What do you do with anger?

Several churches across Canada, mostly Roman Catholic, have been the target in recent days of acts of vandalism and arson. While no one has been identified as responsible for any of these acts, quite a few people, including the Premier of Alberta, have labelled them as hate crimes. That may be true, but it is also true that if it is hate behind what has happened, it is very specifically targeted.

Hate crimes have been much at the fore in Edmonton for the last year or so, with several deliberate attacks on visibly Muslim women, all wearing hijab, and several of them Black. Our Muslim community is understandably nervous these days. I have no difficulty calling these attacks hate crimes, even when our police force is reluctant to do so — no credit to them!

The attacks on Roman Catholic churches are of a different nature, because they are targeted not at individuals but at an institution. Some of these churches were close to derelict, but at least one, St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville, had ongoing vital ties to their communities. The Morinville church had strong ties to the local Métis and First Nations people, some of whom have decried what happened. We don’t yet know for certain that the fire was caused by arson, but many people have assumed that it was.

Was this a hate crime? I don’t know for certain. What I do know is that if it was arson, it was almost certainly an act of anger. And I get that. The Roman Catholic Church, operating under various “Catholic entities”, ran about seventy per cent of the Residential “Schools” in Canada. The recent discoveries of unmarked graves on former school properties has laid bare some of the awful history of how children were treated in these institutions. It has raised public awareness of the Roman Catholic Church’s way of dealing with our indigenous brothers and sisters. It has brought to the fore that church’s failure to meet its obligations under the Residential Schools settlement negotiated by the Federal Government.

I have felt anger after hearing these stories again over the past several weeks. But I am a settler –literally. I was born in England, and came to Canada as a child. I started to feel this anger over the past almost 30 years, as the history of the schools, previously unknown to me and to many, became more and more clear. The whole story makes me weep, and it makes me angry.

It’s one thing for a settler boy like me to feel anger. It’s totally another thing for our indigenous brothers and sisters to feel anger. The school stories are the stories of their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles. It is THEIR STORY, and I have total empathy for their anger and sorrow, which dwarfs anything I might feel.

I understand that anger. And I understand how someone’s anger might lead them to deface a public monument, or to torch a beautiful century-old church. I might wish they did not feel that anger, but that’s not my call. What I do wish is that their anger might be expressed constructively, not destructively.

I have found myself in the past in situations where I had cause for anger. In one notable instance, some friends suggested that I repay the indignities I had suffered in kind. Others suggested that I go away for a while. The second suggestion seemed to me that it would imply that I could not deal with what had happened. The first suggestion seemed to me to be asking me to stoop to the level of the attacks against me.

I chose neither. Rather, I chose to move ahead, finding a way to continue in the face of some serious opposition, showing them that they could neither scare me nor force me to retaliate. I turned my anger to positive purposes, and the result (after some time, admittedly) was a stronger and more positive relationship among almost all who were involved.

That’s my story in a nutshell. It’s not anyone else’s story, and it’s certainly not the story of our indigenous brothers and sisters. But what I learned in that episode in my life is that anger is best dealt with not by repaying in kind or by running away, but by holding up one’s head and acting in the most positive manner possible.

When Jesus talked about turning the other cheek in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, he was not saying we should lie down and let someone kick us all over again. Offering the other cheek tells our attacker that they cannot treat us as less than human, that we are as worthy as they of respect. It is an assertion of equality.

For me, this is the best way to deal with anger: not to repay in kind, bringing ourselves down to the level of our attackers; not to run away, effectively surrendering our power to them; but to stand before them, declaring in all things, “I am human. I deserve your respect. And I will not stoop to disrespecting you,”

It’s a tall order. I understnad the visceral nature of the anger that probably led to the recent acts against churches and public monuments. Nonetheless, I remain committed to finding a way forward that is committed to non-violence. The violence of the past can not be undone, but neither does it have to be repeated.

I believe that reconciliation must include the mutual recognition of each other’s humanity, it must include the clear repentance of some parties for past wrongs, and it absolutely must include the desire to move forward together, helping each other.

My settler brothers and sisters — and I! — have much to learn. We can only learn if we allow others to teach us.

