Sunday, December 14, 2014

Silent Night. Christmas Thoughts for Introverts (and Extroverts)

Today we did a Christmas pageant at the church I pastor. It was written by a youth leader, and was about the history of the Christmas Carol, Silent Night. The title of that hymn is actually a bit odd, if you think about it. I mean, if Jesus really was born in a stable, with angels singing and cattle lowing and donkeys braying, and shepherds praising, the first Christmas probably wasn’t that silent.

This year my Christmas isn’t going to be that quiet either. Our kids are coming from New York and Montreal. Including significant others, that’s five. Gillian’s friend from Japan, Aya; her brother and sister-in-law from Halifax, and her brother in Toronto are all staying for several days. That makes nine. And Mariya and Dela are coming in from San Francisco and Berkeley, respectively. Eleven guests, plus Irene and I.

We’ll stay up late laughing, shouting, talking politics and religion. David will make three times the necessary noise banging around pots and pans cooking a meal or two. Taps (my grandson) will be chasing his remote control car with siren up and down the hallway.

But for now, tonight at least, the house was silent. Tonight Irene and I sat in front of the fire with a glass of red wine. We played a bit of quiet Christmas music. I fell asleep with a book open on my lap.

I love the silence. I cope with busy commutes by turning off the car radio.  I get ready for the day by taking the dog for a long walk. I used to listen to podcasts on those walks. Now I just trudge in silence. I daydream.

I love the silence. Max Picard, a Roman Catholic philosopher, writes in his book, The World of Silence, "Outside the forest, the flowers are like silence that has thawed, and glistens in the sunlight." I like that—“outside . . . the flowers are like silence that has thawed.” One of my favorite Bible texts—an important one for pastors to take to heart—is Ecclesiastes 6:11. "The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?"

In my heart I'm an introvert. I know how to be with people, how to get my oar in during conversations at a party, how to do a “meet and greet at church.” But I get my energy from being alone and silence is my reward.

What about you? I know that we can’t all be introverts. We need both extroverts and introverts to make the world go round. But just as introverts need to learn to make their peace with noise, I think extroverts can learn to appreciate the gift of silence.

Here is why. We all have a secret place of refuge, a sanctuary, in our souls. It is where we go to ponder the most difficult questions life throws at us. It is where we construct the meaning we spend our lives achieving. This sanctuary in our souls is where we cultivate gratitude for the good others have done for us and nourish the goodwill we need to love our neighbours.

And that sanctuary in our souls is a place that can only be entered alone. It is therefore a place of silence: a speechless silence full of awe on account the miracle of the universe; a prayerful silence that yearns for peace on earth; a respectful silence that honours life’s great mysteries. The silent sanctuary of our souls is a refuge for those tossed to and fro on the violent currents of time and civilization. The silent sanctuary in our souls is one of the few places we can hear the still, quiet voice of God, if Her voice is to be heard at all.

            And in the end, that is how I take the Christmas carol, Silent Night. Not silent because the animals really were, or the angels lost their voice. But the song sings of a silent night because the story of Jesus’ birth takes our breath away. We are dumbfounded by the story’s suggestion that God is not just notion, not merely the answer to a philosophical puzzle, but Gof is here, with us and in us.

            And so we respond, with the ancient Psalmist, in a whisper, “let all the earth keep silence, before him.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

From Hanukkah to Ferguson

            (I rarely--perhaps never--post sermons on my blog, but here I make an exception. This week's sermon began as an explanation of Hanukkah, but in light of the killings of innocent black men and boys this past week, it also turned out to be a sermon about racism. It's also an example, I suppose, of how preaching in a Liberal church, during Advent even, isn't necessarily Christocentric--and for a topic such as this one, that seems fine to me. Several people asked me to post it, so here it is.)

            Once upon a time, in the fourth century BC, a dashing young Greek emperor, Alexander the Great, conquered most of the known world. Alexander also brought Greek culture—Aristotle, Sophocles, and even the Olympics—to the rest of the world, too. And mostly, people ate it up.

