Friday, December 23, 2011

Gifts for the naughty and nice

Some big words for God
As a child, I memorized some big words about the nature of God. God was “omnipotent”, “omniscient”, and “omnipresent”. This all-powerful, all-knowing, and present everywhere God seemed far removed from me and from my experiences. This ‘omni-God’, who had a rosy existence high above the clouds, was both comforting and frightening to a powerless child. God was in control, and that was good or bad, depending on one’s behavior.

God and Santa Claus
At Christmastime, Santa Claus became intertwined with God in my childhood thinking. Santa Claus lived up at the top of the world. He kept a big book with the names of the naughty and nice for the sole purpose of delivering gifts to deserving children at Christmas. But, God remained in command. God could make Santa bring presents even to naughty children.

There was another important distinction between God and Santa Claus. Santa Claus did not hover in my childhood consciousness year round. I only thought about Santa in the days before Christmas, whereas God always seemed to be present.

Discovering a more personal God
At some point during my childhood religious instruction, the emphasis shifted away from the ‘omni-God’ to a more personal God. God was intimately involved in human affairs. Christmas was the wonderful celebration of God’s coming into the world as a little baby, and living as one of us. God was the original giver of gifts, offering both the naughty and nice the gift of love.

Revelations from the Christmas story
The Christmas story reveals some surprising things about the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God. God is gentle. God comes into the world as a powerless, vulnerable, and dependent baby. God is humble. God comes down to our level, and participates in our human experience. The heavenly vantage point of ‘omni’ characteristics does not prevent God from participating in human experience.

The story of Christmas is an ancient story with the elements of a great drama – suspense, action, mystery and a diverse cast of characters. Even though it has been retold annually for over 2000 years, it continues to speak to the human condition. The plot is simple; its meaning is deep.

"Adoration of the Shepherds"
Gerard van Honthorst, 1622
The story as we know it today is a combination of two ancient narratives, one from the Gospel of Luke, and the other from the Gospel of Matthew. The story begins with a couple, Mary and Joseph, who are obedient to the will of God. She will bear a holy child, miraculously conceived; he will stick by her through thick and thin. They journey to Bethlehem where the baby, Jesus, is born in a stable. Angels announce his birth to shepherds, who hurry from the fields to see the baby. A brilliant star guides wise men from the East towards Bethlehem where they find the child and worship him, laying expensive gifts at his feet. All seems rosy until an angel warns Joseph in a dream that King Herod has sent his troops to kill the child. The family flees, under cover of darkness, into Egypt.

This baby’s introduction to the world is not auspicious. He is born in the equivalent of a barn. His bed is a feeding trough for the animals. The dark and uncomfortable place of his birth makes God present to poor and powerless shepherds as well as to privileged magi.

The manger is the place of intimacy with God
God’s approachability and gentleness are part of the enduring appeal of the story. The vulnerability of the infant in the manger stands in stark contrast to the premium that we place on self-reliance and independence. The story of this birth gives us an opportunity to admit our own vulnerability. We can lay our weaknesses before the manger, where they become a gift that opens us to the presence of God. The manger becomes the place of intimacy with God, and a symbol of God’s nurturing love where all people can go to be fed.

At the manger, shepherds, who were little better than outlaws, found acceptance and went away empowered. The shepherds remind us that all of us are deserving of God’s love. At the manger, the magi, who were seekers of knowledge, found wisdom and went away fulfilled. The magi remind us that faith is a life long quest to encounter the divine.

Gifts that last
The gifts that Santa brought me as a child were transient. They have long since ceased to exist as objects in my life, and have faded from memory. The gifts that God offers are ever-present. Whether we have been naughty or nice, gifts of reconciliation, acceptance, and wisdom wait to be unwrapped. This Christmas may we find intimacy with the gentle God who is light for our darkness, comfort for our discomfort, and power for our weakness.

Image Courtesy of Grant Cochrane/

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bringing hope to the poor

Christmas shopping and stress
Once upon a time, the commercial pitch for Christmas shopping began on Black Friday. This year, it had begun by November 10. We had yet to commemorate Remembrance Day. American Thanksgiving and Black Friday were still two weeks away. The commercial hype around Christmas seems to begin earlier every year.

Coincidental with all of the holiday hype are tips to avoid holiday stress. One important tip from experts is to determine your spending limit, and stick to it. Despite warnings that consumer debt is out of control, and predictions of a slowing global economy that will negatively impact the Canadian economy, recent surveys show that Canadians will overspend their holiday budget. One television reporter, after interviewing shoppers in a big city mall, cheerfully concluded that Christmas spending is “priceless if it puts a smile on young faces.”

The reporter’s upbeat message was certainly in keeping with the Christmas spirit of good cheer. The message is a feel-good one if a family can afford “priceless.” The reality, though, is that many Canadians cannot afford their Christmas spending splurge. If Christmas can be stressful for those who have some purchasing power, imagine how stressful the holiday season must be for those who live in poverty.

The season accentuates need
Statistics Canada puts the poverty rate at 1 in 10 Canadians. The rate is even higher for children. The before tax poverty line for a family of 4 living in an urban area is $41, 307. Many poor families earn only$27, 107 before taxes. That’s a whopping $14, 200 below the base line.

During the Christmas season, those who live in poverty must feel the desperation of their situation more keenly that at other times of the year. The poor are shut out of the ubiquitous feel-good commercial message that bombards consumers before Christmas.

