We are all children of God. What was Jesus talking about, when he told his friends that the only way onto the Creator’s good road, the way of faithful, fulfilled living, is to become as trusting as a little child?
This week in our morning devotions, my wife and I have been learning about connections between Buddhism and following the way of Jesus. One morning I heard these words by the Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr, and I have been chewing on them since:
The presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God. There’s no other place to be. The only change is always on our side—God is present, but we’re not present to Presence. We’ll make any excuse to be somewhere other than right here. Right here, right now never seem enough.
But here’s the problem—we’re almost always somewhere else. We are either reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. If we watch our mind, it doesn’t think many original thoughts. We just keep thinking in the same problematic ways that our minds love to operate.
We can say that all spiritual teaching—and I believe this is not an oversimplification—is teaching us how to be present to the moment. When we’re present, we will experience the Presence.
I was thinking that perhaps part of what Jesus was getting at, about trusting as a little child, is being where we are, in the moment, trusting that God is with us, and that we are with God, and that there is something good, and beautiful about being right here.
Life can be hard, and there is so much sadness, and hardship, and suffering in our world. There is conflict, and cruelty, and pain, and illness, and people we care about get injured, or sick, and they die.
If we allow all the hard things to stop us from seeing anything good, we may miss a lot.
One of the gifts of having children in our lives, is that very often, all they really want and need from us, is to be right here, with them.
I wonder if that’s actually what God is hoping for, for us, as well, that we just be who we are, right where we are, and know that God is with us, and loves us. Amen
This is my latest column for The Kingsville Observer
It came as a great honour when the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 338 in Harrow asked me to take on the role of chaplain. It seemed appropriate that I join the legion.
As the new members were led through the oath of allegiance to the sovereign, I realized I hadn’t been asked to make such a commitment since I was a Cub scout. Here’s how I remember it:
“Akela! I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and the Queen.”
This is essentially what we ask of those who serve on our behalf. That they do their best, act honourably and represent our highest values.
In the short history of our country, our young, and not so young, our bravest, our most willing to serve, have been asked to fulfil difficult missions and go into terrible situations where they witness, and sometimes do, awful things.
Thanksgiving weekend a year ago, a young man named Kevin, who served in Afghanistan, took his own life. I don’t know what he witnessed or was required to do while he was in-country. I know from talking with his first ex-wife, who is my cousin, that things happened while he was in Afghanistan that broke him and he never healed.
Kevin gave his life not in one bloody awful moment but over time. Kevin needed help but did not receive the support he needed and deserved. His living, and his slow dying, became unbearable and he chose to end it. Before he did there was hurt and pain enough to go around, touching every person in his life. He leaves behind two ex-wives and a young child who is too young to have memories of their father.
The pain and sacrifice ended for Kevin but continues for many others.
When we ask members of our military to give their lives, all at once or a chunk at a time, we had better be sure of what we are asking. Will the mission truly serve the common good and make the world even a little better than it was?
Those who wear the uniform and serve their country are called upon to do incredibly difficult things. I have great respect and admiration for those who serve and for their families and loved ones. They all make sacrifices.
There is brokenness and evil in the world. People commit atrocities. Governments, corporations, and power-hungry individuals are capable of manipulations that turn ordinary folks against each other. Some conflicts seem to be about religious differences, or ethnic rivalries. Many are really about territory, money or power. People are whipped into frenzies by those with something to gain.
In many conflicts around the world, opposing forces use weapons and ammunition from the same factories, sold and delivered by the same arms dealers.
Different weapons, weapons of manipulation, are used to create division and stir things up to the point when the military becomes involved. We see these weapons at work every day, on the international level, but also in our own communities and even among our families and friends.
You can usually see and hear these attempts at manipulation in appeals to our self-centredness, our sense of entitlement, our fear of change and our preference for quick and simple solutions to complicated problems.
In earlier times, this was called idolatry. The false gods have many names. Here are a few:
Blind Patriotism: Our country is the best, and it’s only for us.
Selfish Consumerism: I want more stuff and don’t care what it takes to get it to me.
Xenophobia: I don’t like or trust people who are different from me.
Racism: People who are not like me are not as good as me and they scare me.
Sexism and Homophobia: Your sexual identity defines you and your value.
Elitism: What I want and need always takes priority.
Radical Individualism: You can’t tell me what to do. My rights trump the needs of others.
These manipulations appeal to our greed, pride, fears, worries, impatience and our lack of good information. They work on everybody. They work on me and you and the people we elect.
Those in uniform are trained to rely upon each other, to have each other’s backs and look out for each other. We have to make sure that while those who serve in uniform are out there, keeping watch for us, that we have their backs.
We also have to keep an eye on those with the authority to send out the troops, to make sure that only happens for valid reasons aligned with our highest ideals.
We also have to make sure that while they serve and after they come home, members of the military know we still have their backs and we will help them in meaningful ways.
One of my favourite authors is a man who died in 2008, but who continues to have an influence in my life, and in the lives of people around the world. His name is John O’Donohue. He was a poet, and a mystic deeply rooted in Celtic culture and spirituality. He often spoke about the thin places between our earthly lives and the life beyond.
The ancient Celts believed that certain places, and certain times of year were like that. The change of seasons, passage through a cave, or a doorway. The top of a hill, where rising warm air hits the cold, and mist, or fog may result. The place where a stream or river enters a lake. Energetic places where transformation happens, where things are changed from condition to another.
We can hear this as a spooky idea, that the spirits or souls of those who have died can cross that thin veil, and come back, if only as sound, or feeling, or in a dream, or in a certain smell. That’s the stuff of campfire tales and horror movies. It’s also the stuff of quiet conversations that usually begin with- something happened the other night, that I don’t know what to make of…
These persistent stories remind us that we don’t know everything, and that our lives are surrounded by mystery. The Lazarus story from John’s Gospel is like that. Mysterious.
When I was growing up, the emphasis at Hallowe’en was always on the dressing up in costumes, and collecting candy. We didn’t really dwell on the spooky bits- the tombstones, graves, skeletons, and ghosts.
