Sunday, November 29, 2015

Prayers for Paris, and Beirut and Other Acts of Terrorism

In the 24 hours after the terrorist attacks in France , more than 70 million people around the world took to Instagram to pray for Paris .

I'm not on Instagram, but my Facebook feed was filled with similar messages from people indicating that they, too, were praying for that city.

I understand why people did that. Faced with such a terrible event, we all felt so powerless. Prayer was one thing we could do.

But what to pray? That was the challenge. Finding the right words is hard for situations like that. 

Not knowing what else to say, many Christians resort to the ubiquitous “be with” prayer. As in “God, be with the people of Paris .” Theologically, that’s suspect, since Christians believe God is omnipresent—and if God was to be anywhere that evening, Paris was the place.

Although I could not find any prayers for Paris on the Web, a few people have taken time to write some good prayers for a time such as this. Like this one, posted by the Diocese of Portsmouth in England after the terrorist attacks in London in 2005.

We pray for those affected by terrorist attacks around the world, and especially those in London.

We pray for the families who have lost loved ones. We pray for the fire, police and ambulance staff on the scene. We pray for the doctors and nurses caring for the hurting.

We pray for the reporters who work through intense emotion to bring us the pictures and news of the day. 

We pray for the our elected leaders who so desperately need wisdom from beyond themselves. 

We pray for the clergy in London who care first-hand for the spiritual needs of those who have experienced this great tragedy.

We pray for the military and intelligence agencies who seek to find out who would do this so they might be brought to justice. 

We pray for our nation—that this event will bring us together and turn our thoughts toward helping each other to overcome the threat of terrorism.

We pray for all those who might be tempted to think that violence accomplishes anything of lasting value. 

Lastly, we pray for every peace lover in this world. May God break the cycle of violence to make a difference for His Peace and Grace in this sinful world.

Or this one, inspired by a prayer posted on the website of the New South Wales Council of Churches in 2011.

Almighty God, Lord of all compassion, events in recent weeks remind us that we continue to live in a broken and deeply divided world.

We cannot comprehend what drives people to acts of terror and destruction, and to a willingness to kill and maim innocent people in the name of religion.

As Jesus commanded, we pray for our enemies and those who wish us ill; we pray for an end to hatred and needless violence; we pray for children left orphaned, and bereaved parents; we pray for those who live with physical and mental scars of terrorism. And we also pray for those who work to relieve the suffering.

Pour your Spirit on us to enable us and all your people to work for justice and true peacemaking, In the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Amen.

And, finally, this prayer, titled Prayer in Times of Violence and Fear, from Presbyterian Church USA .

Almighty, all-merciful God, through Christ Jesus you have taught us to love one another,
to love our neighbours as ourselves, and even to love our enemies.

In times of violence and fear, let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, so that we may not be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good.

Help us to see each person in light of the love and grace you have shown us in Christ. Put away the nightmares of terror and awaken us to the dawning of your new creation. Establish among us a future where peace reigns, justice is done with mercy, and all are reconciled.

We ask these things in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I’m grateful for those who wrote these prayers, but sorry they had to be written at all. I’m even sadder they will probably be necessary again in the future.

From my Nov. 28 Winnipeg Free Press column.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S, Lewis, The Great War and This Present Darkness

In the wake of the Paris and Beirut attacks, it is easy to feel a darkness descending. What hope is there when people are willing to do such terrible and heinous things to others?

If there is any comfort in history, it is in knowing that we are not the first to feel this way, or go through this experience. 

Two men who experienced the worst that humans can do to each other were J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia.

Both men were soldiers in the British army on the western front in World War One. Tolkien participated in two attacks, in July and October, 1916, including one where he was in combat for 50 straight hours. 

On November 8 of that year, he was sent to hospital with trench fever. He never returned to the front—which probably saved his life.

Lewis enlisted in 1917, arriving at the front that same year at the age of 19. He was wounded in April, 1918 and sent back to England to recuperate. He also never returned to the front.

The war had a profound impact on both men. Four of Lewis’ closest college friends died in the fighting. At war’s end, all but one of Tolkien’s closest friends were dead.

