Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Frostiana for a Sunday morning

Mending Wall - Robert Frost
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it

And spills the upper boulders in the sun . . ."

I was asked to read Mending Wall by Robert Frost to an adult Bible class Sunday  morning, so I gave it another look before I went out to snowblower the driveway. (snowblower: v. - poetic license #301HER) As so often happens when I revisit Frost--or Eliot, or W. Jansen or V.C.Friesen, for that matter--I can't put the book down before reading just one more.

Some talk about this phenomenon when reading the Bible.

Except that they lack endorsement by ancient canonical councils, our poets could be called prophets. But then, ". . . A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country." (Mark 6:4) Take Frost's Mending Wall, an eloquent, poignant, unpreachifying (See poetic license authorization above) urging us to consider carefully the reasons for--and the consequences of--wall and fence-building, whether physical OR virtual.

Nature shakes our stone walls apart; something in our hearts longs for walls and fences to come down.

Frost's farmer friend insists that "good fences make good neighbours." We would do well as communities--whether they be secular or spiritual, neighbourly or scattered--to study Frost's great poem together and consider our fence-building obsessions, their reasons and their consequences.

" . . . It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need a wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard."

So if your appetite for more prophetic Frostian verse has been whetted, let me recommend Revelation. I give you a link: Frost and his poetry are eminently googleable. (Ibid).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Windshield wipers on horses

Blackstrap prairie . . . and no pipelines in sight.
I was more or less indifferent about the Keystone Pipeline. It wouldn't be crossing my yard, I didn't live down river from the oil sands and I'm not a trained environmentalist. I'm just an ordinary guy who coughs and sneezes when the air is foul and a worrier about the future of mankind if we don't start seriously switching to non-carbon energy sources soon. Those were the thoughts that idled through my brain after listening to the endless quarrels.

But I've come to oppose it for a simple, more personal reason.

They say getting oil safely to the Gulf of Mexico makes the pipeline essential. I guess I can accept that; Lac Megantic illustrated for us the very real hazards in moving petroleum products by rail. The argument, though, "begs the question:" it's a fallacy in logic. To be shown to be a reasonable argument, the need to move oil to the Gulf at all must first be established. It hasn't. At least not in my presence. The range of options as regards oil sands crude is broad, the transportation to the Gulf for processing and distribution being but one possibility.

The errors of logic don't stop there; that the pipeline is vital to the Canadian economy assumes that alternative investments wouldn't deliver similar results. I can't recall where I read it, but the thrust was of the near certainty that research, development and implementation in the renewable energy sector will be the wave of prosperity in the near future, and that the demand for fossil fuels will diminish in inverse proportion. If this is a sound prediction, then Keystone may have begun its slide into obsolescence about the time it's finished.

There are lots of arguments out there opposing Keystone; the environmentalists and scientists would come up with a whole catalog at the drop of a hat, I expect. I'm language-and-logic obsessed, I guess, and so my exception to Keystone Pipeline lies in that area. The project is extremely poorly supported in the reason and logic areas. The premises on which the arguments for the absolute need of a pipeline rest are shaky at best, false at worst.

And for any proponents of the project who don't know the difference between a non sequitur and a hand saw or who don't recognize when an argument "begs the question," I offer a simple explanation:
Suppose a couple builds a house and while shopping for plumbing stuff, the man's eyes fall on a lawn fertilizer sale so he buys a big bag of it. When the wife asks, "Why all the fertilizer?" the man says, "Well it's logical. We'll need it for our lawn! And it was on sale!" "Really?" says the wife. "We haven't even explored properly whether or not a lawn is what we ought to have!"

The man's logic is impeccable--except for the fact that it "begs a question" that renders it as stupid as windshield wipers on a horse.

It's Keystone Pipeline logic.

And that's why I oppose it.

