Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Big Shift in Religion

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We saw the film The Big Sick recently and really enjoyed it. It is based on the real-life story of Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani and grad student Emily Gardner get together for a one-night stand but can't convince themselves to leave it at that, try as they might. They fall in love but struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail finds himself forced to face her feisty parents, and to challenge his family's expectations.

I liked this film even though in the first few minutes it resonated so strongly with the acclaimed Netflix series, Master of None.  It revolves around Dev Shah, an Indo-American actor, who along the way has a Caucasian girlfriend. Dev is played by Aziz Ansari who just won an Emmy with Lena Waithe for their script writing.

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In both the film and the series these young men deal with family expectations brought by their parents from their homelands. These include religion, which in both circumstances is Muslim. Both are expected to pray and both end up conceding that their religious observances aren't honest. They have been given the opportunity to flourish in the United States, but that includes the possibility that they will reject customs such as arranged marriage, avoiding alcohol, and regular prayer.

Of course this is the tension faced by many families in different religions, including Christianity. Lots of Millennials have chosen to walk away from church except for high holidays and "hatch, match, and dispatch" occasions. Not long ago evangelicals were somewhat smug about retaining their young people when mainliners had already slipped out the exits. Now their young people are exiting in growing numbers and this is true in both Canada and the United States.

I appreciate the honesty of The Big Sick and Master of None. I wish that congregations could have more realistic conversations about this societal shift, instead of acting as though there are some magic beans we can plant to grow a fresh crop of young'uns.

Have you watched either of these? Why are we so reluctant in families and faith communities to have conversations about a generational shift in religious beliefs?

The Pastor's Daughter

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Today Germans go to the polls and there is a strong possibility that Angela Merkel, the chancellor for the past twelve years will be re-elected. For a time this didn't seem possible because of the national grumpiness over the Christian Democrats' decision to allow upwards of a million migrants and refugees into the country over a relatively short period of time. Her party paid attention to the backlash and has developed more restrictive immigration policies, but it was an extraordinary response to a real and continuing crisis.

Angela Merkel has demonstrated a remarkably even leadership style which has made her arguably the most powerful woman in the world and someone with a moral compass which is woefully absent in the supposed role of leader of the free world to the south of us.

Some of this comes from her upbringing in a Christian family where her father was a pastor and seminary director, although he was emotionally and physically distant enough that she credits her mother as a strong early influence. They lived in what was East Germany until reunification in the early 90's and while her father became disaffected with communist rule he looked to the bible as source for his strong socialist convictions. He actually moved the family across the Iron Curtain with a mission to build a distinctly East German Protestantism but to separate state and church — rendering, as the scriptures taught, to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's. I encourage you to read this article from the Washington Post to gain insight into the roots of Merkel's social conscience.

We can all pray for the outcome of today's election, knowing that the anti-immigration right may get a foothold in Germany. We can ask God to bless Merkel who was born in 1954, the same year as me, and she ain't ready to retire?!

What do you think of Angela Merkel? Were you aware of her religious background? Are you hoping she will be re-elected?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Margaret Atwood, Religious Oracle?

Elizabeth Moss Margaret Atwood Handmaids Tale Emmy Win

It was impressive when the adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale won a bunch of Emmys at the television awards ceremony last weekend. And there was the Grande Dame of Canadian fiction, in the flesh, receiving a Standing O, no less. The world loved that she hauled her purse on stage to receive the award. She may be a rock star in the world of literature and television, but she is also a sensible Canadian senior!

You might think that Ms Atwood doesn't have much use for 'ligion, given the dystopian nature of The Handmaid's Tale. Actually, she has taken part in forums where she acknowledges the value of religion for positive change in the world, including on the environmental/Creation care front. In a United Church Observer piece a few years ago she describes, humorously, her insistence on going to a United Church Sunday School as a kid, and how she won an essay contest on temperance as a nine-year-old. We may have helped to nurture her literary greatness. In the article she ponders:

In fact, when one looks back in time, one realizes it is only very recently that religion — specifically the Christian religion — came unglued from nature and turned away from it. Many other religions never broke that bond. In the Qur’an, animals are to be respected and are credited with having societies equal to ours. Buddhists and Hindus, the Shinto of Japan and the Parsis of India all maintain quite strong links to the old ties. What happened in the West?

 She does have what has been described in The New Yorker as an "oracular sheen" regarding the perils of fundamentalist religion, of any stripe.

I'm retired now, so I've lost the opportunity to do a book study that could have included The Handmaid's Tale and After the Flood.  Ah well. I do have more time for personal reading these days.

Here are a couple more worthwhile interviews, including one with Atwood singing a hymn she wrote for one of her novels.

What are your observations on Dame Maggie of TO? Have you read or watched THT? Were you aware of her UCC roots?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Please Walk the Walk PM Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York Thursday, where he spoke about his government's efforts to reconcile with Canada's Indigenous people.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye,
but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother,

Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye;

and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.

