Friday, December 31, 2021

Embracing Darkness and New Year's Light

                                                                             Billy Renkl

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

                           Genesis 1:1-5

3 I will hold the Christ-light for you, in the night-time of your fear;

I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

                                                   The Servant Song 595 Voices United 

 On the day of the Winter Solstice many of us breathed a deep sigh of relief in body, mind, and spirit with the promise of longer daylight hours. Strictly speaking, it was longer daylight seconds but at least we were moving in the right direction. Today, the final day of 2021 the daylight will extend about four minutes longer that ten days ago, and by the end of January it will be approaching an hour. Despite this I've felt a heaviness because of the gloom brought about by the massive resurgence in COVID-19 infections across Canada, It seems that our region has recorded more cases in these same ten days than in the previous months of the pandemic combined. Even though we got our booster jabs the day before the Solstice and nearly a week before Christmas Day our celebrations with family were curtailed or cancelled and this took a toll on both of us. 

Margaret Renkl is an excellent American writer who contributes opinion pieces for the New York Times covering "flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South." On December 20th she mused about the triple whammy (my term, not hers) of the metaphorical darkness brought about by the pandemic, deepening polarization in the US, and the climate emergency. She asks:How much more darkness could one year bring?" 

Renkl admits that while she isn't enamoured of the dark, others are:

I know people who welcome darkness, who have always welcomed darkness. My brother, the collage artist Billy Renkl, is working on a series of artworks based on the canonical Book of Hours. To prepare for the collages centered on Compline, the night prayer, he checked the websit of the International Dark-Sky Association to find the darkest place within a day’s drive. When he got there, he spent all night lying on the hood of his car, looking at stars.

I'm doing my best, by the grace of God, to give thanks for the darkness and the contrasts it brings. I do love the night sky and delight in the full moon and views of the Milky Way when we are away from the light pollution of urban centres. It's more of a challenge to summon up a metaphorical embrace of darkness yet I sense that can learn from what we have going through if I'm willing to do so. 

Some years ago I visited a convent in Colorado in a wild and beautiful setting on the border of Wyoming. In the evening I would attend Compline which meant I would walk a couple of kilometres along the dirt road from the guest house to the chapel. There was a sign next to the dining room which  house said "this is cougar country" and it wasn't referring to the older nuns. On my way to the chapel and back I would literally whistle in the dark and sing hymns to stave off the denizens of the gloom, glad for the comfort of our gentle worship. 

Christ be with you to light the way in 2022, whatever the challenges may be, real or imagined. Shall we make a pact together to seek out the gifts of the darkness, to support one another in prayer, and celebrate the stars, wherever they may appear? 

                                                  Abbey of the Sisters of Walburga, Colorado

Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Order of Canada & a Basic Income


                                                                    Professor Evelyn Forget

As we come to the end of the year the names of recipients of the Order of Canada for 2021 have been published. Some of the 135 appointees are known to us -- the Honourable Murray Sinclair, former Senator and Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as an example. Most are individuals who have contributed to Canadian society in significant and even extraordinary ways but are certainly not household names. 

One is Evelyn Forget is a professor and health economist at the University of Manitoba and the author of the book Basic Income for Canadians. She researched the Mincome basic income experiment of the 1970's in Manitoba and discovered that hospital admissions declined and children were more likely to finish high school. This pilot occurred decades before Ontario's project which was summarily ended by the Ford government. 

The United Church of Canada has supported a
Guaranteed Livable Income or GLI and this year a podcast was created by Rev. Cathy Russell and Rev. Isaac Mundy on the topic which includes an interview with Professor Forget. We found it really worthwhile, along with the interview with Rev. Ed Bentley.

Christians ground their faith in the grace of Jesus Christ, the conviction that God's love is unconditional and lavish rather than earned. Often though, we are suspicious of those who don't "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and "make something of themselves" -- sound familiar? We ignore the destructive influences of systemic poverty, of mental illness, and addiction and have a punitive mindset which is not worthy of the gospel. As long-time Progressive Conservative Hugh Segal has said, how do you pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don't have boots? The pandemic has certainly shown us how vulnerable many of us are despite living in a wealthy nation. 

