2 March 2017

Remember Your Death

Yesterday evening I attended an Ash Wednesday service.  The palm branches that the church had waved last year on Palm Sunday to praise and celebrate Jesus as he entered Jerusalem a week before Easter had dried out over the year and were now burned to a fine ash.

People lined up, down the aisle of the sanctuary, waiting for the minister to mark their foreheads with the ashes in the sign of a cross with the words that echo the funeral liturgy, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

As I sat there, watching people of all ages come forward, I was reflecting that Ash Wednesday is possibly the most counter-cultural ritual that the church enacts.  It is already counter-cultural to be a follower of Jesus Christ, to proclaim that there is a different narrative than the one that the world presents.  And here, in the middle of a death-defying, death-denying culture, people were lining up to be reminded of their own mortality.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Later in the service as I was helping to serve communion, I was standing at the front of the church holding the cup as people lined up to come forward again, each person with the mark of ashes on their forehead.  Again, I was reflecting, as people took the bread and heard the words, "the body of Christ, broken for you," then dipped the bread in the cup with the words, "the cup of the new covenant, poured out for you."  We are all connected by our mortality.  This human flesh that is given to us to possess is a time-limited gift.  We will all die, as the ashes reminded us.  But we are connected by more than that.  Through our baptism, we are joined with Christ - we participate in Christ's life and death and resurrection.  Though we will die, in Christ we will live.  This is the promise of the new covenant.

God was present.  It was a holy moment.

12 February 2017

"Choose Love"

Sermon:  February 12, 2016 (Epiphany +6)
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Lockeport Pastoral Charge (Little Harbour)

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding the world to be a very difficult place to be in these days.  If you look at politics – for our neighbours in the US, for people in England, and even for us here in Canada – if you look at politics it seems like it is a constant battle between us and them.  There is no middle ground, there is no working towards a compromise – instead it is all highly polarized.  And then, if I look at how rights are being taken away from women, from immigrants, from people with disabilities, from people who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, I feel discouraged and disheartened.

And then there is all of the xenophobia – the fear of the other or the outsider – the xenophobia that is behind so much of what is happening in the world.  Six people are killed in a mosque just because they dress differently and pray differently than their neighbours. 

And don’t get me started about the fear.  It seams like everywhere you turn, there is evidence of more fear.  My sister and her husband who was born in the Middle East are now afraid to travel to the US.  People are risking life and limb and a bad case of frostbite walking across the border into fields in Manitoba in the dead of winter because they are even more afraid to stay where they are.  And yes, I know that our Prime Minister tweeted out that refugees are welcome here in Canada, but then you hear stories about refugees who have been waiting for more than a year to come to Canada.

So I admit, I’ve been having a difficult winter.  In my head, I know that God is in charge, and that God’s word will have the final word.  But sometimes it is just so hard to see that.


But then, sometimes, I’ll come across something like the passage we read from Deuteronomy this morning, that will remind me that God is present and that God wants good in the world.

The book of Deuteronomy sometimes gets a bad reputation, and I admit that if you read it start to finish like I had to for a course last winter on Deuteronomy, it can be a bit tedious.  After all, the first 29 chapters of the book are basically a recitation of the law that God gave to the Israelite people – do this, don’t do that, do this, don’t do that.  And some of the laws don’t make sense in our 21st Century Canadian context.  When I took that course last winter, on the first day of class, our professor told us that if we all came around to the idea that stoning wasn’t as bad as we thought it was, then the course would not be a success!

In the overall narrative arc of the Old Testament, the book of Deuteronomy is right before the Israelite people enter the promised land – the land that God had promised to them and to their ancestors.  Remember that the Israelites had been in slavery in the land of Egypt for many generations.  Remember that Moses went to the Pharaoh and demanded, “Let my people go!”  Remember that the waters of the Red Sea parted for the people so that they were able to cross over to safety.  Remember that Moses met God on top of Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law.  Remember that the people then spent 40 years wandering through the desert.  And then we come to the book of Deuteronomy.

