In 2017-2018 I found myself available to consider new ministry opportunities, and so when "a friend of a friend" invited me into a project in Kitchener, I joined in. St. Paul's Lutheran Church/Bridgeport was looking at alternatives to closing their doors. Together with the minister (at the time) and the church council we began imagining "outside the box" possibilities. The church wanted to find a way to maintain their almost 150 year presence in this community along the Grand River. Out of their core values of faith, service and fellowship we identified what that might look like in the present moment. Through some "dream sessions" and a call for partners, a partnership emerged with MennoHomes and Parents for Community Living.
St Paul's Lutheran/Bridgeport has merged their 2.5 acres of high-value/high visibility property into the project, with MennoHomes now taking the lead in developing the building and property. As you can imagine a partnership like this takes a substantial commitment of time, trust, relationship building, and mind-boggling budgeting exercises. The St Paul's congregation just recently moved out of their building which will be demolished in March as construction gets underway. A recent article in The Record (K/W paper) tells some of the story.
The link here takes you to MennoHomes site with some background on the need for affordable housing in the region and more info about the financial model required to bring it to pass, including substantial grant funding (millions $) from levels of government.
Isaiah 54:1-10, Psalm 124, Matthew 24:23-35
In the Christian tradition, Advent is a season of great hope and possibility. God has come to dwell among human beings, setting in motion something new and mysterious – the kingdom of heaven emerging in our earthly dimension.
Today’s lectionary readings don’t start with hopefulness, they start with disturbing images. A desolate, barren woman. Anger, floods, being swallowed alive. False messiahs and false prophets, deception, unsettling.
These images remind us of the daily headlines we process. Except, and I am continually surprised, that a lot of people I engage with don’t seem to even pay attention to the times we are living in. Some for good reason, “it’s so disturbing, I’ve just stopped watching, I don’t need that!” And they literally have no clue what is going on beyond their own lived experience. Others are largely ignorant of the real issues but express themselves in extremely polarized utterances.
Our recent election in Canada is a case in point. My connections included people who had no clue what was going and just functioned on auto-pilot; as well as people who had no understanding of the real issues but expressed extremely volatile opinions (on all sides), and thankfully, a few people with whom I could carry on a thoughtful conversation. I often found myself wondering, how does the notion that we “should have no other gods before Yahweh” factor into our daily lives and, let’s say, our political decisions?
The Isaiah passage starts off as a loving invitation to a barren, desolate woman, to have courage and widen her tent because blessing is coming. “Don’t be afraid, you won’t be put to shame.” Feelings of empathy emerge for this downtrodden, struggling, rejected, marginalized woman. We want to defend her, hold her up, to advocate her case, to seek justice.
Until we read a bit further and come to realize that this “woman” is actually a personification of the nation of Israel. A woman, a people, who turned away from a loving, compassionate, slow-to-anger God/Husband, to seek after other, more tangible, more handsome, more convenient gods. We discover that the loving, compassionate Husband wants to restore the relationship despite the rejection, despite the sorry state this woman has fallen to, as the consequence of her choices. The Holy One of Israel, your Redeemer, the God of all the earth, Yahweh, says “my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace removed.”
Psalm 124 is a cry of thanksgiving following desperate circumstances. It could be the cry of the desperate, barren woman who now wants to return to her husband. Despite the consequences she has suffered for turning away, she realizes, “if not for him” I would not have escaped. Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth has broken the snare, for me.
Matthew 24 warns that false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive the faithful. And people will be deceived. Everything around the faithful will be shaken, but do not be disturbed. Look for signs of hope – like the fig tree. There is an inevitableness about these things. Many things we hold sacred will pass away. But Messiah’s time will come.
I think our recent election was a disturbing time for many people. My reminder, as we gathered to worship the Trinity on the day before the election, to the congregation I serve amongst, went something like this.
“Which God are we worshipping today? Which God will you worship throughout the week?
If we are worshipping the middle-class, growth-market god who deceives us with a few more dollars in our pockets and a secure job, then we may be turning away from the Loving Husband God. If we are crying in desperation to some human god to save us from the snares we have fallen into, then we may be turning away from Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth.