            In Israel, it was much the same. Many people of rank and learning, particularly in cosmopolitan Jerusalem, fell in love with everything Greek. Theatres and gyms were built. Athletes, as was the practice of that day, competed in the nude—a shocking change from traditional Judaism.

            It seems that disagreements between old-style religious Jews and the new Hellenizers eventually led to civil strife—violence—within Jerusalem. One of the Emperor Alexander’s successors, Antiochus Epiphanes, subsequently went to Jerusalem to restore order. While there, he sacked the temple and slaughtered thousands of Jews—apparently under the mistaken notion that the Jews were trying to throw him out rather than just fighting amongst themselves. Never mind, he went on to sacrifice pigs on the temple alter, and built another alter to the Greek God Zeus nearby. And finally, in a break with the generally tolerant attitude to other religions the Greeks had, Antiochus banned Judaism throughout his territory as a radical, violent, and intolerant religion.

            King Antiochus also sent emissaries to the conservative country towns surrounding Jerusalem, also directing them to sacrifice unclean pigs. It was in one such village, Modi'in, that the local priest, Matthias, was so offended by this sacrilegious act that he killed the emissary. Then, fleeing to the hills with his five sons, Mattathias and his sons began a guerrilla war against the Greek King Antiochus. To make a very long story short, they eventually took back Jerusalem in the year 165 B.C. And, as recorded in 1 Maccabees 4, once there, they cleaned out and rededicated the temple.

            Hanukkah is the eight-day celebration of the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem to true Jewish worship. The most important part of this celebration, at least in the memory of the Jews, was the relighting of the golden lampstand. Although it is not recorded in our scripture reading, the story goes that when the golden lampstand—actually an oil lamp—was relit, there was only enough consecrated oil to last one day. However, miraculously, that single day’s worth of oil lasted eight days—the exact amount of time it took to consecrate a new supply of oil. Thus the Menorah, which is lit to commemorate Hanukkah and recall the lighting of the golden candlestick, has room for eight candles, one for each day of the miracle. The ninth candle is set apart from the eight, to light the others and serve as light before the others are lit.

            So what does it mean? Well, while the candles hark back to the golden candlestick of the temple—the larger meaning Hanukkah celebrates is the survival, against all odds, of the Jewish people, religion, and culture. A well-known Hanukkah Prayer goes like this:

What is the miracle of Hanukkah?
Against all odds, we are here.
Against all common sense,
we have lit these candles.
We see these flames before us now,
a miracle.
We stand in community here,
a miracle.
We see these flames
leaping through space and time,
joining us to history, to our people.

            Against all odds, say the Jews, we are here. And it is a miracle, given 2500 years of pogroms and deportations, forced conversions and finally, the holocaust. In light of this horrific history, and especially the holocaust, the Jews say, “Never again.” And we agree. “Never again!”

            If we have the courage to do so, however, perhaps we should dig a bit deeper into this Jewish story of survival. You see, that survival was actually in spite of the best efforts of generations of our ancestors—that is, at least those of us who have European ancestors. From the crusades to the invention of concentration camps, from massive witch-hunts to multiple genocides, from the bombing of innocent civilians during WWII to the holocaust, our tribe, our culture, our kings and princes have been deeply implicated in generations of racism and xenophobia not only against Jews but many other peoples besides.

            Do we really mean it, when we say, “never again!” Would you be willing to put a price on “never again?”

            This has been a very difficult week for those of us who want to be believe in a “never, never again-land.” Racism is alive and well in America, for example. Whatever you may think about the particulars of the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, everyone agrees that rage boiled over in those streets because what happened to Brown wasn’t unique—it is the daily grind for all Black citizens of that town, and many others in America. The subsequent deaths of Eric Garner of “I can’t breathe” fame in New York City, and Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix—both unarmed—have only served to heighten our concern about ongoing racism. And don’t forget Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old shot for playing with a toy gun in a park, and Amadou Diallo, shot 49 times by police when they mistook a wallet in his pocket for a gun, and Trayvon Martin, shot by a vigilante while walking home through a mostly-white neighbourhood from a store. The list could go on to include hundreds more names.

