Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Struggling with resolutions

I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions for a number of years, and a few weeks into 2017, I am reminded why.  My resolutions have already fallen by the wayside.

My first resolution was to avoid the chocolates and cookies left over from the holiday.

But, the chocolates presented a problem.  They were artisan truffles with a best before date. There were two options.  I could eat them or put them in the trash.  Since I really dislike wasting food, the best tactic was to finish them as quickly as possible.  Get it over with, so to speak, which I did with great satisfaction on January 3 when I restricted myself to eating one at a time until the box was empty. 

The cookies, conveniently frozen in neat layers, pose a continual challenge to my willpower.  The freezer is a short distance from the TV viewing area in the basement of our home.   As any teen will tell you, there is something irresistible about frozen cookies.  And, it is indisputable that commercial breaks trigger a trip to the pantry, or in this case, to the freezer.   If I continue to watch even one hour of television per night, I will have decimated the cookie supply in a few more days.  I resolve to bake less next year.

Fortunately, I exercise faithfully so there was no need for me to resolve to get fit, which is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions of all time. Still, those sweets are definitely not good for my waistline, and I might have to kick up the workouts a notch this month. 

I could rationalize my chocolate and cookie consumption.  Dark chocolate is good for my memory, and the pistachios in the shortbread add a little extra protein, energy and anti-oxidants to my diet. Overall, though, I have to admit that my nutritional resolutions are a bust. 

I’m not doing so well on my other resolutions either.

One of those caused my daughter to roll her eyes.  On New Year’s Day when she asked if I’d made any resolutions, I responded, “Yes. I’m going to do more edifying reading.”  I should have known from her reaction that I was being way too ambitious and ambiguous, (not to mention pompous as well).  

Like most people, I struggle to keep my resolutions. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.  We set ourselves up to fail with resolutions that are too broad, too sweeping, too vague.  If we are serious about achieving our goals, we need a better strategy than just making a pronouncement about our resolutions.

So, I’ve decided to start over.  With the chocolates out of the way, I will deal with the cookies in a sensible manner.  First, I will not watch television downstairs, thus removing the temptation to snatch frozen cookies during commercial breaks. Second, I will treat the cookies as a dessert and not as a snack. (It really is quite obscene to treat cookies like potato chips. Cookies deserve more respect.) Third, I will enlist the help of my husband, and encourage him to eat frozen cookies.

As to my grandiose goal to read more edifying material, I will make a modest list, set aside a specific time and place to read, and go at it, slowly.  

Goodness, I have just made a bunch more resolutions.  

I hope my strategy works, but if not, next year I will take my cue from my son-in-law.  He readily admits that he doesn’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions.  He tries to live well, always, every day.  Now, there’s a resolution worth struggling to achieve. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Post-truth, the alt-right and the nativity

The climate of the stable stands in stark contrast to two trends that are gaining momentum in western society.

It is rare for me to feel embarrassed about being a Christian.  But, on November 8 as I watched media interview American Christians who supported Donald Trump, I was embarrassed. I simply could not reconcile the poisonous and frequently false rhetoric of the President-elect with the implications of the Gospel message. During the Christmas season, Christians and non-Christians can discover the implications of that message in the nativity.

Last night as I stuffed and stitched cloth nativity figures together for my grandchildren to play with as we read the Christmas story, I had plenty of time (due to my inadequate sewing skills) to reflect on the nativity as a metaphor for our time. 

Every nativity scene has a baby Jesus with open arms. The baby is ready to embrace everyone and everything. His open arms are a powerful symbol of welcome, friendship and acceptance.  He is also a symbol of vulnerability.  He is, after all, lying in a feeding trough filled with hay.  That ox and ass hovering around might start rooting in the manger for food.

Every nativity scene also includes the baby’s parents, some shepherds and three wise men, variously referred to as kings or magi. This disparate group of strangers might feel some trepidation about rubbing shoulders. They are a mismatch of cultures, religions, ethnicity and socio-economic status.  But before the baby, their differences melt away.  Male or female, rich or poor, Jewish or not, they are people equal in dignity.   

