away from religion and that form of spiritual experience and substituted an escapism which can be so destructive? I'm not suggesting that people just "need to get Jesus" but the alternative seems more like hell than heaven. 



Monday, November 15, 2021

The Other Matrix


You probably remember the 1999 movie The Matrix, even if you didn't actually see it.because it was a big hit at the time This science fiction action film had Keanu Reeves and others flying around, fighting, and intoning quasi-mystical stuff.

I want to bring your attention to another Matrix, Lauren Groff's latest novel which has plenty of spiritual stuff in it because its about a convent from the past rather than the future. Groff is an exceptional writer and she weaves a feminist tale about 12th century nuns who become a force to be reckoned with under the leadership of an initially reluctant abbess who is forced into her role because she is the inconvenient daughter of nobility, the child of rape. When in doubt, send your problematic womenfolk to a nunnery. 

While this young women, Marie, arrives without faith she grows into it, alongside her role, and even has mystical visions which guide the convent from poverty to prosperity. The summary in The Guardian is very good:

Matrix is a very free imagining of the life of Marie de France. Almost nothing is known about this pioneering poet except what she tells us, with a self-assertion unusual for her time and gender, in her collection of Breton lais, or romances, and translations of Aesop’s fables. She was probably writing in England, though she came from northern France. Her poetry gives no indication that she belonged to a religious house, though she has been tentatively identified with Mary, abbess of Shaftesbury. Groff seizes on the few hints, rides cantering into the huge gaps, and makes up a life for Marie – a long and full life as a visionary leader, queer lover, writer and mother, or “matrix”, to a thriving community of women.

In an interview with Groff she says that she went to a lecture by a medieval scholar and was so taken by the era that she put aside the novel she was working on to create this story. There are hints of Hilldegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, all connected to convents through the centuries. Hildegard had remarkable visions which were recorded for posterity and she challenged male authority figures, as does Marie. There is even a labyrinth in Matrix, although what is described seems more like a maze. 

Ruth and I both really enjoyed Matrix and I figure it would make an excellent book club read, whether from a religious standpoint or not. Oh yes, despite the shared emphasis on mysticism with the other Matrix, no one flies about in Groff's novel. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Entertaining Angels and Nomads


 

 Let mutual love continue. 

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, 

for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 

Hebrews 13:1-2

Yesterday I was finally able to watch the acclaimed 2020 film, Nomadland, a picture which received several Academy Awardsw, including one for its star, Frances McDormand. As the name suggests it is about the people we rarely give thought to who are essentially nomads, moving from place to place for a variety of reasons, including the search for work. McDormand's character Fern, loses her job when the plant where she is employed closes down. When her husband dies she sells everything and hits the road in a van.

The story is gritty, sensitive, and compelling, and the film is unique in that many of the other actors who become Fern's friend's are real-life nomads, some who are dealing with loss, others adrift from any community other than what they experience as they travel.They are people who demonstrate "mutual love" in different ways. 

So many of us have no idea that this group of people exists in our society and often look upon them with a degree of suspicion. In recent months our city, Belleville, has been trying to figure out the challenge of homelessness or the precariously housed. Some councillors and the mayor get it that what we are experiencing locally is a growing reality across the country. Still, at least one speaks about "taking care of our own" and wants to discourage people migrating into the city looking for help. She has proposed cutting funding to the local shelter by 30% because that is the percentage of people from elsewhere who stay at the facility. I'm dubious that she really considers the other 70% to be "our own."

As Christians we can keep in mind that our bible is full of stories of nomads, beginning in Genesis, right through to Jesus and his disciples. Often they were "sleeping rough" and on the last night of his earthly life Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, a campsite for pilgrims. As uncomfortable or bewildered as we may be at times, how can we harden our hearts?  