In some cultures, particularly in Mexico, families gather in cemeteries, and celebrate the day of the dead. They may have a meal at the grave of loved ones, and take time to remember them, pray for them, talk with them, and give thanks for them.
That may seem a little spooky for us, but one positive effect is that children in those families literally grow up around death. It is not hidden from them, and the fact of human mortality is embraced, normalized. I think that can be a good thing.
When I was growing up, children were often kept home when there was a funeral in the family. I encountered that in my earlier years as a pastor. Families would often say they didn’t want the children to be frightened by what they would see at a funeral home. I think there was truth to that, but that folks were also projecting upon their children, their own anxieties about death.
Death is something we still seem to find difficult to talk about in our society. The culture around is sometimes described as death-denying, and age-defying. Whole industries make billions of dollars helping us look young, as if there is something wrong, unnatural about aging.
About twenty years ago I was in a class at the Queens School of Theology, and the teacher made a statement that has stuck with me, which usually means I am still trying to understand it, and sort out how it is true in my own life.
She said that for many people, the dread and fear they feel when they think about dying, is not totally about being afraid of death. She believes that some of it is actually fear of dying without having truly lived, or having discovered the part of themselves they were meant to contribute to the world.
Have you seen the movie Soul? If you haven’t, I recommend it, if only for the music. Jon Batiste, one of my favourite jazz musicians won an Oscar for his work on the soundtrack.
In the movie, there is a place beyond the earth, where souls come from, and where they go back to, when their earthly life is complete. It is a good place, and the beings in charge want each soul to discover their spark, their passion, the thing they will bring to their earthly life that will make a difference.
Our hope, as people of faith, is that each soul, that has its origin with God, returns to God. In the movie, those souls that have returned to the place beyond Earth are recruited to help nurture the souls who are just starting out, to help them discover their spark.
It’s a lovely idea, that beyond this life we would have opportunity to use what we have learned, to help others.
Most of us, I hope, can think of people they have known who have nurtured them, encouraged them, helped them be better at being themselves.
Every person we’ve ever known adds something to our lives, for good or for bad.
When we hear the word saint we may think of certain special people that through history have been recognized as especially holy.
Earlier in the fall I talked about Saint Francis. People who knew him felt better for being around him. His presence was a blessing, and he inspired others to be better versions of themselves.
That’s not a bad measure of success in this life. A different way to counting our blessings:
How have we been blessed, by the presence of people who helped us to be better humans?
How have we been a blessing to others, by helping them find their own spark, their way to be faithful, loving, helpful to others?
One of the lessons I think we are meant to learn in this life is about paying it forward.
As we grow and mature through the stages of life that we are invited to take the opportunities that come up, to nurture the spark of life in others.
One of the best things about a faith community is that those of us who are in the later stages of our earthly journey can now use our experience, gifts, talents, wisdom, to help others.
The word for this is generativity. It’s related to the word for generation. Those of us who live into this generative stage of life, have a lot to share with the generations who are younger than us- and when they get older, and wiser, they in turn will have much to pass on to those who come after them.
On All Saints Day we take time to remember those we’ve known, and loved, and whose earthly journey is complete, but who have made a difference in our lives. We hope that when the time comes, those who follow us, will remember us.
(There seem to be issues with YouTube, so I removed the link to the video, which was not functioning. I will check it tomorrow to see if things improve.)
A few years ago, I read a beautiful and very simple book called, Sleeping with Bread. It’s by Dennis and Sheila Linn and Dennis’ brother, Matthew Linn. The title of the book came from a story:
During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”
“Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”
Please indulge me a moment, and say these words with me.
“Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”
“Thanks be to God.”
I do give thanks, each day, that I can say these words. The only reason we might not have food in the house, is that we have neglected to stock the pantry, and I need to go shopping. But even then, it is never that there is no food in our house, perhaps just food we do not care to eat today.
In the series of houses in which my family lived, as I grew up, there were times when there was nothing in the house to eat. My parents worked hard, and I don’t remember a time when either of them stay unemployed for long. But there were definitely times when they were under-employed, or when their earnings simply did not stretch far enough.
I don’t know how aware of this my siblings were, as we grew up. As the eldest, I have clear memories of looking through the cupboards while my parents were at work, searching for something to prepare, to feed my brother and sister.
This was not a daily occurrence, but it happened enough that I remember it. Enough to carve something in my soul, a wound that still opens sometimes when I am at the grocery store. Over the years I’ve done a lot of the food shopping for my family, partly because my wife does not enjoy it, and partly because it brings me great joy to be able to provide for my loved ones.
Over the years I have noticed that the old wound, that had to do with scarcity, and the fear there wasn’t enough, has been transformed to gratitude, because there is. Gratitude also overflows into a feeling of generosity. I have enough, and I can share. There are times when I am just overwhelmed when I think about it. I have enough, and I can share.
690,000,000 people will go to bed hungry tonight. 690,000,000 people aren’t asking, “What will we eat for dinner?” 690,000,000 people are asking, “Will we eat dinner?” And they ask that question night after night.
Hunger is so pervasive you’d think that the whole earth was made of dust. That no crops could grow anywhere. But we know that for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with Mother Nature; the problems lie in the choices humans make.
Poverty, land grabbing, greed, climate change, the commodification of food and water, conflict, political instability. The causes of hunger are so complex, so intertwined, so systemic, it’s natural to wonder how you and I could ever make a difference.
The gospel lesson John read, that included Jesus’ parable of the sower, may seem like a strange choice for World Food Sunday. It’s not exactly a pep-talk.
Some seeds will fall on the path and the birds will eat them. Some will fall on rock and the sun will scorch them. Some will fall on thorns and be choked out. But some will fall on good soil and bear an unbelievable crop.
Jesus was in a boat, offshore, speaking to a large group of his followers. They may have been tired, hungry, discouraged, worn out. They may have been doing the best they could, and felt like it wasn’t enough.
Jesus did not say, go team, get out there and win! His message was more realistic. It was more like, get out there, live your mission, knowing full well that life is hard, the world can be a difficult place, that our fellow humans are not always helpful, and can sometimes behave poorly. But keep sowing seeds, because sometimes they will take root and flourish.