Here are the people, perched on the bank of the Jordan River, ready to cross over into the land that had been promised to them and to their ancestors.  For 40 years in the desert, they had been fully and completely dependent on God.  God had led them with a cloud by day and a fiery pillar at night – a sort of holy GPS.  God had fed them with manna and quail.  God had made water come out of a stone so that they wouldn’t die of thirst.  But now they were about to cross over into a land of abundance – a land flowing with milk and honey – a land where it was still God who provided for them, but in a less obvious way.  But God doesn’t want them to forget that they depend on God.

So there, on the banks of the Jordan River, before they can cross over, Moses repeats the law that had been given.  29 chapters of a remembrance of the law that had been received on the mountain in Sinai.  And then we come to chapter 30.  This is God’s final exhortation to the people, a final pleading with the people to remember God.

It’s an equation, but it’s pretty simple math.
Walk in God’s ways = life and blessings.
Forget God’s ways = death and curses.

So what are those ways that God wants the people to walk in?  You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  That comes from chapter 6 of Deuteronomy.  Then there are the Ten Commandments, which can be summarized into two main categories – there are the ones like worshiping only God instead of other idols and keeping the Sabbath that are about being in a right relationship with God, and then there are the ones about being in right relationship with your neighbours – honour your parents, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t covet what your neighbour has, don’t bear false witness.  And running through many of the laws in Deuteronomy, is an obligation to look after people less fortunate than yourself; and the three groups of people who are named are widows, orphans, and foreigners who live in your land.  Especially given the fear of immigrants and refugees we see in the world today, it’s interesting to note that God commands the people to look after foreigners who live in your land, because, as God frequently reminds the people, they had once been foreigners in the land of Egypt.

So this is how God wants the people to live.  To be in right relationship with God, to be in right relationship with their neighbours, and to look after people who are in less fortunate circumstances.  If the people do this, if the people choose love, then God promises them life and blessings.

And so God pleads with the people:
            Choose life.
            Choose love.

And God reminds the people:
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            my love is stronger than your fear.
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            and I have promised, promised to be always near.¹

When I’m traveling around the city, I often like to take public transit.  It saves me the stress of worrying about driving and traffic, and I can either sit back and let the bus driver worry about crossing the bridge from Dartmouth to Halifax during rush hour, or I can enjoy a short ferry ride across the harbour.  On Thursday morning, a week and a half ago, I had walked down from my apartment to the ferry terminal in order to catch the ferry for a 9am class.  When I got over to the Halifax side, I walked two blocks up to Barrington Street where I can catch a bus that takes me almost right to AST.  There had been a bit of snow the night before, not more than a couple of centimeters, and it was going to warm up in the day so the snow didn’t last long.  But right by the bus stop where I wait, there’s a wall, and the top of the wall is angled outward, and there in the snow, someone had written LOVE > FEAR.  Just those two words with a “greater than” sign in between.  And when I got onto my bus and found a seat, when I looked out the window, there it was, right at eye level with me.  I don’t know how long that message stayed there in the snow.  Maybe half a day.  Maybe only a couple of minutes if someone brushed the snow off the wall right after the bus pulled away.  But for however long it lasted, there was a visible message that love is stronger than all of the forces that work against love in the world.

And so God pleads with us:
            Choose life.
            Choose love.

And God reminds us,
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            my love is stronger than your fear.
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            and I have promised, promised to be always near.

Recently in class, we were talking about the political situation in the US but also here at home, and we were trying to make sense of it all.  One person said, “I heard a program on CBC radio and this was what they were saying…”  Another person said, “I was reading an article from the Huffington Post that was arguing that…”  Another person said, “On the television last night, there was a panel discussing…”  Finally, our professor said to us, “These are all narrative explanations of what is going on.  They are trying to impose order on the story so that we can pretend that we understand why something is happening.”  And then she asked us if there was a different way to make sense what was going on in the world, one that didn’t try to impose a narrative onto the events.”