            I actually believe that things are somewhat better in Canada. We are trying to build a fairer, safer society here than south of the border. But we also have to. Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Half of the people who live here were born in another country—many of them from places like India, Pakistan, Jamaica, and The Philippines. Perhaps 40% of us Torontonians have rainbow-hued skin. We pride ourselves on multiculturalism and open mindedness.

            But even in Toronto you are four times more likely to be stopped by police—carded—if you are black or brown than you are if you are white. Twenty-five percent of Canada’s federal prisoners are aboriginals, while they are only 4% of our population. Blacks make up 2.5 percent of Canada’s population, and make up nearly 10% of our prison population. Forty percent of Canada’s prisoners are not Caucasian. The RCMP noted a few weeks ago that there are 1,200 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women since 1980. Google “racism in Canada,” and you will get millions of hits telling stories of Blacks or Aboriginals being racially profiled, shadowed in stores by security personal, getting pulled over all out of proportion to their numbers on highways, receiving harsher discipline in school than their white fellow students, and so on. All black parents have to train their kids on how to interact with police, because it is dangerous out there for black kids. And even if we don’t always like to be reminded of it, Canada is famous around the world for the ugly water quality, lack of housing, subpar schools, poverty, and violence of its Aboriginal communities. “Never again?”

            I wonder, where is the rage? Where is the sense of injustice? Where is this church at?

            Getting back to the Hanukkah story, there are, of course, ironies. The Maccabean Jews who defeated Antiochus, who are celebrated at Hanukkah, were definitely not in favour of religious tolerance. And in the present, as much as we support the right of Israel to live in a safe and secure homeland, we are all deeply disturbed by the treatment Palestinians receive, whether within Israel or outside the walls of the stolen West bank settlements, or in that nation-sized, blockaded refugee camp otherwise known as Gaza.

            The truth is, xenophobia—the hatred of others who are different—is not just a Western problem. The Turks committed genocide against the Albanians, the Serbs against the Croats, The Hutus against the Tutsis, the English and Dutch against multiple African tribes, the Japanese against the Chinese, and so on, all within the past 125 years. All humans have a deeply evolved, genetically ingrained “fight or flight,” response when it comes to members of other tribes. And even when flight is our choice, it’s usually because someone has taken the fight to us.

            But being human also means being “Homo Sapiens,” which mean “wise.” We must transcend our brutal past and choose something better. Securing a future for my mixed race grandchildren, or Canada’s First Nations, or your Jamaican and Filipino neighbours depends on our overcoming mindless passions and rationally—as well as justly—choosing “never again.” Being human in a global village, being at peace and prosperous in Canada, has a future only if we are willing to pay, sacrifice, and struggle to make it so. Breaking with thousands of years of racist and xenophobic tradition will be costly.

            But here in this church, this morning, there are people who can make it so—or, at least, who can help push the envelope in the right direction. Among those here for church this morning are those who run companies, invest large amounts of money, work in government, vote, know your parliamentary representatives, sit on boards with other powerful people, and have the ear of the elite in your fields. Your influence, your insight, your willingness to take risks for the greater good—that’s a big part of what it is going to take to make this country a “never again,” land; a place where racism has been beaten down and peace—religious and ethnic peace at home—has been given a chance.

            Because in the end, we don’t so much want to sing about the miracle of how our people, or our tribe survived.  We want to sing about the miracle of how all the nations of the world found, in Canada, a land flowing with the milk of human kindness the honey of justice for all, regardless of religion or skin colour.

            At least, this Hanukkah and this Advent, I’d really like to light a candle to that.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Spirituality and Fashion Fails

            So I had a huge fashion fail at my church a few weeks ago—or more properly, I guess I should call it a fashion-and-spirituality-worship-service fail.           

            I blame John Van Sloten, a CRC minister in Calgary.

            A few years ago John invited well-known Canadian designer, Paul Hardy, to come to his church one Sunday. Paul came with two or three models. They showed off Paul’s designs on a fashion runway that ran down the main aisle of the church. After the fashion show, Van Sloten interviewed Paul Hardy about his designs and how they related to his faith.