The United Church, through local congregations all over the country, actively supports groups like Harrow’s Community Pantry, and the Food Bank, because we care about people going hungry.
On the national level, the United Church involves itself in conversations about food security. We believe food is a sacred gift from God. Manna from heaven. No one should go hungry.
We also put our money where our words are, and through Mission and Service, we support community kitchens and meal programs, food cupboards, shelters, job training programs, community gardens, and healthy food programs. Internationally, we send food aid in times of crisis. We fund programs that distribute seeds, offer agricultural training micro-lending, and support projects that help small-scale farmers access equipment they need and, in some places, build infrastructure so they can transport their food to market.
We work with partners like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank to move beyond the charity model, so that people can develop the capacity to grow their own food, and produce crops to sell, to improve their own lives.
We have not solved all the world’s problems, but for some people our support means the world.
There is a man named Emmanuel Baya, a farmer who lives in Magarini, Kenya. Kenya is a beautiful country that has dealt with some incredible tragedies. There ae more than 850,000 children there who have been orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.
Emmanuel lost his parents when he was very young, so when he saw children looking for food under the cashew trees on his property, he felt a tug on his heart strings. He wanted to help.
He opened a children’s centre and school for orphans. But he didn’t want to just nourish their bodies and minds, he also wanted them to be able to one day sustain themselves.
And he knew he needed more skills to help. So he flew to the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, ARI for short. ARI is an agricultural training institute that teaches organic farming techniques and leadership skills.
ARI is supported by many different churches, including the United Church of Canada, through Mission and Service.
When he graduated from the program at ARI, Emmanuel returned home and started an organic demonstration farm next to his school. Today, not only are the 287 children in his care learning how to grow food, but the farm is also serving seven neighbouring communities.
690,000,000 people may be going hungry tonight. But Emmanuel and all the people in his community, and the thousands of people that our Mission & Service partners help aren’t among them. We can give thanks for that, and we can keep planting seeds. Amen
The grown children and their partners, and most of the grandchildren made it back for Thanksgiving. They all seem happy to see each other, and are doing things together. There is a cribbage tournament happening in the living room, two of the younger grandchildren have taken over the basement television to play Minecraft. Two of the teen-aged grand-kids are perched on the couch, making a point of ignoring the gamers, and showing each other things on Tik-Tok.
There is a good buzz in the house, and a sense of joy, and anticipation for the impending meal. The scent of roast turkey is a promise of what is soon to come, that can be smelled in every room in the house. Everyone seems in the holiday spirit, except for the new partner of one of the middle generation. They have spent the day holed up in an upstairs bedroom.
This new partner, who’s at the family farm for the first time, makes their money in day trading. They buy and sell in markets based around the world, in places that don’t celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. The longest sentence they’ve said to their partner that morning was “Money doesn’t take the day off, so neither do I.”
Their partner is somewhat used to this, but hoped they might take a break at least for a few hours. The compromise they reached, with hard looks at three paces, was the day-trader would join the family for supper.
Since then, the day-trader has invested their time like any other day. Tracking jagged peaks and valleys and little numbers on the screens of twin lap-tops, typing buy and sell and orders on their ipad, and talking on their Bluetooth headset.
They eat mini-pretzels by the jumbo bag they get from Costco, which they wash down with diet cola, also bought in bulk. They brought all their own supplies with them from the city.
The soda makes their stomach feel growly and empty, but they depend on the caffeine to stay alert. More soda leads to more handfuls of salty crunch, which leads to more salt induced thirst, and on and on.
One the Minecraft kids said, “We’re like, in the country. The wi-fi is super slow, and we’re all online. Won’t that mess them up?”
“The oldest of the Tik-Tokkers looked up from their phone to say, “I checked the available connections in settings. They are running off their own hot spot. I wonder what the password is for Cash4Me2021.”
The other teenager says, “I bet you my piece of pie it’s the same as the license plate on their land rover, but don’t even think about trying it.”
By the time the potatoes are mashed, the gravy is in the boat, and the turkey carved and on the platter, two industrial size bags of mini-pretzels have been washed down with a two litre bottle of the dark bubbles. There have been numerous quick trips to the bathroom down the hall from the bedroom where they’ve hidden all day, but the trader hasn’t been downstairs, or spoken a word to anyone in the family. All three generations were warned to leave them alone while they worked.
The grandparent who ran the kitchen today has the other one travel the house announcing “Supper is ready”, and the extended family gathers in the dining room. There are extra chairs crowded in around the big table, that has both leafs in today. There is also a card table added to one end, for those who are last to the table. The family gave up on having a kid’s table years ago, because everyone wanted to be together.
The chairs around the tables fill in. Except for one. The day trader is the last to enter the dining room. They barely look up from the text they are reading. They don’t see the look on their partner’s face until they sit, and shut the phone down. One of the grandparents says, “It’s good to see you! How have you been?”
The day trader says, “Up about 11,000 dollars for the day. Parked it in my U.S. dollar account.”
The grandparent who asked says, “That sounds like work went well. But how are you?”
The day-trader’s partner sinks a little lower in their chair.
The day-trader picks up their phone, rises from the folding chair, and says, “Oh. To tell you the truth, I am a little tired. I really just came down to say hello, and good night.”
“Aren’t you going to join us for the meal?”, asked the grandparent who cooked all day.
“Honestly, I kind of filled up on snacks I brought from home, and don’t really need anything. But thanks for the offer.”
The day trader was up and gone before anyone at the big table could think of what to say.
The grandparent who had entertained the whole crew while the other was in the kitchen said. “We should get to passing food before it gets cold. This all looks great.”
One of the grand-kids looked around the table and said, “Let’s say grace first. We have a lot, so much, to say thanks for.”
Today is World Communion Sunday. Since the early 1930’s Christian churches of many different denominations have celebrated it as a day to bring churches together in an act of unity. It started at a Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and quickly spread across the US and Canada, and to many other countries.