I love my country

It’s Canada Day, July 1, when we commemorate the British North America Act, which brought Canada into being as a country. Often in the past it’s been a day to wave flags, set off fireworks, and just generally celebrate. The last few years have given it a different flavour (see my Canada Day post from 2017), and this year more than ever. We have been hearing of the finding of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential institutions (let’s not call them”schools”) set up to de-indigenize our indigenous peoples. Children died at those places, and weren’t considered important enough for the authorities to send their bodies back to their families. Many of the deaths do not seem to have been properly recorded, and the graves were never registered.

Some have been calling for Canada Day celebrations to be cancelled, and some places have done that. I have some sympathy for that move, except that it takes away the opportunity to use the day for some collective reflection on one of the most shameful aspects of Canadian history.

I love my country. I have always seen it as a land of great opportunity, a land with the space to make many people welcome, a land of huge promise. However, much of that promise has been deliberately withheld from some people. The most obvious is the case of the indigenous people, but Canada has also abused the rights and freedoms of other groups, notably Japanese Canadians during WWII. There was also systematic discrimination against people of various ethnicity seeking to immigrate here.

When I say I love my country, it is not with the “My country right or wrong” kind of sentiment I recall from some U.S. voices during the Vietnam war. That’s not real love, but a kind of wilful blindness to what the country could be. Canada is in many ways a good country, populated for the most part by good people, but that does not mean everything about it is good. To truly love a country, just like truly loving another person, means for me to be ready to work to make things better when they need to be better. To love my country means to have the courage to call for and work for the righting of wrongs wherever they may be. If I love my country, I have to accept that it can break my heart.

It’s love with the eyes fully open, the brain fully engaged, and the heartfelt conviction that we can always do better.

Canada, I love you, but it’s time to do better, acknowledging and dealing with past wrongs, and seeking to build a country where all may enjoy the blessings of freedom and peace.

Heartsick

I am not a citizen of the US, nor have I lived there. I am a Canadian, born in the UK, naturalized as a child, and thoroughly a child of the country my parents adopted.When I was in school, I recall a number of lessons about systems of government, some of which compared and contrasted the US and Canadian modes of governance. One of the things I learned there was a hearty respect for the system established by the American Constitution. It’s not perfect, but it has stood for over two centuries as a shining light — an icon, if you will — for the principle of democracy.

I can get frustrated by our Canadian parliamentary system, which has centuries of custom behind it, but I would not want to choose between them — as long as they both work as intended.

Today, I am heartsick at the way the wheels are falling off the bus of American democracy. The events at the US Capitol building reveal the system’s most grievous weaknesses. The “American Dream” is founded on the idea that everyone should be able to dream big — and to realistically aspire to the realization of those dreams. It hits the wall when some people find others’ aspirations to be radically opposed to theirs, and then radically oppose those people as they seek to live into their dreams. Yes, I’m talking about white privilege, or racism to use a less-palatable term.

The insurrection at the Capitol today — an attempting to stop a time-honoured Constitutional process, seeking to keep in office a President who had clearly lost the election — very plainly reflects the division the outgoing President had encouraged. He did not sow it, because it was already there, but he cultivated it assiduously for the past four years.

Armed conflict at the US Capitol simply makes me heartsick. The system which I had so admired has been sorely compromised, and the state of the democratic world to which I belong has been damaged.

If the icon falls, what happens to those who revere the icon?

To my friends south of ’49: my prayers are with you, as you move through these very difficult times.

Masks, and the G-G

Some reflections on the Golden Rule

I live in a city (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) which has recently instituted a by-law requiring everyone to wear a non-medical face covering in buildings which are accessible to the public, unless they have medical or psychological reasons. Not surprisingly, there has been vocal resistance from some people. I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments I’ve heard, but they do seem to fall into two main categories. One tries to make it a matter of personal rights. The other asserts that they don’t need to wear a mask to protect themselves, and they don’t care if others become sick as a result.

It seems to me that both of these arguments fly in the face of one of the pillars of ethics. Almost every religion has a version of what Christians call the “Golden Rule.”

In the New Testament, we hear Jesus saying:

 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’

(Matthew 7:12 NRSV)

A poster available through various on-line sources sets this quote with with similar quotes from seventeen other faith traditions. They sound remarkably similar. (Search for “Golden Rule Poster” to find it.) The seeming ubiquity of this rule suggests that it is in some way integral to much of human ethics. What the Golden Rule does is show that ethical behaviour is reflexive. My actions affect your life, just as your actions affect my life. As John Donne wrote, “No (hu)man is an island.”