I wouild certainly recommend Nomadland. And we can ask how our communities will be practically compassionate to those who may be 



Saturday, November 13, 2021

God's Artistry and Ours



 I'm leading worship at Trenton United Church tomorrow morning, a gig I was asked about back in August. Along the way to deepest, darkest November we took in a current exhibit at the wonderful McMichael Canadian Art Gallery called Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment. As the name suggests, these women were not invited or included in the unfolding of art movements in the first half of the 20th century despite their originality and talent because of their gender.

We found the exhibit fascinating and as we meandered through the rooms I pondered the parallels between artistic expression for these women and the role of women of faith, past and present. So often women have been stifled in roles of leadership and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ simply because they were not men. I decided that I would explore this theme in worship and discovered, to my delight, that the Hebrew scripture passage for the day in the lectionary is the story of Hannah, a woman of deep faith and prayer who is initially dismissed by the men in her life before being recognized as blessed. 

 


                                                           Hannah's Prayer -- Durga Jael Bernhard

As some of you know, my undergraduate degree was in art history so through the years I've used visual images to illustrate sermons, as I will tomorrow. Many people have told me that they are visual learners and benefit from seeing as well as hearing. 

I don't think it was an accident that these thoughts welled up for me while I was in an art gallery. I have visited art exhibits in galleries in many different countries and often had a sense of the transcendent and even the holy. 

The Templeton Religion Trust  has been a grant to a team of scholars who are Measuring the Spiritual Dimension of Art, to use their title. The introduction asks "What if religions explored the seemingly immeasurable, spiritual effects of art? What if art could change the way we think about God?'

Dr. Kutter Callaway and his team emphasize the centrality of art to the human experience by referring to our species not as homo sapien, but instead as “homo aestheticus.” Our experience of beauty is central to the way we understand our reality physically, psychologically, and spiritually. 

I am intrigued by how this will unfold, aware that the immeasurability of both art and faith are aspects of their appeal and power. 

In the meantime, why not join us tomorrow morning, either in person or online? 





Friday, November 12, 2021

Does a COP26 Agreement have a Prayer?


 Today is the final day of two weeks for the COP26 climate summit which has taken place in Glasgow, Scotland. Tens of thousands of delegates have attended, as well as thousands more who never made it through the doors of the conference centre but were defiinitely a presence in alternative symposiums and on the streets.

Before the summit begain I assumed that I would be writing regularly about what was unfolding because we are at a critical point for the planet as it heats up, we experience more catastrophic weather events, and biodiversity diminishes. Many jurisdictions around the Earth have declared climate emergencies, so we supposedly recognize the urgency of our situations. Leaders from many nations said the right things in the first few days of COP26 and were long on earnestness and short on plans and targets. 

I found that I was overwhelmed by the volume of news even though I've been deeply interested in these issues for decades. At times it is a challenge to figure out whether there has been any substantive progress and today's CBC headline in not overly encouraging: Nations at odds over how to keep 1.5 C goal alive as UN climate negotiations enter final day. 

While this is not a surprise it is discouraging. One climate activist describes the final, watered down draft statement as "weasel words' used to let wealthier nations off the hook on subsidies to fossil fuel comglomerates. You may have heard that the largest contingent to COP26 is from the fossil fuel industry, a special interest which probably shouldn't be there at all, or at least not with a signficant voice. Why are we providing welfare to companies which have lied to us about their knowledge of climate change for more than 50 years and have extracted untold billions of dollars while they've done so? 


As people of faith and as those who affirm that Jesus, is the Christ, the "first-born of Creation" we can live with both urgency and hope in care for the Earth.  Pope Francis intended to participate in COP26 but those plans changed. He has urged Roman Catholics to pray for the outcome of this day. According to the New York Times: 

“Time is running out,” Francis said. “This occasion must not be wasted, lest we have to face God’s judgment for our failure to be faithful stewards of the world he has entrusted to our care.” 

The summit, the pope said, was meant to address “one of the great moral issues of our time: the preservation of God’s creation, given to us as a garden to be cultivated and as a common home for our human family.”

These are blunt but honest words, and we too can pray for the integrity of Creation.