Even though there may be significant differences amongst the various kinds of churches, there is hope that in the breaking of bread, the pouring of the cup, and the remembering of the message and mission of Jesus, that Christians can celebrate what they share in common.
Common. That’s kind of our word for the day. The English word “common” has its roots in the Latin word “communis”, which is very close to the word communion. Communion means the state of sharing, or exchanging thoughts or ideas, or feeling part of something.
The example offered in one online dictionary was of poets who live in communion with nature. That sounds like connection, feeling like you have something in common with nature.
I have been pondering how we would celebrate World Communion Sunday in this almost post-pandemic, post-election reality, in which there seem to be so many divisive forces at work.
What if in our faith community- another word rooted in communis, or common, we used the occasion of World Communion Sunday to exercise our imaginations, and stretch our hearts and minds a little? In this season of creation we’ve heard some bible stories and some indigenous wisdom, that invites to deeply consider our place in Creation, and our relationship with the land, the air, the water, the sky, and all living creatures.
Can we be like those poets that commune with nature? That phrase has me imagining people outdoors, perhaps occasionally hugging trees, but also, just taking time to be, to look, touch, smell, pay close attention.
I have been drawing upon the book Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, for inspiration and guidance. Kimmerer is an indigenous woman, a member of the Potowatomi First Nation. She is also botanist and a professor of environmental and forest biology.
Early in the book she wrote about her first day of undergraduate program. Her academic adviser asked why she wanted to study botany. She wrote:
“How could I answer, how could I tell him that I was born a botanist, that I had shoeboxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my bed, that I’d stop my bike along the road to identify a new species, that plants coloured my dreams, that the plants had chosen me? So I told him the truth. I was proud of my well-planned answer, its freshman sophistication apparent to anyone, the way it showed that I already knew some plants and their habitats, that I had thought deeply about their nature and was clearly well prepared for college work. I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.” (p. 97, Braiding Sweetgrass)
The adviser looked at her said, “I must tell you that that is not science. That is not at all the sort of thing with which botanists concern themselves.” He went on to tell her that her question, which was about beauty, was not science, and that “if you want to study beauty, you should go to art school.”
The advisor’s response made her doubt where she came from, what she knew, and felt like he was telling her that his way was the only way to think.
She said, “In moving from a childhood in the woods to the university I had unknowingly shifted between worldviews, from a natural history of experience, in which I knew plants as teachers and companion to whom I was linked with mutual responsibility, into the realm of science.”
Did you notice how she wrote about plants as her companions? The word “companion” is rooted in two latin words. The “com” part derives from communis, or common, or sharing, that I mentioned earlier. The “panis” part is from the latin word for bread. A companion is someone with whom you share bread.
I think in her own, beauty-filled way, Kimmerer grew up communing with nature, like those poets. She found communion, with her companions, in the forest.
Later in the book, Kimmerer quoted another author, a scholar named Greg Cajete who wrote, “in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.”
To me that sounds a bit like what Jesus told the scholars of religion, when he was asked about the Greatest Commandment, in other words, what must we be sure to do, to honour God, and walk in God’s way:
Jesus reminded them of what their faith already taught: “This is the foremost: ‘Hear, O Israel, God, our God, is one. You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 (The Inclusive Bible)
To live faithfully, in community, in the world, we are called to love with all parts of ourselves. Our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies. We are to love God, to love our neighbours, to love ourselves.
Kimmerer wrote that the struggle she had, in her early years of university, was that her “natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide. But science is rigorous in separating the observer from the observer, and the observed from the observer.”
Kimmerer learned how to speak the language of science, and did very well. She completed her bachelor’s degree, and was accepted to do graduate work in a great botany program. Her adviser wrote a letter in which he said, “She’s done remarkably well for an Indian girl.”
She completed her Master’s degree, and then her PhD, and was hired as a professor. Then she was invited to a gathering of Native elders, to talk about traditional knowledge of plants. She listened to “a Navajo woman without a day of university botany training in her life” who spoke of the plants in her valley, their names, where they lived, when they bloomed, who they liked to live near, what creatures ate the plants and which ones lined their nests with them, and what kind of medicine each plant offered. She talked about stories of those plants, how they got their names, and what they have to tell us. She spoke of beauty.
Kimmerer said the Navajo woman’s words were like smelling salts waking her up again. It was the beginning of her reclaiming that other way of knowing, of living in relationship with the world. She said, “I felt like a malnourished refugee invited to a feast, the dishes scented with the herbs of home.”
I love that in her return to her indigenous way of connecting with the world, I’d say, being in communion with the world, she felt like she’d been invited to a feast.
When we celebrate the sacrament of communion, we invite people to our table, for bread, and for wine, or juice. These represent not just the body, and the blood of Jesus, but the bounty of the earth. Grain harvested and ground, and baked into nourishing bread. Grapes picked and the sweet juice extracted for the cup. These are simple, worldly things, offered to us in love, that we might grow in our own capacity to see all humans, all creatures, the whole world as one. Amen
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Potawotami nation, and a botanist, and professor of environmental and forest biology. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass is an artful weaving of personal history, stories from her indigenous culture, and scientific observation.
In a chapter called the Council of Pecans, she told a story about her grandfather and his brothers, who one fall day in 1895 went fishing in the midst of drought, in an effort to bring some protein home for the family supper table. They caught nothing, but on the way home, walking near a grove of trees, one of them stubbed his toe on something hard and round hidden in the tall grass.
The boy looked down, then picked up a hard green ball from the ground and whipped it through the trees at his brother like a fastball, and yelled “Piganek! Let’s bring ‘em home!” Pigan is the name in their language for any kind of nut, but was brought into English by the settlers as pecan. The boys could not carry many in their hands, but they took off their pants, tied the legs off with twine, and filled them like we might use a grocery bag. They ran home in their underwear, with their pants over their shoulders like big forked logs, to present their treasure to their mother.
Kimmerer’s people were originally from the Great Lakes region, in Michigan. When settlers wanted their land to farm, they were moved to Oklahoma, which is where those boys were when they brought home pecans for supper. They were moved again, to Kansas, to make room for another wave of white settlers.
