Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas is an opportunity to tune into the sacred

It was hard not to be tuned into the possibility that Kate might be pregnant.  The tabloids   had been speculating for weeks.  The speculation came to an end when the Duchess of Cambridge required medical attention for acute morning sickness. At that point, Prince William’s office had little choice but to announce the pregnancy, even though the royal couple may have preferred to keep the news to themselves.

Reaction to the announcement came quickly as people tweeted their congratulations, which ranged from the predictable to the euphoric. The more euphoric statements described the pregnancy as a “global phenomenon” and as the “good news that everyone has been waiting for.”  There were predictions for the future: “this baby will secure the future of the monarchy for decades” and “this baby will be the most famous child in modern history.”  There were expectations of universal joy: “this baby will bring joy to many around the world.”

Thinking of a long ago pregnancy
This highly public pregnancy and the reaction to it make me think of another pregnancy. It was a pregnancy that did not generate widespread excitement, although it had certain notoriety. A young Jewish girl had returned from a visit to her cousin and she was obviously pregnant.  The news spread quickly. The rumor mill was working overtime. Instead of congratulations, there was innuendo and criticism.

While he felt betrayed, her betrothed kept his cards close to his heart as he pondered his next step. Like everyone else in the village, he wondered how this could have happened. Who was the father? 

While people were quick to condemn her, they wondered about the sanity of her betrothed.  If he were not the father, then he was a fool, treating her with an honor she did not deserve.  The women shunned her and the men were preparing to stone her.

This may have been the reaction that Mary and Joseph faced in their little town, where it was impossible to keep Mary’s pregnancy a secret. While people in the surrounding villages were talking about it, none were offering euphoric congratulations. In their view, this was a shameful pregnancy; it was definitely not good news. No one was waiting for this baby to secure the future of a nation. No one expected this baby to be a global phenomenon.

The people were wrong. This baby was good news and he would influence the lives of many. This baby, Jesus of Nazareth, was sacred; he was the expression of the presence of God among us.

Recognizing the sacred in our midst
That long ago pregnancy teaches us something about recognizing the sacred in our midst. The sacred manifests itself to us in subtle ways. Like a woman who has yet to discover that she is pregnant, we may be unaware that we carry the sacred within our being. Like the critics of Mary and Joseph, we may be unaware that the sacred is about to enter into our experience. We are not tuned in.

"Madonna with Child"
Francisco de Zubaran 1658
In the birth of the Christ child, we have a beautiful image of the sacred as immanent  and as transcendent. In Mary’s tender caress of her newborn son as he nurses at her breast, we have an image of the soul responding to the gentle touch of God’s presence.

In the tiny and dependent Christ child, we sense that the sacred is vulnerable and susceptible to neglect. We begin to understand that just as parents care lovingly for their child, we must nurture what is sacred within our self. Then, we are better able to recognize and respond to the sacred in others and in creation.

In the report of angelic choirs appearing in the night sky to announce the birth of this child, and in the legends of animals kneeling before this baby in a manger, we find a metaphor for the presence of the sacred in the world around us. 

Becoming pregnant with the possibility of transformation
While nurturing a sense of the sacred in a secular world may seem like foolishness, it is a trusting response to God’s invitation. God asks us to become pregnant with the possibility of our own transformation.  As an unborn baby slowly develops in the silence and darkness of the womb, our inner transformation occurs invisible to the eye, until, little by little, we give birth to the love and the joy manifested in that first Christmas, when a young Jewish mother wrapped her babe in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.  

 Frederico Barroci  1597

                                                  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Are you ready for Christmas?"

It’s that time of year when everyone is asking the question that makes even the most organized woman feel frazzled. “Are you ready for Christmas?” I am definitely not ready for Christmas, either materially or spiritually. 

When my children were young, I had deadlines for my Christmas preparations so that I would be ready.  I rushed around as if the coming of Christmas depended solely on my ability to get things done.

Over the years, I have scaled back. I bake less and I buy less. While many people I know have also scaled back on the purchasing of gifts, Christmas shopping remains a national obsession.