Congratulations to Evelyn Forget for this honour. Perhaps the greatest recognition would be for governments and communities of faith to pay attention to what she has to offer. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Please Look Up...and Around

                                                                Scene from Don't Look Up

 Last evening we watched the new
Netflix film Don't Look Up with its star cast. Among the luminaries are Leonardo diCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Timothy Chalamet and more. As an offbeat comedic disaster flick -- or is that a disaster comedy? -- Don't Look Up has received mixed reviews from critics and everyday viewers alike. 

The essence of the story is that a young astronomer (Lawrence) discovers a whackin' big comet which is hurtling toward the Earth with the almost certain outcome of total destruction. She heads to Washington with her college professor (diCaprio) to sound the alarm, only to be dismissed, at least initially,  by a sleazy, self-absorbed president (Streep) who shares characteristics with the former MAGA "leader of the free world." 

I won't say much more about the plot, but the film really is a parable about the climate emergency and the failure of world leaders to address it. The slogan "don't look up" is adopted by President Orlean and her rabid followers until they all realize that looking down doesn't make the crisis go away. In our reality there are plenty of people, including leaders, who've chosen "don't look around" when it comes to climate change, to their peril and that of the planet.It seems that no matter how many weather disasters afflict the planet we look away and hum louder. 

You may recall that Leonardo diCaprio worked with former President Obama on a climate change awareness initiative. They were joined by Katharine Hayhoe who is a climate scientist working in Texas but born and raised in Ontario. She is an evangelical Christian who has relentlessly, hopefully, called upon people of faith to be part of the movement to save the planet. Her recent bestselling book is called Saving Us, which has landed her on talk shows and broadcasts across North America. I recommend reading the book.

The character Yule, played by Timothy Chalamet, is something of a slacker who came from an evangelical family but hasn't given up on God or Jesus. This seems to be a nod to Hayhoe's invitation to conservative Christians to make a difference. Yule prays several times as disaster approaches and in a scene that has a "last supper" feel Yule offers a blessing:

Dearest Father and Almighty Creator

We ask for your Grace tonight, despite our pride

Your forgiveness, despite our doubt

Most of all Lord, we ask for your love to soothe us through these dark times

May we face whatever it is to come in your divine will 

with courage and open hearts of acceptance.  Amen

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Mary Freakin' Knew

Mary, did you know that your baby boy 
Would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy Has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered, will soon deliver you
Mary, did you know that your baby boy Will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy Will calm the storm with his hand?
                                  Mary Did You Know?
So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
                                        Luke 2:17-20

It must be close to twenty years ago that a singer in the congregation I was serving at the time asked what I thought of the Christmas piece, Mary Did You Know? She was enthusiastic about it, I'd never heard it.  At that time Mary Did You Know? had been around for a decade and become very popular in evangelical circles. As the name suggests, the verses wonder aloud whether Mary, the mother of Jesus, was aware that the child to whom she would give birth was the Messiah. 

I listened to it and decided it was kinda corny, complete with crescendo, as well as being catchy. Play it a couple of times and it becomes an ear-worm. The emphasis is miracles and healing and salvation rather than Jesus as the one who challenges social norms and brings about justice. 

Mary Did You Know? is now thirty years old and the writer of the lyrics has shared his thoughts about the song. Mark Lowry was in his early thirties when conversations with his mother about Mary's comprehension of her role and Jesus' future nudged him toward the song. He eventually worked with songwriter Buddy Greene to create a piece which has been recorded by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers and many more. 

There has been a fair share of criticism through the years for the approach, which I get. I'll admit though that I have wondered through the years not only what Mary understood, but what Jesus comprehended about his earthly life and heavenly purpose, if I can put it in such reductionist terms. What was Mary pondering in her heart? And the gospels do suggest that at times Jesus was so immersed in his Jewish culture that he needed nudges to see and hear differently, just as he invited others to do. 

In an article in Religion News Service Mark Lowry concedes he isn't a trained theologian: 

Lowry is pretty good-natured about the criticism of the song. He’s quick to admit it has shortcomings — which he thinks are more evident to his fellow Christians who are more familiar with theology than the average person who hears the song. The last thing he wanted to do was to insult Mary or anger his fellow believers. “I never meant for it to start a war or irritate people,” he said. “I definitely didn’t want that.”