Understanding that my needs and desires are interwoven with the desires and need of all other people, acknowledging that other people’s needs and desires are as valid and important as our own, are the key to building true community. We call this ability “empathy.” Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, which expresses a feeling about another person’s situation without real involvement in that situation.

The Golden Rule elevates our striving for empathy to an ethical principle.

Wearing a mask may protect me from the COVID-19 virus, but that’s not the point. If we all want to be protected, we must ask each to protect each other — to do to others what we would want done for ourselves. It’s a reflexive benefit, working best when we undertake it for the good of other people before ourselves.

I have also had occasion to reflect on the Golden Rule in a very different context. Canada’s Governor-General has been accused of running a toxic workplace, in which staff often feel belittled and abused. The matter is under public scrutiny, and I have no knowledge of it other than what I have read in the news media. Thus I will refrain from any judgement of Mme. Payette here.

What this reminded me of was my own history as both employee and boss. I had one really bad boss in my early work life, who knew just how to make me feel inadequate and incompetent. His replacement was a revelation to me — the first supervisor I had ever had who made me feel a valued part of the team, building me up where I needed help, and letting me do my job where I was fully capable. When I started supervising others, I resolved to emulate him, by trying to be the kind of boss I would like to have myself.

That’s the “Golden Rule of Management” for me. It sounds simple, but it can be very hard to put into practice, especially if you have a tendency to perfectionism like me! What it means in practice is to listen to the people you are working with, treat them as humans, accept and help to correct their failures when they happen, and rejoice with them when they succeed.

What it means is to have empathy.

We could on at length about places the Golden Rule can be applied. I’m not sure we would ever exhaust the list. For me today it remains one of the central guiding principles of my life. Jesus taught it, and that’s where I first heard it, but it cuts across human life in a wonderfully powerful way.

So, my friends, let us strive to do for each other as we would wish done for ourselves — and the world will be a better place

The struggle of my life

I went through several changes before settling on the calling that would define my life. In high school, I fell in love with mathematics, at which I excelled, and so I determined to pursue that love in higher education. Two years in an Honors B.Sc. program went very well, but I hit the wall in year three. The nature of the discipline was very different, and I found myself struggling with academic work for the first time in my life. During that year, a friend challenged me: “Are you going to work with people or things?” Good question! Higher mathematics is perhaps the most “thingy” discipline anyone could imagine, far removed from the ordinary lives of almost everyone — including me at the time, truth be told.

I made a change: I would walk away from the world of mathematicians, and embrace the teaching profession, where I would be dealing with people. I got my B.Sc. (a general degree with double math. major), and then enrolled in teacher training. Much of what I had to endure in that one year needed for certification was ridiculous and ultimately useless, but I did well at it.

I had financed my year of teacher ed. with a bursary from my home school district. They gave me $1200 (a princely sum in 1969) for my year of training, in return for two years guaranteed service in their employ. If I left before the end of the two years, the whole bursary became repayable immediately.

The first while there went reasonably well, but I soon found that I really could not connect with most of my students. I had spent 5 years away from my home town, and it seemed to me to have changed dramatically in that time. What had actually happened was that I had changed: my politics had become firmly left-wing, I was deeply committed to the movement for peace, and I had found a reason for this in the Gospel as I had come to perceive it through my various connections at University.

Long story made short: the move back to my home town was a disaster. I had changed a great deal, but the town was still stuck in its historical dysfunction, and too many people remembered me from before. Added to the problem was my parents’ prominence in the community, which gave me more visibility than I wanted.

My time in the classroom had some real high points. I loved it when a student’s eyes lit up as they “got it!” On the other hand, I struggled with those students who just couldn’t get it. I was teaching Grade 9 math., with a curriculum of algebra and geometry that I found exciting. One of my students handed in an assignment which was so full of nonsense that I had to work hard to give him 15% on his work. What was wrong? I went to the office and pulled his file, and found that he had received a final grade of 40% in Grade 7 math., and 30% in Grade 8. Why was he in a Grade 9 class? Answer: he had been identified early on as headed for the “pre-vocational” program in our High School, and the Jr. High was simply moving him along.