The climate of the stable stands in stark contrast to two trends that are gaining momentum in western society.

As recent political events have illustrated, truth is on its way out.  The Oxford Dictionaries choose “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. Use of the term spiked during the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election. 

Oxford defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.  In plain speak, “don’t confuse me with the truth” sums up the present mood.  

A November tweet from the Independent lamented, “We’ve entered a post-truth world and there’s no going back.”  Apparently, people have no appetite for truth. Truth has become irrelevant.

The runner up to the 2016 word of the year was “alt-right”.  Alt-right refers to an ideological group that espouses ultra conservative and reactionary viewpoints. The alt-right rejects mainstream politics and uses online media to disseminate its content.  This content frequently smacks of white supremacy, racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.

The word of the year and its runner-up are indicative of the troubling times in which we live. From the pushback on refugees and immigration to reports of an escalation in incidents of racial violence, western society seems to be trending backwards.  This trend is playing out internationally and in our own communities.

Racist flyers, for example, are cropping up in villages, towns and cities across the country.   In my village of about 1700 inhabitants someone removed an anti-Semitic flyer from a community bulletin board. In Richmond, residents rallied in unity against the distribution of anti-Chinese flyers. In Edmonton, police were on the lookout for a man believed to be delivering flyers targeting Moslems.  In Toronto, police were investigating racist posters urging people to join the alt-right.

In this climate of suspicion and hatred, the scene at the stable can be an inspiration for more harmonious human interactions. The nativity can remind us that being human has always been risky, that to love means to be vulnerable, and that the way to peace is one of inclusion not exclusion. In the environment of the stable, ego gives way to humility, suspicion to trust, prejudice to acceptance, superiority to friendship, bombast to silence, and falsehood to truth.

Whatever beliefs we hold, may the peace and goodwill that infused the stable with warmth on that first Christmas penetrate our hearts, correct our attitudes, and inform our actions throughout the coming year.

The Gospel message so beautifully presented in the nativity will never embarrass me.  I am embarrassed, though, that we still don’t get it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Smudging the lines

Smudging ceremony crosses the line into the realm of the sacred
Imagine if a public school put up a nativity scene to teach students the Christian view of Christmas, and invited a priest to bless the figurines, the school, and the school community.  Parents would accuse the school of promoting Christian beliefs. They would see the blessing as an imposition of those beliefs on their children.  

The parents would be justified in objecting.  The school would have blurred the lines between culture, traditional practices and spiritual beliefs. 

When a Port Alberni school held a smudging ceremony, it did just that.

Candice Servatius, a parent at John Howitt Elementary School (JHES), is taking the school district to court. In September 2015, JHES held a smudging ceremony. A teacher told Servatius’s daughter that she must participate. Servatius maintains that the smudging ceremony was religious in nature, that the school violated her religious freedom and breached its duty of neutrality. The Justice Center forConstitutional Freedoms is acting on her behalf.

The school district maintains that the smudging was cultural. It argues that the ceremony fits the mandate of incorporating Aboriginal perspectives into the British Columbia curriculum.  

I spoke with an Elder here in the Kootenays  about smudging. “It’s cultural, not religious,” she said. She went onto explain that smudging was not (and is not) a universal practice. In some communities, it was practical.  It cleansed the air of unpleasant odors and the smoke drove insects away.  It may be that the spiritual connotations commonly associated with smudging developed over time.

Niigaan Sinclair, Associate Professor and Acting Head of the Native Studies Department at the University of Manitoba, has a different understanding of smudging.  Speaking on the CBC radio show The Current, Sinclair called the ceremony spiritual, but not religious. He described smudging as the taking and burning of medicines to bring them to a person’s emotional, mental, physical, and, usually, spiritual side.  He described bringing the smoke to one’s self as a way of committing to a relationship with the Earth. 

Whether the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging at JHES was cultural, spiritual or religious, the school imposed a set of beliefs on its students.   This is evident from the contents of the letter that the school sent home to parents to explain the reasons for smudging.

“Nuu-chah-nulth People believe strongly that “Hii-Suukish-Tswalk,  (everything is one; all is connected). Everything has a spirit and energy exists beyond the end of one school year and into the next. This will be our opportunity to…experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom and previous energy in our classroom and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us.”  

