Monday, January 22, 2018

The Gap Between Rich and Poor

Image result for garment workers in bangladesh

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
    who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
    The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
    even the last of you with fishhooks.
Through breaches in the wall you shall leave,
    each one straight ahead;
    and you shall be flung out into Harmon,
says the Lord...  Amos 4:1-3

Leaders from many countries have gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Summit. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be there, apparently ready to declare that Canada is "open for business." This forum recognizes that there really is a global economy and issues such as technology and the health sector and environment will all be part of the discussion.

This summit coincides with the release of an Oxfam report on the growing gap between rich and poor in the world. As part of the press release we read:

Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity, according to a new report published by Oxfam today to mark the annual meeting of political and business leaders in Davos.
Oxfam’s report, ‘An economy for the 99 percent’, shows that the gap between rich and poor is far greater than had been feared. It details how big business and the super-rich are fuelling the inequality crisis by dodging taxes, driving down wages and using their power to influence politics. It calls for a fundamental change in the way we manage our economies so that they work for all people, and not just a fortunate few
82% of the wealth created last year went to the richest 1%, while the poorest half of humanity got nothing.

I heard a representative from Oxfam today who also noted that the owners of some textile companies will make more in a few days than one of their workers will make in a lifetime.

While some of these eight billionaires including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are committed to giving away much of their wealth to benefit those at the lower end of the economic scale these facts are still sobering.

Image result for oxfam report

While we consider this in terms of the global economy the gap between rich and poor and the inequalities which go with it are not new. The prophet Amos lived in the 8th century BC and his hard-hitting message wasn't popular then and still isn't . Calling the rich and powerful to have a conscience, to prosper ethically and with regard for the wellbeing of others, is never going to sit easily with some. Jesus tossed a few "woes" toward the rich in Luke's version of the Beatitudes and warned against wealth without responsibility. Actually, all the major religions address these concerns.

I have no problem with Canada being part of a global economy. I do hope that we are part of a global discussion on what a fair and equitable economy for all can be.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Stigma and Acceptance

Justice Gerald Le Dain in his robes

Over the years I've blogged on a number of occasions about mental illness and mental health. It exists in our society and while we are doing better at addressing both the health challenge and the stigma we are still lurching along toward greater understanding and compassion. There are initiatives such as the Bell Let's Talk program featuring high profile Canadians yet we heard not long ago that there are Bell employees who feel that they are under such pressure to sell products that they've had to go on stress leave with little sympathy or support. Mental illness affects people regardless of intelligence or social status or financial resources.

Recently the CBC radio program The Sunday Edition did a feature on Gerald Le Dain, the late Supreme Court justice. Le Dain was highly respected for his leadership and judgments. He headed up a comprehensive Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the early 1970s. It recommended the decriminalization of marijuana and addressing addiction as a form of illness rather than a crime. While the report was largely ignored then we can see now that it was ahead of its time.

Unfortunately Le Dain struggled under the weight of his workload. He was anxious and didn't sleep and was diagnosed with depression. His wife, Cynthia, was concerned that he was headed for a breakdown so asked Chief Justice Brian Dickson is he could have some time off. But instead of compassion, within two weeks an officer of the court was sent to Le Dain's home to formalize his exit from the Supreme Court. This heartless response only deepened Le Dain's depression and he never worked again. It took thirty years for his family to reveal what had transpired, and it is a sad story.

During my years of ministry I had countless conversations with members of congregations about mental illness in its various forms. In the majority of instances the individuals and families anticipated confidentiality because of the stigma and social repercussions related to mental illness. Some feared the consequences in terms of work. Sadly, some felt that the last people they wanted to know about their circumstances were others in what we might describe as the church family.

We can choose to be compassionate and supportive rather than judgmental or even silent within congregations. We can continue to speak publicly about the broader issues and pray for those whose deepest desire is to return to health. In scripture we are aware of the Christ who heals those who are troubled in spirit as well as body and we can follow his example in a variety of ways.


Friday, January 19, 2018


Image result for hot meal program

I met a guy in the library this morning who is a regular guest of the Bridge St. United Church meal ministries. Before he found work again he gave as well as received, helping in the kitchen almost daily. He became a member of the congregation eventually, and we were able to provide solace and support when he went through the loss of a loved one. Last evening was the first of 42 consecutive evenings of hot, sit-down meals at the church called Inn from the Cold, a ministry which has existed for years and involves more than 150 volunteers. He told me he sat with friends and he would probably be there again today.

I'm quite content with retirement but I do miss this aspect of my ministry at Bridge St. Ruth and I came to know a number of the regular guests. We sat with them and listened to their stories and laughed with them. Oh yes, we ate with them.