The war also influenced their writing. Reflecting on his experience years later, Tolkien said his taste for fantasy was “quickened to full life by war” and that the mythology that became Lord of the Rings “first began to take shape” during the fighting.

Scenes from the war found their way into the books. For example, it was common to see bodies of dead soldiers floating under water in shell holes—something recreated when Sam Gamgee sees dead men in the water during his passage through the marshes.

Said Tolkien about that scene: “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”

The Hobbits themselves were influenced by the ordinary British soldiers—the “Tommies”—that Tolkien encountered. 

In a letter written after his trilogy was published, Tolkien wrote that Sam Gamgee “is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”

After the war, most authors wrote savagely and cynically about the end of progress, morality and religion—how could there be a God after such a horror?

But as Joseph Laconte notes in his new book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and aGreat War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship andHeroes in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, the war may have caused others to lose faith, but Tolkien and Lewis “it deepened their spiritual quest.”

What distinguished Tolkien, a Catholic, and Lewis, an Anglican, from other writers who experienced that war was how they emerged from it with a sense of hope and faith. Their books showed that evil and darkness were not the last words.

As Laconte put it: “In Middle-earth and Narnia, the ruin or redemption of every person depends on what side he or she has chosen in the conflict . . . the heroic figure is the one who resists evil, who is willing to lay down his life for his friends.”

After the attacks, many wonder what they can do in response. Prayer is one thing, as is doing any small deed of kindness for others. 

But maybe another thing is to read (or re-read) the works of Tolkien and Lewis—not for escapist fantasy from the world, but to be reminded that good and light can overcome evil and darkness in the end.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Storage Wars, or Do We Have Too Much Stuff?

Since 2008, when I wrote the column below, another 1,000 self-storage facilities have been added in the U.S. (up to 52,000), and a couple hundred more in Canada (about 3,000). In the U.S., the industry today is worth over $27 billion and has spawned a TV show, Storage Wars. There are understandable reasons for why people sometimes need storage—having to move, losing a home, downsizing. Or is it because we just have too much stuff? This is the second in my series on simplicity; click here to read the first post about Doris Janzen Longacre, the patron saint of simplicity.

A new self-storage business recently opened in my end of town. It’s huge—nine buildings with 768 storage units of varying sizes.

Looking at it, I wondered: How many people need to rent extra space to store their stuff?

Lots, as it turns out. The self-storage industry in Canada is booming.

“Canadian storage markets are bursting at the seams as skyrocketing consumer demand drives the building of new facilities,” writes Richard Leach in Inside Self Storage, the largest-circulation magazine for storage professionals in North America.

According to Leach, over the past 10 years there has been dramatic growth in self-storage in nearly every province. Today there are 2,800 self-storage facilities in Canada, compared to over 51,000 in the U.S.

North America is “consumer-driven,” says Leach, adding that people “like to hold onto their stuff.”

It’s not as though we need the extra space; our homes should be big enough to hold everything we need.

The average house being built in Canada today is 2,000 square feet. In 1975, it was 1,075 square feet. In 1945 it was just 800 square feet. Since the size of Canadian families is shrinking, we should need less stuff and less space, not more. But the growth of the self-storage sector suggests otherwise.

It’s a worrisome trend for Winnipegger Mark Burch, author of Simplicity: Stories and Exercises for Developing Unimaginable Wealth. 

Through our excessive consumerism “we are smashing the body and shedding the blood of the greatest gift given to us,” he says. “Caring for this planet is the way we manifest God’s love.”

Burch, Campus Sustainability Coordinator at the University of Winnipeg, is a proponent of what is called voluntary simplicity—the idea that people should purposefully try to live more simply in order to preserve the planet and their sanity. 

The term was coined in 1936 by Richard Gregg, who defined it as a “singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty . . . as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions.”

For Burch, voluntary simplicity isn’t just a way to save money by not buying more stuff. It’s also a way to contribute to the good of the earth and its inhabitants. 

“Discerning how much is enough involves placing our personal consumption of things in the context of environmental sustainability, social justice, and inter-generational equity," he says.