When a school begins to talk about cleansing spirits, it is moving away from something that is strictly cultural in nature into the realm of the sacred.

A group of figurines in a stable tells a story about a baby sleeping in the hay surrounded by animals.   There is nothing inherently religious about that. But, blessing the scene illuminates the Christian belief in the incarnation, in God becoming human.  An innocuous tableau suddenly becomes a place of reflection for Christian belief. 

Smudging to cleanse the air of odours or to chase away mosquitoes falls under culture.  Smudging to cleanse spirits communicates a specific set of spiritual beliefs.  It crosses the line between culture and religion, between the ordinary and the sacred.

When the City of Saguenay, Quebec insisted on reciting the Lord’s Prayer before its council meetings, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the state could not use culture, heritage or tradition to justify a religious practice in the public domain.

Public schools, like other state institutions, have a duty of religious neutrality.

It will be unfortunate if this case pits two cultures against one another, and hampers the work of reconciliation. This case is not about whether schools should teach authentic Aboriginal content. Rather, the question is how to appropriately present that content.

Canadian schools can best support the national task of reconciliation with meaningful, well-developed curriculum.  This can include presentations but children do not have to be directly involved. Children can learn about aboriginal traditions without participating in a ceremony that blurs the lines between culture, religion and spirituality. 

When JHES held its smudging ceremony, it imposed a set of spiritual beliefs. And in doing so, it breached the duty of neutrality.  

Images: Nativity scene by Gustave Dore

Thursday, November 24, 2016

BC Court of Appeal rules for Trinity Western University

When tolerance becomes intolerance
Sometimes a well-intentioned defense of one group’s rights becomes an expression of intolerance towards another group.  Such is the case with the Law Society of British Columbia and Trinity Western University.  TWU is a privately funded, evangelical Christian university seeking to establish a faith-based law school.

TWU has faced an uphill battle since it first submitted a proposal to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.  After conducting a thorough review of the proposal, the Federation granted its approval for a faculty of law at TWU.  However, the law societies of BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia declined to accredit future graduates of the school.  There have been court challenges in each of the three provinces, with differing results.

In April 2014, after a rigorous debate of the issues, the Benchers of the LSBC approved the school. A few months later, they reversed their decision in response to pressure from members of the Society.  The matter went before the BC Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Both courts found for TWU.
The Appeal Court, in its November 2016 decision, found that the LSBC resolution not to approve the proposed law school at TWU would have a “severe impact” on the religious freedom rights of the faith-based community.  LSBC has said it will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. 
The cause of all of this litigation arises from one clause in the university’s Community Covenant.  The controversial clause defines marriage as between a man and a woman.  Critics say the clause is homophobic and discriminatory.

The clause may deter students in same-sex marriages from applying to the faculty of law. In this sense, it is discriminatory.  However, this does not mean that the TWU community is homophobic. In fact, hateful attitudes, speech and actions against LGBTQ individuals would violate the covenant; the covenant stresses the innate, God-given dignity, and worth of every individual. 

The innate dignity of the individual is a basic principle of Christianity and is crucial to the Christian identity – an identity that the TWU community takes seriously.

The evangelical Christian identity is founded on a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus was a friend to the marginalized, the rejected, and the despised – in short, to the “other”.   While he may not have always approved of an individual’s choices or lifestyle, he always honoured and respected the individual. When members of the TWU community sign the covenant, they are also pledging to be more Christ-like towards those that are “other”.

TWU’s view of marriage goes against the grain of contemporary society. Nevertheless, the TWU community must be allowed to uphold its Biblical view of marriage. There is nothing inherently discriminatory or intolerant about a group that makes a distinction between sacramental and civic marriage.

The Appeal Court noted that there is no “downstream” effect flowing from the TWU covenant. In other words, there is no evidence that TWU graduates are homophobic. There is nothing to suggest that TWU would turn out bigoted lawyers incapable of upholding the laws of the land. 

