Monday, February 28, 2022

Good Samaritans Today


As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are displaced by a Russian invasion Canadians are called upon to be Good Samaritans in providing support, including food aid. I can use that term "good Samaritan" with a fair assumption that you'll know what it means, whatever your background. In Luke's gospel Jesus tells a parable of a man beset by robbers and left by the side of the road. Devout religious people pass him by but a Samaritan, someone from a group considered suspect in much of Jewish culture of the time,  responds to the injured man's plight, providing for his needs. 

                                                         The Good Samaritan -- Vincent van Gogh 

Today there are Samaritan aid ministries and co-called Good Samaritan laws regarding providing assistance in emergencies. For some there may be an understanding of what Samaritan laws entail without knowing about the gospel parable. And the majority of people wouldn't realize that there are still Samaritan people in the Middle East who have their own cultural and religious customs, although their numbers are dwindling. 

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a brief review of The Samaritan Cookbook: A Culinary Odyssey from the Ancient Israelites to the Modern Mediterranean. Collected by Benyamim Tsedaka. The review didn't convince me that I should order a copy but it was a reminder that the stories of scripture including the parables of Jesus were not fairy tales or descriptions of a biblical theme park. The stories and metaphors Jesus employed gave people a window into God's new realm were often based on the experiences of everyday. 

                                                                           Samaritan Passover 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Sabbath-keeping & Turning Down the Racket


                                                         Prince Edward County February 25, 2022

We took advantage of a sunny morning this past week to drive to Prince Edward County, the peninsula just south of where we live which juts into Lake Ontario. Our destination was a long, sandy municipal beach which doesn't have many visitors at this time of year. It turned out that we were the only ones there, other than waterfowl, for the 90 minutes or so we ambled along. 

We found an old log sheltered by a dune and parked our old bones to share a thermos of tea and a snack. It was a rare day because there was no wind and with the total absence of human-made noise we could hear the chirping of a raft of long-tailed ducks and the Canada geese floating peacefully just offshore. We marvelled at the holy quiet of this place and gave thanks to the Creator, as we endeavour to do whenever we're outdoors. 

Yesterday I read an opinion piece by Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail newspaper called Turn down the racket, we’re trying to live here. Renzetti has lived in several large cities on both sides of the Pond and is aware of the attempts to reduce the ever-growing levels of noise, the "Unwanted Sound of Everything we Want" to once again invoke the title of a book by Garret Keizer. She mentions the incessant din of the recent occupation of Ottawa, a three-week nightmare which still haunts some residents with phantom noise. But she also notes that: 

The noise of an average city, while preferable to screeching air horns and bursts of fireworks, is still too loud for good health. Noise pollution is an invisible health hazard and easy to overlook, but in fact prolonged exposure to loud noise is associated with higher levels of heart disease and high blood pressure, impaired cognition and poor  mental health. Not to mention damaged hearing...

I would add my conviction that it contributes to a decline in spiritual health. When we are subjected to endless noise, including that created by "friendly" devises such as televisions and radios and podcasts our ability to listen for the loving, challenging voice of God is compromised. 

Through the years I have informally taken time in the silence closer to home, whenever possible, attempting to be attuned to the One who loves me. I have also travelled considerable distances for the same purpose, including a retreat cabin at the Anishnabe Jesuit Centre in Northern Ontario, the retreat house at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, a secluded house on an island off Newfoundland, and the silence house at the Taize Christian community in France. The list is actually lengthier! In some of these settings I didn't speak to another human for days and in all of them I felt greater spiritual clarity and calm. I realize that there is a certain privilege in being able to do so which I will never take for granted. 

                                         Casa del Sol Retreat House, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico 

What needs to take place in urban settings so that people and other creatures are not bombarded by noise? In many cities birds are singing louder to be heard above the street sounds.

 Renzetti shares that cities such as Toronto, London, Paris, and Berlin are instituting a combination of carrot and stick initiatives. Along with stricter noise bylaws and higher fines they are attempting to change the urban landscape to mitigate sound, everything from vehicle-free areas to tree-planting. 