            The fashion-show service was so unexpected in a church setting that the local CBC affiliate covered it for the TV news that night. So I thought we ought to do that too, here, at Lawrence Park Community Church.

            So, six months ago I told our facilities manager to rent us a catwalk. I signed up an up and coming Canadian designer who goes to church to show off her clothes here. She agreed. After the show, just like John, I was going to interview her.

            While planning the service, my designer said that she would need half-a-dozen models to show off her creations. These models all had to be size four or smaller. And so I, na├»ve pastor that I am, put a note in the church bulletin saying that we were looking for a couple of size four or smaller models.

            No one volunteered. I ran the note a second time. Still no volunteers.

            Finally, some wiser members of the congregation told me that as far as they could tell, there probably were not half-a-dozen such-sized women in our church, unless I wanted to invite some tweens to wear the clothes.

            More to the point, these wise LPCC members told me that one of the greatest problems with the modern fashion industry was just this—how it defines beauty in ways that are unattainable for most of us. Naomi Wolf gets at this in her book The Beauty Myth, “More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

            Meanwhile, if Givenchy and Zara and H&M and Victoria’s Secret have played their cards just right, that impossible beauty standard has many of us who feel inadequate deeply engaged in aspirational buying of clothes and beauty aids. Selling that ideal has become a near perpetual motion profit machine for the fashion industry as we strive and fail, strive and fail, to buy who they tell us we should be. Meanwhile, our ten- and twelve-year-old kids—not to mention our twenty- and twenty-two-year-old kids, and even many of us who are much older—are left to make peace with a standard that very few of us have the DNA to achieve.

            So, anyway, I disinvited our designer. I tried to explain the problem. She was nice about it. But I suddenly had a big hole in the worship schedule. What to say positively about fashion and spirituality from my empty gangway? Well—I basically told the story of why we were not having a fashion show, after all. Along the way I made two ancillary points.

            First, scripture suggests that all humans are, in the words of the Psalmist, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139)—a line echoed in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when beautiful Miranda, seeing her first young man, cries out, “Brave new world that has such creatures in it.” That is a profoundly Christian sentiment. In Genesis, after Adam and Eve are created, the story-teller notes that, “they were naked and not ashamed.”

            Second, a spirituality of fashion, besides embracing all human bodies as good, should also celebrate the potential beauty of clothing. There was Joseph’s Technicolor coat of many colors. The priests who served in the temple wore clothing made of gold, blue, and crimson yarns, all decorated with onyx gems. Solomon was beautifully arrayed, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, even if he couldn’t quite match the beauty of the lily that God clothed. The prodigal son was welcomed home with a beautiful robe.

            Which is not to say that praising God with the beauty of our clothing choices is a big theme in scripture. It isn’t. When it comes to spirituality, fashion mostly falls in the category of “let’s have fun!”

            So now what? I think a fashion show that celebrates not the size-four ideal, but our ability to playfully create beauty no matter our age and size and resources. My plan is to find volunteers to model Goth clothing, senior active wear clothing, 1890’s ball gowns, and Salvation Army Store castoff fashion—along with the one, beautiful size-four dress I bought from my Canadian designer.

            If I can find someone to wear it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The CRC's Agony

Okay, so this will be a short rant rooted in the pain of loss and frustration and love for an old friend.

The Banner, magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, arrived last week. I love this magazine for the place it has in my life and the people that worked there. I was its editor for ten years until about ten years ago.

As I noted, The Banner came in the mail. I’ve recycled it in the meantime. But not before I saw an article that insists that Genesis can be read literally (so called) and still be consistent with the observable and verifiable science of today. The article suggests that you can do science and somehow still believe in a young earth and worldwide flood. It doesn’t seem to matter to the author that all—well maybe only 99%--of the scientists who actually work on these matters disagree with him.

I wrote, years ago, that all theological propositions are under-warranted. That is, even when there is a good cases to be made for some theological proposition or another, it is likely that another theologian can make a decent case for a different point of view. Think the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Eucharist, or infant versus adult baptism, or the various views of the atonement. However, the trouble with the creationist view of science, and the theology that flows from it, is that both are unwarranted. 