There is a parody of the song called
Yes, I Freakin' Knew! which is clever, and makes its own point, so here is the link. I've also included the version of the original by the Pentatonix which isn't as...ahem... melodramatic as some. Hey, if Mary Did You Know? is devotional for some and sparks debate for others, along with being catchy, why not?

Monday, December 27, 2021

The Courage and Joy of Desmond Tutu

Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu died over this Christmas weekend at the age of 90. His death brings the earthly end to a remarkable life which was instrumental in ending the evil of apartheid in South Africa and in the process of truth and reconciliation as a new era began.For his efforts he received a Nobel Peace Prize. 

There are a couple of visual images which come to mind when I think of Desmond Tutu. In 1985 the diminutive Tutu (5"4") intervened with a man who was about to be burned alive by a furious mob because he was a police informer. Some of you may remember  the gruesome "necklacing" where a suspected traitor was doused in gasoline with a rubber tire around the neck before being set ablaze. Tutu put himself at personal risk to save the man's life even though he had betrayed his own people. 

Tutu said the youths told him that he was “saving someone who was the cause of so much trouble to them, . . . someone who deserved what he was getting. In the end, I think rather reluctantly, they seemed to concede my point,” that such attacks on other blacks, whatever their position, discredit the fight against the apartheid system that keeps whites in power here, he added.

                                                 Desmond Tutu busting a move with the Dalai Lama

The other image was of a dancing Tutu on the day in 1994 when Blacks were first allowed to vote in an South African election. As fierce and fearless as he could be, he was also a person of exuberant joy and whose laughter was always bubbling forth. 

It shouldn't be surprising that Tutu became an advocate for LGBTQ2 persons and stated that he couldn't worship a God who would exclude them. He became outspoken about environmental issues as well, seeing ensuring the integrity of Creatoin as as a human rights issue. He received lots of criticism when he visited Alberta and spoke against the tar sands development, including on the front pages of newspapers. 

Tiny Desmond Tutu was a Christian giant and we can give thanks for his life and witness. 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Wenceslas, St, Stephen, and Warming Centres


Good King Wenceslas looked out,On the feast of Stephen,

When the snow lay round about, Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shown the moon that night, Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, Gathering winter fuel.

Verse 1 Good King Wenceslas

When our kids were quite young I began involving them with readings in worship services, particularly at Christmas. They were all good readers but coaching was involved. We would go to the church sanctuary and they would stand in the pulpit to practice. I would remind them that older ears required them to read sloowwly and that their voices needed to be "deep, and crisp, and even." 

This phrase was borrowed from the hymn, Good King Wenceslas, which narrates the legend of a kind and generous duke from the 10th century who goes out of his way to provide aid to a peasant in need in the bitter cold of winter. As the first verse reminds us, this took place on the feast of St. Stephen, which is today.

This morning in worship Rev. Isaac Mundy, one of those child readers from years ago, made the connection between the story of Wenceslas and the opening tonight of the warming centre for Quinte West which will be in Trenton United Church. This is the first year for this initiative which has required coordination between Trenton UC, other community agencies, and different levels of government for the funding. As it happens, this year there have been negotiations for a warming centre in Belleville at Bridge St. United Church, the congregation I was serving at the time of retirement. 

The forecast for tonight suggests that the frost will be cruel with a windchill below -10C, the temperature which triggers opening the centres. It's hard to imagine people trying to survive these cold winter nights without some form of shelter and sustenance. 

I commend Isaac, the council members of Trenton UC, and the congregation, for the effort and resolve to bring this warming centre into being. There has been a meal ministry out of Trenton UC for years and in some respects this is an extension of hospitality to those who live on the margins. These are caring people who understand the need and are willing to respond with practical compassion. Their celebration of Christ's birth yesterday extends to heeding his calls to care for "the least of these." 

May God bless those who seek shelter through these Winter nights and those who support them.  

Here is the link for today's worship service for Trenton United:

Verse 5

In his master's step he trod, Where the snow lay dented.

Heat was in the very sod Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor Shall yourselves find blessing.

                                                                   Trenton United Church

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Our Christmas Feast & Generous Vision

The turkey will soon be in the oven and in a few hours we will be celebrating the joy of Christmas with a scaled down feast, at least in terms of the number of people around the table. What does it mean to be generous today, when our focus tends to be on family? 

