Monday, December 11, 2017

The Grammar of Animacy

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This morning I dropped Ruth off at work before 8, then proceeded to a stretch of unmaintained rough road through an expansive marsh in Prince Edward County. It is only a few minutes away from downtown Belleville yet I nearly always alone there. I love the big sky, water, and solitude.

Alone? That's not true, unless I'm referring to humans. In the warmer months the area is teeming with bird life. Even at this time of year there are creatures to behold. As I came to Sawguin Creek on foot I could see the head of a muskrat peering at me through a hole in the newly formed ice, only to disappear, and then reappear a few minutes later. As I left I saw a Northern Harrier, aptly nicknamed the marsh hawk, patrolling for breakfast. I regularly see deer in the same area, as well as the tracks of coyotes.

I find comfort in the realization that I'm in the midst of a "cloud of witnesses" as I walk. I am enjoying my retirement rambles and find that my deepest communion with God these days is as I walk, either on my own or in Ruth's company. She too can walk in the silence without any sense of discomfort or awkwardness about the lack of speech. Again, I think of Robin Wall Kimmerer and her book Braiding Sweetgrass. In it she encourages humans to "learn the grammar of animacy" (a chapter title.) Kimmerer says that when we listen in wild places we are audience to conversations in a language not our own and we must learn to speak that language. She is a scientist and she is Potawatomi, so she speaks the language of a biologist and is slowly learning the language of her heritage which is more attuned to the cadences of wild places.

In the cattail domain of Marsh Rd. other languages are spoken by creatures that are not "its" but "thous." I want to respect them as God's creation, not as disposable because they're not human, or as a backdrop to my experience. I have a deepening conviction that until we figure this out we will never have the will to care for our planet in any effective way, and time's a wastin'.


Thursday, December 07, 2017

Jerusalem Folly

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I have visited the ancient and modern city of Jerusalem several times, although it has been more than twenty years since I was there last. It is a remarkable place where government and commerce help drive the economy of the nation of Israel. At the same time there are constant archeological discoveries from the distant past across a range of cultures. Each visit revealed new treasures. On my last visit we were able to walk up limestone steps to the temple mount which Jesus and his disciples had climbed 2,000 years before. On prior trips those steps were buried by centuries of rubble.

Jerusalem is a contentious city, a hotbed of strife, in part because of its importance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are constant squabbles over which religions and denominations have control of certain areas of spiritual significance. Control of Jerusalem is also the open wound of tensions between the Israeli government and Palestinians. There are many excellent books on the topic of the political significance of Jerusalem, but a very accessible approach can be found in Guy Delisle's thoughtful, first-person graphic novel entitled Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City.

Because of the political sensitivity virtually all nations have their embassies in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem, even though the Holy City is home to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The United States has been among those countries until yesterday when the Blunderer in Chief, Donald Trump, announced a shift of the embassy to Jerusalem. He has flouted the diplomatic wisdom of decades, as well as the counsel of top advisors.

Why would he do this, sane people might wonder? His "base." For reasons God, or perhaps Satan only knows Trump has developed a diabolically loyal following amongst fundamentalist Christians. They have a bizarre conviction that establishing Jerusalem as the centre of power in a restored Israel is essential to the master plan of Christ's return. Some of them believe that there will be a final apocalyptic battle of global proportions before a "beam me up" rapture of the faithful.

While this may sound crazy, there are members of our families who are convinced that this is true, as are millions of American Christians. They are reveling in this announcement and they're convinced that Trump is God's agent in the fulfillment of scriptural promises. Of course serious biblical scholars insist that this is gross misinterpretation of scripture and point out that the word "rapture" can be found nowhere in the New Testament. We are learning though that this is a "don't confuse me with the facts" approach to faith, and Trump has fed into it.

Violent protests have broken out in Bethlehem (pictured) today after US President Donald Trump enraged the Middle East by recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital

As tensions and protests rise we must pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as Jesus asked us to do. Already there been violent confrontations in Bethlehem with tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers beneath the Christmas lights.

We can also pray that the United States will miraculously be given a real president.


Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Who Writes History?

Lisa Nasson (left); Troy Adams; Mauralea Austin (right)

This morning a memorial service in Halifax's Needham Park will mark the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion. It was 1917 and World War I, so Halifax Harbour and the Bedford Basin were filled with war and supply ships from a number of nations. Two of those ships collided, one filled with munitions. The resulting explosion tore apart the north end of Halifax, killing more than 2,000 people almost instantly, and injuring thousands more. The shattered glass of imploding residential windows blinded many who were watching the burning ships and even today arborists are careful about taking down older trees because some have hundreds of metal shards imbedded in them. To make matters worse, response efforts were hampered by a blizzard the next day which dropped 40 centimetres of snow on the area.