Kimmerer has been back to the old family home place in Oklahoma, and there is a pecan tree shading what remains of the house. She wrote, “I imagine Grammy pouring nuts out to prepare them and one rolling away to a welcoming spot at the edge of the dooryard. Or maybe she paid her debt to the trees by planting a handful in her garden right then and there.”
That’s a great image. The woman pausing from her work of preparing food for a hungry family, to plant a few pecans in the garden. The phrase Kimmerer used was to pay a debt. There is a recognition in those words of a relationship between the people and the trees that provided food. There is gratitude, and respect, and responsibility. Another word we could use is interdependence, the recognition that all beings: plant, animal, human, need each other, and have duties to one other.
Kimmerer wrote, “in the summer of 1895, the root cellars throughout Indian Territory were full of pecans, and so were the bellies of boys and squirrels. For people, the pulse of abundance felt like a gift, a profusion of food to be simply picked up from the ground. That is, if you got there before the squirrels. And if you didn’t, at least there would be lots of squirrel stew that winter. The pecan groves give and give again. Such communal generosity might seem incompatible with the process of evolution, which invokes the imperative of individual survival. But we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole. The gift of abundance from pecans is also a gift to themselves. By sating squirrels and people, the trees are ensuring their own survival.”
When the pecan trees have a big production year, and throw off a lot of nuts, the squirrels pack their larders. When they are well-fed, the plump pregnant mamas have more babies in each litter. Increased squirrel population means more food for hawks and foxes, and they flourish. Then predation increases, and the squirrel population decreases. Some of the nuts they’ve buried lay undisturbed, and more pecan trees get their start. There is a rhythm, a pulse to all of this.
Kimmerer sees herself, and her people, not as bystanders to this organic, living drama, but as integral parts of the living web. As I mentioned last week, this way of seeing is very different, and not easily compatible with the worldview of the settlers, the ones who displaced Kimmerer’s people.
When our White Europeans forebears came here, they brought the understanding that land was a commodity to divided up with lines on a surveyor’s map, property to be assigned, bought and sold, and put to work for the benefit of the owner.
Living in Kingsville, I hear a lot of discussion about land that was historically designated for agriculture, but is now hidden under acres and acres of plastic sheeting, for greenhouse operations. Are these farms, or factories? What happens to all the other forms of life that were once part of the ecosystem on that land? Where do the deer run, when glowing polyethylene structures cover their old trails?
I don’t know the answers, but I appreciate that Kimmerer’s way of seeing the world brings a different sense of involvement, interdependence, and responsibility.
This week we took time in the service for our annual blessing of the animals. It’s a tradition that goes back almost over 800 years in the Christian faith. There was a man in Italy called Francis of Assisi, who in his own way, pointed to the interdependence of all that lives in God’s creation. He wrote poetry in which he called the sun his brother, and the moon his sister. He considered all the animals to be family. By his words, but most often, with his actions, he encouraged love, and respect for all living creatures.
He was probably what people today would call a nature mystic- he felt a profound spiritual connection to God, when he was out for a walk in the woods. There are stories about him preaching sermons to the birds, encouraging people to feed animals who had been displaced when land was cultivated for farming, and of him praying for the healing of injured animals.
Francis knew and taught in the 13th century what many people today also know, that animals are capable of both receiving, and offering love. They live in relationship with the natural world, and the other creatures around them, and have much to teach us. Amen
When I tell you a story, whatever it is about, I am telling you about myself, my culture, my beliefs, my politics, my issues. The story may not sound like it is about me- but if I picked it, the fact that I am telling it, says something about me, who I am, and where I come from. The way I tell it may say even more. Have you ever noticed that some people, when they tell a story, what ever it is about, manage to make it mostly about themselves?
Everyone has stories. Stories pass on information, a worldview, a way of living.
You’ve heard the comment that history is told by the winners. The stories that get preserved, tell us something about the dominant culture, and what it values. The stories I learned as history, about the creation of Canada as a nation, were usually about brave and adventurous European discoverers, coming to a vast, untamed, and largely vacant land. The fact that there were communities, civilizations, nations long established here was never the focus of the story.
It reminds me of the way Sir Edmund Hilary is described as the first person to climb Mount Everest. He was the white guy, a beekeeper from New Zealand. How many of us can name the man who made the final ascent with him?
Tenzing Norgay was Hillary’s Sherpa guide. But Hillary and Norgay wouldn’t have got anywhere near the top of Everest by themselves. They were members of an expedition that included a dozen climbers, 35 Sherpa guides, and 350 porters, who carried the 18 tons of food and equipment needed for the climb.
We usually only hear part of the story, and what part gets chosen, tells you something about those who choose, and tell the stories. My favourite part of Edmund Hillary’s story is that 7 years after his famous climb of Mount Everest, he led another Himalayan expedition, sponsored by the World Book Encyclopaedia, in search of the Abominable Snowman. They did not find each other, but that’s a whole other story.
I grew up minutes away from the Fort William First Nation, on the edge of Thunder Bay, and never heard stories from that community, even though its history goes back a lot further than that of the Europeans who settled in Northern Ontario. It was as if the history of Canada, of this whole continent, began when white men arrived on its shores.
When the government of Canada decided to dismantle the culture and traditions of the First Nations people, they took the children, many against their will, and without parental consent, to places where they were not allowed to hear or speak the languages of their people. They were only allowed to hear, and speak English, and their traditional stories were replaced with the stories of the Bible, and with the same primers and textbooks used in white people’s schools.
Take away the language, you take away the stories. Take away the stories, and you take away cultural memory. That’s a very effective way to destroy a people. The goal was to solve the Indian Problem in Canada, by making the children into slightly darker skinned versions of white kids, so that they could be fit in, assimilated into mainstream, meaning white, Canadian society.
The stories we tell, and how we tell them, tell a story about us. The Bible has some kind of creation story in at least five different places. Over the weeks of the season of Creation we are hearing them. Last week we heard Psalm 8. This week our story comes from Genesis chapter 1. It’s the one that describes the Creator making everything over the course of 6 days, and then taking a rest day, to step back and enjoy it. In this story, before the Creator relaxes, they make humans, and then ask the humans to take care of the earth, and all that has been created, including all the creatures.