I protested to the higher-ups, the Principal, Vice-Principal, and the Deputy Superintendent, and received the consistent answer: “You have a curriculum to teach. Teach it. Some will fail.” All I wanted was some remedial workbooks for this boy and others like him to use, so that they could succeed at something.

I got discouraged, and I began to lose control of my class. My avowedly peace-making ways became the laughing-stock of some of my students, who understood violence as the only way of settling differences. By the spring of my first year, I knew that this was a disaster, and I could not go on, even though I could not afford to leave before the end of my second year.

As things fell apart, I had several sessions with the V-P and the Deputy. At one point, one of them (I’m not sure which one) said, “Robin, your problem is that you are a very reasonable person, and you expect everyone else to be the same.”

Truer words were never spoken. It took quite a while for me to accept their truth, but I’ve been living with it ever since. I made sojourns back in the math. world, from which I eventually received a Master’s degree, and then into the world of government bureaucracy, where I learned a whole lot of important life skills. Finally, I changed course, entered seminary, was ordained, and spent 26 years in the service of the church.

Shortly before graduating from seminary, all prospective graduates had an interview with the college faculty. The basic question was “Are you ready and equipped to be ordained?” We agreed that I was, and then went on to a session of helpful observations from the faculty. I don’t remember what else they said, but one thing has stuck with me: “We have observed that you do not suffer fools gladly. We believe this may be a problem for you in your future ministry.” Their observations were based on aspects of life within the college community, but their assessment was correct.

The two assessments from school and seminary authorities were separated by almost 20 years. Both groups had seen the same thing in me, and as predicted I have struggled with them ever since, even seven years into retirement.

Life is a struggle at times, and sometimes the struggle is almost more than we can bear. Last Sunday’s lectionary reading from Genesis is perhaps the archetypical story of struggle in the Bible. Jacob struggles all night with “a man,” who is obliquely revealed to be God in person, and who ultimately blesses Jacob and gives him a new name — Israel.

Jacob learned and was changed by his struggle. I have had my own struggles, whether or not I have understood them at the time as struggles with God, and I hope I have learned from them.

We all struggle in our own way with people who do not see things as we do. For some of us (ME!) this can be a huge obstacle in life. May we all learn to live with others as they are and as we receive them.

Living in the gap

We’re in the middle of a pandemic. That’s not really news, but the various things happening around this event are getting more troubling for me every day. Our city government has decreed that face coverings will be mandatory as of August 1, at the same time that our Provincial government has decided to move ahead with schools re-opening in September without any real extra protection (or funds) for students and staff.

If people are confused and trouble, there’s good reason. Our leaders at various levels are starting to work against each other, in contrast to the early days (March and April) when everyone seemed to be on the same page. People are getting tired of the restrictions, even as most are starting accept them as the “new normal.”

Not an easy time to live in, to be sure. And it’s made even harder by the number of people at every level of society who are pushing back against the science. I’ve heard of people denying that there is a pandemic at all. At the other extreme, I’ve heard people who say that the doctors and scientists are covering up the real seriousness of the situation.

We are living in a peculiar kind of gap. The virus has changed many of our normal behaviors, perhaps permanently. Whatever happens, I think it’s fair to say that nothing will ever be quite the same after this is over. Will it ever be over? Will we be living with this virus for the foreseeable future? If an effective vaccine and/or a cure can’t be found, can we ever feel safe again?

So here we are, more than four months into the declaration of the pandemic, and we have few workable answers. It seems to me that we need to try to trust the people who are working in this area day by day, allowing them the space to exercise their expertise.

One of the things that really troubles me is the self-centred attitude many people are taking to simple precautions like wearing face-covering. It may be your right to risk getting a disease, but is it your right to put other people at risk?

Every right we might claim brings with it an attendant responsibility. Free speech? By all means, speak your mind, but please be aware that your speech may needlessly hurt someone else. Free assembly? Get together as you wish, but not at the expense of other people’s freedom and safety. Freedom of religion? I’m all for that — I don’t want anyone dictating my faith life. But that means that you have to respect other people’s religious freedom.

I will wear a mask in public places in my city. I will worship according to the church and health authority’s dictates. I will keep my distance from other people as much as possible. I will sanitize as possible.

And I will continue to hope and pray that the end of this “gap” in our corporate life will not be disaster, but rather a new and kinder way of living.