How does one explain a denomination that feels the need to keep such nonsense before its members to the exclusion of even talking about the theological implications that might follow if 99% of all scientists are actually correct? This is willful pretending. It is hubris.

I feel bad for the editorial board that feels political pressure to publish such stuff and a synod that exorcises an editor for publishing articles that ask, “theologically what might it mean if every scientist out there is right and our old, traditional fall-back positions are wrong?” But I guess most denominations have their own brand of craziness. Mormons believe that Native Americans are descended from the lost tribes of Israel. Premilleniallists think Jesus is going to return any minute and usher in a thousand year millennial reign. Or maybe a tribulation. Or maybe not. Fundamentalist Christians think being homosexual is a sin, and evangelicals think that isn’t so, but homosexual acts are a sin. Roman Catholics think that Mother Mary bodily ascended to heaven and that birth control is a sin (well, at least they teach this. Most Catholics don't really believe it). If I dug around a bit, I’m sure I could find some craziness in the United Church of Canada too. Though at least in this denomination no one will hold you to it. 

Simone Weil--who, admittedly, was also a bit crazy about some stuff--got this one exactly right. She said of all "associations for promoting ideas" (things like churches and unions) that no one should be "liable to be invited to subscribe to a collection of assertions crystallized in written form." She added that excommunication should follow only for moral breaches, and not for intellectual disagreements, because, "too great a uniformity of opinion would render any such association suspect." I suppose that means that in a church creation scientists and real scientists would be invited to live in peace.

I remember the pressure to publish such articles when I was editor of that magazine. I resisted—but at a certain point, resistance was futile. The church is, after all, full of people who do believe this stuff. They can’t always be denied; but they shouldn't be given the rod of correction either. Another way of putting it is that you can sanctify this creation science stuff but you can’t excuse it.

But oh, what a mess for the CRC. This sort of article swaps modern fundamentalist myths for serious scholarship and the sort of common sense any teen can learn by taking a grade ten biology course—though it would need to be in a public school (but not one in Kansas or Texas, I suppose). And it means that any scientist who is actually “on the bench,” or doing field work (for an oil company, maybe; or like my daughter-in-law, working with DNA) will get a pit in his or her stomach and ask, “can I really trust what the church teaches about the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Lord’s Supper, or salvation, or original sin if it promotes this nonsense even to the exclusion of other widely accepted (if often secretly held) points of view?” The answer is, ultimately, "no."

The church’s insistence on such nonsense has created a culture of fear among scientists employed by the church. I remember the agony of Howard Van Till and it made an impact. We remember that John Schneider and Dan Harlow were politely shown the door (more or less) for wondering about alternatives to the current rut. I once interviewed pretty much the entire biology faculty of an CRC-connected college. Not a single person there had any sympathy for creation science views, but all of them agreed they wouldn’t say so.

I can also name thirty or forty people I'm personally acquainted with—people I grew up with, went to seminary with, and many who now worship in the United Church or who belong to other denominations—who left the CRC over this and similar issues. They just couldn’t deal with the dissonance anymore. You could probably fill Grand Rapids’ Van Andel stadium with West Michigan people who have left the CRC over such issues—or are on the verge of doing so. And if the CRC took a stand and said, “Of course, we really do need to talk about such stuff in an atmosphere of mutual respect, safety, and love,” (and actually do this, too, for talk is cheap) that same stadium could be filled with an equal number of people who would leave the CRC because they thought the CRC had left them.

It is, as I said, a mess.

Monday, November 10, 2014


         Patriotism is a good word that also throws dark shadows.

         For starters, “patriotism” is derived from Latin and Greek words that mean “father,” as in “fatherland.” As if there are no mothers or daughters or sons. Patriotism has, historically, been about patriarchy, androcentrism and phallocentrism (a polite word that means “thinking with your penis”). Patriotic stories are invariably violent. We are most patriotic when the news is an unending and breathless series of updates about the murders and funerals of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

         I checked a thesaurus to see if I could find any kinder and gentler synonyms for patriotism. The thesaurus offered “loyalty,” and “devotion,” as possibilities. But other synonyms included nationalism, jingoism, chauvinism, and worst of all, “xenophobia.” That means, “fear of the other” but is widely used to mean “hatred of anyone who isn’t like me.” Patriotism is perhaps the best word for the quality I want to write about, but it throws long shadows.