But if today, we are reminding ourselves that the loving, compassionate God who sent himself amongst us to demonstrate that love, is the only one we can look too in our desperation, then there is a reason to be hopeful. Our actions today are treasonous, we are saying in the songs we sing, the Scriptures we read, and the prayers we pray, that Yahweh, Messiah, is Lord and not the leaders and pundits of this nation-state. When we bring our financial resources forward, giving them away as an act of worship, we are saying the market-force-gods do not control us.”
To me, those are “fig-tree” signs of the kingdom of God emerging on earth. Signs that Emmanuel has come.
Several years ago I read Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden. A film adaptation of this story premiered at TIFF recently. It's a powerful story of contemporary indigenous life set in both Northern Ontario and several mega-cities. At the time of the book's release in 2008, it was highly acclaimed. As was his previous novel 2005 novel, Three Day Road.
It was only after the release of his 2013 novel, The Orenda, that Boyden began to be questioned about his claimed aboriginal identity. I have a suspicion that the shaming of Boyden began because certain elements didn't like the content of that novel. There is so much to be explored in the story of his shaming -- the "real" issues behind the APTN "expose" of Boyden, and the white liberal, neo-colonialist progressives who made the story "popular," etc.
But what really grabbed me this week was this CBC conversation with Tina Keeper, one of the aboriginal producers of the new film. She's a personal friend of Joseph Boyden. The article touches on an issue that I raise frequently, "who gets to tell whose story?" Keeper is aware that working on a project like this involves a cooperative, collaborative process in an industry where indigenous people are in short supply. She says:
"There are some cultural elements that need to be addressed and how we work together, absolutely. I'm not talking about those things, I'm talking about how do we collaborate and work together," she says. "Because I know [Indigenous people have] been so discarded and so dismissed in the history and the cultural memory of this country, so I just feel that it's important for us to understand all of that when we're collaborating."
For me, that is a positive "way forward" approach to navigating our differences. Being aware of our own "stuff," paying attention and listening authentically to others, and then collaboratively finding a way to work together -- because together is much better than separate or oppositional.
Or, why I prefer to nod and smile affably and not contribute to the debate on identity politics, while getting on with actually bridging differences.
A lot of the current debate on identity politics tends to emerge from those who hold what are regarded as socially progressive views about these topics. For the sake of argument, I would like to suggest that there are actually two fields of study that are part of this debate. The disciplines of sociology and psychology.
Psychology constitutes, by means of the scientific method, a body of organized knowledge, the purpose of which is to describe, explain, predict and in some cases influence behaviour. "Behaviour" includes conduct and internal processes (thoughts, emotional reactions, feelings, etc) that may be inferred from external actions.
Sociology is the study of human relationships, the rules and norms that guide them, and the development of institutions and movements that conserve and change society. Sociologists now study the historical development of class relations and its relationship to economic, political and ideological processes.
For most of the 20th century, the discipline of psychology was prominent in the public consciousness with such personages as Skinner, Freud, Piaget, Erickson and Rogers. The discipline of sociology grew in increasing significance during the late 20th century and also has its well-known names: Durkheim, Weber, Foucault, Habermas and Bourdieu.
A simple, however reductionist, summary might be: psychology examines individual human behaviours, while sociology examines collective human behaviours. Again, fearful of simplifying, we might say there is a debate going on about who or what is responsible? Individual human responsibility or collective social systems? Again, fearfully broaching… In the Boushie/Stanley encounter, who/what is responsible? Two individuals making very emotional responses and stupid behavioural choices that ended in tragedy? Or two products of socially pre-determined systems where this outcome was completely predictable? Interestingly, the court system is built on the notion of individual responsibility (intent/behavior) and verifiable proof – thus the outcome of the trial. The popular media and a generation of millennials raised on sociology (systemic responsibility), not psychology (individual responsibility), however, see through the lens of the socially pre-determined inevitabilities of racism and unconscious bias.
