Saturday, July 30, 2016

Religion, Sport and the Olympic Games

The summer Olympics starts next week in Brazil. If we can forget the scandals, corruption and politics of the Olympic movement, we could appreciate and enjoy some fine athletic (and hopefully doping-free) performances by competitors.

Speaking of competition, religion and sports has a long history, especially Christianity, where the Bible uses athletics as a metaphor for spiritual life.

For example, the writer of the book of Hebrews used the image of a long-distance race to encourage the early Christians. "Run with endurance the race that is set before us," the writer said, suggesting spiritual life was a marathon, not a sprint.

In the first book to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul suggested that merely running wasn't enough—winning was the goal of the Christian life.

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” he wrote. “So run that you may obtain it."

In other places, Paul indicated his only aim in life was to "finish the race." But at another point, when he seemed to deal with some doubts, he worried that "I was not running, and had not been running, my race in vain."

Sportsmanship was also important to Paul, too—something athletes today could keep in mind when tempted to cheat.

"If anyone competes as an athlete, they do not receive the victor's crown unless they compete according to the rules," he wrote in the book of Second Timothy.

Of the major faiths, Christianity seems to have made the most of the sports-faith connection; think of all the athletes who point to the sky when they score a touchdown, take a knee in the end zone or when they hit a home run.

Publishers of the Bible have noted this affinity for sports, publishing the Athlete's Bible, the Sports Devotional Bible (helps you "get in great spiritual shape") or the Extreme Sports Bible.

The latter "contains 20 full-colour action photos of extreme sports, combined with verses about courage, bravery, faith, and adventure."

Other faiths also promote good health and exercise, but not to the same degree.

One Buddhist commentator notes that sport can help develop the mind, including positive states like team spirit, friendship, alertness and even a degree of detachment through gracefully accepting defeat.

Another suggests that athletes have a chance to experience a "meditative state worthy of a Buddha" through single-minded devotion and exertion.

"Sport becomes a form of meditation when you engage it with your full attention," he writes, suggesting this phenomenon can be called "sportsamadhi" -- "Samadhi" being the Sanskrit term for intense meditative concentration.

For Islam, most of the attention has been focused on restrictions on female participation in sports. But one Muslim commentator notes that the Prophet Mohammed recommended physical fitness to his followers, and that he participated in camel races.

Of sports in general, the prophet is reported to have said "any action without the remembrance of Allah is either a diversion or heedlessness excepting four acts: Walking from target to target (during archery practice), training a horse, playing with one's family and learning to swim."

Since sports in Greek and Roman times were associated with idol worship, ancient Jews were critical of sporting activities. The Talmud, for example, condemns Roman sports, especially gladiatorial combat.

More recently, however, sport has been seen as a way for Jews to enter mainstream North American society, particularly through boxing and baseball.

The connection between religion and sports isn't restricted to playing fields; it has also found its way into the stands. American baseball teams often host religiously themed nights at their ballparks. Some have also held theme nights for atheists.

I don’t expect to see much in the way of religious observance at the Olympics this year, which is OK by me. Personally, I don’t think God has much interest in who wins in shot put or any other sport.

Unless it’s the winter Olympics, and we’re talking about hockey and Canada playing for the gold medal. That’s about as close to a religious experience as many Canadians will get.

For more on the religious roots of the Olympic games on this blog, click here.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Muslim Contributions to the World, or Would You Like Cream with Your Coffee?

In mid-July Steve King, a Republican congressman from Iowa, stated that most of the contributions to western civilization have been made by Christians. “I'd ask you to go back through history and figure out . . . where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?" King said. While not saying so, it sounds like one of the “subgroups” King referred to would be Muslims. This is an old canard, and one I addressed in 2009 after receiving an e-mail claiming that Muslims had made few positive contributions to the world.

I received a disturbing email a few weeks ago.

It was one of those emails that people keep for­warding to one another, like those bogus computer virus warnings that arrive unsolicited in your inbox.

