Sunday, August 29, 2010

God feeds Ravens: think about it.

They neither labour, nor do they spin

Consider how the lilies grow. I’ve been wrestling with the meaning of this advice from Luke, where Jesus addresses his “little flock” with several examples to encourage them not to worry so much about the future. “Consider the ravens; they do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barns; yet God feeds them.” (Former residents of Thompson may share a more basic impression of how ravens--aka Thompson Turkeys--are fed.) It’s all in Luke 12: 22 - 31, which is the text for the sermon I’m scheduled to deliver in a couple of hours. As usual, it’s a part of my immediate future that worries me. Ravens and lilies don’t have to get up in front of people to speak.

Here, in summary, is what I intend to present. If you are a member of Eigenheim Mennonite, you can read the below and snooze through the sermon.

1) Jesus asked his disciples to consider how the lilies grow so they would stop letting their worries govern their choices. Lilies don’t work, they don’t weave clothing, they don’t wear cosmetics and still -- with only the attributes God has given them -- their beauty makes Solomon look like a mud fence in comparison!

2) We can learn much by attuning ourselves to the signs of God’s creation around us and focusing less on the wonders of our own technology.

3) The short life of a lily bloom echoes our own lamentations about the brevity of our lives. Although brief, no lily’s life is pointless. Even passing beauty is marvellous.

4) Baird’s Sparrows, Sprague’s Pipits, Meadowlarks, and the Red Western Lily are very fragile remnants of Creation. If they are not worth protecting, then is any of God’s creation worth our concern? We need to address our habits of carelessness with the natural world.

5) The lily can teach us humility. We can accept ourselves as we are made, be thankful for it and stop wasting our time trying to be something we’re not. We need to free ourselves to bloom as we are.

6) The lily is amazingly beautiful. We know this because our mothers and fathers taught us to recognize real beauty. It’s a part of our task as adults to pass the affection for the amazing things God has made on to our children.

The creator feeding the elk.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Get your rapture insurance now.

Angel Glacier, Mt. Edith Cavell.  Indian Paint Brush on Mt. Edith Cavell

Do you have a love/hate relationship with insurance policies and schemes? Do you sleep better knowing that if your house burns down, you won’t be left destitute like those poor folks in the TV news who--when they sob into the camera that they’ve lost everything--actually mean it? Are you bothered by the amount of money this assurance (insurance really is the wrong word) is costing you?

Some insurance is mandatory, some is optional. You can’t get a mortgage or drive your car without insurance, for instance, but additional health insurance, life insurance, travel insurance, etc. are optional. What optional insurance have you chosen to help you sleep soundly? I’ll bet there’s one out there that you haven’t even considered, and I almost hesitate to name it lest it give you new, unnecessary worries.

I think the entrepreneur who dreamed up this scheme called it Rapture Insurance. Here’s the pitch: If you believe that a time is coming when all born-again Christians will be caught up in the air at once to meet Jesus and all the rest will be “left behind,” you may not have considered what will happen to your faithful Corgi after the joyous event. Are you willing to risk his being locked in a house with no remaining human presence to turn the doorknob to let him out, feed him or take him for walks in the park? If this worries you, Rapture Insurance will guarantee for one decade from the date of sign-on that they will look after the needs of your pet should you be caught up in the rapture and your tank of fishes, your budgie or your cat be left behind. All it will cost you is eleven bucks a year.

In case you saw a flaw in this plan, namely that the insurer might also be “caught up” with you, the company guarantees that all their personnel are atheists and the chance that they would be included in the rapture are nil. Some people believe that their pets are definitely coming with them, and therefore have no need of this insurance. Then there are those who are Christians, but have an alternative view of how the end times will unfold, and their version sees no need for this insurance. But there are some takers for whom this additional piece of peace of mind fits right in.

I gathered all this information via an interview on CBC as I was driving to visit my sister in the nursing home yesterday.

To some of you out there, this story might suggest other entrepreneurial schemes by which you, too, could get rich preying on the fears of a segment of the public. How about my scheme: Slip of the Tongue insurance. Who knows when you might inadvertently say something stupid or hurtful, thereby damaging your reputation, a friendship or costing you your job. Should the occasion arise, my company guarantees to put a very persuasive announcement in the paper assuring all and sundry that you didn’t mean it. Premiums are affordable at fifty dollars a year; there will be a small deductible, of course. No preacher, teacher, doctor, husband, wife or salesman should be without Slip of the Tongue insurance.

It’s not a high price to pay for peace of mind; a slip of the tongue could ruin you.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Render thoughtfully

Where we stayed while in Jasper, and where we didn't stay.

In an interview aired on CBC1 as we were driving home from Jasper the other day, celebrated author Ann Rice told about her recent conversion to, and subsequent abandonment of, organized religion when she realized how her church was behaving in relationship to the secular world. She gave as an example the pope’s condemnation of gay marriage in a manner designed to influence voting. She claims that she is now one of the millions who, like her, have lost confidence in the integrity of the institutional church and are exercising their faith privately.