I ministered in a congregation in downtown Halifax nearly twenty years ago and I had several elderly parishioners who could remember the explosion vividly, even though they were children at the time. I wish I'd taken time to write down their recollections.

Canadian readers will likely know the dramatic Heritage Minute which tells the story of Vince Coleman, a telegraph dispatcher who heroically warns an approaching train of the impending disaster. Watch it and you'll see that there isn't a single person of colour depicted on the streets of the city.

Yet we are aware now that a number of black people died in what was known as Africville, a community which was eventually bulldozed by the government in the 1960's. There was also a Mi'kmaq aboriginal settlement where an unknown number died with even less recognition. There is also historical evidence that recovery payments to people of colour were consistently denied or at least 20% less than to white people making claims.

There is currently a play in Halifax exploring the experiences of those affected by the disaster, including African Canadians and Mi'kmaq. (image above) Still, there isn't much which recognizes this component of the story, including in the current museum exhibit about the explosion. I confess that even though I took a strong interest in Africville while we lived in Halifax it didn't occur to me that the community was close at hand to the explosion site. This is another reminder that history is written by the dominant culture, often without much thought to those who are most vulnerable.


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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Getting By

When director Ken Loach's film I, Daniel Blake was in Belleville as part of the Quinte Film Alternative we missed it, much to my chagrin. It won the Cannes Palme D'Or and received exceptional reviews. Enter Netflix, the fount of second chances for films and TV series.

We watched it last night and both of us found it very moving. Daniel Blake is a joiner (carpenter) who has paid his way his whole life. When his wife is gravely ill he nurses her until her death. When he has a heart attack he finds himself drawn into the maw of the British social service system. His GP and specialist won't clear him to return to work, but a "health care professional" who has assessed him without actually meeting him turns him down for unemployment benefits because he hasn't been seeking work.  When he attempts an appeal he's told he must do so by filling out a complicated form online, even though he knows nothing about computers. In nearly every respect the system is impersonal and Daniel can't understand why staff sitting across a desk from him keep referring him to resources and procedures on the internet.

Along the way we meet others who are struggling to make ends meet in the same maze of bureaucracy which seemed designed to push people down rather than lift them up. Daniel supports a young single mother who is trying her best to provide a stable life for her two kids. Strangers at a centre for those filling out the interminable forms respond to him with kindness and patience. We get a sense of the underworld of society where the poor and unlucky disappear under the weight of just getting by. The title of the film comes from Daniel's eventual act of defiance which results in an arrest.

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I don't want to spoil your viewing experience, so you might choose to stop reading now!

Here is the statement which Daniel writes in pencil for his examiners, which sadly ends up being read at his funeral by the young mom. When I heard it I thought of all the stories I've heard through the years from those whose injury, or addiction, or declining health both physical and mental led them to seek out assistance and understanding. Ruth worked as a counselor in a shelter for women and children leaving abusive relationships and heard similar stories of both courage and desperation. As a Christian pastor I wasn't always patient or kind enough, and at times by busyness and middle class sensibilities impeded me from truly seeing and hearing folk. The film is so honest and touching.

‘I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar nor a thief.
I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen. I paid my dues, never a penny short, and was proud to do so.
I don’t tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye. I don’t accept or seek charity.
My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog. As such I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect.
I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you.’

When the film opened these words were projected on the British Houses of Parliament. Wow.

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Monday, December 04, 2017

Hope for the Homeless

The Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness is demanding that the city declare an emergency and open 400 more shelter beds. 'It's up to you, Mayor Tory. Stop. These. Homeless. Deaths. Now,' said Rafi Aaron, as he stood at the podium.

Last week a group of faith leaders in Toronto called upon the municipal government to create more emergency shelter beds for the homeless and indigent in the city. There are an estimated 5,000 homeless people in Toronto, 500 of them "sleep rough" every night, and as many as 100 die each year.

The coalition asked for 400 more supported beds and Mayor John Tory countered with committing to 400 more spaces for the homeless. While this may sound as though the city has agreed to the request, there is a significant difference between established beds with support services such as showers and laundry, and the euphemistic "spaces." The latter often means cramming more people into already inadequate facilities. This over-crowding often results in people in need of shelter returning to the streets because of the tensions which result in untenable circumstances. The faith group has rejected Tory's proposal and continues to advocate for suitable and stable accommodation.