In this case, it wasn't about a virus, but it did contain one -- not a real computer virus, but one that sows mistrust and enmity between people.

This particular email was sent to a group of people, including me, by a Christian in another province. It questioned whether Muslims had contributed any­thing positive to the world by comparing the number of Jew­ish and Muslim winners of the Nobel Prize.

The email -- various ver­sions of which can be found on the web -- noted that while the "global Islamic population" is about 1.2 billion people, only sev­en Muslims have won the Nobel Prize.

The "global Jewish population" of 13 million, on the other hand, has produced 129 winners. (Other versions say nine Muslims have won, and that there have been either 165 or 184 Jewish winners.)

After listing the winners from the two religious communities, the email included a catalogue of "Muslim" atrocities such as suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism and violence.

It concluded by saying that "Muslims must ask what can they [sic] do for humankind before they demand that human­kind respects them!!"

In the first place, what possible good can be ac­complished by comparing these particular groups in this way?

In the second place, for Christians, Jesus taught that his followers should love everyone, including enemies, no matter whether they had done anything to earn that love. In my books, showing that kind of love would include not sending emails like this.

In the third place, Muslims have, in fact, done quite a bit for humankind -- our western scientific tradition owes them a great deal of gratitude.

From the seventh to the eleventh centuries, Mus­lims were the world leaders in the sciences. During that time, the Arabic language was synonymous with learning.

It was a golden age of intellectual endeav­our and achievement that had a lasting impact on western scientific thought, methods and techniques.

Back then, Muslim scholars made key advances in subjects such as medicine, physics, optics and mathematics. Muslim mathematicians promoted the concepts of the decimal system and zero -- two ideas that limited what Greek mathematics could accom­plish.

Muslims were also responsible for introducing the Arabic numerical system to the world, along with algebra, which comes from the Arabic word al-jabr, as well as trigonometry.

They also made strides in astronomy. Since one of the five pillars of Islam is facing Mecca to pray five times a day, Muslim scientists needed to study the stars to help the faithful determine the required directions for praying.

Additionally, Muslim scholars translated key Greek scientific texts into Arabic, thus ensuring that they would be preserved for future generations.

Even the English language reflects the contribu­tion of the Muslim world. Hundreds of words we use today have Arabic origins, including algorithm, alco­hol, checkmate, elixir, lemon, loofah, spinach, tariff and -- importantly for those whose daily routine includes a stop at Tim Hortons -- coffee.

"Nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600,'' Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, told the New York Times.

"Its scale and consequences are enormous, not just for Islam but for Europe and the world," added Abdelhamid Sabra, who taught the history of Arabic science at Harvard.

With all of those achievements, it's too bad there wasn't a Nobel-like prize a thousand years ago -- Muslim scientists would have cleaned up.

It's true that Muslims are not well-known for their work in science today. Osman Bakar, who is part of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, notes that Muslims account for less than one per cent of the world's scientists.

He attributes this lack of representation to poverty, and to the fundamentalism and anti-western attitudes found in some Muslim countries.

Highlighting Muslim contributions to science in no way diminishes the work of Jewish scientists, or that of any other group; we should be grateful to all who find ways to make our lives, and the world, a better place.

What should you do if this email shows up in your inbox? I can think of two things.

First, be thankful for the contributions that Muslims, and others, have made to the world of science.

Second, decline to for­ward it to anyone else and hit the delete button.

Click here for an article in the Independent for more Muslim inventions that changed the world.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Christians and Aboriginal Canadians: Who is Least-Reached?

When I heard that a major Canadian evangelical denomination had characterized Aboriginal people as “least reached” by Christianity, a number of things came to mind.

The first was information from the 2011 National Household Survey, which found that over 63 percent of Aboriginal Canadians identify with a Christian denomination.

According to the survey, most Aboriginals who say they are Christians are Roman Catholics, followed by Anglicans, United Church, Pentecostals, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians.