"In this realm, we move beyond considerations of what may be expedient or comfortable in terms of our individual lives and consider ourselves to be part of a much larger whole.”

It’s a way, he says, to “create a world that is more peaceful and equitable.”

Simplicity has deep religious roots. Jesus, The Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, the Amish, various monastic orders and others all advocated it.

“The ethical and spiritual dimension of this is very important,” says Burch. “We need to subordinate our material consumption to spiritual values. We need to take time to remember who we are, why we are here, and what our purpose is.”

But trying to live more simply today is hard, he acknowledges—it’s like swimming upstream against a raging current.

One way some people are helping each other is by joining simplicity circles, where they can find support in buying and using less. 

There’s nothing wrong with buying the things we need, of course. We need food, clothing, furniture, a place to live and many other items. But our culture never gives us a break. We’re always being pushed to buy more of this and more of that. 

And then, after we've gone out and bought more stuff than we can use, we’re told we need to rent some place to store it. 

“We need to consume to live, but we shouldn’t live to consume,” says Burch. That sounds like good, simple advice to me.

Mark Burch is now retired from the University of Winnipeg. He directs the Simplicity Institute.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Party and Faith

Now that Canada has a new Prime Minister, some will want to know: What about his faith?

In a 2014 interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Justin Trudeau said he was “raised with both a deep faith and a regular practice of Catholicism. We were in church every Sunday that we were with my dad. We read the Bible as a family every Sunday night. And we said our prayers just about every night together as a family.”

But when he turned 18, he became a lapsed Catholic. “I realized that . . . too much of my day-to-day life that was not the slightest addressed by what I was receiving from the church, from the formality, from the structure,” he said.

“So like so many Catholics across this country, I said, ‘OK, I’m Catholic, I’m of faith but I’m just not really going to go to church. Maybe on Easter, maybe midnight mass at Christmas.’”

But when his brother was tragically killed in an avalanche in B.C. in 1998, faith became more important. This included accepting an invitation from a friend to attend an Alpha course, an evangelistic discussion group about Christianity.

The course “came at exactly the right time,” he said, helping him realize that he needed to trust “in God’s plan.” Since that time, he “re-found . . . a deep faith and belief in God.”

At the same time, he hastened to add, he was “obviously very aware of the separation of church and state in my political thinking.”

For some, Trudeau’s acknowledgement of his faith is welcome news, as are his promises to support increased foreign aid, aid for refugees, protecting the environment and programs that address poverty and issues facing Canada’s Indigenous people—all things many people consider to be part of what it means to be a person of faith.

For others, however, that isn’t good enough since Trudeau also supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

Campaign Life, a Christian anti-abortion group that campaigned against Trudeau during the election, issued a press release following his victory expressing regret and stating that his “extremist position” will lead to “greater access to abortion” across Canada .

In another press release, the organization criticized the Catholic Church for not publicly rebuking the now-Prime Minister. It quoted a Catholic lawyer who suggested the Church should “consider excommunicating” Trudeau, and other Catholic politicians “who refuse to take their Catholic faith into the legislature.”

What about the Liberal Party itself and religion?

For years, many people of faith—especially evangelical Christians—have complained that it treated them badly. This is something that Liberal MP John McKay, an evangelical Christian, acknowledges to be true.

“I think the Liberal party has had a tin ear for people of faith, right across spectrum,” he told me recently.

Although McKay knows that some people are critical of the Party’s stand on abortion—he also differed with Trudeau on that issue—he thinks there are many other issues where people of faith can find common ground with the new government.

On climate change, the Liberal party “lines up nicely with Pope Francis, and that should make a lot of Catholics happy,” he said, adding that “on social justice issues and foreign aid, Trudeau was quite assertive in his desire get back into the game.”

As for future relations with people of faith, McKay hopes that Trudeau will reach out soon to leaders of the various faith communities. After all, he notes. if Trudeau is going to fulfill his promises in the areas of foreign aid, refugees and other social issues, “he is going to need everyone, but in particular the religious community,” since “they are the main” players in those areas.

He also hopes Trudeau will keep the Office of Religious Freedom, which was created by Stephen Harper in 2013. The office, he says, “provides a valuable service to all MPs.”