In our western culture we seem to have taken that part of the story about being caretakers, and upgraded ourselves from land managers, to owners. That was the attitude our forebears brought with them when they colonized and settled here in this part of the world. They used all their powers of persuasion, friendly and otherwise, to get title to the land, to claim it as their own.
“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold.”
Did you hear that? Really hear that? The land, the whole world viewed as a sacred gift from the Creator, meant for the good of all, and not to owned, or bought, or sold.
That is such a foreign, weird idea to most of us. It’s not the story we have been told, or that we tell about the world. It’s a story that was not easily compatible with the stories the White Europeans came here with, that shaped their view of the world, and how to live in it.
The Ojibwe’ story we heard about the creation of Turtle Island shows Sky Woman working together with the animals, to make a safe place for them all to live. It is a cooperative vision, not a competitive one. It is a story not about owning and exploiting the gifts of creation for profit and power, but of taking care of what has been given by the Creator, for the good of all.
I read a commentary on this story, that pointed out that the creation of Turtle Island depended upon the bravery and determination of the smallest water creature in the story. Muskrat risked their own life to dive deep, and bring up the bit of soil Sky Woman needed, to begin the making of the new place to live.
Muskrat had a story about themselves, that said they were not as capable or useful as the larger water animals, the beaver, the fisher, the marten, or the loon. But when all these larger, stronger creatures failed, the muskrat let go of their former, limiting story, and lived into a story that encouraged them to try, to stretch themselves, to risk giving themselves to something beyond themselves.
Wilika Matchweta Asimont, the woman who offered that commentary describes herself as a survivor of Canada’s First Nations boarding school legacy and foster care system. What stories about herself did she have to let go of, in order to make a life beyond all of that? What stories did she discover in new ways, to live into, in order to survive, and thrive, and be of help to others?
As a community of Jesus followers, we have a story that we tell over and over again, and act out, that is meant to tell us something about the world, and about the Creator, our relationship to the Creator, and to each other. It’s a story we hold sacred, sacred enough to call it the sacrament of communion.
When we share the sacrament today, and I say the words, I will also be listening deeply to the story, trying to go as deep into the story as little Muskrat, to get a hold of a little something, that will help build a world.
This is the “learning time” I wrote for Sunday, September 12, at Harrow United Church. It was our first in-person worship service after the province moved to Step 3 in its re-opening plan. It was great to be with some folks I had not seen in person for quite some time. Our sound guy, Eric, brought some special guests. He knew I would be speaking about Monarchs, and has a friend who raises them. Eric brought a portable enclosure containing five adult butterflies. They were on the communion table for the worship service. Afterwards, we brought them outside and members of the congregation helped release them.
Acknowledgment of the Land:
We live, and make our living on land that was known, and cherished, lived on and travelled long before explorers claimed to discover it, and settlers arrived from other lands. The area we call Essex County is traditional territory of the Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, and Caldwell nations of the Three Fires Confederacy, and the Huron/Wyandot nation. The people who knew this land long before our forebears arrived, had rich history, and culture, and spirituality, and a deep and profound relationship with Creation.
Psalm 8 (The Message)
God, brilliant Lord, yours is a household name.
Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you; toddlers shout the songs That drown out enemy talk, and silence atheist babble.
I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous, your handmade sky-jewelry, Moon and stars mounted in their settings. Then I look at my micro-self and wonder, Why do you bother with us? Why take a second look our way?
Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods, bright with Eden’s dawn light. You put us in charge of your handcrafted world, repeated to us your Genesis-charge, Made us stewards of sheep and cattle, even animals out in the wild, Birds flying and fish swimming, whales singing in the ocean deeps.
God, brilliant Lord, your name echoes around the world.
Caring for the Earth: Some words about Monarch Butterflies
Just the other day Greg Iler was on his ATV, heading from his house to the equipment barn, and he noticed the sound of the ATV roused hundreds of monarch butterflies from the cedar hedge.
Greg told us about it at this week’s meeting of the church board. I offered a devotion that asked people to remember if they’d recently had an “awe” moment- when they saw something surprisingly, wonderfully beautiful. There are moments that we just want to share, and that lift us out of the ordinary, and I think, remind us of the holiness of life, and creation.
The video can’t completely capture the wonder of what he saw, when all those monarchs flew over his head. Maybe it was one of those you had to be there moments.
The Monarch is in peril of becoming an endangered species, which makes the “you had to be there” seem a little more urgent. Monarchs depend on milkweed as their place to land, rest, feed and lay their eggs, if they can find them.
Over the last 20 years, millions of acres of milkweed plants have been plowed under to farming or uprooted by development. In 1996, the annual monarch count was about 1 billion butterflies. Recent counts are down to around 50 million, a loss of around 95 percent of the monarch population.
We are blessed to live in an area that is on one of their migration routes. This is a great time of year to see them as they gather to head south.
It wasn’t until I watched a video of the Monarch’s development from the laying of an egg to the emergence of a butterfly that I grasped all the stages that must happen. It’s truly amazing, and for me, a reminder of the mystery and wonder of life.
We often use the image of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly to talk about transformation- but seeing all the stages, from egg, to the first larva, or instar stage, to 4 more growth stages where the larva sheds its skin, to pupa building its cocoon, or chrysalis, then to the imago, or adult butterfly, was a powerful reminder that transformation, while it is a natural process, is also a lot of work.
It takes a lot of determination, and energy, and time to become something new. Even if we already have the DNA, the genetic blueprint to guide us, the changes don’t come quick and easy.
Everything in creation is changing, all the time. Everything goes through stages of transformation.
The monarch’s transformation leads them to become something wondrous, and beautiful. If you didn’t know about butterflies, and you saw the little translucent egg perched on a blossom, or the tiny, odd-looking larvae scrunching around, chomping holes in a milkweed leaf, would you ever imagine what it is destined to become? How does the larva know when to stop chewing and swallowing, and spin the little sac that becomes its cocoon? How does it know when one stage of life must give way to the next? What urges it on, to do the next thing?