Early in Advent the pastor of Trenton United Church, our son Isaac, mentioned that he'd reread A Christmas Carol, written in a couple months in 1843 by by Charles Dickens. Isaac quoted the highlighted passage below and it got me thinking about the classic 1950's movie starring Alastair Sim and the readings in Canadian churches over a period in the 1990's and at the beginning of the new millenium. I served three congregations which collaborated with CBC celebrities to present A Christmas Carol, events which raised money for various charitable causes. CBC news host Judy Maddren recalls the genesis of these readings which eventually took place in more than a hundred veneues in this way: 

 It happened the first week of December in 1990. I booked a good choir to sing carols, a lighting specialist to add a theatrical sparkle, rented a local church, and borrowed CBC sound expertise. My children and their friends were roped in as ushers, my husband looked after house lights, and the volunteers for the charity sold tickets at the door. The church youth group handled the reception. From ticket profits, we raised a small sum for a Women's Shelter.

I read a Time Magazine piece describing Dickens's initial plan to write a pamphlet decrying the exploitation of child labour in 19th century Britain. Instead he wrote the enduring story A Christmas Carol which masterfully addresses the hypocrisy of blaming the poor for their own poverty and shining a light on the growing divide between rich and poor during the Industrial Revolution. He meant it to be a "hammer blow." It is remarkably relevant today, on a global scale. 

In the story the miser Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by the spectre of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley laments his hard-heartedness, his inability to see people through the eyes of compassion:

 Seven years dead,” mused Scrooge. “And travelling all the time!”

“The whole time,” said the Ghost.  "No rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse."

“You travel fast?” said Scrooge.

“On the wings of the wind,” replied the Ghost.

“You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years,” said Scrooge.

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the Ward would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one's life's opportunity misused!

Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

 "Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business: charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensived ocean of my business. ”

It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!

Scrooge was very much dismayed to hear the spectre going on at this rate, and began to quake exceedingly.

As A Christmas Carol reminds us, its never too late to live and see as Christ's compassionate people, desiring a more loving world because of God's gift of incarnate love to all of us. 

Have a safe, enjoyable, and even indulgent Christmas feast, and as Tiny Tim exclaimed "God bless us, everyone!"

        A healthy Tiny Tim and a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge

Friday, December 24, 2021

Christmas 2021 In Uncertain Times


“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?...

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

                                        Matthew 6:25-26, 34

So many families are making really tough decisions about Christmas gathering this year. This was going to be one of the busiest family times for us in memory, with several gathering planned. This has all changed as the evil elf Omicron has come to town. 

After a lot of soul-searching we mutually decided with our two daughters, Jocelyn and Emily, that we would not be physically together for a Christmas Day meal, even though this is what we yearn for. While we've got our booster jabs, others haven't yet. We are blessed that both of them, with their respective family and partner, live within a couple of hours of us so we have already experienced outdoor visits with exchanges of gifts and goodies.

Yesterday we drove to Second Marsh, a beautiful wildlife area in Oshawa, to spend a couple of hours with our younger daughter, Emily,  and her partner. The marsh is between the busiest highway in Canada, the 401, and Lake Ontario yet there is a sense of being apart from the city. We were virtually alone as we walked to the beach where I pulled a Christmas Eve service from my pocket. 

Over many years, from the time she was learning to read, Emily read the first portion of the Christmas story from Luke's gospel, and she did so next to the water. 

Then I was on for a reading called Touch Hands which was used by my minister father, then all during my ministry, and now with son, Isaac. For a second year we won't gather for a Christmas Eve service either, a huge disappoint for many clergypersons  and congregation members. 

Fittingly we finished up with the carol Silent Night which we sang outside at the conclusion of Christmas Eve services in four of the congregations I served. This impromptu worship and oasis of nostalgia was consoling for all of us.

We continued our walk and fed the chickadees and nuthatches at several spots along the way. The verses from the Sermon on the Mount are not a Christmas passage, but they do remind us that in the midst of our woes and worries God is with us in Jesus, the Christ. Do we yearn for this to end? Of course, but we are not overwhelmed. 

Christ be with you on the morrow, and stay safe. Here is Touch Hands, even if you can't touch hands!

TOUCH  HANDS –John Norton’s Vagabond – W.H.H. Murray (short story)

Ah friends,...dear friends... years grow on...