For McKay, there is “a broad base of sympathy in the Liberal Party for the works of faith communities, even if there is not a broad base of understanding of the faith of faith communities.”

Faith groups, he adds, "have some reason for optimism” when it comes to working with the new government. 

Over the next few years, we’ll see if that’s the case.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Having The "Talk" With Your Parents About Nursing Home Care

One of the hardest conversations children can have with their elderly parents is about when it is time to consider nursing home care. And no wonder; it's not easy for seniors to acknowledge they are not longer capable of independent living. But not talking about it isn't an option, either. A conference in Winnipeg on Nov. 14 aims to help children and their parents talk about this challenging subject.

When my parents were no longer able to look after themselves in their own home, I was fortunate enough to find them a great nursing home to live out their final days.

The need to help them came on me suddenly when both my mother and father experienced medical emergencies at the same time. In the opinion of their doctors, they could no longer take care of themselves—they needed long-term care.

I had about a week to find them a new place to live before my dad was discharged from the hospital.

This is not the way I imagined the process would go.

I had hoped we could talk about it beforehand, and begin making arrangements. But every time I brought up the subject, my dad emphatically insisted he was going to “die in his own home!”

And that was the end of the discussion.

But now they had no choice. The nursing home they preferred had no room, so I had to find them temporary housing in another facility. It took about a year before space opened up in the place they wanted to live.

During that time, I learned a lot about the incredible stress the medical system is under when it comes to assisting seniors—there are too many people needing care, and often not enough beds, or no beds in the place people want to go. And the demand is only growing.

My situation is not unique. Many children of aging parents wonder how they can have a conversation with them about long-term care before an emergency changes everything. In some cases, seniors might want to bring it up, but are fearful of where it might lead.

For many, it can be a stressful experience.

Helping children and aging parents start those conversations is the goal of Caring for Body, Mind and Spirit As Loved Ones Age, a November 14 conference sponsored by the Concordia Hospital Department of Spiritual Care.

The conference, which runs from 9 AM to 4 PM at Douglas Mennonite Church ,  1517 Rothesay St. in Winnipeg , will include sessions on aging and long-term care options.

Among the presenters is former pastor John Neufeld, who will talk about the experience of aging; Gina Trinidad, Chief Operating Officer for the Deer Lodge Centre and the WRHA Long Term Care Program, will speak about navigating the journey to long-term care; and Kathleen Rempel Boschman, Manger of Spiritual Care at Concordia Hospital, will describe the options available as people age.

There will also be a session featuring first-hand accounts from those who have recently walked, or who are still walking, the care-giving journey with aging parents.

For Gerry Derksen, chaplain at Concordia Place, the conference is a chance for children and their older parents to find ways to begin talking about the challenges and opportunities of aging.

“Aging is part of the journey that people are called to deal with,” he says. “It holds opportunities for growth. We want to facilitate conversation between children and parents that can help people make good choices related to independent living, and to end of life.”

Through his work with seniors, Derksen knows there are lots of challenges facing people with aging parents today.

For example, families are smaller, and more spread out, which means the care of parents falls on fewer children. In some cases, seniors have no children living nearby.

Also, with most people today in the workforce, there are fewer people who have the time and flexibility to respond to the needs of aging parents.

As well, since fewer people attend church or other places of worship today, many seniors don’t have a built-in religious community that can provide additional support.

The result is that when decisions need to be quickly made about care, due to a medical emergency, families can find themselves overwhelmed.

“People find themselves suddenly needing to talk about the realities that go along with this stage of life,” Derksen says. “Many aren’t ready for that discussion.”

By attending the conference, he hopes more children and parents will find ways to begin the conversation—before a crisis hits.

Cost for the conference is $35, including lunch. Registration closes on November 10. To register, call Melanie Clarke at 661-7481. More information can be found here. 

Doris Janzen Longacre: Patron Saint of Simplicity

Thirty-six years ago on Nov. 10, Doris Janzen Longacre died. Author of two best-selling books—the More-with-Less Cookbook and Living More with Less—Janzen Longacre could be called the patron saint of simplicity for that faith group, and for others who have followed her example of living "more with less." With the anniversary of her death in mind, I will be posting several columns I've written over the years on the topic of simplicity, beginning with this one about Doris herself.