The over-commercialization of the Christmas holiday distracts from the more meaningful aspects of the celebration of Christmas. The relentless advertising campaigns send some messages about Christmas that do not ring true for many Canadians, especially for those living in poverty.

The commercialization of Christmas presents an image of a universally happy time. Everyone has money to spend, good food and drink to enjoy, and the fellowship of people who love them. In Christmas commercials, the holiday season meets everyone’s expectations. And, all these things – gifts, food, drink, and love – in the world of Christmas advertising depend on spending freely.

Traditions express a spiritual reality
Gift giving, feasting and celebrating are integral parts of Christmas. They can express a spiritual reality about human existence. The spiritual underpinnings of Christmas give the season its meaning and joy.

In the New Testament tradition, the weeks before Christmas are all about hope for the future. The birth of a baby, born in lowly circumstances, reveals God’s generous love for humanity that will restore justice to the world.

In the Christmas story, poor shepherds come from the surrounding hillsides, and wealthy magi come from afar to adore the baby Jesus, who is born in a stable. The message from the stable, where both shepherds and kings gather, is that God’s love is inclusive. No one is shut out from the generous gift of God’s wondrous love.

Charity is important but we can do more
Thousands of Canadians, irrespective of religious belief, imitate this divine generosity during the holiday season. The season heightens our awareness of those who are less fortunate. We respond to the needs of others in a much more comprehensive way than at any other time of the year. We give freely to food banks, and toy drives. We contribute dollars to organizations that serve the poor. Our charity gives hope, brings priceless smiles to the faces of young and old alike, and sends the message that someone cares.

Our material generosity at Christmas is really only a band-aid solution to need. The social problem of poverty remains long after we have swept up the needles from the tree, and stowed the Christmas decorations away for another year. The poor remain poor. We can live the Christmas message of generosity year round. Not only can we continue to be charitable, we can add advocacy to our charity, and work to reduce poverty.

Once upon a time, there was a land where everyone had enough food, a warm home, and hope for the future dwelt in their hearts. The Christmas story invites us to create the feel-good ending of ‘happily ever after’.

Images Credits and links:
Credit card image courtesy of

Shopping Santa courtesy of Kittisak at

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Euthanasia: a slippery slope

Youth in Asia?
It was 1978.  The teaching assistant of my Russian Literature seminar entered the room. He sat down at the table and said, “Today we are going to talk about youth in Asia.”  My classmates and I looked at one another, puzzled. Sensing our confusion, he stood up and wrote ‘euthanasia’ on the chalkboard. “Mercy-killing,” he said. The debate was on. More than three decades later, the debate is heating up.

Last week, the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) released its report, “End-of-life decision making.” The Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care also released its report. And, there is presently a legal challenge before the Supreme Court of British Columbia that seeks to decriminalize euthanasia.

Link to RSC report:
Link to Parliamentary Commiteee Report: 

Euthanasia, an act of compassion or moral confusion?
Euthanasia, which literally means “a good death,” has come to be defined as “the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit.”

The proponents of euthanasia seem to value life, just as those opposed to it do. At the heart of the push for the decriminalization of euthanasia is the desire to ease suffering for the dying or the terminally ill and their family. Some would argue that euthanasia is a compassionate action because the elimination of suffering helps people experience a good death. 

But, enshrining euthanasia in law is a dangerous path for a society tread. It can lead to the slippery slope of moral confusion regarding the value of a particular individual’s life. Who decides when a person’s life no longer has value or meaning? Who judges the quality of that life, and on what criteria?

The RSC report recommends that Canada adopt a “permissive yet carefully regulated and monitored system with respect to assisted death.”  Based on evidence from other countries, the RSC dismisses the slippery slope argument. The report states that the decriminalization of euthanasia is not a threat to vulnerable people, nor does it lead to non-voluntary or involuntary euthanasia. 

The Netherlands
These two claims are debatable. The experience of the Netherlands, where voluntary euthanasia has been legal since 1984, suggests otherwise. In 1999, the “Journal of Medical Ethics” published a paper reflecting on the results of a 1995 survey of physicians. The survey found that in 20%, or 900 of 4,500 reported cases, patients did not request or consent to having their life ended. Some of these patients were mentally competent at the time of their death, while others were not. In two-thirds of these cases, the patient and physician had never even discussed euthanasia as a possibility.

The study also revealed that physicians withheld or withdrew life-prolonging treatment in 41 % of 1000 cases of infants under one year of age because they felt the baby’s life would be unbearable. In 20% of these cases, parents were not consulted.

The paper concluded that “the practice of voluntary euthanasia remained beyond effective control,” despite regulated guidelines and the duty to report enshrined in law. Although it was illegal, physicians were carrying out involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia.

The physicians surveyed were not bad, evil people. They believed they were acting in the best interests of their patients. They were deciding which human life had value, meaning, and quality.

A study published in 2010 in the "Canadian Medical Journal" looked at physician-assisted deaths in Belgium, where voluntary euthanasia has been legal since 2002. That study also found that involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia was occurring.

Dutch Physicians Association
The Dutch Physicians Association (KNMG) released a position paper on euthanasia this fall. The KNMG paper recommends that non-medical reasons, like loneliness or financial difficulties, should qualify a person for euthanasia. The rationale is that non-medical factors also cause unbearable suffering and affect an individual’s quality of life.