In search of more clarity, I would like to introduce the discipline of anthropology into this conversation:
Anthropology is the comparative study of past and contemporary cultures, focusing on the ways of life and customs of people around the world. Applied anthropologists use their knowledge of peoples and cultures for practical purposes. They do this framed by anthropological concepts and a methodology - ethnographic fieldwork - that portrays people in their actual circumstances.
Anthropology has a long tradition in Canada. In fact, Franz Boas, considered by many as a founder of the discipline, did his most significant ethnographic work among Canadian indigenous peoples in the late 1800s. One of his students, Edward Sapir, was chief ethnologist for the Geological Survey of Canada (1910-1925), producing seminal work on linguistics and culture before his death in 1939. He was also an ardent pacifist and humanist who challenged narratives of European cultural superiority over Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Other students of Boas included Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.
It is within the learning framework of anthropology that I have spent most of my adult life. I was born and raised for the first 11 years of my life in the multi-ethnic mix of 1960s northern Ontario. I was exposed in everyday life to multiple, first-gen central and eastern Europeans, with some Scandinavians thrown in. This social context also included First Nations peoples. As an elementary school-aged observer, the stark reality of “poor living conditions” and “people in distress” was apparent. My parents, primary influencers of my early worldview, spoke of “these poor people who need help.” My parents, generally, had a positive desire to be service-oriented rather than judgmental or derogatory toward First Nations people; this included several summers where we “camped” on, or near reserves, to facilitate religious education experiences. My father tells a story of visiting in Norval Morrisseau’s home in the late 60s.
These early life exposures were fundamental to my understanding of difference. Languages, foods, living conditions, customs, values, were “interesting, but different.” To be explored and understood. I would go on to have other experiences with First Nations friends (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Huu-ay-aht First Nation). Further life experience has led me to engage with people and explore cultures in Mexico (6 weeks), Egypt (14 months), Cyprus (1 month), South Africa (6 years), Hungary (5 weeks), Niger (2 months), Ghana (6 weeks), Sri Lanka (8 months), India (2 months), and The Philippines (1 month).
OK, thanks for all that, Dan, so what’s your point?
“Applied anthropologists use their knowledge of peoples and cultures for practical purposes.” How does this knowledge and experience of diverse peoples help us in this current conversation? One of the applications of anthropology is to the discipline of intercultural communications, which aids in the development of intercultural competence.
Intercultural communication is defined as situated communication between individuals or groups of different linguistic and cultural origins. This is derived from the following fundamental definitions: communication is the active relationship established between people through language, and intercultural means that this communicative relationship is between people of different cultures, where culture is the structured manifestation of human behaviour in social life within specific national and local contexts, e.g. political, linguistic, economic, institutional, and professional. Intercultural communication is identified as both a concept and a competence. Intercultural competence is the active possession by individuals of qualities which contribute to effective intercultural communication and can be defined in terms of three primary attributes: knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Let’s catch up. Psychology situates the debate in individual terms, sociology as systemic and collective. Intercultural communication (an area of applied anthropology) says, "hold on, let’s sit down and figure out what’s going on and how we can move forward." This debate has individual, social, cultural, linguistic, political, economic and institutional implications. Meaning, engagement and dialogue is complex and any simplistic, reductionist media bites (on either side) completely miss the point.
The person who says “get your act together and pull up your bootstraps, Colten/Gerald” is missing the more complex work that needs to be done. As is the person who says “systemic racism caused this tragedy, we need to deconstruct the system.” It’s clearly both/and. But you know what? – all that takes time and commitment to engage, while suspending judgement in the meantime. And “the meantime” may take a long time.
Intercultural communication/competence provides these clues to the work that needs to be done:
And that’s my point. I’m tired of the debates – they only lead to further polarization, an entry-level phase of developing intercultural competence. I’m tired of the arm-chair, sophomoric social philosophers. I’d rather just sit down and spend some time engaging with, and learning from, someone who sees things different from myself – and doesn’t feel a need to convert me to their way of thinking. Maybe after I’ve listened long enough, I might get a chance to respectfully share my thoughts.
So I would respectfully suggest the beginning point is individual response (engagement, rethinking, changed behaviour) that leads to changes in systems, over time, because enough individual responses produce systemic change.
For years, while my children were growing up, I had a tradition of sitting down, sometime over Christmas, and reading to them from William Kurelek’s, A Northern Nativity: Christmas Dreams of a Prairie Boy. I didn’t grow up on the prairies but have lived there and hitch-hiked across Western Canada – when that sort of thing wasn’t frowned upon. So I can imagine myself in his settings, which also include other distinctive Canadian locales.
The book is a collection of Kurelek paintings with accompanying script versions of his dreams, around the theme of the Nativity of Jesus. The colour paintings reproduced in the book are typical of Kurelek’s mature style and are visually attractive, even to kids. The accompanying dream scripts may have meant more to me than my kids, but I read them anyway, often stopping to choke back tears as I read.
William Kurelek (1927-1977) was a Canadian artist, writer and a devout Christian. Of Ukrainian background, from Alberta, Kurelek graduated from the U of Manitoba with a degree in art and did studies at the Ontario College of Art, with further work in Mexico and Europe. Although baptized and raised Ukrainian Orthodox, he became an atheist in young adulthood, before converting to Roman Catholicism at 30. He remained a committed Catholic until his death by cancer at 50.
Kurelek based this book on his own childhood dreams coupled with his adult life experience -- on the theme of the Incarnation, that Christ came to all people, everywhere. What would happen if Joseph and Mary arrived at a prairie farm house? He imagines that the nativity takes place in northern snows. He dreams that the Christ child is born to Eskimos (sic), to Indians, to Blacks, that the Nativity takes place in a fisherman’s hut, a garage, a cowboy’s barn, that the holy family is given refuge in a city mission, a grain barn, and a country school.
Kurelek’s paintings and dream scripts are quintessentially Canadian. Published shortly before his death, Kurelek engages with the diverse cultures present in the Canadian landscape. This would have been a theme much on his mind as an adult living through the 1960s and early 70s in Canada. Of Ukrainian background, it was the question of what to do with the Eastern European immigrants who had flooded into a Western European Canada that helped spark the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-69) and the subsequent policies on multiculturalism that continue to inform our public space.
One very poignant image is of Mary and baby Jesus reaching out to a young man sleeping rough and cold under some trees on a riverbank – in the background we see a view of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa from the Quebec side of the river. Kurelek asks, what if the Child reached out to those deliberating on the Hill? Would he be received or rejected?
During the Advent season, we focus on the first coming of God Incarnate, Emmanuel, and reflect on the Second Coming with its promise of the restoration of all things as God intended. In this in-between time of waiting and expecting, we are reminded by David Fitch that God “requires a people tending to his presence to make his presence visible for all to see.”
Kurelek’s images in Northern Nativity give a glimpse into the places, and the people among whom that presence needs to be made visible.
In light of ongoing social ferment in 2017 on both sides of the US/Canada border, I offer some insights from Jurgen Moltmann, written 40 years ago. Readers of Volf's Exclusion and Embrace will recognize Moltmann's influence on his thought.
In a social context where often we are only getting perspectives that represent a humanist worldview (i.e., a world with human capacity for self-improvement at the centre) or distorted Christian civil religion (with Christian semantics employed in the service of patriotism), we need to take the time to reflect more deeply on a revealed tradition that for millenia recorded a perspective on the distorted human condition that can only be rectified by outside intervention. We can't fix this of our own accord. History is witness to that reality.
"Birds of a feather flock together." But why? People who are like us, who think the same thoughts, who have the same things, and who want the same things, confirm us. However, people who are different from us, that is, people whose thoughts, feelings and desires are different from ours, make us feel insecure. We therefore love those who are like us and shun those who are different from us. And when these others live in our midst expressing their need for recognition, interest, and humanity, we react with defensiveness, increased self-confirmation, anxiety and disparagement. This anxiety is indeed the root of racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination against people with disabilities, and, not the least, the lack of relationships in the congregation. "Birds of a feather flock together": that is nothing other than the social form of self-justification and the expression of anxiety. This form of self-justification, therefore, never appears without aggressions against that which threatens its security. It has no self-confidence. It has no ego-strength.