Mother’s Day

I’ve seen many posts on Facebook today, people honoring their mothers and motherhood in general. I don’t want to take away anything from the sentiments there expressed, but I do feel the need to say something about my own feelings.

My parents brought us to Canada from England in 1952, seeking a better life than they thought they would get at home at the time. In many ways, they found what they were looking for, but they still resisted many of the customs of the land they had come to. One of those was Mothers Day. Even in the 50’s, when I was in elementary school, we had some societal pressure to celebrate this day. My parents thought it was just “American stuff and nonsense,” and forbade us to observe the event. Nonetheless, my mother sometimes got a bit shirty with us on the day if we didn’t acknowledge it. Against her upbringing, it seems she had absorbed some of the local culture, and hoped that her children would have done the same.

Every Mothers Day reminds me of my mother, and the contradictions I experienced around it as a child. Every Mothers Day recalls for me a woman who helped to make me who I am today. Every Mothers Day fills me with both thanksgiving and regret.

I had an interesting relationship with both of my parents. Can we use the word “complicated?” I never had any doubt that they cared for me and wanted the best for me, but it sometimes seemed that they had an odd way of expressing it. I don’t remember ever hugging my mother, and my father only once, when I was installed as a Canon of the Diocese of Edmonton. He was never sure about my career as a priest, but becoming a Canon meant something important to him, and he showed it.

As for my mother (after all, this is Mothers Day), she was a person whose life had largely been determined by other people’s ideas. I’m not going to trot out a lot of family history here, but suffice it to say that if she had done what she felt called to do, I would probably not be here today. She met my father when he was a medical student and she a student nurse, something she never wanted to do, but it was “the family business.”

Life with my mother could be interesting. I recall many wonderful times with her, and I also recall other not so wonderful times. When other people post laudatory things about their mothers, it raises in me a welter of very mixed emotions.

My mother died almost 22 years ago, in June of 1998. I still think of her often, remembering especially how difficult her last years were. Even without the illness that claimed her, it is very unlikely that she would still be with us. After all, she was born in 1917. Nonetheless, I still miss her, with all the tensions that my memories of her bring to mind — the good, the loving, and all the other things.

One of the things that has helped to redeem this day for me is learning of its early history. The first Mothers Day was the result of the work of Julia Ward Howe, who wanted a day for mothers to pray for the day when mothers would not have to send their sons off to die, as had happened so much in the American Civil War. My mother was resolutely opposed to war (more family history here…). During the Viet Nam era, when many young American men were coming to Canada, she had told my father that if we had gone to the US (a possibility in 1952), she would have expected my brother and me to come to Canada. She wouldn’t ever have sacrificed her sons to the cause of war. It was a cause of deep disagreement between her and my father, but I celebrate her for her stand, which resonates with the original movement. It’s too bad that Mothers Day has become such a “Hallmark event.”

Thank you, my dear Mother. I remember you with deep love.
….. but it’s still complicated.

Trying times…

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. The novel corona-virus known as COVID-19 has brought many people’s lives to a screeching halt. A lot of folks are self-isolating, quarantining themselves, sheltering in place — and whatever other term they may be using. I live in a condominium apartment where some of our residents have simply retreated into their units. I don’t know how they are managing.

In other places, with other people, things are proceeding almost unabated, even intensified. There are reports of people flocking to mountain resorts because they are off work and their kids’ schools are closed. Beaches in Florida are apparently full of partying students.

Two different responses to a public health emergency. One may be an over-reaction, seeing danger in every other person, and everything outside the confines of one’s own home. The other is certainly an under-reaction, scoffing at the warnings of the people who are charge with protecting the health of all.

I’m fortunate to live in a jurisdiction (Province of Alberta, Canada) whose public health personnel have taken a strong, clear, and appropriate response to the pandemic. Our rate of testing is one of the highest in the world, and the communications have been clear, without panic, and helpful. It is not so in some other places, as I understand it.

I am worried about the dichotomous response I noted above.

The over-reactors display a lack of trust about what they have been told, seeing everything as potentially harmful, regardless of the calm advice they have been given. It is not necessary to disinfect your whole house after every venture outside, as I have heard some people doing. It is also not necessary to avoid all contact with the outside world. Reasonable precautions have been advised, but panic has seized many people. Some of them probably now have enough toilet paper and pasta to last them well into 2021.