It’s not easy, understanding what separation of church and state involves, or what is meant by “render . . . unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God, the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21).” I’m not sure I understand it fully myself, but if I had to explain it to an inquiring mind, I’d say something like this:

There are two ideals at play for us in the separation of church and state in our country at this time: one is the Christian ideal based on the laws of the Old Testament and the gospel of Jesus Christ as interpreted by his early followers in the New Testament. The other is the ideal of political democracy, an ideal that says that every person--be he or she Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, etc.--has equal representation in formulating the laws of the land. Under the democratic ideal, every citizen, whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Atheist etc., should work to realize the democratic ideal and seek to legislate to the common good, not to his/her particular good, thus rendering to “Caesar” (today, our democratic ideals) the things that belong to democracy.

For some of us most of the time, and for most of us some of the time, getting our heads around this principle is a daunting task. If, for instance, we find abortion generally abhorrent based on our religious scruples, the liberalization of abortion laws is hard for us to take. Thinking through the window of our democratic ideals, however, we could possibly be convinced that charging women who choose abortion with accessory-to-murder (and the abortion doctor with first degree murder, possibly) may not best serve the common good, especially when we realize that induced miscarriage has been a fact of life through all history and will continue to be a best-solution to a certain problem for certain women--no matter what legislators decide.

That in no way prevents a Christian or a Christian church from practicing its religious ideals, teaching its children a doctrine of the sanctity of life and arming them with proper information and convictions to manage pregnancy as well as they can. It doesn’t prevent the Christian church from setting up clinics to help women who are up against hard choices, to facilitate adoptions, to provide sex education, to influence their neighbours and politicians to make life-giving choices and so on, thus rendering to God what is God’s.

The advantages we have gained by the proper separation of church and state and by the democratization of our politics are almost immeasurable. So peaceful have our lives become, generally, that we could be lulled into a state of ignorance on this subject and neglect to understand and practice the “render[ing] . . . unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God, the things that are God’s.”

We may not regard Ann Rice very highly as a theologian, but I have to think that she has grasped something that might be self-evident to recent converts and obscure to those born into faith. Her testimony is a warning to all established religions: render more thoughtfully.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

On Reading "The Patience Stone"

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan appears to be strengthening. The Dutch are leaving after sacrificing some 24 young soldiers to the futile effort to impose democracy on a country extremely short on democratic sensibility. Canada will give up its combat role in half a year and the rest of the NATO group fighting that peculiar “war” is fast wearying of the routine of runway ceremonies. The illusion of a successful, externally imposed order is fading.

To say that Westerners have failed to understand the mentality prevailing in the Middle East may be the understatement of the “War on Terror” campaign into which we’ve bought so carelessly. In a paternalistic society like Afghanistan, honour and machismo rank highly as evidence of the quality of a man; the Western world has dealt humiliation to the men of the Middle East for decades. The War on Terror is an extension of the policy of paternalism and imperial privilege that set the stage for the current dilemma in Afghanistan. Western men’s machismo now seeks an honourable way out of yet another dishonourable war.

There are things we would understand if we had a memory and the wisdom to connect some historical dots. It’s only 100 years since North American men were scoffing at the idea of women voting; even now, the glass ceiling persists.

There are books to be read that could help us understand where many Middle East men are now. (Yann Martel has so far been unsuccessful in engaging Prime Minister Harper in a dialogue about books; Harper’s favourite reading is Guinness World Records.) The Patience Stone by expatriate Afghani writer Atiq Rahimi could be helpful to our politicians if they would take the hour of thoughtful reading that it requires.

A sang e saboor is a patience stone, a stone to which you bare your soul while it listens uncritically. In this case, the patience stone is the husband of an Afghani woman, deep in a coma from a gunshot wound to his neck, a wound acquired in the conflict that is every-day Afghanistan.

“You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces . . . and on that day you are set free from all your pain, all your suffering (75-6).”As the woman cares for her unresponsive husband, she begins to unburden her soul of all the hurt and humiliation she has had to endure because she is a woman. His comatose bulk becomes her patience stone. And in the silent moments between confessions, she tells her beads, repeating one of the many names of Allah ninety nine times, and she fingers the Koran that is always nearby.

Insurgents burst into her house as she keeps watch and because she is pretty and can read intent in their eyes, she convinces them that she is a prostitute. There is no honour, no manliness in consorting with a willing prostitute; it’s the conquest of the undefiled that marks them as men and they leave her be. Ironically, they steal her Koran.

The Patience Stone captures with courage and simple, explosive prose, the reality of everyday life for a woman under the oppressive weight of Islamic fundamentalism,” the flyleaf intones. That may be the milieu in which this particular woman experiences oppression, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that fundamentalism of any stripe has, and continues to, degrade women in a variety of ways. Islamic fundamentalism most certainly doesn’t have a lock on paternalism and its consequences.

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me . . . Exodus 20:5

I have to wonder if the Exodus verse is quoting God or documenting experience. If the latter, then it makes sense to note that the effects of bad behaviour have consequences that reach down through generations. In other words, the democratization of a people will never be effected in a brief war; it’s a transition that will only occur over generations, if at all.

We hate the thought that the resolution for Afghanistan may not be seen until our great, great grandchildren come to peaceful terms with the great, great grandchildren of the Taliban. But there may be no other choice.