It's a slippery slope
All of this points to moral confusion; the slope seems slippery to me.

In the Christian worldview, life is sacred from conception to natural death. End-of-life decisions flow from this premise. Ordinary medical interventions and treatments must always be taken to preserve life.  Therapies that deliver compassionate and palliative care are essential to preserving the dignity of the dying person and contributing to a good death.

The RSC report acknowledges that Canadians are not preparing adequately for death, and that quality palliative care is not readily available.  The Parliamentary Committee Report makes recommendations for establishing a national system of compassionate and palliative care.  This is the direction in which we should be moving.

If we want to avoid the slippery slope, we need to choose a path based on the spiritual principle that life is sacred, from conception to natural death.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Reflections for Remembrance Day

Tyne Cot Cemetery by Marc Aert

Since its original inception as Armistice Day in 1919, people in countries around the world gather on November 11 to commemorate the thousands of men and women who died in armed conflicts.

Over time, the international community has developed a set of traditions to mark the day, and to set it apart from other days. We wear poppies on our coats. We lay wreaths. We observe a period of silence. We listen to the roll call of those who died. We express our collective desire for peace. 

Peace - the absence of war or hostilities
Peace is defined as the absence of war or hostilities. The definition of peace suggests the reality that Remembrance Day draws to our attention; the world struggles with peace. The world defines peace by what it is not. Peace in this definition is a political reality; a nation or nations are not at war.

Growing up in Canada, I can relate quite easily to this definition of peace because my experiences of war are vicarious. I know about war not because I have lived through one fought on Canadian soil. I know about war because I have seen images of it on television, read about it, studied it, and listened to the wartime stories of others.

Family stories of growing up during World War II
My father has some fascinating stories about growing up on a farm in northern Italy during the Second World War. He and his family were no strangers to the insecurity that war creates. They lived with hunger, poverty, and a sense of an ever-present danger that accompanies living in a war zone.

Some of his stories are humorous, like the story of the bridge. The German soldiers repeatedly attempted to blow up a nearby bridge to cut off the transportation route. Instead, they repeatedly blew up ground around the bridge, always missing the bridge itself. This was a source of amusement to the villagers, and provided them with lighthearted moments of relief while living with the tension of war. After a time, the villagers began to suspect that the failure to destroy the bridge was a sort of mutiny. Everyone needed the bridge; it was a symbol of the common good.

One of my favorite stories speaks of the persuasive power of conviction. Towards the end of the war, as discipline in the German army broke down, my grandparents routinely assisted German soldiers who were deserting their posts. They did this although they were putting themselves in grave danger.

One day, members of the Black Shirts, a paramilitary Fascist group of armed thugs, descended on the farm. With guns pointed, they demanded that my grandmother hand over the two soldiers the family was hiding. My grandmother calmly told the men to leave. When they refused, looking the leader steadily in the eyes, she revealed the handgun under her apron, and repeated her request. Remarkably, the men backed away. They never returned.

They shared a common humanity
What was it about my grandmother that made such a profound impression on these thugs that they obeyed her? I think it was the strength of her conviction that she, the German soldiers, and the Black Shirts shared a common humanity. Her quiet but strong demeanor unearthed the goodness buried deep beneath the exterior cruelty of this particular group of men. She was the bridge of common decency that rehabilitated these men, at least temporarily.

My grandmother’s actions speak of an unshakeable belief in the inherent dignity of the human person. The German soldiers that she helped were not the enemy, the hated ‘other.’ They were simply young men, not much older than her sons. Like her sons, they too bore the image of a good God, and deserved respect. To hand them over would have been contrary to her belief.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1948, as a direct result of the atrocities of World War II, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The members of the drafting committee came from a broad spectrum of political, cultural and religious beliefs. Despite their differences, Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile, a member of the committee, said they came to this consensus: the supreme value of the human person comes from the very fact of existing, not from belonging to a particular nation or group.
Read Santa Cruz's remarks:

Remembrance Day is a fitting moment to recall the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The foundation of freedom, justice, and peace depends on recognizing and honoring the innate dignity, and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.
Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Outer appearances can deceive

Heading off to the costume party
It was costume party day at my children’s playgroup.  Our eldest son, four years old at the time, had decided to be a carpenter. To create his costume, we had dug into my old blue trunk. That trunk had been to university and back with me, but now served the very useful purpose of storing items for ‘dress-up’ play.

We fashioned a simple costume. My son wore a carpenter’s apron and toted a hand crafted wooden toolbox with miniature tools. On his head was an orange plastic Tonka hard hat.  We left our home pleased with his appearance, and headed off confidently to enjoy the party.

My heart sunk when we entered the room; my son's peers were spectacularly and elaborately decked out. Little boys, dressed as dinosaurs and dragons, and little girls, dressed as princesses and fairies, appeared to have sprung fully costumed from the pages of a pop-out storybook. 

Fortunately, my son was oblivious to the inadequacy of his tickle trunk costume. The children crowded around him, drawn to the costume with its miniature tools.

At some level, the children sensed that here was the genuine article, a costume that expressed character. Here was a kid who had helped create his character. In creating the costume, he had become a carpenter. There was nothing remarkable about his costume, but there was integrity in the character.