I also miss the eclectic cadre of volunteers. While a fair number are from the congregation, at least two-thirds are from the wider community -- other congregations as well as those who see service to others as an essential part of a meaningful life. The teams of meal preparers eat together at midday after fulfilling their tasks and I enjoyed getting to know them. Their commitment through snowstorms and tough life circumstances is remarkable. One woman who hands out frozen meals for Thank God Its Friday (another meal distribution) was back on the job ten days after her husband's death. She wanted to provide continuity to the recipients and she felt it would help her through the grief.

Most of us realize that meal programs and food banks are not solutions to the systemic realities of poverty. But as one involved person opined, it would be wonderful if it was no longer necessary for our guests to attend the meals for physical sustenance, yet still came for the opportunities for community and mutual care.

God be with all those who find their way to Bridge St5. for sustenance and nourishment for body and spirit. God be with those who've chosen this important form of service. Whatever their reasons for contributing, these are ministries in Christ's name.

Thursday, January 18, 2018


Image result for lonely

One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do
Two can be as bad as one
It's the loneliest number since the number one
No is the saddest experience you'll ever know
Yes, it's the saddest experience you'll ever know
Cause one is the loneliest number that you'll ever do
One is the loneliest number, whoa-oh, worse than two
It's just no good anymore since you went away
Now I spend my time just making rhymes of yesterday...

Not exactly great poetry, and if you know the source of these lyrics you're as much a geezer as I am. The band was Three Dog Night, although Harry Nilsson wrote the song, and the year was?...1968 -- 50 years ago!
Move along, nothing to see here, although loneliness is profoundly sad for those who feel bereft of friendship and love. It can lead people to despair and even to self-harm.
Yesterday the British government announced a new position and appointment, Minister for Loneliness. No, this is not the realization that Britain made a terrible mistake leaving the European Union. It is a recognition that up to nine million Britons deal with social isolation. In the announcement people were reminded that severe loneliness can be the equivalent of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, can increase the probability of heart disease, and can result in depression and anxiety. The British parliament actually commissioned a report on loneliness and this initiative will fittingly bring together representatives from all parties to address the problem.
My first reaction was that this is rather odd, and then I thought "why not?" It is ironic that in the time of social media "connection" there are so many people who are socially isolated. God knows how many individuals who commit extreme acts are living in their isolated silos of hatred and alienation.
There are studies which suggest that those who stay connected with others through the years, including involvement in faith communities are less lonely and live longer. Yet we are aware that there is decreasing involvement in clubs and service groups and churches. I certainly saw how important it was for people to get out to Sunday worship even when they were barely able to walk. Actually, son Isaac will have the funeral this week for an elderly woman who was in our row in her wheelchair on his first Sunday recently. I admire those  who get their partners with dementia out to church, aware that the social interaction is important, even when memory is failing.
I suppose that I was a minister for loneliness for several decades, at least as part of my calling. Loneliness and aloneness are not the same.  Still, what a reminder that we all need community, even though we may be comfortable with our own company.
What do you think of this British initiative? Have you found community through your faith? Is one the loneliest number?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Justice for All?

Image result for bad feminist margaret atwood

I considered law as a vocation in my teens before experiencing a call to ministry. While I didn't become a lawyer I was asked to be a judge on behalf of the wider church on two occasions. The first was what is called a Formal Hearing in the United Church, this for a male candidate for ministry who was accused by a female teen of conversation of a sexual nature as he drove her home in his vehicle. This was a serious matter and the accused had a lawyer, as did the panel I chaired, and one of the panel members was a lawyer. Before we began the laborious process our lawyer advised us that from a legal standpoint there was little hope of a "conviction" (not a United Church term.)

In the second instance, twenty or more years later, I chaired the review of a minister who was accused of having inappropriate relationships with several women. We pored over correspondence from a number of colleagues who were deeply concerned about his lack of boundaries.

In both circumstances I had deep misgivings about the moral character of the accused individuals, as did all of the other panelists. I did not doubt that what the teen claimed had happened did occur. Yet there was no substantive evidence beyond the word of a teen who wouldn't testify in the first situation, and the letters of concern in the other. Both of the accused walked away with reprimands, with a probationary period for one of them. We followed due process even though it was not pleasant to do so. The outcome still troubles me, yet the process was important.

I thought about this today as I read about the loud and angry response to a Margaret Atwood opinion piece in the Globe and Mail on Saturday called Am I a Bad Feminist? Of course Atwood has been an impressive feminist for decades and her books The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace have been adapted to the screen in the past year as compelling statements about the subjugation of women and the punishment of strong women.