Black Friday is like a military operation
The madness begins on Black Friday. This year Black Friday dominated the media. It was as newsworthy as the possibility of war between Israel and Palestine, civil strife in Syria, and the fiscal cliff in the United States. It could be that Black Friday is worthy of all this media attention. After all, shopping on Black Friday has its war like elements as consumers fight to get the best deals and, as they repeatedly swipe their credit cards, consumers create their personal version of a financial crisis.

According to market researchers, the annual Black Friday shopping ritual is comparable to a military mission. One researcher noted that people plan their shopping mission weeks in advance, devising strategies to increase their chances of successfully obtaining the best deals.

Not everyone is impressed with Black Friday. Twenty-two years ago in Vancouver, Kalle Lasn of Ad Busters came up with the idea of “Buy Nothing Day”.  Lasn thought it was time to counter the blatant consumerism of Black Friday. He wanted to encourage discussion on the dark side of consumerism. The dark side of consumerism is the stress it places on the planet and the psychological consequences of the message that consumption equals happiness.

The Christmas season has become a time of excessive consumption. The excesses of the season, whether it’s credit card debt from overspending, an expanded waistline from overeating, or multiple hangovers from over imbibing, leave many people feeling less than satisfied when the New Year arrives.

Christmas creates a widespread feeling of goodwill
Celebrating, and the giving and receiving of gifts play an important role in Christmas.  They help to define the festive season, demarcating Christmas from the rest of the year. Christmas is the only holiday I can think of that creates such a widespread feeling of goodwill.  The spirit of Christmas inspires gladness, generosity, and greater civility among people.

When I think about the consumerism of Christmas, the words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind.  Isaiah uses the metaphor of a banquet to describe God’s invitation to live a fuller, more satisfying life. Why, God asks, do you waste your money on things that cannot feed your soul? Why do you work for things that give you no satisfaction?

The Christmas shopping season coincides with the liturgical season of Advent.  Advent is a time of spiritual preparation when Christians prepare to welcome ‘God-with-us’ in the birth of the Christ child. Advent is an appropriate time to counter bargain hunting with some soul searching.
Photo: Louise McEwan
I have learned to buy less and do less so that I can give more
Years ago, when the number of tasks I wanted to complete before Christmas began to overwhelm me, I had an insight. It was so obvious, yet it was something I had consistently overlooked. Christmas day would come and go, regardless of the state of my preparations. Christmas day did not depend on specialty baking, or a pile of gifts under a beautifully decorated tree. The beauty of our Christmas depended on the love in our hearts and in our home.  The thing that mattered most was my ability to be present to my family, my friends, and my God. Although I still search for the perfect gifts, I have learned to buy less and do less so that I can give more.

In a curious twist, Christmas leads us towards another Friday: one that is a counterpoint to Black Friday. While Black Friday’s all consuming focus is about filling up our lives with stuff, this Friday has a different focus. In the birth of the Christ child, Christmas points to Good Friday. Good Friday encourages us to become empty, so that we may live in the lightness of heart that characterizes the Christmas spirit. Christmas is the beginning of God’s strategic operation for us.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Malala Yousafzai: Sharing in the prophetic task

Because she is a girl, she was shot in the head. 

Malala Yousafzai has become a household name since the Taliban attempted to assassinate her on October 9.  That day, as Malala and other girls rode home from school, Taliban gunmen boarded the canopied Toyota pick up truck that served as their bus.

Malala’s crime: her conviction that girls have a right to education. Her advocacy for the education of girls began in 2009, when the Taliban captured her town of Mingora in the Swat valley of Pakistan, and began a reign of terror. Eleven years old at the time, Malala wrote a blog for the BBC describing life under the Taliban. While Malala wrote anonymously under the pen name Gul Malek, which means “grief stricken”, it was only a matter of time before the Taliban discovered her identity. 

Since 2011, when she was awarded Pakistan’s National Peace Prize, and nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize, the Taliban have been out to get Malala, who believes that education for girls is a human right, a means of reducing poverty, and a tool for peace. Not surprisingly, these accolades fail to impress the Taliban, and perhaps make them even more determined to harm Malala, whom they consider to be a “symbol of obscenity”, and “an advocate for the west”. They have said they will attack her again.