Learning from a simple carpenter
"The Carpenter" by Frances Hook

In the 1st century, in Palestine, a simple carpenter, named Jesus, appeared on the scene. He came from an obscure village and an ordinary family. Based on his position in society, there was nothing to recommend him to others. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Yet, he taught and spoke with authority; crowds hounded him, and the religious leaders feared him. 

Jesus had charisma. His character, not his costume, attracted people. His charisma came from his sense of identity as God’s beloved. His self-esteem was rooted in being loved and in loving others. Love informed his words and deeds.

Jesus knew that the people of his time were impressed with good looks, fine clothes, and lavish homes. People viewed these outward externals of success as a reward from God for being good. So Jesus warned his disciples of the deceptive nature of outward appearances. Referring to the scribes, Jesus noted that this group of men liked to parade in long robes and to be greeted obsequiously. They said long prayers “for the sake of appearance” but their hearts were hardened towards the poor and suffering (Mark 12:38-40). 

Cars, homes and clothes may become our costumes
We are not very different from the people of Jesus’s time. We are impressed with appearances. Popular culture bombards us with images of narcissism. The advertising, fashion, and entertainment industries entice us to costume ourselves in imitation of the wealthy and glamorous. Our cars, homes, and clothes may become our costumes; they may project an image not of who we are, but of who we want to be.   We let the externals create our character.

The external things are like spectacular costumes worn to the party. They may be masks that conceal our sense of inadequacy or our feelings of exclusion. Our costumes may be glorious to look upon while our character is bruised or lacking in substance.

Peeling back the costume
Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic, spoke about the spirituality of detachment. This is the stripping away of possessions, attitudes and sometimes relationships until we have nothing. In nothingness, we discover who we truly are, and we become one with God.

Jesus invited all people to discover the worth of their person. The spiritual life invites us to shed the layers of our costumes and to peel back the mask that conceals our true self. To do so is to undertake the risky journey of discovering the genuine article of our being.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beware of pests in the vineyard

A pest in the vineyard
Grape Gathering by Xedos4
My father makes wine, and we often help with the wine making process. One year, we decided that we could improve the wine if we were to pluck the stems from the grape bunches before crushing the grapes. Since we had copious amounts of grapes, plucking the stems was a time intensive, laborious task, but it was well worth the effort. That year’s vintage was outstanding.

I was gratified to learn at a recent tutored wine tasting that some limited edition vintages are created from grapes that are both hand picked and de-stemmed. Even prior to harvest, the vines for these more expensive wines are trellised in a special way to promote the production of high quality fruit.

Still, things can go wrong. Pests can attack the viability of the crop. The louse, for example, attacks the roots. It’s a sneaky little pest whose presence can go undetected for a long time. It is only when the leaves of the vines begin to die prematurely that the disease become obvious. By then, it may be too late to save the vines and the rootstock.

Growers sometimes plant rose bushes in the vineyard among their vines. The rose bush is a natural alarm system alerting growers to pests. If the rose bush looks sick, the grower can assess the problem and take action to save the vines.

Biblical image of the vineyard
The vineyard is a classical Biblical image. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophets used it to describe the relationship of God and the nation of ancient Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus compares himself to the vine. He is the healthy vine; his disciples are the branches. Separated from the vine, the branches lose their vitality. They wither and die.

The images of the vineyard, and of the vine and branches have profound implications for human spirituality. They are images that speak of the human cycle of goodness and sin from which no person or group is exempt. Individuals and groups of individuals, including religious institutions, are at various times, both sinner and saint.

The spiritual rose bush - an interior alarm 
Each one of us has a spiritual rose bush, an inner sense of disquiet that alerts us to a pest in the vineyard of our soul. Sometimes we heed that sense of uneasiness. Sometimes, we ignore it. We may have become so accustomed to it that we no longer even notice the alarm bell ringing.

The first spiritual rose bush is the emerging and developing conscience. Those little pangs of conscience that bothered us as children were indicators of something amiss in our behavior. Parental disapproval and feelings of guilt, remorse or regret prompted us to correct our mistakes.

Wine Taster by Luigi Diamanti
With maturity, the focus of our disquiet changes. We are more reflective and self-aware. When we recognize our inner alarms and act on them, we are like vintners striving to produce a fine wine. We are strengthening our best characteristics, and plucking away at our deficiencies. We are de-stemming that which makes the wine of our life bitter.

As we eradicate one pest from the vineyard, another may appear. When we reflect on our life, we will likely be able to name a number of pests that have threatened the fruit of our branches.

Presently, my spiritual alarm is a feeling of a generalized dissatisfaction with my life, and it always surfaces when I become focused on my self. My ego becomes that sneaky little pest, subtly worming its way into my consciousness, and draining me of vitality.

When I feel dissatisfied for any length of time, I know I need to rebuild the trellis that supports spiritual growth. Prayer, attentiveness to scripture, communal worship, and acts of kindness help to restore me and to create optimal conditions for producing good fruit.

The images of the vineyard and the vine have something to teach all of us. We need to carefully tend our spirituality. When we ignore the spiritual part of our inner being, we begin to suffer some kind of disconnection from our self, from others, from creation, and from the divine. We produce low quality fruit and we end up with lousy wine.

Photo Credits:
"Grapes" by Xedos4:  Courtesy of Free Digital Photos
"Wine Taster" by Luigi Diamanti: Courtesy of Free Digital Photos

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Finding God in the ordinary

Was it coincidence? Or, was grace breaking through my daily tasks?