         No wonder then, that in England, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “patriotic” was understood to be a slur. To be a patriot then was pretty much the same as being called a “Tea Partier” now—only worse.

         “Patriotism” is also an “ism.” Such words insist that you are either a true believer or badly mistaken. “Ism” words like “Marxism,” “fundamentalism,” and even “liberalism” are used to draw lines in the sand. These are words for ideologies that take over the minutes, days, and sometimes the souls of our lives.
         Patriotism might be a good word but it casts dark shadows. For example, Irene and I have a large charcoal drawing of a statue that stands in the center of the Dutch City of Rotterdam. The statue is entitled, Stad Zonder Hart," which means, "city without a heart."

         The statue is of a person who seems contorted in pain. The body is twisted in unnatural ways, arms all akimbo. And the torso is cratered by a huge hole where the heart belongs. City without a heart.

         The statue commemorates the destruction of Rotterdam, on May 14, 1940. In the space of a few hours, Nazis dropped nearly 2000 bombs on the city center. The blitzkrieg ignited a firestorm. More than 1000 people died, 85,000 more were homeless, and nearly three square kilometers of the centrum was pulverized into dust.

         Stad Zondar Hart is a monument to the devotion—the patriotism—that the surviving Dutch have for their nation.

         But the Stad Zonder Hart inevitably casts a terrible shadow, too. See it and you are confronted with another group of patriots: the generals who launched those bombers against Rotterdam, the pilots who flew them, and the ruthless SS who came in their wake to round up Jews and send them to death camps. Nazi patriots stole Rotterdam’s heart.

         And that is one of the problems with patriotism, isn’t it? Tie patriotism too strongly to country and suddenly few are asking what is right or wrong.

         I’m reading Karen Armstrong’s new Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence for review. Along the way she reminds readers that Jerusalem has been destroyed several times. And she points to a remarkable passage that Isaiah writes in response to the destruction of Jerusalem.

         Of course, Isaiah describes the pain of Jerusalem’s destruction. He does so, for example, in a passage Christians would later use to describe Jesus. Israel, says Isaiah, was despised and rejected, afflicted, wounded for our transgressions, and led like a lamb to the slaughter. In many ways, Isaiah’s book is a written Stad Zonder Hart, a patriotic, anguished monument to the horror of a nation’s utter defeat. Isaiah is a book with lots of shadow in it.

         But then, surprisingly, in a passage Armstrong highlights, Isaiah 60—among other similar passages—Isaiah writes: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” And that light is dawning on a New Jerusalem. A parade of nations—including many of Israel’s past enemies—comes to New Jerusalem’s gates to honor her. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

         The light in New Jerusalem, of course, is God. So, at first, reading Isaiah 60, I’m a bit anxious because patriotism mixed with religion tends to be very scary. Consider those fight for Allah or who died for the Divine Hirohito of Japan. Consider the crusades or The Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda.

         But leaving aside, for a moment, the difficulties of mixing religion and patriotism, there is something else in this passage that is at least a partial antidote to the many shadow sides of patriotism. The author says that in New Jerusalem, God “will appoint peace as your overseer, and righteousness as your taskmaster. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders.”

         So Isaiah 60 hints at patriotism rooted not in aching sadness about the destruction of Jerusalem, or in memories of war dead, or even in a volatile mix of nationalism and God. It hints at a patriotism based on ideals.

         Listen, patriotism has always been a good word wrapped in dark shadow. We ought never forget the sacrifices so many made to preserve freedom at home, or to liberate our friends abroad. But if patriotism is based only on the memory of sacrifices made, it will not necessarily have a moral heart. Memory, after all, is fickle. The past—from Pax Romana to the American Revolution, is always subject to pragmatic revision by the state for its own ends.