Let's put the wife in the allegory in charge; our current government is far too busy shopping for more and more fertilizer!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

To smudge or not to smudge

Do we have "sacred places?"
Have you ever smudged, and if you did, was your heart in it? No doubt you've already heard about the canceled MCC event in Winnipeg. Seems the Pentecostal Church whose space they had rented got wind of the Aboriginal performers' intention to "smudge" before their appearance and decided this would be inappropriate in a Christian church. It's been all over the news so you probably already know about the competing opinions on this development. 

Coincidentally, it fell to my lot on the last two Sundays to lead a couple of adult classes in discussions of Ezekiel's temple visions and I did some reading on the nature of burnt offerings as religious ceremonies, particularly in Judeo-Christian history. A rabbi writes that the smoke from the sacrificial altar is/was an aroma pleasing to God, as well as having cleansing attributes, of course.

I've visited cathedrals all over Europe and must say that wafting candle smoke and the exotic aroma of burning incense has become a powerful, soothing balm to me. But then, the candles and the aroma of burning pine needles affected me similarly during childhood Christmases, as did the burning of dry leaves and garden debris in the fall.

More recently, I have found the experience of smudging with the smoke of burning sweet grass soothing,  somehow elevating. I was told on a recent visit to an exhibit at Wanuskewin Heritage Park that smudging before entering the exhibitcommemorating murdered and missing Aboriginal womenwas mandatory. Our guide spoke of cleansing, of reconnecting with our creator through the medicinal elements of creation: sweetgrass, sage, cedar and tobacco. Her description wasn't that far removed from the rabbi's discussion of the benefits experienced in ancient offerings and sacrifices.

But my church has no ceremonies involving incense, sacrificial firing, first-fruits offerings or smudging. For me, then, it's hard to separate the experience of such ceremonies from the claims of aromatherapy. But being inclined to think liberally about matters, I'm happy to accept that when one person says he feels forgiven, cleansed by a ceremony and I say I feel refreshed and relaxed, we may be saying the same thing.

I don't think I'd ever warm to the possibility of burnt offering as a spiritual exercise, but invite me to a smudging, offer me a candle to light for my lost daughter and I'll thank you.

As to the Pentecostal church that was made uncomfortable by smudging on their premises, I understand. I don't expect their sensibilities would be up to admitting a kinship to  Native spirituality and the thought of its exercise on their "sacred" territory was bound to elicit discomfort. My elders were angry when we children would wander into the pulpit area of the church. Despite our Anabaptist theology's downplaying of the sanctity of places, many of us remain sensitive to the possibility of defilement.  

Dust-ups like this one are commonplace; always have been. Some of us adapt quickly to change, are willing to explore new ways of seeing things; others are threatened by it. Where religious traditions and beliefs are concerned, those tensions are particularly acute.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Childhood thought for the day.

The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.
              Robert Louis Stevenson

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Where poppies blow . . .

Suppose you were marching in a military parade dressed in a crisp, khaki uniform, shoes shined to perfection, embedded in a troop of soldiers looking and stepping exactly as you do. (North Koreans are very good at this.) Would you not feel just a tad odd? Wouldn't it all seem a bit kindergarten? Would you not feel a bit like an interchangeable machine part?

     I know I would.

     There's plenty of that military "peacocking" going on just now, what with our CF18s in Kuwait, two soldiers killed in civilian territory, the anniversary of WWI and today, poppies everywhere. And militaristically-motivated thinking is on the rise in Canada, in part because our politicians are crassly willing to hitch their electoral hopes to whatever mood is in public favour at the moment.

     I'm not wearing a poppy this year. I've been to the fields where poppies blow; I've counted crosses row on row, I've marveled at these delicate red blossoms growing, waving valiantly against the gold of European wheat fields. They don't represent the dubious valour of desperate soldiers trying to survive greedy politicians' wars in the muddy, cold trenches of Belgium to me. They suggest much more closely the wispy, timid fight for survival of an idea, an idea about a better world, a world in which peace is won through gentler campaigns. A world schooled by the sure knowledge that what is won through brutality destroys both victor and vanquished.

     Wild poppies are very fragile.