A good start to the day
"Vineyard" by Stuart Miles
The morning’s work on my blog had gone reasonably well. I was commenting on a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (21.28-32) where Jesus is speaking to the chief priests and elders of the Jewish people. He tells them a story about two sons. The father asks each son to go work in the vineyard. The first son says “No”, but then reconsiders and goes. The second son says “Yes”, but does not follow through. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” The answer is obvious, and the religious leaders get it right.

Even still, Jesus has some harsh words for this group. Essentially, he compares them to the second son. He tells them that the tax collectors and prostitutes, people who are public sinners, are closer to heaven than they are.

The tax collectors and sinners have contrite hearts. They know that their attempts at being holy are woefully inadequate, but still they search for God in their life. They are like the first son who at first refused to do the will of his father, but eventually sets out to please him.

They are layers of meaning to the story, but I was noodling on the idea that the religious leaders were imposters. They had turned God into a set of rules and regulations to be followed. They had become self-satisfied and complacent about their spiritual state. God had ceased to be a living presence for them. The religious leaders were posers.

In the afternoon, I confidently sat down to pen my column. Several frustrated hours later, I was feeling like an imposter myself, an ordinary woman masquerading as a religion columnist. 

“Give it a rest,” I thought, “Bake some cookies.”
"Chocolate Chip Cookies" by Grant Cochrane

I was sort of listening to the radio program, but mostly I was thinking about my column when I heard something that demanded my full attention.

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” said the voice on the radio. The comment, at that particular point in time, expressed my sentiments precisely.  A discussion on feelings of inadequacy ensued. Many people, despite their competence, expect to be discovered as frauds. The host actually used the word “imposter”.

That word, “imposter”, had been crashing into my consciousness all day. Were the connections between my reflection in the morning, my feelings of frustration in the afternoon, and the topic of this radio show trying to teach me something? 

A new column began to take shape.

Mysticism of ordinary life
In the midst of the commonplace activity of baking cookies, my mind and heart opened to the presence of God.  The little coincidences, all based around the word “imposter”, were a small grace, an exclamation mark in the day reminding me that we can find God in routine tasks.

This is what the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner referred to as the mysticism of ordinary life.  This is not the traditional concept of Christian mysticism, where union with God is a privileged experience for a very few holy men and women. It is not the dramatic mysticism of ecstatic trances, visions, or spectacular phenomena.  

The mysticism of ordinary life finds God in daily life.  As Rahner expressed it in one of his prayers, “If there can ever be a way for me to you, then it leads through my daily drudge…I must also be able to find you in everything.”
Link to Rahner's spiritual writings. The Daily Drudge begins on page 45.

Responding faithfully to the presence of God in everything is not easy. Like the tax collectors and sinners, we sometimes find ourselves saying “no” to God.  Being always conscious of the presence of  God, who is ever present to us, is not easy. Like the chief priests and elders, we sometimes find ourselves forgetting God. We become wrapped up in ‘doing,’ instead of being in relationship with God.

Coincidence inspired insight
The connections around the word “imposter” that day may not have been divine intervention, but those connections certainly helped me to see that God was sharing life with me. The connections inspired insight.

Through the ordinary activity of baking cookies, I realized that God had been present throughout my day. Although I considered myself to be working in the vineyard, I was a little bit like the religious leaders. I had forgotten to be present to God.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Building peace through tolerance

10th Anniversary 9-11 attacks
Sunday, September 11, 2011 marked the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.  Every year, in the days leading up to the anniversary, there is prolonged reflection of that terrible day on television, radio, and in the press.

At the risk of being politically incorrect, it’s time to stop the obsessive yearly commemoration of the 9-11 attacks.  The unveiling of the memorial monument at Ground Zero was a fitting commemoration of the 10th anniversary.  Perhaps the beautiful and peaceful memorial will help the collective American consciousness achieve a measure of closure.

Reviewing footage of the attacks on a yearly basis feeds fear and nurtures animosity towards Muslims and Islamic countries. Looking back on that day has the effect of entrenching isolationism, which encourages an “us versus them” attitude that is not helpful for building peace in today’s world.

2nd Global Conference on World's Religions
Coinciding with the 10th anniversary, McGill University and the University of Montreal organized the 2nd Global Conference on World’s Religions. The conference is a grassroots effort to promote inter-faith dialogue between believers and non-believers.  The role of the world’s religions in building peace was the topic for discussion this year. 

(Link to conference home page:

The conference culminated in a debate on articles for inclusion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions, a document that builds on the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The conference hopes to extend the declaration’s influence so that the declaration will be “the common standard of achievement for the followers of all religions or none.”  The additional articles are intended to promote religious tolerance, presumably with the aim of building peace.

Given the historical legacy of religious intolerance, achieving world peace through religion has a dream-like quality. Dialogue between moderate people of different faiths will never eliminate the fanatics. There will always be extremists who twist the teachings of their religion, and misuse its sacred scriptures to further their own sinful agendas.  Still, dialogue is essential to creating a climate of tolerance and understanding that will help nations overcome the “us versus them” mindset.

Dalai Lama: people misuse religion
In his remarks at the conference, the Dalia Lama spoke about the relationship between religion and people. Religions are not the problem; “it’s the person who uses (religion), who makes it wrong.” Religions, he said, share the common values of love, compassion, tolerance, self-discipline and forgiveness.  It’s human beings that cause trouble because of the destructive emotions of fear, anger, distrust, jealousy, and hatred.