         So, ultimately, patriotism must be informed by enduring ideals if it to avoid walking the fence between jingoism and disaster. Unless the Canadian—and American—way is all about finding and making peace rather than being dragged off into one war after another; unless we believe in reconciliation and equal opportunity as means to short-circuit violence at the fringes of our domestic society; unless we embrace righteousness—that is, justice and equity for neighbors both near and far—unless we embrace righteousness rather than mere health and wealth for ourselves; unless we root our patriotism in a future worth bequeathing to our children, rather than in memories of past battles won or lost patriotism will merely continue to be a good word that casts a long shadow.

         But when patriotism is informed by the light of Isaiah’s kind of ideals: peace, nonviolence, righteousness and reconciliation, it will go far to cast our national shadows away.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Canada and Its Home-Grown Terrorists

Sure. I'm mad. Last week Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo both died in apparent terrorist attacks in Canada.

Vincent was run down by a car driven by Martin Couture-Rouleau. Cirillo was shot at point blank range by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Both Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau were recent, radicalized, converts to Islam. Neither one was seriously attached to a Canadian-Muslim community, and both seemed to get most of their information about Islam from jihadi websites. Both came from broken families. Both were loners. Both were unemployed.

Given that he attacked the core symbols of Canadian patriotism and democracy—the Tomb to the Unknown Soldier and the House of Parliament—Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was the most dramatic. The Twitter sphere and the mainline news media were both in overdrive all day.

I don’t blame media for the massive coverage. These two events were tragic, horrific, and just plain evil. Thousands turned out to see Cirillo’s procession down the Highway of Heroes—the sort of procession we hoped never to have to witness again. These horrific acts were also—just as the murderers intended—deeply symbolic. By striking at symbols that we identify with Canada’s best—soldiers, war memorials, parliament—the murderers clearly wanted to undermine our confidence in Canadian values—whatever those are, exactly.

At the same time, I’ve been very disturbed by political developments in the week following.

I’m concerned by the government’s insistence on framing these murders as terrorism—rather than as the complex acts they were. Sure, they were terrorist acts. But we’ll never make Canada a safer, happier place if we limit understanding of what happened to jingoism. There were many other facets to the story. For example, both attackers seem to have struggled with serious mental health issues. Both were, by the measures most of us use, “failures.” And both seem to have chosen Radical Islam not so much out of conviction, but as a way to dramatically leave their problems far behind.

There is an issue of scale. In 2010, just for example, 104 British Columbia traffic fatalities could be attributed to distracted driving—mostly texting while driving. The Canadian total is probably nearly ten times that number. And neither number touches on the thousands of other accidents and the property damage caused by distracted driving. In 2013 more than 700 Canadians died in accidents involving alcohol. First Nations women are five times more likely to be murdered than other women in Canada, but the Prime Minister insists the police can handle this, and that it isn’t a sociological problem. By the government’s own admission an average of seven to ten people are killed by lightning in Canada every year.

But when two people die at the hands of home-grown terrorists who are probably suffering from significant mental illness, we hear these words in parliament, from Steven Blaney, Public Safety Minister. "The first responsibility of the government is to keep Canadians safe. We will not over-react. But it is also time that we stopped under-reacting to the great threats against us." The government promises new, liberty-restricting laws to avoid under-reacting.

On the other hand, get tough laws on texting, inquiries into the deaths of and missing First Nations women, and laws making us safer from lightning—which after all, kills 400% more Canadians than home-grown terroism—are not on this government’s agenda.

Another concern. All the political posturing after the deaths of these two soldiers, including the public displays of sympathy and sadness by our politicians belies the fact that the government has largely failed the many, many soldiers returned from our battles overseas suffering from post-traumatic stress. This failure is regularly documented in the press as individual stories are often told of soldiers driven to despair, homelessness, and suicide in the face of the government’s unwillingness to make PTSD among soldiers a national priority.