Malala has power over the Taliban
Even while she is wounded and recovering in a hospital bed far from home, Malala has power over these men. While she is at her weakest and most vulnerable, the strength of her convictions, her spiritual courage, and her ability to inspire others scare these men. Because of her courageous spirit that arises from her deep convictions, Malala has successfully inspired her community and  captured international attention. She epitomizes Ambrose Redmoon’s definition of courage; “courage is not the absence fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”

Malala’s courage is contagious. It empowers others. Despite her fears, Malala publicly expressed the grief of her community and persisted in her criticism of their oppressors.  In the words of Malala’s friend Kainat Riaz, who was also wounded in the attack, Malala gave them courage; “she made us powerful.”

As if to prove her point, Riaz has put herself at risk by telling the story of that fateful day. Armed guards are posted outside her home to protect her and her family. Everyday, she and other girls put themselves in harm’s way when they go to school. Since the assassination attempt the Pakistani Taliban has adopted the horrific practice of throwing acid in the faces of girls who continue to attend school.

A voice in the wilderness cries out for justice
The Taliban has presently silenced Malala, but her voice echoes in the courageous but less attention grabbing actions of others who daily challenge their oppressors. Her voice echoes in the determined footsteps of girls who continue to attend school, refusing to let the Taliban dictate their future. Her voice echoes in the fathers who respect their daughters’ desire to learn, and who still allow their daughters to attend school despite the risks. These fathers and daughters are everyday prophets who know that to do nothing in the face of oppression presents a greater risk. They are laying the foundations for change.

While the Taliban call Malala a symbol of obscenity, others call her a “symbol of resistance”, a “symbol of peace,” and a “voice in the wilderness”.  This last epithet strikes me as particularly apt.  It brings to mind Biblical prophets, like Moses, Isaiah, and John the Baptist.  These were not doom and gloom harbingers of an apocalypse. These were prophets who brought hope to communities that were oppressed with injustice.  They challenged the dominant culture, offered a different vision of the future and energized the people.

Malala is like these prophets. She discerns a reality that transcends her current personal and communal experience of suffering. She envisions a new future full of possibility.  She inspires others to work for change.

Every so often, someone exceptional like Malala appears as a leader in a community. While her prophetic imagination is linked with the culture and history of a specific situation, the call to be a prophet is universal. Each one of us shares the prophetic task of envisioning and building a more just world, where the dignity and rights of all people are honored. Each one of us has a responsibility to do our part so that justice flows like a mighty river, enriching the lives of all people, regardless of sex, race, or creed.

Read more on the courage of girls like Malala in this story from Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press.

Some Biblical references for the requirement of justice:
Micah 6:8
You have been told, oh mortal, what is good
and what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice and to love goodness,
and to walk humbly with your God.

Amos 5: 22-24

 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Reasons to show up at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day

Showing up at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day is a little bit like attending church on a holy day; I need a very good reason to miss the service. 

The act of remembrance honors those who served, and those who are currently serving in missions overseas. Our presence at the cenotaph is a way of saying thank you to them. The act of remembrance is also an expression of gratitude for the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted, and for the gift of this peaceful, democratic nation that we call home. The act of remembrance expresses our collective desire for peace, and acknowledges our responsibility to build a more just world.

Soldier Statue in Veteran's Square, Trail, BC
Louise McEwan photo

We are there to remember, not to celebrate victories or to glorify militarism
The main event of every official Remembrance Day service is the two-minute period of silence. The practice dates to a November 1919 proclamation of King George V. George V called for two-minutes of silence at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month “so that in perfect stillness the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”  We are there at the cenotaph to remember, not to celebrate victories or to glorify militarism.

The observation of silence is a public action; it is something that everyone present engages in together. At the same time, the silence has a very private component; we are alone with our thoughts. It is a good time to reflect on the dignity, value, and sacredness of every person. It is a good time to reflect on the harms of war. It is a good time to reflect on our commitment to peace: peace in our hearts, our homes, our communities, our nation, and our world.