On the other hand, the under-reactors also show distrust of expertise. “Nothing to worry about here — so let’s party.” They don’t heed the message that they may be carrying the virus unknown to themselves and others. Social distancing is not so much intended to protect ourselves from disease, but to protect others from the disease that we may be carrying unaware.

In both cases, the issue is one of trust. Who do we trust? In the case of the over-reactors, they mostly trust the message, but feel it doesn’t go far enough. The result is a massive distrust of all other people, who become the enemy, the potential carriers of virulent disease. In the case of the under-reactors, they either don’t hear or don’t believe the message, out of a distrust of “experts.” It’s a huge problem in other areas of life today (just think of the climate change issue), but in this case, the distrust could lead fairly quickly to disease and death.

I want to look at this as a spiritual problem. Who can, or who should, we trust? When we can’t trust anyone around us, or when we won’t trust expertise, we are left with trusting only ourselves and those who think like us. That’s a pretty weak foundation for moving ahead in life. Relying only on oneself and one’s own insight leads almost inevitably to calamity. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. We need community, in which we find both shared values and correction for false ideas. That said, we are not like lemmings rushing headlong together towards a cliff, but more like wolf-packs, where all members look out for each other.

We need to trust each other. We especially need to trust the “alphas” in our number, using their guidance to move ahead creatively and productively. God gave us minds to use, and gave some people special gifts to help us use our minds.

The great issue of this pandemic is an erosion of trust: in ourselves, in our fellow people, in our leaders, and in God.

I do not believe that this current pandemic is either a punishment from God or a sign of impending end-times. It is a part of creation, an unexpected and unwelcome part to be sure, but nonetheless an aspect of the world that God created. It may well be an aspect of the “shadow of death.” People are dying, after all. But does that mean God is absent or malevolent? I can not believe so.

The Revised Common Lectionary for today (Lent 4, Year A) appointed Psam 23 as one of the readings. Let’s stop her with one verse from that most famous and favourite of all psalms.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.

I will trust, but I will not trust blindly.
God, give me eyes to see, a mind to understand,
and the will to follow what is right.

Thinking about journeying

I’m preaching next Sunday, on a day when we remember Jesus going up a mountain with his three closest associates, and how they saw him transfigured — shining with the light of the sun — and how they heard a voice from heaven saying that “This is my beloved Son.”

It’s a strange story, to be sure, but it got me to thinking about a time I went up a mountain.

I grew up in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. Northeast of the town is a range known as the “Hand Hills.” It’s not well-traveled, because most of it is in private ownership. Today, there’s one small Provincial ecological reserve on its eastern slopes, and there is one privately-owned campground near its crest.

The Hand Hills are the second-highest range of hills on the Canadian Prairies. Their highest point is known locally as “Mother’s Mountain,” but you won’t find this name anywhere on Google Earth or Maps. To get to the top of this “mountain” you have to cross some private farm land, but if you get there, the sight from the top is quite incredible. The land drops away sharply to the prairie-land, not flat as some would imagine, but rolling away to the west. In the middle distance, the dark shadow of the valley of the Red Deer River cuts across the landscape. In the far distance, the land rolls away westward towards the Rocky Mountains.

Here’s the thing: on a clear day, you can see the top of the Rockies from Mother’s Mountain. The front range is about 200 km away, and you are only seeing the crest of the Rockies. (Clear evidence of the curvature of the earth, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Today, you can travel from the Hand Hills to the Rockies in less than 3 hours. The roads are mostly good, and most of the trip takes you through well-inhabited territory: farmland, ranch land, and urban areas eventually give way to the foothills and the “shining mountains.”

The first European to see the Canadian Rocky Mountains from the prairies was Anthony Henday, who entered what is now the province of Alberta in September 1754. Henday is now memorialized by the ring road around the city of Edmonton, and by a residence at the University of Alberta. His journey across central Alberta to somewhere west of modern Red Deer took him several weeks, as he negotiated the open terrain, and had difficult times with the Cree and Blackfoot people of the land.

A journey today from Mother’s Mountain to the Rockies won’t take you several weeks, as Henday’s journey did. But it will have some very interesting aspects.