That doesn’t sound like “least reached” to me, unless the denomination in question considers itself to be the only true expression of Christianity—which may, in fact, be the case.

The second was a comment made to me last year by Kyle Mason, founder and Executive Director of Winnipeg`s North End Family Centre, about the terrible legacy of the residential school system.

When I asked Mason—who is Aboriginal and a credentialed Christian minister—what he would say to churches that want to reach Aboriginal people, he replied: “We have been reached by Christianity. It’s not that we haven’t heard. We have heard, and we have been damaged.”

To me, that also sounds like Aboriginal people have been reached, but not in a good way.

The third thing that came to mind was a presentation I heard in June by John Ralston Saul at Canadian Mennonite University.

During a conversation with the author, he spoke about how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians had reached out to each other in the earliest days of European exploration of this country—how Europeans had reached out for help to learn how to live in this land and survive, and how Aboriginal people had reached out to give it.

He went on to suggest that we could learn lessons from that encounter by once again reaching across the divides that separate Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, discovering in the process what it means to be a Canadian today.

That idea intrigued me. I wondered what that reaching might look like, especially for non-Aboriginal people of faith.

For an answer to that question, I turned to Terry LeBlanc, a Mi’kmaq Christian who directs the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies.

According to Leblanc, there is much Christians could learn from our Aboriginal neighbours. 

Take the issue of the environment, for example, which is viewed differently by Aboriginal people.

If non-Aboriginal Christians want to understand how Aboriginal people view creation, they could begin by “changing the starting point” of their theology from Genesis chapter three, which is about the fall, to Genesis chapter one, which is about the creation of the world, he said.

“The starting point determines the destination,” he stated, adding that by starting with the fall Christians have come to see the world as a place that is evil and needs to be escaped. 

An Aboriginal view of creation, on the other hand, starts with the idea of the earth as good, not as a place that is evil and that we need to escape.

It is, he said, “something that God loves. Creation is good, not evil.”

By seeing the world as evil, we are on “a trajectory towards the degradation of the environment,” he added. 

As for Christians who want to reach Aboriginal people, Leblanc has a caution. They need to move away from the idea that “mission it is a one-way street. The evangelist should also be open to being evangelized,” he said.

Christians, he added, “need also to be learners, not just teachers” and have “a deeper humility about the message” they carry.

Pondering all these things, I find myself wondering who, exactly, is really least-reached. It may not be who some people think.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Pastoring Today: "A Privilege to Serve."

In June I had a chance to have lunch with some pastors in Charleswood, a suburb of Winnipeg, to hear what pastoring is like today.

When I was in my early twenties, I thought I wanted to be a pastor.

To test that idea, I did two summer internships at a church in Vancouver. Through it, I learned about the highs of pastoring, but also about the lows. And I discovered how demanding the job can be.

I enjoyed my internships, but decided pastoring wasn’t the career for me.

That experience gave me a healthy respect and admiration for all who choose to become pastors. So when I received an invitation to join some long-time pastors for lunch in Charleswood, to see what pastoring is like these days, I jumped at the chance.

At the lunch were David Lowe of Gloria Dei Lutheran; Michael Wilson of Charlewood United Church; Maurice Comeault of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Roman Catholic); and Lenise Francis of St. Mary Anglican. Also there were Maureen Foster-Fernandes, who directs Religious Education at Our Lady, and Heather Ryczak, music coordinator at that church.

When I asked the group what changes they had seen over the years they had been in ministry, there were a number of responses—declining attendance, changing attendance patterns, aging memberships, busier families.  

Loew has been a pastor for 25 years. “We’ve lost the middle generation,” he says of people from 45-60 who no longer attend church. “And their children as well.”

That’s also the experience for Francis, who has been pastoring for 22 years. “Our attendance is down, and it’s mostly older,” she says, adding that the change in congregational demographics means pastors need to pay more attention to the needs of seniors.