We can look at the Monarchs, and enjoy them as marvelous creatures, part of God’s amazing creation. We can also learn from them.
As we take steps towards re-opening the church building, and working together, in person again, at our ministries, the leaders of the congregation are beginning to see, and wrestle with the likelihood that some of the changes that happened during COVID are going to lead to other changes, and that we are being kind of urged into a new way of doing things.
We’ve learned a lot about making online worship videos over the last year and a half, and we recognize the need to carry on with them. We will move to live-streaming our services, so folks who can’t be here on Sunday morning can watch and listen, and worship with us, as it happens.
Our families with school age children have been through different stages of how education is delivered, and we hope and pray with them that the return to in-person school goes well. We are still pondering how we can do our ministry with children and young people in this new time. How will Sunday School evolve? How can we best stay connected to these families and children, who are so important to us?
The caterpillar works hard to build the cocoon, and maybe it looks like it gets to rest, but inside the cocoon its body is changing, developing, becoming something new. It’s hard work.
Does the caterpillar ever ask, “Why can’t I just stay a caterpillar?”
Each individual caterpillar is being a caterpillar for the first time, and doesn’t have other caterpillars to watch, examples to follow. Everything they must do; they’ve never done before!
When it’s time for the mature butterfly to emerge, it wrestles itself out of the chrysalis sac, to begin its new life. Change is hard! Adapting to new conditions, to a new stage of life, is challenging.
As a congregation, we may find that things will have to be different, going forward.
We’ve missed the Harrow Fair, but last weekend the ministerial organized a worship service on the fairgrounds, and we had 130 people attend. It was not the same as what had been done before. It was something new, that grew out of the former event, emerging like a new butterfly
We now sell our famous and wonderful Harrow Fair pies through Lee and Maria’s Market Garden in Kingsville. For Thanksgiving we will be taking pre-orders, and folks can pick up their pies here at the church.
Plans are under way for the turkey supper, the first Saturday in November, as always, but for the second year in a row it is all take-out, and you’ll pick up your meals at our drive thru. It’s not the way we used to do it, but it’s the way we are able to do it now. We’ve had to become nimble, creative, and patient with ourselves and others as we find our way.
There are champions of the monarchs in Windsor and Essex County, who promote planting milkweed, to provide places for the butterflies to feed and rest and lay their eggs. I bought milkweed plants at the Fruit Wagon two years in a row. We now have two varieties of milkweed thriving in our backyard, and it sends a little thrill of joy through me whenever we are visited by Monarchs.
My wife and I listened to a book this summer while we travelled up to Thunder Bay, written by a naturalist and adventurer named Sara Dykman. It’s called Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration.
Her story opened with the author climbing a mountain in central Mexico, to visit one of the protected butterfly reserves where tens of millions of monarch butterflies winter in the oyamel fir tree forests. They fill the sky and cluster so heavily on the trees that the branches bend with their weight and look like they’re covered with orange and black leaves.
Lexie and I were cycling at Pelee on Thursday evening and saw a cluster of monarchs on one branch high above our heads. Maybe you’ve seen similar sights. Imagine what it would be to see millions of monarchs in one place.
When things begin to warm up in March, it’s time for the Monarchs to migrate north, through the U.S. and up here into Canada. Each butterfly can travel 25-30 miles a day. It was the author’s plan to go along with them, making the journey on her bicycle.
The book includes valuable observations about the butterflies, and other creatures, their habitats, and the threats to their survival. She described her visits to schools, parks, and community groups, during which she shared her conservation message, and her reverence for nature with all who would listen. Everywhere she went, she encouraged ordinary people to do their part, by planting and protecting milkweed.
Sarah Dykman made her amazing journey in 2017, including stops at Point Pelee, and a school in Windsor. It would have been great to hear her speak, and see her pictures, and her bicycle, which she called her ButterBike. I bet it was a great experience for the students in the schools she visited.
Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention when I was in grade school, and we learned about Monarch Migration. I knew they fly north from Mexico in the spring, and back south in the fall, kind of like the migratory birds.
I didn’t realize that except for the adult butterflies that make it to Mexico and go dormant in the cold air of the mountains, each butterfly lives only for 2 to 6 weeks. They fly along, breed, stop and rest and feed and lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The butterflies die not long after breeding, and it’s the next generation that continues the journey. It takes 4 generations to complete the long journey from Mexico to Canada and back.
Scientists have different theories about how each new generation knows where to fly. They may be navigating by the stars, or by the angle of the sun in the sky, or perhaps by the earth’s magnetic fields.
Scientists put tiny bands on butterflies at various places on the known migration corridors and can tell that generations of butterflies descended from the same ancestors follow the same routes every year. Butterflies with different genetic profiles follow different routes.
As I pondered it taking four generations for the monarch to travel from their winter homes to where we live, and back again, I thought about the Seventh Generation Principle, which comes from the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people, that says decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.
As we have been finding out these last two years, the present and the future do not always turn out the way we expected, and we face new decision points. As we make plans for our families, our businesses, our communities, our church, perhaps the Monarchs can be good teachers for us. Each Monarch has their part in something so much larger than themselves. Their efforts are part of the ongoing survival of their species.
Do we think that way? Do we consider that choices we make, for good or for bad, have implications for our families, communities, species, that will last for generations? How do we calculate how much effort we are willing to make and what level of inconvenience we will tolerate, for the benefit of those who will come after us, generations, and decades, and centuries down the line?
I was cycling with some friends the other day, our own little migration from Kingsville to Harrow, and back. One of the guys, who is in his 70’s talked about spending a day near Peterborough, with a group of volunteers who were planting trees. He observed that most of the tree-planters were older than him, and many would not live to see their saplings grow big and tall. He thought that was a good example of optimism.