From the top of the Hand Hills, the Rockies may be in view, but as you head towards them, they quickly disappear. It will be over an hour before you see them again. All you have is the memory of your destination. In between you have had to cross at least one deep valley, and often you won’t have been able to see more than a few km ahead. The land is crossed by hills and coulees, and it rolls in long waves.

There comes a point where our destination comes into view again. As we travel onward, the Rockies lie ahead, not always visible, but looming larger every time they reappear.

We get there eventually, but the journey has been full of interest in itself. We have seen broad rolling ranch land with scattered herds, valleys with rivers hidden at the bottom, urban areas with bustling people, farms with their carefully tended fields. Lots to see, lots to think about, lots to pass by as we travel on to the destination we have glimpsed from that high ground at our journey’s start.

Heading for a special destination is not just about the goal. Sometimes we lose sight of the goal. Sometimes we diverge from the path, attracted by something else. But the goal is always there, whether we see if or not.

Isn’t that what life is like?

Give this poem a rest?

What I am about to write will be seen by some as a “secular heresy.” I will no doubt outrage some of my readers, but please know that I am not trying to hurt anyone, simply to express my conflicted feelings, which I started to deal with in my previous post.

As a Christian with a theological training, I am well acquainted with the concept of heresy, which for most people means something akin to believing an untruth. The word comes from the Greek root meaning “to choose,” telling us that a heretic is someone who has chosen a different path from the so-called orthodox one.

The heresy I am proposing here is that we should give “In Flanders Fields” a decent funeral (or least an extended rest), and find another poem to read on November 11. John McCrae’s poem has been read at every Remembrance Day event I have ever attended. I have become used to hearing it read, often by a young person who has little connection to its roots, and even less understanding of the flow of the words. In particular, there should be no break between “we throw” and “the torch,” but because these usually lie on separate lines, the young readers break at the line change. If you’re going to read a poem in public, you could at least take pains to make sure that the language makes sense.

But that’s not my real point, and that’s not the heresy. My heresy (if you’ll allow the word in this context) is that I believe it’s time to stop reading this poem on this day. It has had its time. It has run its course. Its message is no longer appropriate for our times.

There are three verses in the poem. I have no argument with the first two, which are an elegy for those who have died in the course of war. As my previous post (I hope!) made clear, I have good reason to resonate with that sentiment. But then comes the third verse…

The elegiac tone gives way to the call to those who remain to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” The words were written in 1915, in the relatively early years of WWI, and the war may have seemed a good thing to pursue. The years to come would see the massive slaughters in the Somme, at Passchendaele, at many other places where so many people would die. For what? Who were the villains in this battle? WWI was fought for little reason, but it indelibly changed the face of Europe and much of the rest of the world. The armistice on 1918 ended the fighting, but the following years were times of huge upheaval and suffering in many places. It is safe to say that WWII, when civilians died in unprecedented numbers, was a direct consequence of the unresolved issues created by the first great war.

Back to the poem. Is it appropriate to reiterate a call to arms 114 years after it was written? To be sure, it reminds us of the reason for the deaths of the soldiers it recalls. But now we are in a different age, with a different set of issues, and a different sense of what must be done. The foes of 1915 have not been our foes for the past seventy or more years. They are our allies, co-creators of a future far different from what Col. McCrae could have imagined when he put pen to paper.

If we are going to remember the dead of past wars, as indeed we should, I would hope it would not be to remember in anger, and to continue the quarrel with the foes of yesteryear. I would rather hope that we could remember the dead both with sorrow and with the hope that the world of the future will be a world of peace.

Peace? I hold firm to the hope for peace on earth. But I struggle with the knowledge that the years since V-J Day in 1945 have rarely been blessed with peace. If anything, things seem to be getting worse.

When we gather on November 11 to remember those who gave their lives in the wars of the past century, I hope and pray that we may do so in the spirit of helping God to build that peace which is God’s desire for all people.

Can we still sound a call to arms? Or should we give “In Flanders Fields” a rest? What might we use instead? What poem expresses a call to build peace? The searing poetry of Wilfred Owen might be a place to start. Here is one of his most powerful poems, “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old,” a modern re-imagining of the story found in Genesis 22:1-14.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

I read this poem once in a church service on the Sunday before Remembrance Day. I can still hear the collective gasp from the congregation as I read the last two lines. I have no regrets, but rather I continue to believe we should gasp at the horror of the inhumanity of war.