That question stuck with me for the rest of the day, and I ended up sending an e-mail to that professor the next day saying that I was seeing a different sort of explanation coming from the artists of this world.  I thought of the photograph that came out last weekend of the mosque in Halifax that was completely encircled by people holding hands protecting the people who were praying inside.  I thought about a song that was released on the day that Donald Trump was inaugurated called, “When God Imagined Me” that affirms that all people, no matter their gender, no matter their skin colour, no matter their religion, that all people are created in the image of God and ought to be honoured as such.  I think of the poem that El Jones wrote for the Women’s March in Halifax that names the ways that women have been and are still being oppressed, yet affirms a better way forward.  I think of the painting that looks like a traditional icon of Jesus with wounds in both of his hands, trapped behind barbed wire.  Are we the ones who have put Jesus behind barbed wire like a refugee?  Or are we the ones who are trapped behind the barbed wire of the world, and Jesus wants to rescue us from our imprisonment?

And so God pleads with us:
            Choose life.
            Choose love.

And God reminds us,
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            my love is stronger than your fear.
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            and I have promised, promised to be always near.

It isn’t easy, choosing love instead of fear.  We can choose love in one moment, but then in the next moment we can be caught back up into a cycle of fear.  And so I think that it has to be an ongoing decision, every day, every hour, every minute, to choose love instead of fear.  And if we slip up, if we succumb to fear, it’s not the end.  We still have another chance to choose love.  We still have another chance to choose to love God and to choose to love our neighbour.  And God is with us.  And love is always stronger than fear.  How are you going to choose love?

¹  John L. Bell and Graham Maule, "Don't Be Afraid," in More Voices, ed. Bruce Harding (Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 2007), 90.  Audio of this song can be heard here.

15 January 2017

Favourite Books of 2016

I'm a couple of weeks late with my annual post, I know, but better late than never - right?!

In no particular order (well, maybe a vaguely chronological order), here are my favourite books that I read last year.  Same rules as usual - it doesn't matter what year the book was first published, only that I read it for the first time in 2016.  There is some fiction, some non-fiction, some school books, some "fun" books.  If I reviewed the book, I've linked to my review.

I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) - This book was loaned to me by one of my professors over the Christmas break last year but I didn't read it until January.  When I read it, my first reaction was, "How have I lived for almost 40 years without discovering this book?"  Seriously - if you haven't read this book, you need to read it now.  I returned the borrowed copy, but next time I was ordering books, I bought myself a copy.  This is one that I want to have in my permanent book collection.

Come, Thou Tortoise (Jessica Grant) - Seriously, who doesn't love a book that is partially narrated by a tortoise, especially when the tortoise is the most reliable narrator in the book?  This was a recommendation from the same professor who loaned me I Capture the Castle, and was another delightful Christmas-break read last year (disclaimer:  I started this book in 2015 but didn't finish it until 2016, so I'm including it in my 2016 list).

God in Creation (J├╝rgen Moltmann) - This was a textbook last winter for a course I took on the theology of Moltmann.  It was the sort of book that made me want to stop after every sentence and ponder what I had just read; but unfortunately with 75-ish pages to read each week (in addition to the reading I was doing for my other courses), I didn't have the luxury of doing that.  It is one that I want to go back to at some point to read at a more leisurely pace.

When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi) - I heard the author's widow interviewed on CBC radio last January, and this was the first book I read after the end of the winter term.  It is a memoir of life and death, written after the author was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  It is beautifully written, and while sad at the end, it left me feeling buoyant.

The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood) - I wasn't sure what I thought about this book when I first read it, but it has stuck with me over the months since - I find myself thinking about it frequently - so I am including it on this list.

The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl (Sue Goyette) - This narrative told through poetry has also stayed with me since the summer.  It made me think, it broke my heart, and the language delighted me.

Wenjack (Joseph Boyden) - Another story that made me think and broke my heart.  There is no happy ending in this book, but then there is no happy ending that can be found in the death of an 11-year old boy who froze to death trying to find home.