Matthew 7:3-5 King James Version

After the president of the United States addressed the United Nations and threatened to retaliate against possible North Korean aggression by killing millions of innocent civilians the prime minister of Canada had nowhere to go but up when he spoke to the assembly yesterday.

Justin Trudeau addressed a number of issues including climate change, and global unity, but did so briefly compared to his focus on aboriginal issues in our country. While this is a Canadian issue and a national shame, he decided to acknowledge our failings in this international forum and promise to work toward positive change. Here is the Globe and Mail report on the speech:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used his address at the United Nations General Assembly to shine a light on a dark chapter of Canadian history: the story of Canada's Indigenous peoples and their challenging relationship with the government.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Mr. Trudeau described the struggles Canada's Indigenous peoples have faced since colonialism through today. He emphasized the government's responsibility to improve that relationship, saying the world has a similar duty to respond to global challenges.
"For First Nations, Metis Nation and Inuit peoples in Canada, those early colonial relationships were not about strength through diversity, or a celebration of differences," Mr. Trudeau told the UN.
"For Indigenous peoples in Canada, the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect, and abuse." Mr. Trudeau spoke about the lack of safe drinking and bathing water in Indigenous communities across Canada, pointing to the government's elimination of more than two-dozen boil-water advisories and its plans to end those that remain. He spoke about the youth suicide epidemics on some reserves. "There are Indigenous parents in Canada who say goodnight to their children, and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won't run away, or take their own lives in the night."
I am one Canadian who is pleased that Trudeau put this subject at the forefront of his speech. I'm also intrigued that his recent cabinet shuffle has assigned two capable ministers to the issues of indigenous peoples in this country.  I think this is an encouraging strategy. At the same time I'm concerned that there seems to be a lot of high-minded talk without substantive action halfway through the mandate of this Liberal government.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is a shambles, with key members quitting and frustration expressed by others in leadership. The families of those missing persons are frustrated that they aren't being consulted and the whole process seems to be teetering on collapse. Educational funding for First Nations children isn't being adequately addressed, nor is safe water supplies for reserves. It does appear that systemic racism toward Native people exists in police forces and in our justice system We need to hear more, but more importantly to see more from the feds.
Trudeau actually got King James biblical in the press conference following his speech. He said that Canada must acknowledge the beam in its own eye rather than pointing to the motes in the eyes of other nations. Perhaps as a self-proclaimed feminist he could have used a more inclusive version, but we get the point.
Thank you Prime Minister Trudeau for addressing this before the United Nations. As a Canadian citizen and as a member of a denomination, the United Church, which was sadly complicit in the destruction of First Nations culture, I want more. Please walk the walk as well as talking the talk. None of us should be hypocrites when it comes to equality for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Peace by Chocolate & Peter Munk

Peter Munk, with Mayor John Tory, donated $100 million to the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre on Tuesday.

Peter Munk

Peter Munk is a Canadian who made a fortune in gold mining and is now a philanthropist. This week he made the extraordinary donation of $100 million to a cancer centre in Toronto, a gift which will exceed the $75 million he has already contributed to this centre and other charitable organizations. Munk made a heartfelt speech at the presentation during which he thanked Canada for the welcome and opportunity provided to his family in the 1940's when they emigrated from Hungary:

 “When you thank me for what I’ve done for Toronto, and you thank me for what I can do for this community, it doesn’t begin to express my immense gratitude for what this country has done for me and my family.You opened the door. You gave us everything,”

Most of us aren't able to recall that some in Canada were reluctant to accept post WWII Hungarian immigrants, particularly in the 1950's because they were essentially political refugees, fleeing the Soviets after the 1956 revolt. What if they brought their conflict with them? I don't know why the Munk family left Hungary, but they have prospered here and given back.

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Hadhad family

In the past few days we've also been hearing again about a Syrian refugee family, the Hadhads, who have become established in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. They lost their home and their family business,a chocolate factory, was destroyed before they fled to a refugee camp and eventually to Canada. Their sponsoring community helped them to open a small chocolate shop and now they have expanded into new facilities, the reason for the renewed interest. They are now employing locals and hope to expand from ten to twenty workers.

They are bonafide taxpayers in Canada, and they made a contribution to the relief funds for those affected by the Fort McMurray fire last year. And they came up with a fabulous name for their enterprise, Peace by Chocolate!

I've mentioned that some of the families sponsored in our area have already established small businesses and a couple is selling up a storm at the Belleville Farmer's Market.

These are wonderful stories of the importance of immigrants to our economy, but also to how we create our national fabric. In a time when exclusive nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the world we can resist the fear of the stranger which is a blight in every generation. We can celebrate the gift of hospitality, which is an important part of many faith traditions, including Christianity.