A few years ago, my husband and I attended the Remembrance Day service in Duncan, BC, where we were visiting a friend. The reality of conflict was brought home to me in a sobering way.  During the commemorative silence, instead of reflecting, I found myself observing the scene in front of me.  The numbers of young servicemen and women far exceeded the numbers of aging veterans.  Before my eyes, in the persons of the old and the young, I saw the wars of the past and the militarism of the present.  It was, frankly, a little disheartening.

We are still far from beating our swords into ploughshares
For almost a century, we have been remembering, yet armed conflicts continue to erupt around the world.  As a global community, we have a long way to go before we beat our swords into ploughshares.  We are better at waging war than creating the conditions necessary for peace.

Our slow progress at building peace throws into relief another reason why our presence at the cenotaph is important.  Our presence can also express an element of dissatisfaction. Our presence at the cenotaph is a way of saying that we do not like war. War offends us.

Our commemoration is not an acquiescence to war. It is not an approval for spending ever-increasing amounts of money on the machinery of war.  While our presence at the cenotaph expresses gratitude, and demonstrates support for our troops, our presence also expresses a determination to seek peace.

Military training, weapons, and equipment are not the instruments of peace. We do not win peace through violence. We build peace, not through fighting, but through the promotion of justice, and through the work of reconciliation.

The absence of peace is a result of injustice
The absence of peace is always a result of some type of injustice: political, economic, cultural, or social.  Rigoberta Menchรบ Tum, the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, writes, “Building peace requires that we start by weaving a fabric out of the threads of equality, justice, participatory democracy, and respect for the rights of all peoples and cultures.”

This is easier said than done, as almost a century of remembrance and the history of humanity shows.  So, Remembrance Day is also a great challenge to those of us who yearn for a more harmonious world.

While imprisoned during WWII, a prisoner scratched an already famous war memorial epitaph on the walls of his prison cell: “When you go home tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.” This year, on Remembrance Day, as we honor the past, let us carry the hope contained in these words in our hearts. May they inspire us to acts of transformation, no matter how small, that will advance a universal culture of peace.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Costumes of pretense

As a child, I really loved Halloween. I would look forward to it for weeks. Once I had decided on a costume, my mother began working away in her little sewing room.  She was inventive; she could refashion clothing we had outgrown, scraps of extra fabric, and previous costumes into something that satisfied my childhood imagination. As my costume took shape, my anticipation grew. When the big night finally arrived, I bubbled over with excitement. 

"Twisted Halloween Candy":
Courtesy of Stuart Miles

Trick or treating was great fun. We would we traipse around the neighborhood, often trudging through the first snowfall of the season, using pillowcases for candy sacks. For weeks afterwards, we consumed the haul of goodies that simultaneously satisfied and intensified our craving for treats.

The goodies, delicious as they were, were secondary to my love of Halloween. The thing I most enjoyed was masquerading.  When I put on that costume, I assumed a new persona: childhood angst melted away.  When I put on that costume, my dreams became reality: the sky was the limit.  It was a grand feeling!

The next morning I always felt a little sad. While I would have liked to continue to pretend, my loving but organized mother laundered, folded, and stowed my costume away at the back of a closet.  By the afternoon of November 1st, my costume was a sweet memory. It was time to “get real”.  It was time to be me.

Halloween fired my imagination
Halloween served a useful purpose in my childhood, other than the obvious benefit of free candy. It fired my imagination.  The act of pretending helped me discover my self, reshape my dreams, and accept the realities of life. Paradoxically, pretending helped me be real.

It is easy to become distracted from being real. As we outgrow the Halloween of childhood, we may develop increasingly elaborate pretenses as adults. We may succumb to cultural influences that tempt us away from self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Courting falsehoods about ourselves
Consumerism and the beauty industry are two cultural influences that entice us into participating in a masquerade, and encourage us to court falsehoods about ourselves. Consumerism convinces us that our wants are needs, and pressures us to purchase items we can ill afford. When we should be reaching out to others or facing up to our financial realities, the culture of consumerism goads us into spending on ourselves. Meanwhile, the culture of beauty sings its anti-aging siren song, deluding us into a superficial denial of our own mortality. 