In their well-intentioned defense of LGBTQ rights, some Benchers and members of the Society described the TWU biblical view of marriage as “abhorrent”, “archaic”, and “hypocritical”.    This is strong language.  Its intent may have been to show support for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ human rights. Still, it reveals an intolerant attitude towards religious sexual morality, in general, and the TWU community, in particular. This makes the Society’s decision not to approve the proposed faculty of law at TWU seem punitive.

In our attempts to protect one group’s rights, we run the risk of becoming intolerant towards another. A society serious about promoting tolerance must allow a minority group to hold an unpopular view (providing it causes no harm to the public interest).

In the words of the Appeal Court,  “A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society – one in which its citizens are free to think, to disagree, to debate and to challenge the accepted view without fear of reprisal.  This case demonstrates that a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism, can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal.”

Rituals around death may help us live better

From Halloween on October 31 to All Soul’s Day on November 2, death gets a cultural nod from us.  Does this cultural nod at death fulfill some deep seated human need?

We don’t have to be historians to recognize that Halloween is connected in some way with death and dying.   Just walk around any neighbourhood in the days preceding Halloween and you will notice graveyards springing up on front lawns and ghosts flittering among the trees.  Walking around a tony Toronto neighbourhood last week, I spotted a macabre Halloween display that would have made a fitting set for a horror flick.

The foundations of today’s celebration of Halloween may go back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain and the Roman feast of Feralia.

The Celts celebrated Samhain as autumn gave way to winter and vegetation died.  The Celts believed that for one night a year the spirits of those who had died the preceding year roamed the earth.  They needed to entertain and feed the spirits, as well as protect themselves from any malevolence.  They dressed like witches, ghosts or goblins to deter evil spirits from taking possession of their bodies, and they left treats on the doorstep for good spirits.

The Romans celebration of Feralia, like Samhain, was a time to commemorate the dead. The Romans honored the graves of the deceased with wreaths made of tile, and they left grain, salt and bread soaked in wine to nourish the shades.

As Christianity spread through the Roman world, people began celebrating All Hallow’s Eve on October 31, the night before All Saint’s Day.  By the 16th century in France, children were dressing up in grizzly costumes to perform the Dance of the Macabre. In this allegorical dance, a skeleton rose from the grave and led both the dead and the living in a dance.  The dance was a reminder that Death claims everyone, regardless of a person’s station in life.

In 998, Odilo, abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France designated November 2 as a day to pray for the deceased members of his community.  Odilo’s idea took hold, and by the 14th century, November 2 had become the Feast of All Soul’s Day.

While prayers for the dead are a staple of All Soul’s Day, people still observe other traditional rituals that commemorate their deceased loved ones. When I grew up, communal prayer at the cemetery on All Soul’s Day was common, as was leaving flowers at the grave of the beloved.  In some countries, people leave food at the gravesite, or set a place at the table for their deceased loved ones. 

The similarities between ancient pagan practices and our rituals around Halloween and All Soul’s Day are obvious.  While we might think some of these rituals are superstitious, morbid, silly or good old-fashioned fun, they have endured in some form for millennia. This suggests our rituals serve a purpose of which we may be unaware.

The creepier Halloween decorations may serve a function similar to that of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Bruno Bettleheim, in the seminal work On The Uses of Enchantment, posited that gruesome fairy tales played an important role in helping children resolve inner conflict. Perhaps menacing Halloween graveyard scenes are a subconscious attempt to gain mastery over our fears about death and dying, as well as other things that we cannot control.

And what of the rituals around praying for the dead?   As a child, I found the rituals a bit odd.  I never considered that I would die so visiting the cemetery didn’t make much sense to me.  But as I age and death gets closer, my thinking has changed. These rituals can help us accept our mortality with a bit more grace, especially since we live in a culture obsessed with youthfulness, a culture that some describe as “death denying”. 

Unless the ebb and flow of life forces us, we don’t typically give much thought to death.  For a couple of days a year, as we harvest the last pumpkin, as the leaves fall from the trees, as children excitedly traipse around in costume collecting treats, and as the faithful visit the graves of their beloved, we give death a nod. That nod might just help us become better at the act of living.