A selection of the chocolates created at Peace by Chocolate

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Greater Love for All Creatures

Cutting free an entangled whale gave Joe Howlett a sense of exhilaration. 'He was really happy at his very last moment,' says a rescue team member who witnessed his death.

 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13 NRSV

Over the summer the reports about the discoveries of dead North Atlantic Right whales -- at least a dozen -- have been disturbing. There are only about 500 Right whales left, making them a far more endangered species than elephants and other large mammals. These whales are struck by passing ships or become entangled in fishing gear and drown.

Efforts to disentangle these rather inelegant yet magnificent creatures were halted when an experienced responder was killed inadvertently by a tail strike from a whale he had just freed. Canadian lobster fisherman Joe Howlett had worked closely with Department of Fisheries and Oceans in freeing entangled whales. He had just cut the second deadly line when the whale flipped it's tail to dive, killing him instantly. As a result, both the Canadian and American governments decided to ban rescues as too dangerous, which means that there may be more whale deaths.

Joe Howlett rescue

Howlett would likely have been dismayed to learn that his death would have a negative outcome for the cetaceans he worked to free. I certainly consider him a hero who died doing what he was passionate about, saving whales from the effects of human activity. 

When Jesus told his disciples that there is no greater love than giving up one's life for a friend he was aware of his own impending death on the cross but he was also speaking of the sacrificial love we demonstrate for others. Jesus doesn't define friendship and we can ask who are friends might be. While he was in conversation with followers who had spent the past three years with him, we appreciate that friendship isn't so narrowly defined. Individuals step forward give blood or to donate a kidney to save the life of a total stranger. Soldiers are injured or die in conflicts for the sake of others they don't know, as is the case with first responders.

Can we have interspecies "friends?" Is it appropriate to consider Jesus' words in terms of creatures other than humans? What about the notion of sacrificial love for critters?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Righteousness and Evil at the UN

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US president Donald Trump is consistent. He consistently demonstrates his incompetence and lack of fitness to govern his own nation and to act as a statesman in the international arena. Today he addressed the United Nations, an institution he has mocked in the past, and threatened to annihilate millions of innocent people. He was addressing the grave threat posed by Kim Jong Un and the North Korean regime, which now has the capability of deploying nuclear weapons. Yet rather that than taking the reasonable route of inviting an international response to the Korean dictator he promised to destroy 25 million people should weapons of mass destruction be used. With one hyperbolic sentence Trump proved he is no more to be trusted than unstable Kim.

Trump's speechwriter also put these words in the president's mouth "If the righteous many don’t confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph." This will undoubtedly play well with the religious right in America, the angry white folk who pay lip service to Jesus while adoring Trump's belligerence, xenophobia, and "us first" nationalism.

Of course, there is evil in this world, and as Christians we are expected to be discerning about the principalities and powers. But making brash statements claiming righteousness while threatening to unleash nuclear hell doesn't convince me of anything, other than that the president is a dangerous man.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Time to Go?

Little Bay Islands, Newfoundland and Labrador

The Saturday Globe and Mail included a lengthy article about what our probably the last days of a Newfoundland outport community called Little Bay Islands. There are only 38 aging year-round residents and 20 households left on what was once a thriving island community. In another day there were 600 residents and three churches. The fish plant has closed, there aren't enough children to sustain a school, and folk have to travel a couple of hours, including the ferry trip,  for medical care and groceries. The government is proposing a $250,000+ per household buy-out for residents so that it can end expensive services to a dying community, as is the case with other isolated locations. It's likely that a vote by residents will accept the offer. 

This piece touched us because we lived in outport Newfoundland at the beginning of my ministry. We were there as the cod fishery was failing. Today the five communities I served are struggling and two of the churches have closed. We went back this summer after I retired, a return to our ministry roots. We spent a month on Change Islands, not far from where we had lived, and where our son was born. Frederickton, on the map below, is one of the outports I served.

We love the wild beauty of Change Islands but there are only two hundred permanent residents left and people are aware that there isn't much of a future for the aging community they would be loathe to leave. The local librarian is mother of two of the ten school-age kids and she and her husband plan to leave for better employment and opportunities for their children. 

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It's crazy that there are still four churches on Change Islands (Anglican, United, Pentecostal, and Salvation Army) and all of them are struggling for survival. St. Margaret's Anglican (above) celebrated the 125th anniversary while we were there. There were nearly 200 people at the celebration dinner, which we attended, and the church was full the next morning. But on most Sundays the congregation numbers a dozen or so, at best.

We may figure that this is just the sign of the times, yet there is a powerful sense of place to these communities which no longer exists in so many mainland cities and towns and villages. When they cease to exist, including the faith communities, something significant will be lost to Canadian culture. The Anglican bishop did offer a thoughtful and hopeful message about a new way of living the gospel at the anniversary service. We'll pray that God is in the midst of this time of transition.

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