     The first priority of military endeavour is to dehumanize one's own men, to uniform them, accustom them to marching lockstep, convince them that obedience is better than reason. The second need is to dehumanize the other, characterize enemy soldiers as soulless vermin to be eradicated. How else could your neighbour or mine bring himself to set rifle sights on another man and pull the trigger?

     No. The poppy has become for me a reminder of our folly, not our honour. It's a reminder to me that we humans routinely shit where we eat, befoul the bed where our children will need to sleep.

     I won't wear a poppy today. Unless, perhaps, I should find one that is black.

     I willingly honour, though, the heartbreak and mourning of those who have lost loved ones in war, whose fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, sons or daughters were brutally taken away in whatever war fate placed them.

     May God comfort you.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

From what trauma do I suffer, I wonder

A Mennonite Path through Cree Territory
We were about 20 of us gathered in the Mennonite Central Committee Africa Room. We were focused on inter-generational trauma, specifically as it relates to Mennonite history and to Indigenous Canadians' stories. In short, many of us who were born into Mennonite faith and culture have a history that includes martyrdom in the 16th and 17th centuries and—for some of us—the brutality of the Stalinist purges. The trauma endured by our Indigenous neighbours through their displacement by settlement and the more recent cultural genocide represented by the residential school system was a reality more immediate to most of us who experienced the Truth and Reconciliation process.

Trauma. We didn't used to use that word. Now we hear regularly about the effects of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) in returning soldiers of recent wars and neurological research has begun to unravel why it is that we can't simply pull ourselves up by our bootstraps after severe trauma, why we don't “just get over it.” 

That trauma echoes down through generations is a possibility included in our discussions, a possibility that drew some skepticism from participants.This is not surprising; having been schooled in the idea that it's our genes that determine the characteristics with which we begin life, it's hard for us to imagine that sorrow or joy, anger or patience, for instance, could attach to biological, genetic structures. The burgeoning study of “epigenetics” hints at the possibility, though, that attributes (including, possibly, the personality changes brought on by trauma) can be passed down biologically outside the mechanisms of genetics. (Hence epigenetics, outside genetics.)

We know that persons abused by parents are more likely to behave harshly with their kids than persons who were raised with love and patience. Where trauma changes behaviour, in other words, changed behaviour is inevitably modeled for next generations.

We've been told by our Indigenous brothers and sisters that the residential school system and the trauma it induced has had inter-generational consequences. An elder said to me once that the cultural folkways that governed child-rearing were destroyed by the simple fact that children were taken away from home at a young age. Denied the privilege of raising children for long stretches and over generations fundamentally wiped out the ability to parent with conviction and integrity. It's not hard to see, if his assessment is correct, how this phenomenon coupled with the trauma of separation could have monumental, devastating cultural consequences.

But as Harley Eagle said to us in the sessions (if not in these exact words), if we want to be contributors to reconciliation with our Indigenous neighbours, we must begin by healing ourselves. So I'm left wondering: how much of my outlook and behaviour was given its direction in the life of my ancestors? Was my father moody and given to occasional fits of anger because his grandfather was frustrated with his lot on a poor farm in Novovitebsk? Would I be more patient if my grandparents hadn't gone through the trauma of relocation to a cold, bare, dry prairie? From what inherited malignancies do you and I need healing? Or is it all balderdash?

What is clear is that the land on which I live—Treaty 6 territory—was once Cree life space, likely assumed by them to be an eternal land legacy. In Treaty 6, the Cree agreed with the Canadian government to share the space and the said Canadian government offered a piece of it to my ancestors, a piece for which we've been grateful ever since—ironically to the Canadian government, not to the Cree. There's a way of our behaving as settlers that emanates from historical roots, that includes the possibilities of civilization vs heathendom, of manifest destiny, of obedience to authority as a way to survive, of emotional and cultural insularity as bulwarks against whatever threats may come, of stubborn silence as a virtue: die Stille im Lande.

There's much in us Mennonites that needs healing. The road to a future of equality and fraternity with out neighbours will be paved by an acknowledgement that it is us, not they, with whose healing we ought logically concern ourselves first.