Surely this is part of the commitment to observing the Sabbath, which is such an important biblical directive -- its a commandment, not a suggestion, and one of the lengthiest. I like the way Renzetti's piece concludes, so here it is: 

It was actually in Berlin where I learned the power of silence as a communal force for good. Germany has a long-standing tradition of Ruhezeit, “quiet time” or “quiet hours” that mandate when noise has to be kept to a minimum. Germans will tell newcomers about bylaws preventing car-washing or vacuuming on Sundays, sort of like telling terrifying fables to children to keep them in line. 

The reality is that you’re not likely to be arrested for mowing your lawn on a Sunday, but you might get a hairy eyeball from your neighbour. I once received a stern lecture from someone in another apartment after I’d put bottles in the communal recycling on a Sunday. It was verboten, even though I’d tried to do it as quietly as possible. I slunk back to my apartment and did not disturb the peace again. 

Germans are very good at recognizing the regenerative power of calm and quiet, not just for themselves but for their neighbourhoods and communities. Maybe the message is beginning to spread – quietly but far and wide.

I may have exclaimed "yes!" out loud when I read this because for years I've felt that intentional quiet hours in urban and suburban settings would benefit us all, whether we realized it or not. 

Can you, will you remember the Sabbath and keep it holy today? 

                                                       Change Islands, Newfoundland 

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Ukrainian Faith in the Face of Tyranny


In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame;
    in your righteousness deliver me.
 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.

 You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
    for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, or you are my refuge.
 Into your hand I commit my spirit; 

you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

Psalm 31:1-5

We are watching the terrible events of Russia's unprovoked and unwarranted military invasion of Ukraine, horrified by the deaths of innocent children, women and men, as well as those involved in combat on both sides. The courage of the Ukrainian people is remarkable and stands as a reminder that we can't take freedom for granted, nor invoke it as am excuse for selfish behaviour. 

As images emerge from different regions and cities of the country we see people sheltering in church basements praying, and a choir singing Christian hymns of praise in a subway station. The chief rabbi of Ukraine has invited Christians to repeat the words of Psalm 31 which includes the words "into your hand I commit my spirit", Jesus' cry from the cross. 

The dark side of religion in this invasion is the suggestion that it is supported by elements of the Russian Orthodox church as a perverse holy war, but this doesn't appear to reflect the views of the majority of Orthodox Russian Christians. 

Yesterday Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic communion took the unprecedented step of visiting the Russian embassy in Rome where he spent 40 minutes expressing humanitarian concerns.Later in the day Francis  telephoned Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of Ukraine's Eastern-rite Catholics who has vowed not to leave Kyiv and who has opened up his cathedral's basement as a bomb shelter.This solidarity and willingness to break from protocol are admirable. 

Once again, we must pray for the people of Ukraine, in their faith and resolve to remain independent. What is transpiring is evil and we can hope that God will be their rock and fortress.  

I should note that pastors and priests of different traditions are choosing to stay in the midst of danger to provide solace and shelter to their communities.Here is an excerpt from a prayer letter from Ukrainian seminary leader, Taras  Dyatlik: 

Please pray about Russian Christians that they would raise their prayers and voice toward Russian government to stop the aggression; [that they] would not keep silent; please pray for the Western governments, of the US and European Union.

Finally, please pray about Ukrainian Christians, that we will serve and live as the community of hope in a full sense of this term; that during these terrible times we would invite more and more people to the relationships with God and His children, to the relationships of love, hope, encouragement, support; that our minds and characters would continue to transform into the character of Jesus Christ.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Praying for Ukraine

                                                 Ukraine Kindergarten damaged by Russian shelling

O God, do not keep silence;
    do not hold your peace or be still, O God!
Even now your enemies are in tumult;
    those who hate you have raised their heads.
They lay crafty plans against your people;
    they consult together against those you protect.
They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation;
    let the name of Israel be remembered no more.”