Restless for peace
Our humanness interferes with peace. The human condition is such that we are always restless. Even within our own self, we are more accustomed to tension and struggle than to peace. On those occasions when we do experience inner peace, it is temporary and fleeting.

Within our closest relationships, we experience misunderstanding and conflict.  Even in small faith communities, which should be places of harmony, there is dissension. Human interactions - at home, at work, at play, at worship - are subject to harmony and disharmony.

Since we are incapable of sustaining peace at the personal level, we should not be surprised that world peace is as ephemeral as a dream.  Despite it’s elusiveness, peace is worth striving for in our hearts and in our world. If people were to stop dreaming about peace, the world would be even more of a muck.

Building peace
Terrorist attacks and conflicts around the world remind us that it is insufficient to dream about peace. We need to cultivate the dream through acts of justice, through social policies that enable people to live with dignity, and through foreign policy that respects the rights of others and their environment, and that prefers diplomacy to military intervention in so far as possible.

The 9-11 attacks tell a horrific tale of intolerance and hatred, perpetrated in the name of religion. Intolerance flourishes when people refuse to see the manifestation of God in other faiths and in other people. There will be no peace in the world until people exchange intolerance and hatred for understanding and love.

The religions of the world can help build a more peaceful world by proclaiming the shared human values that the Dalai Lama enunciated. Properly understood and practiced, religion challenges individuals to become better versions of themselves, to become kinder, more compassionate, and more forgiving human beings.

Peace begins in the human heart, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me…Let me walk with my family in peace and harmony.”  We are all part of the human family, regardless of religious belief. There is no “us” and “them.”
(Link to information on, "Let there be peace": 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Jack Layton: A spirituality of service

Jack Layton touched a lot of Canadians. In the tough gig of politics, earning the respect of so many people, regardless of their political affiliation, is no easy task. That Layton did so, speaks volumes about him.

Layton’s personal charisma played a determining role in the NDP success of the last federal election. He was able to convince voters, particularly in Quebec, that he had a vision for Canada that was achievable. Even those who did not buy into his vision, or into the policies that he proposed, would admit that they liked the man.

I think what touched Canadians about Mr. Layton was his quality of authenticity.  His smile, his sense of humor, his endless optimism, and the genuineness of his concern for people were refreshing.

Layton on the role of faith
The last line of Layton’s letter to Canadians made me think of a frequently quoted scripture passage. In Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “And now, faith, hope and love, abide. These three: and the greatest of these is love.”

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses a number of problems. One of the major problems was that social divisions based on wealth threatened the cohesiveness of the community. In this context, Paul wrote about love, and urged the community to infuse itself with the kind of love that looks to the needs of others.

Layton concluded his letter to Canadians with the lines, My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” 
Those who knew Layton described him as optimistic, hopeful and caring. Because these traits are so closely connected to the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, defined in the writings of Paul, I began to wonder about the influence of Christianity on Layton’s ethic of service.  I didn’t have to look far for an answer.
In 2008, Listen Up, a program that looks at current events from a Christian perspective, asked politicians about their faith. Layton described faith as playing an active role in his life.  In that interview, Layton spoke about the influence of the youth movement of the United Church on his life.  As a teen, he recalled telling his father that they needed to make Bible Study more relevant if they were to attract other young people. They changed the name from the “Bible Study Class” to “The Infusers.” “The idea,” Layton said, “was that you could infuse your ideas, and your work, and your enthusiasm into the community.”  The experience of community involvement nurtured through the Infusers was formative to Layton’s commitment to service. (Access the clip on YouTube,
"Well done, good and faithful servant."
At Layton’s funeral, Reverent Brent Hawkes spoke about the conversation the two men had when it became obvious that death was imminent. Hawkes recalled saying to Layton that soon he would hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The quotation is from the parable of the talents related in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25.

Parable of the Talents
Courtesy of
Briefly, the parable goes like this. The master entrusts three servants with a sum of money to invest in his absence. He praises the servants who invest wisely. He chastises and sends away the servant who does nothing with the talent entrusted to him. The parable is usually interpreted to mean that individuals have a responsibility to use their gifts to serve God.

The parable leads into a discourse that suggests a proper use for an individual’s gifts. Principles of social justice are at the heart of this discourse.  Justice and love are expressed in the concrete ways we care for those who are less privileged and more vulnerable. Individuals are to use their gifts to create and sustain a more just society, to change the world. For many Christians, this section of Matthew, with its ethic of service to others, is the essence of the teaching of Jesus.
(Click the link below to read Matthew 25. The parable of the talents begins with verse 14.

Spirituality informs a person's life
Hawkes described Layton as a man who was private about his spirituality. But, a person’s spirituality can never be totally private. Spirituality manifests itself in the person’s choices and actions. It informs the person’s life.
There are different ways to live spirituality. Layton demonstrated a spirituality of service, nurtured in the crucible of the Infusers. The question for us is, “How does my spirituality infuse the world?”

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Married spirituality

Recovering from wedding fever
Months before my son’s wedding, people began asking me if I had my dress. I didn’t. I began to worry about my dress. I woke up at night, worrying about this dress that I didn’t have. I was succumbing to wedding fever, a condition of temporary craziness that grips women involved with wedding planning.