Addressing homelessness is tough. Who are the homeless?  Locally a study is happening under the auspices of Bridge St. United Church in Belleville, my former congregation. A working group to address who is homeless in this city of 50,000 was struck under the direction of the capable Steve Van de Hoef, the Food Ministries Coordinator at Bridge St. Steve readily concedes the challenge of identifying the homeless in this community.

There is no homeless shelter in the city, and I happened to be at Belleville City Council when another faith group presented plans for a shelter.The building had been secured and plans were underway for what would be called Grace Inn. On their website there is a heading Why Dignity? and these observations:

Homelessness is, among other things, a series of losses.  A loss of a home of course, but often also a loss of relationships, a loss of choices, a loss of safety, a loss of hope.   Grace Inn seeks to restore dignity to the difficult experience of homelessness, helping people to feel safe, valued, and empowered.

The plan was to have this shelter open in 2017 but the website now says 2018. The balancing act of funding, permits, and staffing is always a challenging one and housing the homeless just isn't as attractive as other causes.

It may be a cliché to remind ourselves that pregnant Mary and Joseph were without adequate shelter when Jesus came into this world 2,000 years ago, but Christmas in this country coincides with the time of year when the homeless most need these opportunities. God be with all those who endeavor to keep the invisible visible and respond to them with dignity and practical support. 


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Sunday, December 03, 2017

And So It Begins

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When I was a child in the 1950's and 60's there was no Advent. Well, there was no Advent season of the Christian year in the white bread, rather featureless Protestantism of Southern Ontario, There was no time of preparation for the coming of the Promised One, at least in my recollection. The liturgical year became part of my consciousness at seminary in the late 70's. During my years of ministry lots of people were bemused and even angry that we didn't get our Christmas on sufficiently during those Advent weeks.

There was certainly no Advent calendar in my childhood, the day by day reflection on the awakening to Christ's coming as an infant and the "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" of his second Advent. Our children did grow up with an Advent calendar, a wooden 3D version with compartments and flaps with little treats for each day. We did attempt to include Christ in our anticipation but the sweets made a bigger impression.

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I notice that now there are lots of Advent calendars although few of them have any religious content. Advent has become secularized and commercialized, the way Christmas has. I must admit that the wine and chocolate calendars are wildly appealing! It's hard to imagine that many of the people who have Advent calendars could describe what the word Advent means from a Christian context.

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This is a reality of our time, but it doesn't have to be define our preparation for the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. As artist, pastor, and poet Jan Richardson suggests, we can choose our Advent door.  
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Saturday, December 02, 2017

Advent Anticipation in the Great Out of Doors

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Anyone recall my blog entry from last year at this time about this Advent book by Gayle Boss with lovely illustrations by David Klein? Okay, just pretend you do.  All Creation Waits develops the theme that the Advent season, which begins the Christian year and ushers us toward the celebration of Christ's birth, is a time of expectant waiting. But it isn't just Christians or humans who participate in this quiet, powerful unfolding. All Creation yearns for the coming of the Christ.

What does it mean to be participants in a time of holy anticipation? How do we centre down and awaken to the possibilities of this season when secular culture almost demands that we be hurried and  harried consumers?

Today Ruth and I will participate in what is called a Guided Forest Therapy Walk. These walks are mindful sensory and connective experiences in nature conducted by a trained person in this particular program. Our walk guide will be Stana Luxford Oddie from the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority. Stanna was featured in a CBC news piece and I was intrigued by what she had to offer. I met with her a few weeks ago and enjoyed our conversation, so off we will go in multiple layers of clothing for a non-religious but contemplative walk in the woods with strangers. Here is part of the invitation and instruction for our guided walk: "To allow us to really immerse our senses in the forest we will move very slowly, if at all most of the time. In the 2.5 hours we will go less than 1 km and have many opportunities to sit and be still." 

I confess that this will be part Advent preparation, part curiosity fulfillment, part exploration of what might be applied to my hope of becoming something of a Pastor of Woods and Water in the days before me. I experience God profoundly in the natural world and after nearly four decades of leading worship inside a church structure I have a desire to be an "outsider." I'm confident that others are intrigued by this as well.

Does this stir your curiosity? Do you want me to report back, providing we don't perish on a lonely forest trail this afternoon? Here is the CBC article and another from the United Church Observer magazine. After I visited Stana I discovered that there was a piece there from this past summer! It is quite good, but I ain't climbing a tree.