Dust or Fire (Alyda Faber) - A longer review of this book is coming soon.  This is a book of poetry that was published last year by one of my professors (the same one who recommended the first two books on this list).  The poems are short (mostly 1-2 pages), but I found this book to be as un-put-down-able as a good novel.  I read it twice, back-to-back, as bedtime reading, and it was the cause of more than one late night.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (P. D. James) - I was a big fan of mystery writer P. D. James, and was sad when she died a few years ago at age 94, because I knew that there would be no more new books from her.  So I was very excited when I was at a bookstore before Christmas and discovered that 4 short Christmas-themed stories that she had written for publication in the newspaper had been published as a book.  I devoured the stories on Boxing Day - a perfect Christmas present from the "Queen of Crime"!

An eclectic list this year - a mix of fiction and non-fiction, short stories, with a couple of books of poetry thrown in (I think that this is the first year there has been any poetry on my list).  There seem to be a number of melancholy books on the list this year - I'm not sure if that is because I was reading more sad books in 2016, or whether these were the books that caught my attention.

Now over to you.  What was your favourite book that you read in 2016?

26 December 2016

Yiddish for Pirates - Gary Barwin

I picked up this book after seeing some good reviews of it; plus it was one of the Giller shortlisted books this year, and I was looking forward to reading it.  I came away from it with mixed feelings.

I loved the language.  The author plays with words and language in a way that was a delight for a language nerd like me to read.  Some examples:

On the destruction of books during the Inquisition:  "'Libricide, lexicution, biblioclasm.  To save our Catholic Spain,' he'd said, 'we must first destroy heresy.'" (p. 87)

On Hebrew vowels:  "You know they exist, they're just not there.  Like God to the troubled faithful." (p. 145)

On speaking Yiddish on a pirate ship:  "The perfect language for pirates, its words raggletag plundered and refitted from other times and tongues.  As the Pirate Bey says, 'Words belong to those who use them only till someone else steals them.'" (p. 247)

On a life of piracy:  "I wish that we, too, could leave this meiskeit-ugly bloodletting.  That we, too, could silently row out of this story and find another one, a story where more blood stayed in the body." (p. 303)

I also enjoyed the story - at least for most of the book.  Moishe is a Jewish boy who runs away from home in the late 1400s, during one of the periods of history with intense persecution of Jewish people.  It is the story of his persecution and how he continually escapes it.  The trick or catch in the story is that it is narrated by his parrot, an African Grey.

Unfortunately, both the continual language play and the plot grew tired before the end of the book.  Once Moishe ends up as a pirate in the Caribbean (he sails from Spain with Columbus), I lost track of what boat he was on, and with whom.  I confess that I was skimming the last 50 pages or so, just wanting to get to the conclusion to find out what would happen (not quite what I was predicting, but still a satisfactory conclusion).

(This was book 9/13 for me in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by the Book Mine Set)

16 December 2016

Angel Catbird - Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain

I was disappointed in this book.  I like Margaret Atwood.  I generally like graphic novels.  But this book didn't live up to my expectations.

Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer, and the premise behind this book was interesting - a gene-splicing formula spills, combining the DNA of a human, a cat, and an owl.  But beyond that, the plot spilled over into cliches with stilted dialogue.

I can't figure out who the target of this book is intended to be.  Maybe adults with nostalgia for the superhero comics of their childhood?  The plot and execution didn't appeal to my adult self, but the "cat facts" at the bottom of several pages definitely aren't geared towards children.

I did enjoy the artwork for the most part, but again, I found it very cliched.

I won't be reading the rest of the series as it is released.

(book 8/13 in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set)

11 December 2016

Secret Path - Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire

This is another re-telling of the story of Chanie Wenjack.  I was curious about why this album / graphic novel combination was released so close to Joseph Boyden's book telling the same story.  It turns out that it isn't coincidental - Joseph Boyden wrote an article for MacLeans explaining how Gord Downie's brother came across an article about the death of Chanie Wenjack written when he had died, and several artists decided to release works about the story this fall, corresponding with the 50th anniversary of Chanie's death.  They decided that the impact of multiple works released at the same time would be more significant than releasing them individually.