A good self-talking to (“Relax, it’s only a dress”) and a plan of action (“Go shopping”) put things back into perspective. When I finally went shopping for the dress two months before the event (which seemed like plenty of time to me), I discovered these sorts of special occasion dresses are typically ordered a minimum of three months in advance. ("Has everyone gone mad?" I wondered. "All these dresses, and I can't buy one off the rack?")

The wedding industry: form over substance
Weddings have become an industry, an economic driver of small proportions. Put the word “wedding” in front of something, and the price escalates. According to the website for Weddingbells magazine, there will be 156, 920 weddings this year in Canada at an average cost of $23,330. That’s an astounding 3,660,943,600!

Weddings are not only costly; the planning is time consuming, and for some, becomes a feverish obsession. Most of the planning focuses on the external elements that make the party special.

The wedding industry promotes form over substance. The goal for the wedding day is to transform everything. Decorations transform ordinary venues into magical places of beauty. Bridal gowns transform brides into princesses. Tuxedos, dresses and up-dos transform members of the bridal party into red carpet celebrities.

The ceremony, which should be the main event, plays second fiddle to the buzz of the party. This is obvious in the Weddingbells budget estimate. The estimate accounts for items such as the bridal gown, flowers, venue, cake, photography, videography, wedding bands, transportation, wedding favors, and DJ’s. Tellingly, there is no mention of a minister (religious or civil), church, or organist.

Towards a spirituality of marriage
All this leads me to wonder, are we, as a society losing sight of what weddings celebrate? 

To balance the obsessive craziness of wedding planning, couples and their families need to rediscover a spirituality of marriage. This is particularly important when 25% of first marriages end in divorce within 10 years.

A spirituality of marriage, whether in the religious or civil sphere, begins with pondering the meaning of the marriage vows, which are remarkably similar in both types of ceremonies. Through their vows, the couple freely gift themselves to each other. They promise to honor one another, care for one another in sickness and in health, and to forsake all others for the duration of their lives.

Married spirituality, and this may seem odd, looks like the Paschal mystery of Jesus, which is the experience of transformation through suffering, death and resurrection.

Dying to self to create a communion of persons
Marriage is the willingness to give your life for the one you love. Most of us will never have to physically die for our spouse. To create a life-giving marriage, both spouses have to die to the human tendency to focus on the self.

Marriage involves subduing the ego, liberating the self from the desire to be right, to control, to be dominant and to dominate. A spirituality of marriage places a premium on serving, rather than on being served.

Marriage welcomes the process of transformation. The self-centered “I” becomes the unified “we.” Two separate individuals become a communion of persons. Because life is full of daily annoyances that have the potential to create friction in a relationship, the process of transformation is ongoing throughout the life of a marriage.

The transforming experience of marriage takes effort. It’s not unlike planning for the party. A venue for a wedding is transformed for a day, and decorating it requires creative vision. The effect can be magical.

Creating a communion of persons, a “we” from two separate “I’s”, is magical, but it is not magic. It is a challenge for both spouses to accept. Both must embrace a spirituality of transformation from moment to moment, every day, year after year after year. Then, regardless of life’s ups and downs, the spouses share the joy of loving and being loved.

The love nurtured in marriage reaches out to family, friends, and the community. It calls the spouses outward to transform their world into a more loving and just society.

Wedding parties are fun, but the ceremony is the moment of significance. With the exchange of vows, two people commit themselves to becoming one in body, mind and spirit. The spiritual aspect of this union will be critical to the success of the body-mind relationship.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Finding rest in stillness

I chuckled as I ran by the local elementary school on a hot sunny day in late June. I don’t typically laugh when I’m running; I’m usually too busy gasping for air to even think about laughing. But this particular day, my heart laughed as I jogged by. 

It was sports day. Various stations were set up in readiness for the day’s events. The stations looked fun and I felt a childlike desire for play.

A few years ago, educators in the United Kingdom undertook an experiential study on play. A number of concerns prompted the study: high stress levels and depression in young children, poor academic performance, poor behavior, and inadequate social skills.
The educators made some remarkable discoveries when they equipped the playground with simple, everyday objects suitable for imaginative play. Student creativity increased. Playground fights decreased. Academic performance improved. Self-esteem rose; students took more risks academically and socially. Children were happier and less stressed when they had time for unstructured play.

That morning as I ran, I considered that as adults we either do not play enough, or our play fails to provide any measurable benefits. 

There are obvious reasons why adults ignore the importance of play. Family commitments, work, chores, and deadlines take priority over recreational activities. The expectations we impose on our self, or those that others impose on us, dominate our time.

When we do engage in leisure activities, we may not feel rested or refreshed. That round of golf was frustrating, the motor on the boat malfunctioned, or the kids were fighting. Despite all the money and time we spend on recreation, we often remain dissatisfied. 

Something, it seems, is lacking in our attitude towards leisure.

Sabbatical living
We can liken leisure to the biblical concept of the Sabbath. The Biblical explanation for the Sabbath goes back to the creation myth of Genesis. God created the earth in six days, and rested on the seventh. If rest was good for God, it was also good for people.

Initially, the Sabbath was a day of rest for everyone, including beasts of burden. Over time, a concept of sabbatical living evolved. The concept encompassed rest and relaxation, celebration with others, and sharing in God’s divine life. Periods of worship gave the individual and the community opportunities to pause, reflect, and connect with God. Attitudes of joy and thankfulness permeate sabbatical living.