"Beauty":  Courtesy of Salvatore Vuono
While there is nothing innately wrong with possessions and looking our best, focusing on these externals can make us superficial and self-centered.  Our preoccupation with ourselves begins to sap our resources and our energy. We have little left to give others because we are consumed with our cravings. The externals are like sugar laden Halloween treats: just when we think we have eaten our fill, we find ourselves craving more.

Eventually, this focus on externals makes us unhappy. Since there will always be new stuff available for purchase, and since the signs of aging are inevitable, we may feel perpetually dissatisfied. Since there will always be someone with better stuff, and someone better looking, we may feel that we do not measure up. We may feel unworthy unless we are costumed to participate in society’s elaborate masquerade.

Confusing the content of our personhood 
When this happens, we are no longer real; we are pretending. We have replaced the splendid homespun Halloween costumes of our childhood with consumer goods and a fraudulent idea of beauty.   We confuse the content of our personhood with the quality of our possessions and our physical attractiveness. We need a loving mother to make us take off our costume, and to nudge us towards confidently showing the world our resplendent selves.

We long for loving mother figures in our lives to reassure us that we are loved and loveable even without the grandiose masquerade. Love gives us the courage to strip away the externals. Love empowers us to discover the beauty within. Love gently leads us to accept our realities, and encourages us to dream in life giving ways.

We “get real” when we shed our costumes, stop masquerading, and focus on the content of our personhood. We become real when we allow others to love us despite our imperfections and inadequacies. It is truly a grand feeling!

                                                  Happy Halloween
Photo courtesy of M & J Lawson

Photo Credits: Free Digital Photos

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bullying and technology

In a previous post, I commented on the negative influence of technology on child psycho-sexual development. In another post, I commented on bullying. Cyber-bullying, the spreading of malicious content about a person over the Internet, is another one of the dark sides of technology.

Internet sites that operate on an ethic of anonymity make cyber-bullying easy. Anonymity encourages some individuals to behave in a morally reprehensible fashion, without regard for the dignity of others. Anonymity of this nature permits individuals to avoid responsibility for their words and actions.

The tragic suicide of Amanda Todd has thrust cyber-bullying into our consciousness.  Amanda's suicide has become so painfully public, in part, because of her YouTube video.  It is shocking that the bullying continued after her video was posted, and it is terribly sad that sufficient help was unavailable to this young woman in the weeks between the YouTube post and her suicide.

An Internet group, Anonymous, claims to have identified Amanda's tormentor. Trying to be helpful, others have threatened the man. This is another form of bullying.

While Anonymous and these individuals undoubtedly mean well, there are problems with vigilante justice. It presupposes guilt, and if an individual is wrongly accused, their reputation remains damaged. Perhaps even more importantly for some cases, it interferes with the legitimate investigation. In the Todd case, police have said that this is hampering and slowing the investigation.

I feel for the parents of Amanda. Grieving for their daughter, coping with the feelings of guilt that usually follows a suicide of a loved one, they are now subjected to media coverage of rumours and innuendo that are getting in the way of uncovering the perpetrator or perpetrators.  

Technology is a double edged sword; it is both a powerful tool for good, and a destructive weapon.  We have an individual and societal responsibility to ensure that technology is used for good.

Update: Since I posted this a few hours ago, BC Almanac on CBC Radio featured the story of another teen who was in a situation that mirrored Amanda's. The Restorative Justice program saved the day. I think this is a good example of the shared responsibility between society and individuals to correct wrongs, to make amends, and to extend the hand of forgiveness. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

World Food Day - Rich foods and fine wines a dream for many

A Festive Table
Photo: Louise McEwan
I think about food quite a lot. Food has always been a big part of my life, and many of my fondest memories are inseparable from large family gatherings around the table. We marked every holiday and significant event in life with some type of celebration that involved generous amounts of delicious foods.  Growing up, I never wondered at the cost of food, or questioned the ability of my parents to provide a plentiful board. Three squares a day, and then some, were a given. Today, I continue the tradition of celebrating in style with specially prepared foods and fine wines.  

