Sunday, March 24, 2013

Born early enough

Branching out on the family tree
Can you find the nut in the family tree?
I was born early enough in the century (1941) to remember what it’s like to sit in the front seat of a buggy and watch the wheels twirling up dust in the tracks of a dirt road. If I close my eyes I can still smell horse, and the sensation of pulling a hair from the horse’s tail off my lips. Phew!

I was born early enough in the century to remember what a classroom smells like on the first of September when all the excruciating delight of July and August with no-Math-to-be-done had worn off and the newness of fresh things to read, sharpened pencils and notebooks still crisp waiting to be written-in, beckoning like sirens.   

I was born early enough in the century to have felt the joy of sunlight flickering through spinning poplar leaves, and to have heard the soft moan of a warm and wandering wind in the treetops. To have dreamt the future there under the boughs, a future that beckoned from east, west, north and south like barkers at an Exhibition.

And the dairy barn, the shuffling, munching sounds of Holsteins feeding in their stanchions, the impertinent braying of hungry calves and the snort and stamp of impatient horses in wood-floored stalls. The mixed smell of fresh horse, cow and calf manure, pungent in the frosty air billowing in from the door.

I was born early enough in the century to know the politics of family working the land together, tilling the summer fallow, taking turns cleaning seed grain in a dusty granary, feeling the chafe of oat dust under the collar and marvelling at the stream of grain from the auger at harvest time. Shovelling the heap in the bin, bent over under the roof rafters, the wheat dust piercing my nose like needles, shoulders screaming for a break.  

And evenings, yes. The work done, the reluctance to sleep, the urge to stretch the plum part of the day with a book, with a game of whist, with Wilf Carter on the radio. I marvelled how mother’s hands could keep the tatting shuttle flying back and forth so quickly, so persistently, and how father would snore at the radio, asleep, waiting for Earl Cameron to announce the world from pole to pole at 8:00 p.m. C.S.T. And the weather forecast, of course; will it finally rain?

Of such are the occasional thoughts of one born early enough in the century.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Summons to Action

Prairie Winter - copyright image by Geo. Epp

Knitmare - copyright image by Geo. Epp

These thoughts follow my reading this morning of an article on the CBC website: What do you Believe? by Mary Hynes, host of the radio broadcast, Tapestry, airing weekly.
You’re welcome to click on the link above and read it for yourself before going on with my impressions. I’d also encourage you to subscribe to Mary’s podcasts; she produces some very profound, sometimes provocative programs touching on faith.
As you will have deduced by a post I wrote a few weeks ago, I’m currently disturbed by our reliance for unity on belief, on creedal statements and our acquiescence to them. In that post I described an event that appeared to me to urge a certain belief about the creation of the world based on a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis. Quite obviously, the presentation didn’t meet with unanimous approval; much of the Christian world reads the creation stories of Genesis allegorically and could no more compel themselves (or be compelled by others) to believe the historicity of the Genesis account than they could force themselves to believe in Santa Clause, leprachauns or extra-terrestrials.
This morning we read the Apostles’ Creed in unison in church. It, too, clearly admonishes us to declare a belief in certain things and I occasionally find myself skipping a line or two because I’m not certain that I, personally, believe it.
Hynes quotes author Karen Armstrong on the subject of belief:

"The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on 'belief' in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people 'believers,' as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity," Armstrong wrote.

"All good religious teaching … is basically a summons to action. Yet instead of being taught to act creatively upon them, many modern Christians feel it is more important to 'believe' them."

There might well be countering arguments to Armstrong’s viewpoint, but it occurs to me that our most divisive issues throughout church history and including today have been and are centred not on what we ought to do, but on what we ought to believe.
The discouraging consequence of this is that we are led to exhaust ourselves in questions of how our beliefs differ— who’s wrong and who’s right—before we ever get to the real question, namely answering the “summons to action.”
What difference would it make if our Bible study in our churches went like this:
1)      Read a passage of scripture aloud.
2)      Have another person read it again.
3)      Observe a few moments of silent contemplation.
4)      Ask participants to point out any features of the text that stick out for them.
5)      Ask the group what actions the passage seems to summon us to take.
6)      Conclude the study with open prayer or silence.

In my experience, Bible studies that are planned not to break out into comparisons of interpretations are productive precisely because—for a change—they focus us on the real questions: what actions does scripture compel us to take, and how will we respond? This is both a personal and a communal question and in the act of interpreting for action and not for belief, the quest for bringing about the kingdom in our stations and occupations is made central and clear.

Thank you, Mary Hynes. Thanks Karen Armstrong.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Musings on a Train

Waiting for the 1 1/2  hour-late VIA Rail train to Winnipeg. "Why didn't you fly?" you ask. Two reasons: flight phobia and the price. 
          On the way in to Saskatoon, CBC Saskatchewan aired an interview with a faculty member at the University of Regina. It had to do with budget shortfall, cuts at the faculty level and questions about the overstocking of administrative offices. Typical.
            I'm going to a Mennonite Church Canada General Board meeting in Winnipeg, where the most pressing issue these days is falling donation receipts and the threat of budget deficits.
            “Why is every institution short of money these days? It's the same every where you turn,” Agnes asked.
            It reminded me of a report somebody linked to Facebook: Americans aren't aware of the degree to which inequality is rising in that country where the top few percent are becoming increasingly more wealthy while the middle class is stagnating, it's contribution to the economy usurped by owners, executives and shareholders of corporations. The graphics were dramatic.
            What's the upshot? How are the observations about starving institutions and corporate greed related? I'm guessing that our primary social and educational institutions have come to depend on the middle class for their support, for their labour, for their professional abilities and in an environment where the relative wealth and power of the middle class is stagnant or in decline, institutions like universities, churches, libraries, charitable endeavours, etc. are bound to decline lock-step.
            “Who's to blame?” was the obvious question in our conversation. Who indeed? Well, let's think about it for a minute. The distribution of wealth generated by a corporation is determined by its board and management. In a perfect world, the worker would have as much right to set the price for his labour as a corporation has to set its prices and its profit distribution. The trend, however, is to suppress the right to collective bargaining, thereby ensuring that whatever power the labourer and professional once had in the distribution of profits will inevitably erode. 
            I think that's what we're seeing, and it's not pretty.
            Unfortunately, we are corporatising our governments so that the rhetoric coming from Ottawa and Regina is pretty much the same as that coming from corporate boardrooms: more and faster growth, maximize resource exploitation, remove barriers like ecological assessment, local protest, public indignation, etc. What is it we're hearing but the reinvention of the cry of the aristocracy in Downton Abbey, “We must stay strong because it's our duty to be wealthy so we can give employment to servants and tenant farmers.”
            The blame for the starvation of institutions, I fear, lies most clearly with the political/corporate structure; the remedies lie in the ballot box and in the insistence that governments pay more than lip service to the notion that the  decline of Western economies is assured if the middle class is not tended, and tended well.