"Accept one another." As we have seen this imperative unfortunately has its limitations. The roots of these limitations lie deep within ourselves. They appear in our anxiety about ourselves, and then in the self-justification which is so deeply ingrained in us.
"Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you" (Romans 15:7). Only this attitude can give us a new orientation and break through our limitations so that we can spring over our narrow shadows. It opens us up for others as they really are so that we gain a longing for and an interest in them. As a result of this we become able actually to forget ourselves and to focus on the way Christ has accepted us.
... We can mutually accept each other because Christ has accepted us...
(from Jurgen Moltmann, The Open Church: Invitation to a Messianic Lifestyle, SCM Press, 1978.)
Charles Taylor is one of the sane-ist people living on this planet... here is a very recent article, which addresses, implicitly, a lot of the polarization going on, on multiple fronts these days, from Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter & LGBTQ, Take a Knee, Vilifying Jordan Peterson, Niqabs in Quebec, Rachel Harder's ostracization, to Muslims taking over the World.
(a couple excerpts)
Modern democracy as we know it - unlike ancient democracy - is universalist. We believe that citizen rights should apply to the whole population, without exclusion on grounds of gender, property, origin and race.
But, in a paradoxical way, democracy can also generate exclusion, and regularly does. This means that our really existing democracies have to be continually vigilant, and ready to combat this thrust towards exclusion whenever it arises.
How does this tendency towards exclusion come about? It comes from another feature of democracies, both ancient and modern.
Here we have a classic case of democracy turning against itself. We might say, its "immune system," which should be detecting betrayals of its ethic, is turned against potentially "friendly" cells. So that democracy generates exclusion when its "immune system" turns against itself. This is what we are witnessing today...
Last week my wife and I visited the National Gallery of Canada to wander through the new display, Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967. I'm always inspired to stand or sit in front of Tom Thomson's Jack Pine or something by Emily Carr. This time I saw Yvonne McKague Housser's Rossport, Lake Superior. I've seen it before but I was startled again by how significant that sight is -- of this little village overlooking the lake, just down the road from where I was born. Aside from the early Modernist colour scheme, that's pretty much my "impression" from the early 1960s.
They also had a couple of Norval Morrisseau's pieces among many other indigenous artists that have been given a higher profile in the Gallery in preparation for the Canada 150 business. I have several Morriseau prints because I have been intrigued by his work since I was a kid. In the 1960s Morriseau lived not far from where I was born. Shortly after the kerfuffle with his work at Expo '67 he got a lot of press and certainly became a household name in my family. My father visited in his home around that same time period.
This morning as I was driving I listened to a podcast of Roberta Jamieson on CBC's Ideas program. Ms Jamieson is from the Six Nations of the Grand River, just outside Hamilton, where I live. She was recounting the history of indigenous and settler populations in Canada. I am continually amazed by how much of the history of colonial engagement and deception is unknown to large swathes of the Canadian population. [I think there is something about each generation needing to be retold the story, to give perspective on the present]
She also began recounting the steps that have taken place over the past 50 years to begin telling a different story. She mentioned that despite the perspectives of others, she would be celebrating Canada 150, because she sees reconciliation emerging in new and hopeful ways that haven't been there before. She feels the "Canadian" values of inclusion and welcome (although indigenous people have felt like outsiders for so long) are actually indigenous values that were demonstrated, practically, centuries ago, at first contacts with traders and settlers.
I would highly recommend listening to her talk, for history, reality and generosity of spirit. https://podcast-a.akamaihd.net/mp3/podcasts/ideas_20170630_64034.mp3
One of her thoughts was that we need to move beyond apologies and neo-liberal/progressive hand-wringing (she gives a throw-away 'tsk, tsk' to the whole "cultural appropriation" debate from this spring), to concrete action. She says don't come with your ideas on "how to help us;" just come and listen and explore together the way ahead.
On that note, I want to share this link to another podcast talking to my friend Darryl (a school teacher in Saskatoon) about his walk through the Truth & Reconciliation Commission summary, and his own neighbourhood to listen, explore and learn to adjust and create new things together.