Charleswood United Church still has a pretty broad age range, and is retaining its members—with 300 to 400 attending over two services on a Sunday, it’s the largest United Church in western Canada says Wilson, who has been pastoring for 27 years.

The church has many empty-nesters, he adds, “and some people coming back to church after having been away for a couple of decades, along with more millennials.”

Our Lady is growing as more Filipino families join the church. The three services on the weekend “are well attended,” says Comeault, although he acknowledges that attendance patterns have changed.

“Families are definitely busier today,” he says. “Kids are involved in so many things.”

“There’s no doubt the busyness of Sunday is a change,” adds Wilson. “There are so many things going on.”

For clergy, one result of this change is to the sermon—they need to be shorter. “Attention spans today are shorter,” Wilson says. “We need to do more story-telling,” adds Lowe.

Another change is how churches today need to “create space for people to do what they want to do, not what church wants them to do,” says Wilson, not take direction only from the pastor. 

His goal is to “give permission to people to do what they feel called to, with the church’s support.”

The reasons why people attend church have also changed. For some, it used to be a sense of duty, or even guilt.

Today “people come to church not out of obligation, but for what they can get out of it,” says Comeault. There is no worry about “punishment if they don’t come to services.”

For all at the lunch, serving the church is a great career and calling.

“I enjoy the diversity of the work, seeing young and old work together,” says Ryczack.

“It’s a real gift to work in the church, so nice to go to work and to be able to talk about God,” adds Foster-Fernandes.

For Comeault, it’s a privilege to have deep conversations with people “about the important things in their lives . . . it makes me feel alive to be engaged with people in this way.”

“I learn so much from the people in my parish,” adds Francis. “It’s a privilege to serve them.”

Wilson appreciates “the conversations I get to have with people about the important things in their lives.”

Adds Lowe: “I go to work every day knowing I have been invited by people to serve them. I get to walk with people in their deepest and most intimate times, like when they are dying, or at a funeral for a loved one. It is such a precious, sacred moment.”

From the July 9, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Psalm of Lament, or Fuck-You, Cancer

A friend’s wife was recently diagnosed with colon cancer. Hearing the diagnosis was not a good experience. “I’m gonna say it was shitty,” he wrote. “Can I say shitty? Can we all agree that the normal conservative protocols for public discourse can be set-aside in times like these? Cause if you can give me a better fitting word that encompasses all of that (and doesn’t get my mouth washed out with soap by my mother) then I am open to suggestions. I bet mom even gives me a pass on this one. So, to sum up, it was shitty.

His comments reminded me of column I wrote a couple of years ago, after another friend posted his lament about a friend lost to cancer. 

“Fuck-you cancer, you indiscriminate fog of death; you've taken three dear friends too soon over the past four years, two since the fall. Remorseless diseases; I continue to mourn.”

So began a Facebook post by a friend, a leader in his denomination. It was a deep and honest cry of pain and anger at the death of yet another friend.

“Fuck-you science,” he continued. “You pretend to know so much, think you have answers to big questions, but you know nothing of what is important. 

"We may be dust, we may be spirit, you do not know; and you don't know why our bodies ache to see a friend smile one more time. You know nothing of love.”

Fuck-you religion; you've backed yourself into a corner, defending your existence, quibbling over your own definitions. You have become blind to love and community and laughter and song. You still flog your club membership but you're done.”

“Good night Kirsten. You embraced the stories of so many; always bringing strangers into community. Who you are mattered. The connections you made will continue to bring smiles to this world.”

The language might disturb some. But reading the post, I was reminded of the Psalms.

Most people think of the Book of Psalms, or what Jews call Tellihim, as being all about comfort and security and praise—about lying in green pastures by still waters.

Some Psalms are certainly like that. But others contain stark expressions of pain, anger and deep disappointment with God.

These Psalms are known as the Psalms of Lament. Since they aren’t often used in many churches, they are sometimes referred to as the neglected Psalms.