Monday morning, as I ran off the extra calories from the Thanksgiving feast, I muttered a quick prayer of gratitude for the abundance that daily graces our table.  Like the majority of Canadians, we always have food on our table, more in the pantry, and the means to purchase it. Even as my own family enjoys abundance, we are conscious that many people in our communities, across the country, and around the world are unable to meet their basic food needs. 

Canada - a land of plenty but... 
Canadians are among the world’s most well fed people. In fact, we are so well fed that we waste a staggering $27 billion of food annually. This includes things like leftovers growing mold at the back of our fridges, bulk foods that we toss, and waste from restaurant and supermarkets. With the harvest behind us, I wonder how many tons of vegetables and fruit from backyard gardens and orchards went to waste.

Despite this plenty, an estimated 900,000 Canadians are hungry.  In May of this year, the plight of hungry Canadians made international headlines when Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, criticized Canada for its lack of a national food security strategy. While the Canadian government refuted De Schutter, proclaiming that federal and provincial governments are improving the lives of Canadians, it seems clear to me that our nation has a problem with hunger.

I doubt that very few communities in the country do not have at least one food bank. My small town has three, and demand for food is increasing.  Local food bank volunteers are noticing that more families with children are requesting food. While some of their clients are employed, mostly at entry-level or minimum wage jobs, earnings are not keeping pace with the rising cost of food; by month’s end, these people need help to put food on the table.

The 2011 report from Food Banks Canada, entitled "Hunger Count", confirms these anecdotal observations of local volunteers in my community. Across the country, Canadian food banks collectively reported 93,000 first time users each month. Thirty-eight percent of people using food banks are children and youth under age 18. Eighteen percent of people accessing food banks have some form of employment income.

Organizations like Food Banks Canada can help us understand the various causes of hunger. Two causes of hunger are low income and a lack of affordable housing. De Schutter was unequivocal in his criticism of Canada’s failure to address these problems; Canada is a wealthy country that has failed to “adapt the levels of social assistance benefits and its minimum wage to the rising costs of basic necessities, including food and housing.”

Millions can only dream of rich foods and fine wines
A feast of rich foods and fine wines is the stuff of dreams for many Canadians, and for growing numbers of individuals worldwide. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that there are almost 900 million undernourished people and 2 billion malnourished people worldwide.

In 1997, world leaders at the World Food Summit pledged their collective political will and commitment to achieving global food security.  They set a goal to eradicate hunger, and to cut the number of undernourished individuals in half by 2015.  At that time, 800 million people were undernourished.  Fifteen years later, based solely on the number of hungry people in the world, the global community is no closer to achieving food security.

The FAO has designated October 16 World Food Day. It is a day to remind us that food is a basic human right, not a luxury for those with good jobs living in nice houses. It is a day to consider our habits of consumption, and the effects of our consumption on countries in the global south. It is time to open our eyes to the hungry in our communities, and to make our own pledge to alleviate hunger through a combination of charitable giving and social action.

(Note to readers: My blog is staying put for the time being. I have some technical details to sort out before completing a move to )

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The innocence of Islam

I just wasted 14 minutes watching the very poorly produced film, “The Innocence of Muslims”.  Normally, I would post a link to a YouTube video I mention, but not this time. Most teens with an iPhone can make better movies.  Yet, this is the film that has outraged Muslims and sparked protests, first in Arab countries and now in North America and Europe. 

Undeserving of attention but difficult to ignore
If the reaction to this film, created by an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in the United States, had not resulted in deaths and social unrest, I would dismiss the film as ridiculously stupid (which it is).  “The Innocence of Muslims” is simply not worth the trouble it has caused. It deserves no attention.

However, the film’s notoriety makes it difficult to ignore. This film is neither art nor documentary. It is a pathetic attempt at propaganda intended to discredit Islam through the crude portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed.  As others have stated, it portrays the prophet as a fraud, a womanizer, and a child molester. To these insulting representations, I would add that the film also portrays the prophet as a buffoon, and his followers as brainless minions.