Mennonites don’t believe in saints. But, if they did, Doris Janzen Longacre would be among them.

Janzen Longacre became well-known across North America and around the world through her two books: the More-with-Less Cookbook, which has sold over 850,000 copies, and Living More with Less, with over 86,000 copies sold.

Written in the 1970s, before living simply and "green" became trendy and popular, the books were practical guides for living in simple, sustainable, and healthy ways that kept the future of the planet, and the plight of poor people, in mind.

Unfortunately, Doris was unable to see Living More with Less become a reality. She started writing it in 1979, but died of cancer on November 10, at the age of 39. It was finished by her husband, Paul, and published in 1980.

In 2009 Living More with Less: 30th Anniversary Edition was published by Herald Press as a way to honour and celebrate Doris. It takes her original ideas, updates them, and passes them on to a new generation—people who want to get, in Doris’ own words, “more, not less” out of life.

That year, I spoke to Paul Longacre about Doris, her two books, and her final days.

Doris was surprised and humbled by the success of More with Less,” he said. “She was pleased to see how people were picking up on her ideas. She was especially happy to see how well the book was received outside of Mennonite circles.”

Doris discovered she had breast cancer in 1976, right after More with Less was published. The family was on a two-year leave of absence from MCC, studying in Kansas

“She had an operation, and the doctors thought they had got most of it,” said Paul. she also received chemotherapy for a year.

In 1977, she developed severe pain in her back; the diagnosis was bone cancer. Doctors gave her two years to live.

Those two years were “quite a strain for her,” he recalled. “She was in pain most of the time. But she tried to be optimistic. She tried to get a walk in every day—that was her therapy, it helped her back, and her attitude.”

Doris also became “more observant of nature, and the sounds of people around her, as she felt her own mortality,” he added.

It was during this time that she decided to write Living More with Less.

Doris wondered what to do with the time left to her—she still had lots of creative interests,” Paul said. “ 

She came up with idea for a sequel to the cookbook, taking the idea of simple and creative living beyond food and into rest of life.          
Writing the book gave her focus, and a reason to keep going, even if she knew her time on earth was short. 

“She felt she had more to say—just not as much time as she wanted to say it all,” he said.

While writing Living More with Less, Doris kept a journal She wrote about her struggle with cancer, and about writing the book. Paul shared a few excerpts with me.

“On September 14, 1979, less than two months before she died, she wrote a prayer that said, in part: ‘I struggle today to cope with the task you’ve laid before me. Your word says, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house . . . ’ Does that mean ‘Unless the Lord unravels my thinking, relaxes my muscles, restores my health, so that I can write the book?’ Perhaps it means ‘Unless the Lord writes the book . . . ’”

“On October 12, she wrote: ‘Third lung X-ray today—unchanged. Probably means no going home from the hospital tomorrow. And I’m so near to finishing my book. If I could just have six weeks of good health I could finish.’”

“On October 18, she confessed to ‘impatience, discouragement, and fear. Fear that my lungs won’t ‘open up’ again. Fear that for weeks and weeks I won’t be able to work on my book.’”

“On November, 4, she penned these words: ‘I so much want to complete this book, one of the creative works of my life. But weighed in the balance against more time with (my family), the book is like a dry dandelion ready to blow . . . if I get well enough to work on the book I will have time with my family.’”

And what does he think Doris would want to say to readers of Living More with Less today?

Doris would have wanted her readers to feel and live more simply as a discipline, but a discipline of creativity and joy rather than one of drudgery and guilt,” he said.

As for the 30th anniversary edition, he hopes it will “energizes a new generation, just as the original energized our generation. I think many people today realize we are in crisis, that we need to simplify our lives and change our habits. I hope the new edition gives them some ideas and encouragement for how they can do that.”

More information about Doris, including poems, journal excerpts, her last sermon about living with cancer, the funeral sermon and tribute, can be found on the Herald Press website.