Another concern. These two murders, as unjust and evil as they were, are also rooted in a rising tide of anger in the Muslim world with Western military intervention. I’m not offering a simple solution here, such as “well, if we quit bombing Iraq and Iran there wouldn’t be any home-grown Islamic terrorism here.” Still, we need a debate about the wisdom of military intervention in the Middle East; about the consequences and outcome of our involvement in Afghanistan; our unquestioned support for the current Israeli government in spite of its continual encroachment on Palestinian land and rights; and other ways in which we might support democracy and human rights in that region. Somehow, counting on Saudi Arabia as a stalwart ally, even as it exports extreme Wahhabi Islam, doesn’t seem consistent with our Canadian ideals. Unfortunately, talking about failed wars and undemocratic and autocratic allies seems harder than breaking up.

The murders of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo were horrific and evil. But we must not allow our justified rage obscure the deeper issues surrounding war, foreign policy, and national priorities and embarrassments that we need to address now. It is time for Canadians to demand—not more restrictive laws—but laws and government action that is willing to sacrifice much to live up to our ideals.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blogging (Sometimes about Faith)

            I blog. In a way, blogging is, for me, an extension of the writing I did as editor of The Banner. I enjoy blogging in much the same way I enjoy writing my weekly sermon—that is, I don’t enjoy it much at all until I get to that ecstatic moment when I’m done. In the mean time, I have also learned a few things about blogging. I thought they might be worth sharing. I wonder what other bloggers—or readers—think.

            One: I wonder about my motivation. I think it is definitely a bit narcissistic—which also explains the time and effort I put into things like Facebook and Twitter. I like to see my name in print. I like to interact with people impressed by—or not—what I write. This is a confession. I think, however, it is a confession that many bloggers, if they were really honest, would make with me.

            Two: Which is not to say I don’t have some more altruistic reasons for blogging. I believe I have something to say. I want to promote discussion about important issues--especially the ones that interest me or that I know something about. I hope I can add to that timeless, unending conversation that theologians and public scholars and philosophers are having out there about the way the world turns. Or am I just being narcissistic again?

            Three: It is hard to find the time to come up with good, original material on a regular basis. Really. I’ve often forced myself to write something even when nothing was burning in my belly. Why? Well, the rule seems to be that if you don’t regularly update your blog, people stop reading it. And I want people to read my blog. Why? See number one, above.

            Four: One of the bigger challenges I face is staying real—writing in a way that resonates with what people are actually thinking. But to do this while also demonstrating that I’m aware of the many academic currents that surround my topic of the day is a real challenge. Balancing a plain-spokenness with depth is one of the hardest challenges a blogger faces. I often fail.

            Five: I find it much easier to “go after” someone or some institution than to express real delight in someone or some institution. I think, in part, this is so for the same reason that car accident stories are more likely to lead off the local news than “fund-raising goals met”stories lead off the evening news. People have evolved to focus on trouble and to relax when it is absent. Unfortunately, this tendency isn’t necessarily very charitable.

            Six: Just as I need to be careful about going after those I disagree with I need to relax about people who come after me. The truth is that I’ve changed my mind, and some other people who are threatened by that or angry with that or just sad that will never “get it.” I need to let them be angry or overly sympathetic or even pray for my soul without getting too upset.

            Seven: There is a whole side to blogging that I’m not very good at, but which is quite important if I want increase my readership stats. My webpage design has to be good. Old articles should be easy to search for and find. Search engine optimization should receive some attention. Pictures and other illustrations should abound. I’m thinking of plowing some money into this, but that old Calvinist taboo against self-promotion is pushing the other way. But, as I’ve noted, I’m also a bit narcissistic. We’ll see.

            Eight. Blog posts should be short. It is hard to read long blog posts on a screen in a way that it isn’t hard to read a long book chapter. Brain physiologists are starting to write about why this is—I’ve written about it in my book and in blog posts. But what is short? Less than a thousand words, for sure. Five hundred would be better. But then—how do you address topics with the depth they deserve? Interestingly, I always manage to keep all my written sermons to less than 1500 words and usually not more than 1200. I have a much harder time doing that with blogs. Today I think I’ll succeed.

            Nine. This may be related to the need to stay real. But the best bloggers know how to make strategic use of self-disclosure. Readers need reasons to identify not just with an argument, but with a person.

            Ten. Sermons—or revisions of them—can sometimes make it to the blog. But they don’t lend themselves to blog posts very often. Put them on your church’s website. Mine are.