...and heads get grey... fast the guests do go

Touch hands.

Touch hands with those that stay.

Strong hands to weak...

...old hands to young...

...around the Christmas board.

Touch hands.

The false forget......the foe forgive.

For every guest will go...

...and every fire burn low...

....and empty cabin stand.

Forget!   Forgive.

For who may say...that Christmas Day...

...may never come... host...

...or guest...


                            Touch hands.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Two Pregnant Women & An Overthrown Empire


                                                                      Visitation --  Br. Mickey McGrath

Recently Christian theologian and writer Diana Butler Bass tweeted out a great one-liner: "the only Christmas action movie I want to see is about two pregnant women plotting the overthrow of empire." This is a clever shout-out to Elizabeth and Mary, the cousins who are both improbably pregnant and faith-full women who get together to celebrate rather than commiserate. Mary goes on to offer a prophetic song of gratitude for the child in her womb and for the possibilities of a new world order which is often called the Magnificat. 

These past few days there have been a couple of important examples of how the powerful, the arrogant have been brought down. The Sackler family, former owners of Purdue Pharma, made billions of dollars producing and promoting the opioid painkiller OxyContin, knowing that it resulted in widespread addiction and destroyed lives for those who took it and those close to them. One of the best books about the Sacklers is called Empire of Pain. 

The Sacklers were financial benefactors for a number of arts institutions on at least two continents and their names were prominently displayed. Earlier this month the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art has removed the Sackler name from seven of its galleries, with the agreement of the family. It's the latest institution to distance itself from the family, joining the Louvre in Paris, the Tate in London and the Jewish Museum in Berlin in doing so.

While this is a powerful rebuke of a family that craved this recognition another, more important, decision was made. A federal judge overturned a roughly $4.5 billion settlement that legally shielded members of the Sackler family from declaring personal bankruptcy or facing prosecution. The criticism of this deal was that it effectively allowed the family to buy its way out of responsibility for complicity in the opioid crisis which continues to kill thousands across North America and has been exacerbated during the pandemic. They are still immensely wealthy despite that settlement. 

The Song of Mary in Luke's gospel declares that God works through the lowly and lifts them up while sending the rich away empty. We might pray for those who have died and those who mourn their deaths because of opioids. We can demand that our governments make addressing the opioid crisis a higher priority. And we can look to the signs around us that even those who seem untouchable because of wealth and power are brought down. 

Cousins John and Jesus, the children of pregnant Elizabeth and Mary, were born into this world to offer their prophetic voices for hopeful change. During Advent we heard that John draws on yet another prophet, Isaiah:

 "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"


                                                      Artwork from the St. John Bible 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

My Best & Not Quite Only Film for 2021

 This is the time of the year for "Best of 2021" lists from a variety of sources, including former US President Barack Obama. Obama is eclectic and impressive in his choices for music, books, and movies.  Isn't it strange that Donald Trump doesn't offer a similar list, although he comes up with a  "Best Whines" list every year.

I read a fair number of both fiction and non-fiction books this year, and I'm here to say that I appear to have similar tastes with Barack (we chat regularly.) Ruth and I haven't seen a lot of films because we don't venture out to cinemas for pandemic reasons and we're too cheap to spend $20+ to rent a movie to watch at home.

I did see several good, newish films and the one which touched me deeply was Mass which I watched alone, at home, because of the offer of a preview before it was released -- thank you Movies and Meaning. 

 It is about the meeting between a couple whose son was murdered in a mass school shooting and the parents of the teen who killed him, along with a number of other innocent students. The shooter took his own life so there was no trial and conviction. The parents are together for the first time a couple of years after the terrible events. The setting is a church parlour which could be anywhere in North America. 

The cast is small but the four central actors are brilliant and the intensity they convey was almost too much for me to handle. The parents of the victim come determined not to descend into anger and recrimination but they can't rein in their intense grief and anger. Eventually, though, all four parents are able to see and hear each other and their are moments of forgiveness offered and received which brought me to tears. I sat for a while in the dark when it finished. 

I wish I could give you a link to the film but I can share a link to an interview with writer/director Fran Krantz and the marvellous Anne Dowd. It is moving in itself. Kranz reflects on his experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa years ago and wondered what forgiveness would look like from a personal perspective now that he is a father. 