While I am not surprised at the reaction to this film, I am surprised that this shoddy video has garnered so much attention.  There are likely hundreds of poorly produced propaganda videos posted on YouTube. Most of them remain obscure. Someone, or a group of individuals, disseminated this particular YouTube video for malicious reasons.

Protests have little to do with faith
The majority of protestors in Arab nations cannot have seen the video. Goggle restricted its access in some Arab countries to comply with the laws of those countries. Other countries blocked access to the film. There is a strong sense that Muslim extremists, using social media, orchestrated the protests. 

Maybe the protestors truly believe that they are defending their prophet’s honor. It is more likely, though, that these protests have little to do with Islamic faith, and a whole lot to do with power and ideology.

There is a consensus in the international media that the protests express political and social frustration. Analysts give three main reasons for the protests. There is a struggle within Islam between extremists and moderates. There is frustration with the economy and the slow pace of rebuilding a society following the Arab Spring.  There is also the ever simmering anti-American sentiment and general suspicion of western culture.

Religion is the scapegoat in a complex web of realities
These protests reflect a complex web of realities; religion is the scapegoat. This is nothing new. Historically, those in positions of power and religious authority have misused religion to rationalize intolerance, to legitimize violence, and to further political agendas.  When this happens, religion is more about ideology and power than faith.

Most of the world’s religions are based on an ethic of compassion and non-violence. Islam is no exception.  Violence, ostensibly in the defense of religion, is a poor way for believers to exercise their faithfulness. So is the making of a film that attacks and denigrates another religion.

This small-minded film, "The Innocence of Muslims",  has been thrust into a spotlight on the international stage. It has no business being there. The poorly made film is not responsible for the madness that has ensued anymore than Islam is to blame. Culpability lies elsewhere, in the complexities that shape human societies. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The monastic oasis of France's Le Reposoir

The view from a chalet in Le Reposoir
Photo by C. McEwan
There was no sleeping in late on our recent vacation. The day following our arrival in the little village of Le Reposoir, nestled in the French Alps, we were up early to attend 8:3o a.m. Mass. It was Wednesday, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, and a national holiday in France. Celebrating the feast day is part of the nation’s patrimony, and we were happy to experience this aspect of life in a village where religious tradition remains important.

Ancient roots for a modern holiday
The roots of this holiday go back to 1638 when King Louis XIII consecrated his kingdom to the Virgin Mary, and decreed that churches commemorate the feast day with Mass and celebrations. In a country that is recognized for its secularity, August 15 remains an important day for many of its inhabitants.

Our French hosts told us that some years ago the government had proposed abolishing the holiday, but encountered fierce opposition from the citizens. Our hosts explained that while the nation is no longer overtly religious, the people remain attached to this holiday. It is part of the historical and cultural fabric of their country.

In Le Reposoir, a village of about 400 inhabitants, there were two Masses that morning.  The Masses were well attended, with people  from the village and the surrounding areas. After the early Mass, we sipped our coffees on the terrace of the local bar to the accompaniment of pealing church bells, and watched as family after family filed into the village church. 

The Le Reposoir monastery

The early Mass was celebrated at the ancient Carthusian monastery situated outside of the village.  The simplicity of its Gothic chapel spoke more to my religious sensibility of the presence of God than did the ornate cathedrals thronging with tourists that we visited elsewhere on our travels.

This is sacred space
The monastery of Le Reposoir is the oldest monastery in France, and dates to 1151. It sits on an expansive property, fronted with a small lake. The mountains rise up on all sides. While the grandeur of the landscape could make a person feel small and insignificant, I felt cradled in the heart of God here. This is sacred space, infused with an atmosphere of calm that contrasts sharply to the cluttered noise that characterizes most of modern day life.

A small group of Carmelite nuns, the majority of whom are cloistered, inhabit the monastery, and are committed to maintaining the quiet that is conducive to an encounter with God. In an amusing anecdote, our hosts told us that every time the mayor embarks on a development idea, the nuns redouble their prayers for the village to remain a place of repose. So far, no development project has succeeded. While the mayor may wish that the nuns prayed less fervently, and stopped thwarting his good ideas, the monastery and the contemplative life it espouses are clearly dear to the people. Here in this monastic oasis, religious tradition continues to ignite the sparks of faith.