                         Psalm 83:1-4

The civilized nations of the world are appalled by the brazen aggression of Vladimir Putin as Russia invades Ukraine. He has employed the tactics of a bully and a warmonger, bizarrely accusing the nation his attack force of 200,000 has invaded of aggression. No sensible person believes a word he utters, probably not even the average Russian. Putin wants to portray himself as a strongman restoring the glories of the Soviet Union and holds a deep grudge against countries which have pushed him to the margins of international coalitions because of other illegal actions. After the communist regime collapsed there was hope for "glasnost", a new transparency in government, along with democratic reforms and international cooperation. Putin has taken the country in a different direction and is a dictator by just about any measure.  

The members of the European Union and of NATO, including Canada, Britain, and the United States, have condemned this violation of international law and offered support to Ukraine. This involves sanctions against Russia and military aid, although no one is intimating "boots on the ground." 

The de Adder cartoon here suggests that these responses will mean little to Russia, that nothing will be effective. Yet what else can other nations do? The Americans are still a military superpower but a military response would surely lead to a horrific escalation. 

Reading John Dominic Crossan's book How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian has been a reminder that in every era of the Judeo/Christian scriptures people of faith lived within what he describes as the matrix, or matrices, of different empires, which rose and fell. The peasant Jesus and rabbi Paul were executed by the powerful Roman empire, yet that brutal and sophisticated regime eventually crumbled and disappeared. The bible acknowledges these regimes and their "might makes right" power while upholding the sovereignty of God who will prevail. 

What comes to mind as we see the grim footage from Ukraine is the book from 1992 entitled  The End of History and the Last Man. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that with the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy, post Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Untion (30 years ago) humanity has reached "not just ... the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Since the publication of that optimistic book we have seen the rise of both anti-democratic regimes with strongmen leaders around the globe. The former president of the United States, a tyrant and bully, has praised Putin's latest aggression. The spread of what is described as populism (a misnomer, it seems to me) is actually anti-democratic, and anti just about everything else except toxic nativism and self interest. It's enough to make us believe in original sin, the sin of violence. 

We must pray for the people of Ukraine, for their immediate safety and their independence. We can pray for world leaders as they make difficult decisions. We can pray that those of us in democracies are willing to make economic sacrifices in order for sanctions to have any impact. We can pray for Russians who have taken to the streets in opposition to the invasion. 

We can also pray for Ukrainian Canadians who feel this deeply. There are approximately 1.4 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent and many of their forbears came to this country as a result of a Russian reign of terror earlier in the 20th century. 

                            The Ukrainian Pioneer series -- William Kurelek (Ukrainian Canadian)

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Porter, Spirits & the Holy Spirit!

 We watched the first episode of the  new series from CBC television called The Porter and it was both entertaining and informative. It looks at the era of Canadian history, the Roaring 1920's,  when the porters on Canadian passenger trains were Black men. Their lives were challenging as they worked 72 hour shifts with no formal opportunity to sleep. Racism was a fact of life and many passengers addressed any porter as "George", a univeral moniker related to George Pullman who invented the sleeper car. 

The Porter series is unprecedented in that it had an all-Black writing team, features a Black cast, and had a predominately Black film crew. In John Doyle's enthusiastic Globe and Mail review he offers:

It is true that Canadian railway porters started the first Black labour union in North America, but that’s merely the launching pad for an emotionally dense roller coaster of a ride. The series touches on the impact of the First World War on Canada, from the individual experience of soldiers to the sense that Canada was emerging as a country. It’s also about the 1920s as an era of huge change; it’s a jazz-age drama that captures the ferocious, chaotic energy of the period. It’s about bootlegging, brothels and dancehalls.

 In this first episode the exuberance of a speak-easy dance floor is contrasted with the emotional expression of a church service which are taking place simultaneously. Spirits and the Holy Spirit at work!

 I wonder if there will be more in the series about the importance of the church in the lives of members of Black communities. Congregations were often the place where both skilled singing and instrumental prowess were encouraged and nurtured. The great jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, was the son of a porter with Canadian Pacific Railway. Daniel Peterson was a self-taught church organist and his children were required to learn piano and a brass instrument. He led a family band in concerts in churches and community halls. Oscar was already recognized as an accomplished pianist at age nine. 

We're looking forward to more episodes of the 8-part series which are on Monday evenings or streamed through GEM. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Challenge of Not-Hating Your Enemies

Concerning Retaliation 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;  and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;  and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Love for Enemies 

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...

                                                          Matthew 5: 38- 44 NRSV

 I'm currently leading a study group called How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian, using John Dominic Crossan book with that title as the foundation. There are 16 or 17 participants, about half in-person and half online, from several communities and congregations. This is one of the unexpected windfalls of the pandemic. 

Crossan speaks about the ebb and flow of distributive justice and retributive justice in the bible with his conviction that distributive justice is the primary theme and the foundation for divine love. I like this. 

He notes that the bible is forthright about violence and the tendency for human violence to escalate. He points out that the teaching in Leviticus that "Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered" is actually a practical caution against escalation. 

When we turn to the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount Jesus takes this is a radically different direction when he advocates a non-violent response to aggression, teaching that Mohandes Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. took to heart.

This morning I received an email notice of an hour-long interview on NPR with two Buddhists, Robert Thurman and Susan Salzburg, with the intriguing title Not-hating Your Enemies: a Practical Guide. I haven't listened yet but I am intrigued. As a teaser Thurman is quoted:

“Buddhism is engaged realism,” Bob says, before speaking about how hate will never overcome hate; only love will. He points us to a helpful first step. Maybe “love” is too hard, or unsafe. “Not-hate” might be an astute and helpful way of stepping outside the energy of enmity.

I would certainly suggest that Christianity is "engaged realism" if we take Jesus seriously -- sadly, we often don't. As Crossan notes, Jesus is easy to read and hard to follow.

We live in a time when polarization and indignation and even hatred seem to be on the rise, and those who purport to be Christians are often leading the way. I find it very unsettling that a brand of Christian extremism seemed to be part of the insurrection in Ottawa where so many were belligerent and aggressive in ways that had nothing to do with the gospel.

I found that my own indignation and anger was escalating and that love was not at the forefront of my visceral response. Maybe beginning with not-hate on the way to Christ's radical love is the beginning. Stepping outside the energy of enmity is wise and practical and so necessary, whether in individual relationships or on the world stage.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Human Trafficking & Our Awareness

 Yesterday I reflected on the insurrection in Ottawa and my own involvement in peaceful, lawful protests and marches through the decades. When we lived in Bowmanville. Ontario, Ruth, my wife, worked for a decade for a women's shelter and so each year was involved in the Take Back the Night walk/march through the community. 

The organization came from the shelter which is called Bethesda House (a biblical reference reflecting its origins) but there was strong support from the local RCMP detachment which was situated close to the 401 highway, a major artery which traverses Ontario. They were involved in monitoring the dark world of human trafficking, a scourge in our society. Communities along the 401, including our current home town, Belleville, are way stations for the trafficking of women in the sex trade. The reasons they become involved are complicated but the outcome is that these women, usually young, are caught in a web of control from which it is difficult to exit. Most years someone from the detachment would speak briefly. 

This is Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Canada and we need to remind ourselves of this reality which is hiding in plain sight. 

Before these Take Back the Night marches I would announce the date and time from the pulpit for a couple of weeks prior to the event. If my memory serves me correctly, only one congregant every joined us, even though it passed close by the church building and these were caring people who were strong supporters of Bethesda House in other ways. It is an "inconvenient truth" for so many of us, but we can be mindful today, wherever we may be. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Freedom of Conscience or Insurrection?


We spent a lot of time on Saturday watching the liberation of downtown Ottawa from insurrectionists who had occupied the streets, disrupting everyday life for thousands of residents. This may appear to be an overly strong description of the protestors on my part but it's difficult to view the actions of what became a belligerent, aggressive, and delusional mob in any other way.

I was impressed by the determined and non-violent approach taken by police who had been gathered from across Canada to enforce this evacuation. It's also impressive that this operation was fulfilled without serious injury or bloodshed as the encampments were dismantled. We're told that hundreds of charges were laid, arrests were made, and at least 75 vehicles were towed.

As I watched several things came to mind. First of all, I have been a protestor on several occasions through the years, involved in marches and rallies. When we lived in Halifax our family took part in two marches involving thousands of people who were opposed to the war in Iraq. We wanted to send a message to the Canadian government that we did not want our country to participate and that the United States was making a mistake in initiating what turned out to be a disastrous war. 

We have been involved in several other demonstrations as well, and I do recall a march in Barrie, Ontario, decades ago where son Isaac was young enough that he rode on my shoulders. 

We took part because we wanted to make a moral statement and we did so informed by our Christian conscience. In Halifax the United Church actually created banners identifying who we were and members from various congregations came together to walk behind them. This was our right as citizens of a democracy and in a way we were mixing religion and politics. 

In Ottawa there were lots of people who figured they were there because of their Christian convictions, although they were making a deal with the devil in my estimation. What began as a supposedly peaceful protest was almost immediately infiltrated by those who hold disturbing white supremacist views with some intimidating residents and business owners. It was shocking to see how aggressive some were with members of the media who continued their real-time reporting with courage and restraint. 

I also thought about Indigenous protests, including some which are ongoing, where police have used unwarranted force, pepper spraying those on site, and arresting media members unlawfully. The contrast with what unfolded in Ottawa is deeply unsettling. I didn't see a single BIPOC person amongst the mob in Ottawa and I have to wonder if this tempered the response of authorities. 

So much to ponder, and I'm sure we all will for a while. I've wondered whether displaying the Canadian flag and singing our national anthem will ever be the same for me again. I do know that as a Christian I won't  hesitate to join with others against injustice if the circumstances arise. 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Conclusion of the Games of Shame

Van der Poel told Sportbladet he had ‘a very nice experience behind the scenes’, but that the decision to give Beijing the Games was ‘terrible’. Photograph: Matsuo K/AFLO/REX/Shutterstock

 We'll be making the drive to Trenton in a couple of hours to congregate with others for worship, the first time, in-person, in two months. This will be our third resumption since the pandemic began, demonstrating the resilience of this gang. Let's pray that the stop-and-start is over.

Today is also the conclusion the Beijing Olympics where Canadian athletes did well, demonstrating remarkable resilience and focus given these were "COVID games." They were also aware of the restrictions on their speech given the controversy over these being the "Human Rights Olympics." 

You may have seen that a Swedish gold medallist in speed-skating, Nils ven der Poel, did speak out after his return home: 

“The Olympic Village was very nice, the Chinese people I met were absolutely amazing,” he said. “The Olympics is a lot, it’s a fantastic sporting event where you unite the world and nations meet. But so did Hitler before invading Poland, and so did Russia before invading Ukraine. 

“I think it is extremely irresponsible to give it to a country that violates human rights as blatantly as the Chinese regime is doing.”

I have written about the hypocrisy of the Canadian government in decrying human rights abuses in China, particularly the mass incarceration of the Uyghur people, yet participating in these Olympics.  Men, women and children have been enslaved in "education camps" working to produce goods for export. The Uyghurs are a Muslim ethnic minority, so this is also a religious freedom issue which should be of concern to people of all faiths. 

Irwin Cotler, a great Canadian in my estimation, is the  co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a former federal justice minister and a long-time parliamentarian. Yonah Diamond, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights’ legal counsel, made contributions. In a recent Globe and Mail opinion piece he has condemned what he terms the "Games of Shame" noting that he raised concerns about the last Olympics which also took place in China 14 years ago: 

In early 2001, as the member of Parliament for Mount Royal, I announced in the House of Commons a list of categories of human-rights violations that could serve to measure China’s international standing. On the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I released a report indicting China’s failure to meet those bars. I also warned that those Beijing Games risked turning into the “Genocide Olympics” following reports of China’s complicity in the Darfur genocide, as Sudan’s principal small-arms supplier.

I find this disheartening. Why does it take an athlete to remind us of our moral responsibilties? Yes, we should celebrate the athletic excellence of Canadian athletes in competition, but at any cost? 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

A Baptism Debacle


As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,

there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

 Galatians 3:27-28 NRSV

A few months ago I read about a Roman Catholic priest in Arizona who was in the doctrinal penalty box because he made a mistake in the wording for the baptismal formula which was noticed by the family of the candidate being baptized. Instead of saying "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit" he made the colossal error of saying "We baptize you...". This was not an act of rebellion on the part of the priest. To keep the metaphor going, this would be the equivalent of unintentionally firing the puck over the boards, resulting in a penalty.

Wait, there's more! The priest has now resigned from his duties and thousands of baptisms he conducted have been invalidated. And so are subsequent confirmations and marriages. This is astonishing, given that all these baptisms were done in the name of the Triune God. This is not just an expulsion from the game, every fan in the stands was kicked out as well (hey, I couldn't resist.)

Another priest commented that the Vatican was treating the traditional words of baptism like a computer password without which you can't get into the Church. Other "defenders of the faith" insist that these words are sacrosanct and must be precise. 

This is not the first time the issue of what will be said in accompaniment of the action of baptism has been addressed, although this just seems nuts (a theological term.) The United Church has wrestled with this over time, beginning in the mid-1970's, and thoughtfully it seems to me.

Ultimately the UCC came out of the church-wide discussion with this: 

One of the key elements in The Celebration of Baptism or The Renewal of Baptismal Faith is a declaration of faith made by the candidate or on their behalf.  The baptismal vows offered in this resource reflect an understanding of baptism as both a gift from God and call to Christian discipleship.  While the order and wording of the vows may vary according to context, it is important that they reflect the following core elements:

a. profession of faith in the triune God;

b. commitment to seek justice and resist evil;

c. commitment to follow the way of Jesus Christ;

d. commitment to the mission and ministry of the Church.

And this:

 In 2000 the Judicial Committee of the United Church ruled that “a Remit is required to alter the wording of the baptismal formula in The Basis of Union, section 2.16.1.” In keeping with this ruling, the following service uses the traditional Trinitarian formula in The Act of Baptism. In keeping with established General Council policy on just and inclusive language, it also provides for the optional use of a variety of Trinitarian blessings following Baptism in the Name of the Triune God.

Through the years I led discussions in congregations about baptism and while I was open to alternatives in language, if requested (that happened just once),  I used the traditional formula.

Honestly, I'm appalled by what's happened to the "heretic" priest and all those who were baptized by him through the years. Somehow this sacrament of God's grace and inclusion in the Body of Christ has been turned into this nightmare. For all my commitment to ecumenism, when I hear about this sort of hierarchical, patriarchal nonsense I'm so glad I'm not a Roman Catholic. 

Before conscious thought or action on our part,

   we are born into the brokenness of this world.

Before conscious thought or action on our part,

   we are surrounded by God’s redeeming love.

Baptism by water in the name of the Holy Trinity

   is the means by which we are received, at any age,

   into the covenanted community of the church.

   It is the ritual that signifies our rebirth in faith

   and cleansing by the power of God.

Baptism signifies the nurturing, sustaining,

   and transforming power of God’s love

   and our grateful response to that grace.

                          A Song of Faith -- UCC -- 2006

Friday, February 18, 2022

Hope in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS


                                                                    Keiskamma Altarpiece interior 

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?  Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.  And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.  And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

This week there is news that an African woman has been cured of the disease, AIDS, which has killed millions around the world with perhaps the heaviest impact in Africa. AIDS has become increasingly manageable since is was identified as what seemed to be an incurable, deadly plague in the 1980's, but this person is only the third to experience a cure. This development may eventually have huge implications for that continent and around the planet.

This news took me back years to an indelible moment in a place of Christian worship in Toronto. In August of 2006 a solemn and beautiful art installation called the Keiskamma Altarpiece was unveiled  at St. James Cathedral. It was and is huge,measuring 6.5 meters wide by 4 meters high. The labour of love and lament was created by over 120 women and men from the Eastern Cape of South Africa - one of the areas of Africa hardest hit by HIV/AIDS - a three part, beaded, quilted, and photographic homage to those they they have lost to the disease. 

In Africa tens of thousands of children were orphaned by AIDS and often ended up in the care of grandparents. The Stephen Lewis Foundation brought the altarpiece and scores of the grandmothers to Canada. We visited St. James one day while the altarpiece was on display and there was the sense of being in an art gallery or museum with a work that had great spiritual power.