In her Globe essay Atwood  expresses concerns about what someone else has called "execution, then trial" as a tsunami of denunciations of abusive and exploitive men sweeps across the planet. This movement which includes #metoo is absolutely necessary and we should all uphold those women who've had the courage to step out of the shadows of sexual assault and manipulation. Yet there are concerns that all situations are being conflated as essentially the same, and once the accusations are made the damnation is indelible regardless of the severity of the circumstance. Atwood says this:

What would a Good Feminist look like, in the eyes of my accusers?
Furthermore, I believe that in order to have civil and human rights for women there have to be civil and human rights, period, including the right to fundamental justice, just as for women to have the vote, there has to be a vote. Do Good Feminists believe that only women should have such rights? Surely not. That would be to flip the coin on the old state of affairs in which only men had such rights.
Honestly, could this be said any better, and isn't it important that wise voices are raised in this tumultuous time, even when we disagree ?
We can pray that women who have been silenced will step forward and be heard, that our judicial system will change and justice done. Still, silencing some for any cause will serve no good purpose, or so it seems to me.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Michael Bryant, former attorney general of Ontario

Michael Bryant stands in the doorway of Sanctuary Ministries
Metro Morning, the CBC radio program out of Toronto has used the "new beginnings" theme of the New Year to offer a five-part interview series on the "do-overs" of a fairly diverse group of people. There is an Olympic athlete who has reinvented her life goals after illness ended her athletic aspirations. A husband and wife recalibrate their lives after twenty years of marriage when he reveals that he's gay.

I also appreciated the interview with Michael Bryant, once a rising political star in Ontario, youngest Attorney General in the province's history and seen by some as future candidate for premier. He'd left office and returned to the practice of law when a 2009 traffic incident in Toronto dramatically changed the direction of his life. Driving in the city he had an encounter with an angry cyclist. When Bryant attempted to drive away the cyclist fell and subsequently died. Bryant was charged but those charges were eventually dropped, although not without controversy. Some claimed it was because of his profile and influence but the cyclist had a history of such encounters.

All of this took a tremendous toll on Michael Bryant. His marriage ended and he searched for meaning. He began volunteering at a Christian ministry called Sanctuary which supports street people and others on the margins of society. It turned out that the cyclist who died had spent time there and had friends there.  

The experience was profound for Bryant and even though he'd grown up "generically Protestant" and wasn't a churchgoer he began to consider ministry as a vocation. The Sanctuary folk wisely encouraged him to use his skills as a lawyer on behalf of those who often can't afford legal representation. He discovered that the law is not equal or fair and the legal system often wears down those who are poorly represented to the point that they make poor choices in pleas.

I found this interview inspiring and I was convinced by his sincerity about a changed way of seeing the world. I was a little surprised by some of the snarky responses of other listeners who were dubious about his change of heart. You can decide.

Christianity is a do-over religion, a faith predicated on forgiveness through the grace of Christ. It puts us on the same playing field whether we are "high and mighty" or perceived as lowly in our society. I'm hoping that Michael Bryant will hold on to his changed perspective for a lifetime.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Martin and Malcolm. What if?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018

MLK. It is remarkable that even though the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an American from another era people around the world, including Canada, can immediately make the connection with those initials. Today is a holiday in the United States, one which came into being in the Reagan era of the 80's to acknowledge the importance of Dr. King to the Civil Rights movement despite his untimely death. King had an extraordinary commitment to nonviolent change and was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Peace during his lifetime. Just the same he was physically attacked, jailed, undermined by the FBI, and eventually shot and killed at the age of 39. He left behind his wife Coretta and their young children.

Image result for martin luther king arrested

There are many "what if's" related to King because of his untimely death. Would he have become an elder statesman of the movement toward equality? King was increasingly vocal about the war in Vietnam around the time of his death. Where would that have taken him?

King was also in preliminary conversations with Malcolm X, another charismatic black leader whose trajectory  for change was very different. Malcolm X aligned himself with the Nation of Islam for years and distanced himself from the "slave religion" of Christianity. He eventually left the Nation of Islam but remained dubious, to say the least, about the nonviolent approach of King's movement. King was open in stating that he did not share Malcolm's militant values, even though he didn't see him as an adversary. Malcolm X taunted King on occasion, calling him a 20th century Uncle Tom, a stinging criticism. They met once, unplanned, and for a total of about a minute, crossing paths at a Senate hearing on the Civil Rights Act

Not long after this chance encounter Malcolm X wrote to King seeking a meeting, opening the letter with the formal greeting “Dear Sir”:
“The present racial crisis in this country carries within it powerful destructive ingredients that may soon erupt into an uncontrollable explosion.The seriousness of this situation demands that immediate steps must be taken to solve this crucial problem, by those who have genuine concern before the racial powder keg explodes. A United Front involving all Negro factions, elements and their leaders is absolutely necessary.”
The meeting never occurred and Malcolm was critical of the subsequent March on Washington pictured above in today's Google Doodle, a remarkable gathering of a quarter million during which King offered his famous I Have a Dream speech. Malcolm X was murdered in 1965, three years before King.
What might have unfolded if the men had met and come to some sort of understanding? What if both had lived to provide leadership through subsequent decades?