The concept of sabbatical living reaches its fullness in the example and teaching of Jesus. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking Sabbath laws, Jesus replied, “The Sabbath was made for humankind” (Mark 2.27). Work and rest both have a purpose and fulfill a need in human life.

The Gospels record instances of Jesus working hard, going off for a meal and a glass of wine with his buddies, and withdrawing to a remote place to pray. Jesus balanced work, recreation, and leisure as a spiritual discipline. As a spiritual discipline, leisure was a form of personal re-creation that energized Jesus to return to his ministry with vigor and passion.

Leisure nourishes spirituality

Leisure can be for us a practice that nourishes spirituality, but it demands a shift in our attitude towards time. In a culture that often judges a person’s worth by the activity of their smart phone, leisure teaches that constant availability and activity is detrimental. In a society that makes a competition of busyness, leisure says to slow down.

In today’s social environment, we may feel compelled to buy into the busyness, even with our leisure time. Our vacations sometimes become such a swirl of activity that we return   home needing a rest.

Leisure encourages us to seek rest for our souls, to listen to the sounds outside of our self, and to see the world beyond our self.

Leisure asks that we stop running so that we might breath in deeply of the stillness that makes us receptive to God. In stillness, we encounter the presence of God in our self, in others, in our activities, and in the world around us. In stillness, we temporarily transcend our concerns. We re-emerge with new vision and energy.

If we approached leisure as a spiritual discipline that nourished stillness, I suspect that we would experience benefits similar to those that the children in the study experienced from play. If we could learn to rest our weary self in God, we would become more creative, productive, self-possessed, selfless, joyful and holy.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Landscapes of love

Landscapes of love

Road trips and landscapes:
Road trips and summer vacation are synonymous for many families. Over the years, our family has made many road trips. We derived numerous benefits from our road trips. We made lifetime memories, found creative solutions to unexpected problems, rediscovered the joys of simple pleasures, experienced new places, and learned new things about the people, and world around us.

Longer road trips exposed us to a variety of unfamiliar landscapes. Recalling some of our road trips, I see in my mind’s eye a diversity of Canadian landscapes.

Lake Louise
Coast off Tofino BC
Louise McEwan photo

A full moon over the snow capped mountains surrounding Lake Louise, the brilliant yellow fields of flowering rapeseed in eastern Saskatchewan, the tide crashing into the craggy coastline off Botanical Beach on Vancouver Island are just three of the memorable landscapes etched in my mind. Each of these landscapes had a unique beauty that touched my heart.

What we see in a landscape is only a fraction of the diversity and life that abounds there. We catch a glimpse of the promise of the landscape. Snow capped mountains hold the promise of life giving waters that will eventually tumble to the sea, and return to the land in the form of the rain that nourishes. The crops in the fields speak of the cooperation between human hands and nature, and hold the promise of grains and oils for food preparation. The diverse life of the ocean lies invisible beneath the waves.

Landscapes reveal something about God:
Landscapes can be spiritually charged environments that provide a glimpse into the nature of God. To the receptive individual, these environments reveal something of the divine personality.

Love is the chief trait of this personality. The evangelist, John, repeatedly defines God as love. Over and over, John reiterates, “God is love,” and reminds us that “whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 John 4:16).

Landscapes can be symbolic of God’s abundant and sustaining love for humanity. As we view a landscape, we know rather than see, that it supports an amazing array of plants, animals and insects, and that all of these are interconnected. We glimpse God’s sustaining love in the landscape’s ability to sustain its diverse life forms.

We encounter God’s abundant love in our lives, through those things we refer to as blessings. In times when we do not feel blessed, God’s love sustains us through the barrenness of our personal landscape. We know this through faith, even though we may not perceive it at the time.

The variety of landscapes throughout the world speaks of God’s creativity. Mountain peaks, plains, beaches, rain forests, and deserts speak of God’s imagination and artistry. God’s creativity is reflected in human endeavors as successive generations conceive new ideas and bring them to fruition. Human settlements, architecture, the arts, and technology are some of the ways we share in God’s creative imagination.

Landscapes as metaphor for relationship:
Our appreciation of landscapes can be a metaphor for our relationship to God.

 Old Glory - Rossland Range
Photo by Louise McEwan
We might treat this relationship like a landscape on the road trip, viewing it as a source of inspiration for our life, or simply glancing at it as we zoom by. We might stop at the viewpoint, look around, and say “Ah, how beautiful,” snap a photo and then drive off. In these cases, we have briefly seen, but not experienced the landscape. Our encounter with the landscape has been superficial. Or, we might become more engaged with the landscape. We pitch our tent, remain awhile, and experience the promise of the place.

We zoom by God, glancing briefly, when we let the busyness of life take precedence over the activation of our spirituality. God is in the background of our personal landscape; we believe but we do not engage.

Clipart from

When we think about God only on Sunday, it is like stopping at the viewpoint to enjoy a stretch and the scenery. We go to church. We emerge feeling good. We have stretched our souls. But then we fall back into the rhythm of the week, and God is once again in the background of our personal landscape. We have taken the photo, but some time passes before we look at it again.

Photo by Louise McEwan 

Our relationship with God is a landscape full of promise. God invites us to pitch our tent and to put our self in the photo. We can drive by or become part of God’s landscape of love.