That's too bad. They can play an important role for Christians, giving voice to the more difficult parts of life.

Take Psalm 13, for example (from The Message):

“Long enough, God, you've ignored me long enough.
I've looked at the back of your head long enough.

Long enough I've carried this ton of trouble, lived with a stomach full of pain.
Long enough my arrogant enemies have looked down their noses at me.

Take a good look at me, God, my God: I want to look life in the eye so no enemy can get the best of me, or laugh when I fall on my face.”

Or these portions of Psalm 42, also from The Message:

I wonder, ‘Will I ever make it—arrive and drink in God’s presence? I’m on a diet of tears—tears for breakfast, tears for supper. All day long people knock at my door, pestering ‘Where is this God of yours?’”

For many, lament is hard. It feels wrong to admit our disappointment with life, with others, with God.

But being able to express bitterness and anger is a valid expression of religious faith; for Christians and Jews, it’s even biblical.

And, as author Anne Lamott says, it is good for us. 

Nothing heals us like letting people know our scariest parts,” she writes. “When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it's like they are holding the baby of you.”

Last month I also lost a close friend to cancer. A single mom, just 49, she left two teenage sons behind.

I was able to spend time with her before she died, hearing her pain and experiencing her deep sense of loss.

Like my friend, I too could only lament: “Fuck-you, cancer.”

Saturday, July 2, 2016

No Space for Hate in Canada

Vandalism at the Cold Lake, AB mosque in 2015.

What would you do if you witnessed a hate crime?

I have never been in that situation, so I don’t know what I would do. Bbut my friend Allison Courey has.

Allison is a 30 year-old white woman and chaplain at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba. She was about to get on a Winnipeg bus in June when a man stepped back to let her board first—a fine and generous gesture, she thought.

When Allison saw another woman wearing a hijab walk toward her, she likewise motioned her to go ahead. That’s when the man stepped in front of both women and said: “Not her.”

Allison was taken aback. “Why?” she asked.

“It’s not safe” he said. “They’re Al-Qaeda. You have to be careful. We don’t want them.”

“There is no space for racism on Winnipeg Transit,” she said to the man.

He replied: “I used to execute them!”—a reference, Allison thinks by his accent, to the conflict that once raged in the former Yugoslavia.

Allison looked around the bus for support, but everyone else seemed to be looking away and not wanting to get involved.

So she said to the driver: “Do you have a policy about this or something? This guy’s talking about killing Muslims.”

Allison thought maybe she should take a picture of the man, in case he was dangerous and she should report him to the police.

But as she pulled out her phone, he became aggressive.

“He was clearly fixed on me, and my presence was upsetting him,” she says. “I was pretty sure that if I actually lifted the phone high enough to take a picture, he’d snap. That wouldn’t help anyone.”

Allison didn’t contact the police, but she did warn campus security. 

“I have too many dearly-beloved Muslim friends to allow a man like that to just wander through the campus at will,” she says, adding that the woman, who didn’t board the bus, “could have been a newly-arrived Syrian refugee.”

Unfortunately, the incident Allison witnessed is not unusual.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 1,295 hate crimes reported to police in 2014 (the year for which the most recent information is available). 

As for the groups most likely to experience hate, they are Jews, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQ community.

Checking the information from Statistics Canada, it was good to see that Manitoba had the third-fewest reported number of hate crimes in Canada that year. But even one is still too many.

As a white, straight, Christian male, the world feels pretty safe to me. I realize that isn’t the case for many others. It puts the onus on me to look out for any who might be in danger of hate because of their religion, race or sexual orientation.

And if I ever witness hate, I hope I can be as brave as my friend Allison.

You can get an up-to-date report of hate crimes against Muslims in Canada from the National Council of Canadian Muslims Hate Crime Map.

According to the Council, there have been 27 hate crimes in Canada against Muslims since January, double the number from a year ago at this time (June).

From the July 2, 2016 Free Press.