I think’s it’s more than optimism. It’s a sign of spiritual transformation, when a person grows to a stage in life at which they find meaning and purpose in doing things for the benefit of future generations- and act more like Monarch Butterflies. Amen
Take a moment in silence, to remember a time when you said or did something that upset or hurt another person. I will do this with you, knowing full well that it is not pleasant to remember when we have wronged another person.
Before we go further, let’s remember that God loves us, and through Jesus we know that there are no barriers to God’s love, and God’s forgiveness. If you feel a need to, offer a prayer asking God to forgive the thing you just remembered, about hurting someone else. If you have not already done so, and need to, you may want to make a plan for how to reconcile with that person.
Now, take a moment and remember a time in which you were the one on the receiving end- when something that was said or done caused you upset or hurt.
Have you been able to be reconcile with the person who hurt you- or their memory? Some of our hurts may go back so far that the person who caused them may no longer be around. Have you forgiven the person? Are you still working on forgiving them?
Forgiveness is not always easy. It’s important to recognize that we may have to work at it, and that it may come in stages, or in layers, depending upon how deeply we were hurt, and how far back the memory goes. Reaching the point at which we feel that we have forgiven someone may actually come long after we have made the choice, the decision to forgive.
Like most things that are worth doing, forgiveness takes work, and practice. It may take a while before we get good at it. There are times, though, when it comes miraculously quickly, as if we have been given a tremendous gift.
I want to tell you about a man named Gilbert Tuhabonye. Gilbert was the third of four children born into a farming family that was part of the Tutsi tribe in the southern county of Songa, in Burundi. From an early age, it was clear that Gilbert was born to run. Whether he was chasing his family’s cows, fetching water, or making the five mile trek to school, he loved to run everywhere.
After 6th grade, Gilbert had to leave home to attend a boarding school 150 miles from the family farm. At the Kibimba school he began running competitively. In his first year he won an 8k race while running barefoot. In his second year he caught the eye of a coach who taught him proper running technique, and encouraged him to train hard, and aim for the Olympics.
As an 11th grader, Gilbert became a national champion in the 400 and 800 metre races. By his senior year Gilbert was on track and headed towards a scholarship to a US school, with the goal of getting an education, and returning to his home in Burundi.
One terrible afternoon in October 1993 life changed dramatically for Gilbert, and many others in Burundi. The historic tribal conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus erupted into horrific violence, and overtook the school. The Hutu students at the school, with their parents, some teachers, and other tribe members forced the Tutsi students and their teachers into a room in which they were beaten, and left to be burned to death.
Gilbert was badly hurt, but somehow survived. He spent 9 hours in the smouldering room, working his way out of the piled bodies, and managing to break through a window with a charred bone. He jumped free of the burning building and ran into the night, with 3rd degree burns on much of his body, machete wounds, and a twisted leg. He survived, while 249 others died.
Gilbert recovered from his injuries, returned to running, and received a full athletic scholarship to Abilene Christian University. He won several national titles as an NCAA runner, and is now a teacher and coach in Austin, Texas. He runs a program called Gilbert’s Gazelles, and has started the Gazelle Foundation, which raises money for development work back in his home country of Burundi. He focuses on creating supplies of clean water where Hutu and Tutsi people alike can meet, and talk, and get the water they need to live.
I heard an interview with Gilbert. He described being discharged from the hospital, and realizing that the people who killed so many of his friends, and tried to kill him, were still walking the streets. One day he actually encountered the man who had organized the attack on the school. This man had thought Gilbert was dead, and was shocked and frightened to see him. He collapsed at Gilbert’s feet begging for forgiveness.
Gilbert said, “I let him go. Forgiveness is a powerful tool for me. I struggled a lot, and when I let that person go and live free, it was the beginning of everything. And then, I used running to clear my mind. Instead of every day dreaming to get revenge on the people who tried to kill me, instead, I am dreaming to be the best that I can be. “
He went on to say, “Exercise and running is something that has helped me, and I want to teach everybody to enjoy it.” Gilbert gives his students t-shirts that have his motto on the back, “Run with Joy”. I have seen videos of Gilbert training classes of young runners, and even though he is working hard, and working them very hard, they are laughing, and smiling, and finding the joy in life.
I recently celebrated my 60th birthday, and I marked the day by riding my bicycle for 26 miles. That’s the same distance as a marathon. I used to run marathons, but these days I limit my running to 3 or 4 miles at a time. Over the years I have had some good running partners and teachers, and have helped others learn how to run. Running has taught me a lot about how to be a human being.
When I took up running in my late 30’s, I couldn’t go for more than 2 or 3 minutes without having to stop. I had to learn to start slow, and stay slow, and focus on building up a habit, and building up some endurance. It took months before I could run a mile and not think I was going to collapse. It felt miraculous when I reached the level where I could run 3, 4 or 5 miles, and not really be out of breath.
Two weeks ago I ran in a race in Leamington, a fundraiser for the Hospice, and my pace and time were about the same as the first race I ran in Windsor, more than 20 years ago. So maybe I am really fast 60 year old, or I was just slow when I was younger! What I have learned is that if I want to keep being able to do something, whether it’s running, or writing sermons, or praying, or asking forgiveness, or offering it, I have to keep working at it, even when I might feel like giving up, or sleeping, or watching tv, or maybe eating a donut.
God creates us with the basic tools we need, but we may need to learn how to use them. We may need coaching, and encouragement, and practice, lots of practice, before we do it well. Even when we are growing in our spiritual fitness, there will be times when we would rather not do what is good for us. There are times when we would rather wallow in bitterness or self pity.
Think again about Gilbert, on the street, meeting the man who organized the attack that killed everyone at the school except Gilbert.
I don’t know if the forgiveness Gilbert extended came easy to him. Whether or not that forgiveness came through Gilbert all at once as a miraculous gift, or whether it came after long hard struggle- the point is that it came. Gilbert says that it was faith that made it possible for him to carry on, to run from danger, to build a new life, and to forgive those who had killed all his friends.
Forgiveness can happen. We can forgive, and we can be forgiven. And when forgiveness comes, as it did for Gilbert, and for the man he forgave, it offers the hope and possibility of a brand new life. Thanks be to God. Amen