Then the experience became much more intense. Three Black women were ushered into the sanctuary and when they walked up to the altarpiece they began to wail, holding their heads and rocking back and forth. The rest of us WASP folk were stunned by this outburst of emotion until we realized that two of them were African grandmothers. When they looked at the altarpiece it was their lives they saw, with all its pain. Then the third woman began to pray in a loud and heavily accented voice – it was so un-Anglican, or United Church for that matter! She prayed about the sorrow they had endured, and which was almost too much to bear. But then her prayer took a hopeful turn and she expressed confidence that Jesus would bring about a new day when the suffering and sorrow would be over. 

With this recent announcement we can remember those whose deaths will never be forgotten by those who loved them. We can receive it as an answer to prayer and as a reminder that the scourge of HIV/AIDS is still real. 

In 2006 I recounted the moving experience at St. James on the Sunday of Hope in the Advent season, not long after we had seen the altarpiece.The passage from Thessalonians was a lectionary reading that Sunday. We can still seek a return to joy and hope. 

Can developers in the Big Smoke be part of the vision for a new heaven and a new earth? My Groundling blog today.

                                                                   Keisamma Altarpiece closed

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Protests & the God of Love and Life

A counter-protest in Ottawa on February 12, 2022.
Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle

 It appears that there is now resolve on the part of authorities in Ottawa to end the occupation in the core of Canada's capital. Over the past three weeks a mixed bag assembly of protesters has morphed into an intransigent and seemingly fanatical group which has entrenched itself at several locations. The goals of the participants are vague and varied and  delusional, based on bizarre notions of personal freedom. 

It's deeply disturbing that some of these protesters claim to be Christians. And appalling to learn that some conservative congregations in the Ottawa region have been contributing jerry cans of fuel used to keep trucks going. 

The United Church of Canada has responded to what is happening in Ottawa and in other locations across the country, aware that racism and xenophobia are also part of the toxic mix of discontent. Below are a a portion of a statement by the Anti-Racism Common Table and a prayer from our moderator, Richard Bott. 

It is as the Anti-Racism Common Table of The United Church of Canada that we write to you today, in the middle of one such manifestation with protests that claim to be anti-vaccine mandates taking place across the country.

The right to protest and voice objections are valued in every democratic society. As the Anti-Racism Common Table, we support the right to protest non-violently. We are also moved to express our deep concerns about the current “Freedom Convoys” and demonstrations occurring across the country.

We are concerned that these demonstrations have become places of hate and oppression. We do not support the use of symbols of hate such as swastikas and the Confederate flag; the appropriation of Indigenous cultures, ceremony, and symbols such as the Every Child Matters flag; and the use of racist, ableist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and anti-immigrant language and threats. We have seen this not just at the protests themselves, but also on social media in support of them. Our commitment to becoming an anti-racist, intercultural, and reconciling church requires that we name this clearly.

God of Love and Life,

today I saw banners of hate
lifted to the sky
in a place that is dear to my heart.

The battle flags of a failed nation-state,
confederated for the continued enslavement
of Black people;
the swastika of another failed nation-state,
whose core principles brought forth
the Shoah—
the systematic murder of
over 6 million Jews
and a eugenic platform to eradicate
anyone who did not fit
its image of perfection—
flew in the midst
of a protesting crowd
of Canadians.

Protest I understand,
even if I feel the reasons are misguided,
and wrong.

But those symbols of
White Supremacy,
representations of a desire
to enslave and eradicate—
those flags of hatred's horror—
they should never be flown
in a way that honours them
and the principles for which they stand.

God, help us
to put those symbols in the places
that will make us remember
what they represent, with horror and grief,
and fight against them
ever being raised up
as possibilities for the future.

God, help us
to challenge the unthinking hatred,
the fear and the greed that give it power,
the anti-Semitic hatred,
the idea that "White is Right."

God help us.
Because we can't seem to do it
on our own.


Moderator Richard Bott

Why does it seem that there is so little concern for the wellbeing of children who have forced to take part in the Ottawa insurrection? Some thoughts in my Groundling blog today

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Skiing, Skating, & Sliding the Race...of Faith?