If you get the opportunity to watch Mass, please do.

                                                                    Ann Dowd and Fran Krantz

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Advent, the Solstice & the Solace of a Groaning Creation

                                                            Advent Calendar -- Angela Harding

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God...

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

                                                                             Romans 8: 18-19, 22-25

When our children were young we had a simple wooden Advent calendar made by a parishioner. Each box contained a verse and a treat and each of the three guarded their days zealously. It was a good way to build anticipation as we made our way toward Christmas. 

Over the years I've noticed that Advent calendars have become popular, even though they usually have nothing to do with this season of the Christian year which moves from darkness to light in anticipation of the coming of Jesus as infant child and risen Christ.  Hey, if you can appropriate and secularize Christmas and Easter, why not other religious observances?

This year there was a kerfuffle over a supposed Advent calendar offered by the fashion company Chanel. It was criticized as a cynical grab by Chanel to charge more than a $1000 (Canadian) for what are largely trinkets and baubles not worth anywhere near that amount. Given the actual meaning of Advent it does seem obscene. 

                                                                  Not-an-Advent-Calendar -- Chanel

I'll admit that I am intrigued by the Advent calendars created by British artist Angela Harding. They are not religious but they celebrate the beauty of creation. I'll also confess that I covet them, but they are a challenge to get in Canada.

During these past two years of the pandemic we have found great solace in the natural world, getting outside as often as possible to walk, paddle, cycle, and camp. In the early months of 2020 we were often alone wherever we went exploring but as time progressed many locations became quite busy as people who weren't previously outdoorsy discovered the beauty around them. Lots of folk put up birdfeeders and bought binoculars. We are in the midst of the Christmas Bird Count for 2021

I don't know that Romans 8 would readily come to mind as an Advent passage but it does seem that all Creation, not just humanity is struggling and even suffering. While we aren't sure that we'll be able to attend in-person worship over Christmas we can go outside and give thanks to the God of Creation and Incarnation. 

Yes, so much seems ominous and uncertain these days but we can choose to find hope in the beauty of the natural world, in one another, and in the promise of Christ. And this is the winter solace and we now inch our way toward longer daylight hours!

                                                      Advent Calendars -- Angela Harding 

Monday, December 20, 2021

An In-Person Experience of Love Without Borders

 I was ambivalent about attending worship yesterday. It's a half hour drive to Trenton, it was a sunny morning (perfect for a walk in the snow) and Omicron is scaring the bejabbers out of everyone. We drove over, just the same, and I'm glad we did. The message was excellent focussing on Mary's Song of hope and love and incorporating artwork created by members of the congregation on the theme of Love Without Borders. There was an entertaining skit with performers of all ages, including five children and teens, which reminded us of the true meaning of Christmas. 

In addition, there were visual reminders of the generosity of members. Contributions for the food bank were there in abundance. The mitten tree was festooned with items which will be distributed through a couple of venues, including the warming centre which Trenton UC will host. Last week there was a mountain of clothing and other practical goods for the Adopt a Family program. I find it so heartening that in a time when we tempted to hunker down and fret about our own well-being lots of everyday people are willing to look outward with practical acts of love.

Of course there are members who chose to worship virtually, for a number of good reasons, and they are always welcomed as the service begins. Yesterday's in-person service had the lowest in-person attendance in weeks which wasn't a surprise given the soaring COVID infection numbers. Rev. Isaac announced that while the plan is to have a Christmas Eve service in the sanctuary. the next three Sundays will be online only, out of an abundance of caution. This seems to be a wise choice and I imagine other responsible congregations will do the same. 

Still, being together really does matter. We did get out for our walk after worship and it was beautiful. We were part of the in-person Body of Christ and the experience will tide us over through whatever the COVID rollercoaster brings our way. 

Take care, and get that booster shot!

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Enough With the Person of the Year?


                                                                           Artist: Ben Wildflower

And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."         
Luke 1: 46-55

Today, the fourth Sunday of Advent young Mary recovers from the bewildering news that she will give birth to Jesus, with a hymn with is filled with praise and a declaration of a new world order. The promised Christ will be born, so look out all those who are arrogant and power-mongering, and wealthy. 

It seems as though we read this passage in Luke with our fingers crossed behind our backs. It sounds great, but do we really mean it?