Secret Path, as a book, contains very few words.  Chanie Wenjack's story is outlined in a few short paragraphs on the back of the book, but the book itself contains only the lyrics of the 10 songs on Gord Downie's album of the same name, poignantly illustrated by Jeff Lemire.  The book comes with a code so that the album can be downloaded and listened to along with the book.

The illustrations are beautiful and heart-breaking.  I am a fan of Jeff Lemire's work (see my review of Essex County), and his style of illustration is well-matched to the story being told.  The pictures tell the story - they convey the cold and the loneliness and the longing for home without the need for words beyond the song lyrics.  My one quibble with the illustrations is minor - Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School that Chanie attended was run by the Presbyterian Church, yet Chanie is depicted as interacting with nuns.  I know that is minor, and if I hadn't lived in Kenora for a bit, I probably wouldn't have known to notice; and I will grant the illustrator artistic licence, since all of the major denominations did run residential schools in Canada.

I was talking to one of my professors on Friday about the story of Chanie Wenjack, and he mentioned that it is a story about attachment.  That comes across clearly in both this book and in Boyden's Wenjack.  In this book, it is the visual portrayal of Chanie's father appearing throughout the pages, drawing him homeward; while in Wenjack, it is Chanie holding on to his language, and continually recalling his family members.

The endings of the story are different.  In my review of Wenjack, I spoke of the starkness of the ending and the only hope coming from the public inquiry that came out of his death.  This book shows Chanie being re-united with his family after his death, and it came as a bit of a let-down since I read it after Wenjack.  There is nothing beautiful about the death of an 11-year old boy from exposure as he is trying to return home, and I felt a bit betrayed by the attempt to give Chanie a happy ending.  I can see why they chose to do it this way, but the ending of Wenjack was more powerful and thought-provoking.

The two books together, Wenjack and Secret Path, make good companion books.  One story, with two different perspectives.  As I said before, this is a story that Canada needs to know, and the more different ways the story can be told, the better.

I've downloaded the album, and will spend some time over the holidays listening to this third telling of the story.

(Book 7/13 for the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set)

8 December 2016

Wenjack - Joseph Boyden

This is a heart-breaking little book.  I started reading it last night and finished it in one sitting (though the fact that I didn't start reading it until after midnight is evidence of my membership in the BadDecisionsBookClub™).  Once I started, I couldn't put it down.

The 97 pages of this book tell the story of Charlie/Chanie Wenjack, an 11-year-old boy who ran away from his residential school to try and walk 600km home through the north-western Ontario bush in 1966.  Unsurprisingly, he doesn't make it very far before he dies from exposure beside the train tracks that he was following.  Two years after he was forcibly taken away from his family, his body was returned to them in a casket.

The story was even more poignant because the school that Chanie was sent to was Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School that was located in Kenora.  When I lived in Kenora for 8 months, I used to drive by the site where it was located.  The bush that Chanie was travelling through is the same bush where I would go hiking and canoeing.  As he was struggling along in the cold and wind and sleet and snow, Boyden's word painting combined with my own time spent in that same area led to a harrowing experience for my imagination.

The story of the residential schools in Canada is an important story to be told.  I have been privileged to be entrusted with stories from people who survived these schools in my career as a physiotherapist.  While Boyden doesn't describe the experience directly, Chanie's memories of the school and the abuse that he was subjected to haunt him as he walks along.

The book won't take you long to read, but if you are Canadian (or if you are interested in the history of Canada), this is an important book to read.

This isn't a happy book, and it left me feeling bereft.  In the hours since I finished reading it, I've been trying to think if there is anything redeeming that can come out of the story of this abandoned little boy. The only thing that I can think of comes not in Chanie's story, but in the Author's Note at the end where he writes that Chanie Wenjack's death led to the first public inquiry into the residential school system, and even though it took another 30 years, the system in Canada did finally end.

Next up I'm going to read Jeff Lemire and Gord Downie's take on the same story.

(This is book 6/13 for me in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set.)