                               Canadian Max Parrott, gold medal snowboarder who overcame cancer

 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 

Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

We are active outdoor people but our primary morning event these days is getting the coffee percolator going before checking in on the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. This morning we chatted about the number of events including the short track skating we were watching, skeleton, snowboarding, and skeleton which didn't exist decades ago when we first became aware of the Olympics. Not only do these disciplines require ming-boggling athletic skill, the descriptive language for some of the sports is essentially "speaking in tongues" for the uninitiated. 

As is almost always the case with these competitions, there are "sure thing" athletes who are inexplicably not at their best in the big moment or who crash as they push for that tiny edge over the best in the world. Some are just too "old" (thirties!) to attain their previous excellence. It's hard to imagine the disappointment. 

Then there are the upstarts who surprise everyone to get on the podium. Others overcome tremendous adversity, everything from broken bones and torn ligaments to cancer in order to regain Olympic form. All of them are exceptional and despite the commercialization of the games and the political intrigue they deserve our admiration.

Once again I think about the apostle Paul and his use of the metaphor of running the race of faith. Paul certainly upheld the grace of God, the free gift of love and salvation in Christ. Yet he also understood perserverence and the importance of striving toward our own PB, the personal best of the faithful Christian life. Paul was a Roman citizen so he probably witnessed athletic competitions and understood that excelling in a race is more than vanquishing the other participants. In faith, as in other aspects of life, we endeavour to do our best for ourselves, for others, and for God. 

                                                                                Eric Liddell 

I also recall the story of Eric Liddell, the Scottish athlete of another era who famously refused to run on a Sunday because of his Christian convictions but won gold in another race which wasn't his discipline. In the film, Chariots of Fire, Liddell, who eventually became a missionary in China,  reads from the book of Isaiah to emphasize the strength which God gives for the race. 

Well, we will head out for a ramble today and maybe I'll hum the theme for Chariots of Fire along the way. While we may eventually check our step count we won't be worrying about any speed records! We'll just do our best not to fall down given that we don't bounce the way we once did.

29 [God] gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40: 29-31

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Practicing Gratitude in Tough Times


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing

give thanks in all circumstances;

for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 

                    1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NRSV

I find it hard not to be testy these days. There are people in this country, some of them claiming to be Christians getting their direction straight from God, who feel that they have a right to disrupt the lives of the rest of us Canadians by invading Ottawa and blocking border crossings. Their perverse notions of freedom are, in fact, immaturity and selfishness of the highest order. All this while the majority of us have often made choices for the common good.Grrrr...

Enter a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, of all sources, on the importance of gratitude, and the common thread in a column with this header:

Is the Secret to Happiness Having a Gratitude Practice? Even spending just a few minutes a day practicing gratitude can facilitate better sleep and lower blood pressure, according to research. How to get in on the healthy, easy wellness routine.

The author, Lane Florsheim, notes that the My Monday Morning column has a "common unifer" in a practice of the rich and famous who share their habits: 

Before author Stephen King gets out of bed in the morning, he runs through a mental inventory of the things he’s grateful for. So does actor Tracee Ellis Ross. Musician and director Questlove writes a 15-item gratitude list every Sunday. Nike CEO John Donahoe spends time meditating n questions like, “What am I grateful for in the broad sense of my life? What am I grateful for in the previous day?” Actor Kate Hudson restarted her gratitude journaling after a reflective Thanksgiving car ride. Model Bella Hadid likes listening to a daily gratitude meditation every morning.

The cynical amongst us might feel that its easy to be grateful when you are rich, or famous, or beautiful, or any combination of these. The reality is that these celebs are often selfish, entitled and profoundly unhappy. Engaging in these gratitude practices makes a lot of sense. 

In what is probably the apostle Paul's first general letter he encourages an "attitude of gratitude" in all circumstances. He certainly lived this despite privation and physical threat. In some respects the letters which became part of our Christian New Testament have elements of the gratitude journal about them. 

In my personal journal I try to express thanks regularly, even during the tough times. When we walk/cycle/paddle/ski in nature we often stop to give thanks for the beauty of Creation. 

So, being an old white guy may be my lot in life, but I don't have to be a grumpy old white guy. Ruth would probably say "amen" to that.