Liturgical celebrations mediate the presence of God
Liturgical celebrations at the monastery provided the bookends for our day.  That evening,  we returned to the monastery for the annual candlelight procession, and prayer vigil. The  procession begins at the monastery and winds its way up the hill to the statue of Mary. The celebration ends with the lighting of a massive bonfire. 

Vigil bonfire

The bonfire is clearly the highlight for the children present.  As they sat before the fire, I recognized in their expressions of wonder and awe the uncomplicated faith of childhood that readily accepts the presence of God.

As the sparks flew heavenwards into the night sky, we cautiously made our way back back to our accommodations with the help of a small flashlight.  The night was black, the stars were brilliant, and the presence of God was everywhere.

Photo credits:
The Le Reposoir Monastery, Source: Le Carmel en France
Vigil Bonfire, Source:

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Shaping a more just society through our work

From an early age, I learned the value of work. My father owned a dry cleaning and laundry business. In its heyday, the business employed about a dozen people, and did the laundry for a number of local hotels and motels.  At around age 12, my sisters and I began helping on the laundry side. We fed sheets through the flat iron, and folded them. We loaded washing machines and dryers with towels, and folded them when they were dry. We counted out both the sheets and the towels, stacked them, and wrapped them for delivery.

As we got older, we assumed more responsibilities, and worked more hours. We learned how to press shirts with a really cool pressing machine that also folded them. We learned some basic office skills, and served the customers.  The time required to complete the work determined the length of the workday, after which we went home to enjoy the summer afternoons.

That early experience of work helped me to develop a strong work ethic. There was nothing glamorous about working in a hot, humid laundry, but we did our job well, and with pride.  While I do not remember my parents saying it, somehow I learned that every job is worth doing well. I told myself this repeatedly when I was a university student cleaning toilets in a hospital. It was not a glamorous job, but I did it well, and with pride.

I remember feeling proud to have a job because I was making a contribution. I was making a contribution to my family; my parents did not have to work quite so many hours while employees were on vacation if we helped out. With my earnings, I was able to contribute to my education and my future.  I also liked to think that I was making a contribution to others. Perfectly laundered sheets and towels might make guests feel more comfortable while away from home. A clean bathroom might help to lift a sick person’s spirit, and help them feel cared for.

Work is relational, and involves us with others
While I no longer have a job per se, I still find value in the work that I do.  Whether it’s washing the floor, doing laundry, working on a volunteer project, or writing a column, work provides my daily life with structure and purpose.  In my experience of work, whether it is paid, unpaid, or volunteer work, work is relational. It involves us with others, and affects others.  

Something as simple as providing an orderly home environment gives all family members a sense of consistency and security.  Consistently executing a job properly, and with attention to detail demonstrates a sense of responsibility to the common good.  A worker who pulls their weight shows respect for co-workers. Employers who treat employees as members of a team, not as wheels in a cog for corporate profit, honor the dignity of each individual. 

We can imbue the workplace with elements of the sacred
While the workplace is a secular environment, we can imbue it with elements of the sacred through the manner in which we conduct our selves. Our approach to our work, and our interactions with co-workers reflect our character.

We do not need to be Bible thumping fanatics at work in order to express faith. By expressing our faith in unobtrusive ways, we can make a difference to the culture of the workplace. The workplace can become a community of caring individuals, who respond to the needs of one another, and to the needs of the community beyond the workplace.


We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers
From time to time, we read stories of groups of workers reaching out to others. These groups fund-raise, donate the money to charity, or to a family that is struggling with an unexpected disaster, or a debilitating illness. This workplace outreach begins with individuals who are motivated to help someone who is suffering.  While their actions  may not be religiously motivated, these groups of individuals are practicing a dimension of their spirituality. Through their compassionate response to the needs of others, they  remind us that we have a responsibility for one another. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

Our culture of consumerism has conditioned us to base the value of our work on dollar amounts.  We tend to think of our work in terms of what our earnings enable us to purchase. When we begin to view our work as something more than a paycheck, we begin to see new possibilities for creating and shaping a more just society.

Photo credits: