What do we do on Canada Day?

(My latest column for the Kingsville Observer)

Canada Day a time for sober reflection about the country’s past and its future (kingsvilleobserver.com)

When I lived in a larger urban centre, I was often called on during the Christmas season to help with funerals for families without a church connection. I had a personal rule that I would never say no to helping with a funeral in that season, even if it was on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes families wanted to discuss “what to do about Christmas” in the shadow of a loved one’s death. Some chose to maintain their traditional events and customs. Others felt it improper or disrespectful to celebrate during a time of mourning. I often heard strong cases made on either side, within one family.

As an outsider, I appreciated the privilege of sitting with a family as they listened to their own hearts and to each other. As a pastor, I felt it was my role to acknowledge and honour their grief, but not to tell them how they should mourn.

When the announcement was made at the end of May that the unmarked, undocumented remains of at least 215 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School, there were calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations. The City of Victoria in B.C. did exactly that after two local First Nations, the Esquimault and the Songhees, withdrew their participation from previously planned online events.

And on Thursday, June 24, Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

There are many people, families and communities who carry stories and grief and grievances associated with the federally mandated residential school system and with the larger, underlying realities of colonialism and racism. How could we who have not lived with those wounds have anything to say about how mourning should happen?

A few days after the Kamloops announcement, there was the terrible story of what is now being called an act of terror. A 20-year-old man in London was arrested for what amounted to using his vehicle as a murder weapon. Five members of a beautiful Canadian family were on foot, waiting at a corner for the light to change, when this man allegedly drove his pickup truck over the curb and ran them down.

The driver has been charged with killing a grandmother, her son, his wife and her granddaughter. Police say terror charges will likely be added.

The only survivor of this cruel and brutal attack is a nine-year-old boy named Fayez Afzaal.

I heard a heartbreaking interview with the mother of one of Fayez’s schoolmates. She said her child wanted to know if they could bring Fazel home to live with them so he would not be alone. The child also told their mother they never wanted to go outside again and later said, if I have to go outside, I don’t want to walk on sidewalks because they are not safe for us.

My hope is that whatever we find ourselves doing on the 154th anniversary of the passing of the British North America Act in 1867, we might take a moment for sober reflection about the kind of Canada we want going forward.

We are a relatively young country even though we are building it on land that has been known, cherished and occupied long before Europeans came. I say we are building it because Canada is growing and changing. Our country is a work in progress.

I think it would do us good to take a breath, stand back a little and think, and remember, imagine, and, perhaps, even pray.

I shouldn’t tell you what to pray for when it comes to our country. We do, after all, value freedom of thought and freedom of religion in Canada.

I will tell you about my own hopes and prayers, which have to do with the life ahead for that nine-year-old boy in London.

I hope we can do better and work together with all people of goodwill, to build, rebuild and fix Canada so that it can be a place where Fayez, who watched his family die, will someday feel safe. I pray that he and his friends, actually all children of all races, cultures, religions, and backgrounds can feel safe, respected, valued and protected. I pray for a Canada in which Fayez can heal and grow and begin to feel less sad and less afraid.

Worship for Sunday, March 21, 2021

Learning Time: Giving Thanks for Food, and for Life, even, especially now

Video:  The Carrie Newcomer song “Room at the Table”, with some poignant pictures.

We’ve used this song other times as we’ve prepared to celebrate the sacrament of communion. I really like the basic message, because here at Harrow United Church we keep an open table, at which we make room for everyone. The song is by a folk singer and song-writer name Carrie Newcomer. 

The official music video her record company issued was filled with joyful images of people of many different backgrounds, ages, shapes and sizes, dancing, eating, enjoying their time together. 

I’ve since discovered a few variations, including one by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which shows images of hungry people around the world being fed. I think Carrie Newcomer would approve.

I found this version we just viewed a few days ago. It struck me as powerful in different ways. Some of the images make me feel incredibly sad, because the people look like they are suffering, and others leave feeling a bit envious, because the people are enjoying themselves in large, joyous gatherings.

Can you remember when we could get together in a big room full of people, and eat, and drink, and visit, and listen to several conversations all at once?  The simple fun of hearing and seeing a room full of people happy to be together without masks, and without the need to keep the length of a hockey stick apart.

We have been living with the pandemic, officially, for just over a year. It was on Saint Patrick’s Day last year that my wife and daughter drove to Waterloo to pick up our son, because his university residence was being locked down. 

It’s been a tough year, for many. The virus has taken millions of lives, and disrupted the lives, and the livelihood of billions of people. I am hard pressed to think of a place in the world, or an aspect of life that has not been touched. 

When I watched this “room at the table” video, I thought about those who are struggling with food security these days.  It was touching to see the images in which hungry people were being offered love and care, and food.

I am grateful, that my family has what we need, and we have the means to help others. I remember times when the family I grew up in did not have what we needed. I also remember what it is like to be on the receiving end. I remember times when what was given came freely, and other times, when I could see the strings of expectation and obligation, and judgment.

There is a powerful spiritual connection between gratitude and generosity. Being thankful makes me more inclined to give, which in turn leaves me feeling even more grateful, because I am able to give. It’s a good cycle to be caught up in!

I am also very grateful to be part of a faith community that places a high value on helping make sure that people do not go hungry, especially in these tough times. 

If you want to help others with donations of food, or money, let us know, and we will make sure your generous gifts are put to good use. If you or your family are in need, let us know, and we will do what we can to help you directly, or to connect you with others who can help. Harrow United Church supports the Harrow Food Bank, the Windsor Downtown Mission, and we have a good relationship with the Harrow Community Pantry, which also helps make sure families do not fall through the cracks.

Food is such a basic part of our human experience. Our bodies need fuel to function, and we literally are what we eat- our bodies are built from the nutrients we take in. More than that, we use food to show hospitality and welcome, to celebrate, to commiserate, to console, to reward. 

Most of us have been so used to gathering around a table, and sharing a meal. It has been a strange year, in which opportunities for such gatherings are limited, and have changed. Have you had a Zoom or Facetime meal yet? Opening a lap-top or a propping up a phone so that the person on the other end can see through your camera lens, who is with you at your table, and what you are having?

Our son Joel, who has returned to university in Waterloo, lives in the residence run by the historically Mennonite college, Conrad Grebel. One of many things we like about Grebel is an ongoing practice they have in their cafeteria, called “fill the table”. The understanding when you come down for a meal, is that when you have your food, and you go to sit down, you do not go to a new, empty table, if there is a spot open at another table. If it works out that everyone has been seated, and one person is going to be on their own, diners will pick up their tray, to form a new group. No one is left out. 

They have had to adapt their practices for COVID, with plastic shields in place, and less diners at each table, but the community building rule is still in place.

I think Jesus would like that. Jesus lived his earthly life that way. He sought out the company of people that no-one else wanted to be with. I use the word company on purpose. It is made of two words. “Com”, which is also one of the roots of the word community means “with”, and the “panion” part is from the word for “bread”, which is panis. A companion is literally someone with whom you share bread.

It’s hard to think of a more tangible way to show basic concern, acceptance, support, hospitality and love for a person, than to be willing to break bread with them- even if it is not bread. One of my favourite books from seminary was a book of theology from Asia called “God is Rice”.

As we are reminded in today’s Gospel story, Jesus broke bread and shared it, with crowds of people, many of whom were hungry, lonely, frightened, discouraged, weighed down with sadness, or guilt, or shame. The physical hunger they felt at meal time may only have been a part of the need they felt. To be welcomed to a meal, with a host who was genuinely happy to see them! How wonderful!

In this year of changes, and losses, I have talked with many people about grief. I have been reminded that so often grief is the flip-side of love. We miss who, and what we have loved.

We can’t really grieve losing a person that we didn’t know and love, and every time we risk knowing and loving someone, we take the risk that at some point later on, we will grieve losing them. Grief, and gratitude are intimately connected. 

Often, I think, when our hearts are hungry, for the way things once were, for time with our loved ones, our hunger is also flavoured with gratitude, for what we have once tasted. So I have this idea that to some degree, we can be grateful, even for our hunger, because it reminds us of what we have had.

When we share from the blessed bread and cup today, whether in person, or virtually, it gives us just a taste, perhaps enough to help us remember, to long for, to be grateful for, all the ways we are fed by God. Amen