This Magnificat, as its often called, comes a few days after Time Magazine has made its own declaration that eccentric billiionaire Elon Musk is their Person of the Year. I'll concede that every time I drive past the Tesla electric vehicles at the charging station at the north end of Belleville I'm impressed by his vision. A few years ago many dismissed him as crank and Tesla as a money-pit. Now auto-makers around the planet are scrambling to catch up. His renewable energy initiatives are also impressive.

This said, he has the penchant of lots of other billionaires to crow "look at me, look at me!" His declared interest in inhabiting other planets really seems like a vanity project to lure others into becoming faux astronauts. This comes at huge cost and environmental degradation for the exquisitely beautiful and increasingly fragile planet we know we can live on. 

Yes, Musk, recently offered hundreds of millions of dollars to address world hunger -- sort of -- but it would be much better if he paid reasonable taxes to allow governments and the United Nations to do this important work. And lets not forget that Elon assured us that the COVID pandemic would be over by April, 2020. That prediction was an epic fail. I like that the late night TV hosts dined out on Musk's "honour" with one noting that Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump were also named persons of the year. 

Wouldn't it be great if in 2022 there was a media moratorium on the antics of the wealthy and arrogant? Ignoring them rather than adoring them would be refreshing. While God may not have "scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts" (KJV) just yet, we can join Mary in a different vision which lifts up the lowly and feeds the hungry. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Christmas & International Migrants Day


 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 

 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

                      Matthew 2:13-15

This is International Migrants Day, a recognition that today and everyday human beings chose or are compelled to seek out new opportunities for healthy, safe, fulfilled lives. I've been pondering this all week. Both of our mothers were immigrants to Canada from Great Britain. My mother came nearly a century ago to Quebec city as a  three-year-old in a family. As a senior citizen she visited the Pier 21 immigration museum and was emotional when she found a fascimile of the ledger in which her name was recorded.

Ruth's mother was a  Second World War bride who arrived in Halifax harbour to a Salvation Army band playing O Canada and Here Comes the Bride. Their emigration was part of a colonial, largely European narrative which stretched back over several centuries.We celebrated the pluck and determination of our forebears, and rightly so. We simply didn't consider the imperialistic and destructive nature of settler culture for Indigenous peoples.

                                                                    Pier 21 Immigrants

Increasingly during the past 40 or 50 years immigrants to Canada have arrived from many other nations around the globe, bringing different cultural experiences as they contribute to the fabric of our nation. I thank God that British cuisine, if it could be called that, was supplanted by culinary gifts from hither and yon. And I've been impressed by the way our children, all adults, developed lasting friendships with those from different ethnicities and religious backgrounds. 

Today we are faced with what is a global crisis of migration and the amplification of causes to be on the move. The climate emergency has become a huge factor. Religious extremism and totalitarian regimes have forced millions to flee into precarious circumstances. They are displaced and dying, with news every day it seems of those who have drowned at sea or perished in the back of trucks or been incarcerated in inhumane conditions. 

Canada has extended hospitality to some, and the 2015 partnership with concerned citizens, including many in communities of faith, resulted in more than 30,000 Syrians arriving across the country. Yet we still favour those who come with economic resources. The Ontario government just announced a program for immigrant entrepeneurs who will invest at least $200,000.  Our colleges and universities depend on the high tuitions of those who come here for an education with the hope of staying. This sounds like buying their way into the country. Meanwhile the premier claims that he's all for immigrants as long as they "work their tails off" and don't "go on the dole." When we sponsored Syrian refugees they were eager to be employed, as virtually all newcomers are. 

As Christmas approaches we can be reminded once again that the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus fled the threat posed by Herod. We can ask how we might continue to practice the spiritual gift of hospitality in meaningful ways to those who are migrants. We can let our governments know that we expect them to welcome those who can contribute to Canada in a variety of ways. 

Today I will pray for all migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, but particularly the Afghan family which was failed by our federal government, given visas to come here with no way out of the danger their homeland posed. Their ten-year-old daughter, excited about moving to Canada, was shot and killed at a Taliban checkpoint. For the love of God, we can do better. 

Nazifa, 10, was preparing to start a new life in Canada with her family when the Taliban opened fire on their vehicle in Kandahar on Dec. 10. (Submitted by Kynan Walper)