“Hallow E’en”

I loved Halloween when I was a child.  With the help of your parent you would try and come up with a unique costume.  While I gazed longingly at the ready made store bought costumes, my parents (who were good stewards of their money) were always helpful in creating unique outfits.  You could dress up like a clown, construction worker, hobo, and yes I’ll admit it, one year I even dressed up like a girl.  Because I lived on a farm my parents would drive my siblings and I around the countryside going from house to house.  It was celebrative, communal and the only time of the year that I got boxes of Cracker Jacks and Kit Kat bars.

But what I don’t remember is the celebration of darkness, fear and death.  Sure there were some kids who put on witches hats or wore a bed sheet and called themselves a ghost, but there wasn’t an obsession with covering the front lawn with tombstones or making your front doorway a blood filled scene from the latest horror movie.  It may be that my parents had an easier time shielding this activity from me because we lived on a farm or it may just be that my memory is skewed, but it feels to me like something has changed.  I do remember older teenagers egging homes and such so I won’t claim that those were more innocent times, but I would still argue that the scales have tipped to emphasize the dark side of life and call it fun.

The history of Halloween is mixed depending on which version you read.  The Christian history of the event is the celebration of All Hallows Eve (‘Hallow E’en’ is Irish), the night before ‘All Saints’ day where all the departed Christian Saints are remembered and celebrated.  You might argue that yes, Christians were celebrating the dead, but not gore, darkness and fear.  Some attribute the celebration of death and gore to the pre-Christian pagan festivals held at the end of the harvest.  But if you look deeper into some of these pagan Halloween practices, they were ‘fire festivals’ and winter solstice gatherings.  We see then that even many of the non-Christian practices of Halloween were not celebrations of blood and violence.

I confess that I feel troubled and conflicted with what Halloween seems to celebrate today.  As a Christian, death is not something to fear, death is a reality that we all must face.  But the Christian message is that in the end God wins and that even the darkest of evil forces, which lead to death, cannot match the power of God.  What gets celebrated in Christianity is life.  As Jesus says in the gospel of John,

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)

I don’t want to celebrate and make merriment over the darkness of death and am often troubled by those who seem to take death so lightly; it is an affront to the way things are supposed to be.

My hope this Halloween for all of us is threefold: May we contemplate what it is we are celebrating, consider how it might be molding our children and may we together find a way to enjoy each other’s creativity, imagination, and presentation in an atmosphere of communal generosity.

Note: This article was first published in the Alberni Valley Times, October 28, 2011

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Only a “Sense” of Obligation to Environment?

Every Monday morning on the ground floor of the University Centre at the University of Ottawa, the Sustainable Development Centre (which now occupies one of the offices that years ago was a full-time chaplains office and sits outside the area formerly known as Spiritual Services….hmmm) sets up a table offering free coffee for all those with re-usable mugs.  Their sign says…”6500 disposable coffee cups used every day on campus.”  There was no one waiting in line so I stopped for a cup of coffee and chatted with the volunteer.  I learned a few things, including the fact that they didn’t have enough volunteers to offer this service more often or in different campus locations.  Then I walked upstairs to the part-time chaplains office and on the way I passed the Tim Horton’s coffee kiosk which had a line-up of about 10-15 people.  Interesting…free, but you have to have your own cup = no line up, but pay $1.50-$2.00 and get a disposable cup = line up of 10-15 people.  Something is wrong here.

Recently, Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture, released it’s Canadian Educational Survey (They released the US version last year) in which they explored the effects of education upon people’s lives.  The survey measured the differences between educational systems, (Catholic, Independent  Public, Christian, and Home School being the primary categories) with respect not only to career but to the affect on the social fabric of our society. (You can see the whole report by clicking here)  Included in the study was the role of education with respect to environmental care.

When they compared responses from participants they discovered,

“A sense of moral or religious obligation to care for the environment is very strong among the Christian school and religious home-educated graduates.” p.39

I’m glad to hear that.  At the heart of the Christian story is the belief in a good creation.  We believe that the environment is a gift of God and we are called to care for it.  We should have a strong moral or religious obligation to care for the environment (The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. Genesis 2:15).  But having a sense of moral obligation and acting upon it are apparently two different matters.  The report goes on to say

“When we add all of these reported actions together, there are no significant differences between government school graduates and those from other school sectors. There is a small trend among religious home-educated graduates toward fewer environmentally friendly actions… Overall, then, we find some differences in a sense of obligation to the environment, which favour the Christian school and religious home education sectors, and in commitment to participating in the environmental movement, which is more likely among independent non-religious school graduates. Besides those, the differences between school sectors on the environment are very limited.” (p.40)

Basically the survey says that although Christians (at least those schooled in Christian environments) have a higher sense of obligation to the care of the environment, in reality Christians come out the same as all other students in actually caring for the environment.  If Christians have a higher sense of obligation to the environment, shouldn’t we have a greater participation in environmental action and causes?

Maybe there is a reason that what used to be a Chaplain’s office at the University of Ottawa is now the office for Sustainable Development.  And maybe it’s time for Christian students on campus to take a lead in volunteer action with the Office of Sustainable Development…it’s a way that we can live out that moral religious obligation that we apparently feel.  Who knows, in the future this office might once again become known as a place of spiritual service.

Who is Better Off?

In Barbara Kingsolver’s recent novel, The Lacuna, a character named Tommy gazes into the future and predicts a day when the people running for president will run advertising campaigns on television. Tommy’s friend stares back at him in disbelief, then lets out a little snort of laughter.  “You’ve lost your marbles,” he declares.  To him, it all seemed like a joke.  He simply cannot imagine a world where presidential candidates would stoop to advertising.

Most of us cannot imagine a world where they would not.  (But oh, how we long for November 7!  The day our dreams will be realized!)

It has become nearly impossible to escape the barrage of political advertising—especially in swing states like Colorado.  Denver is the third largest media market for political advertisements in the nation—just behind those unfortunate souls in Las Vegas and Cleveland. The ads pop up nearly everywhere we look—during the two minute break of the Broncos game, in our mailboxes, on our Facebook pages. Some savvy advertisers have even figured out way to slip campaign billboards into video games.

Recently, NPR examined some of these advertisements and observed that the two main political parties have adopted very different strategies.  While the Romney campaign has fewer ads with a more general message, the Obama campaign has tailored its campaign, producing 20 different spots to appeal to different demographic groups.   Spike TV viewers will get one ad, Lifetime viewers another, ESPN viewers still another.  The volunteers who call potential voters on behalf of the campaign have been instructed to take the same approach.  NPR reports:

At an Obama field office in Colorado Springs, college students and a few high schoolers have gathered to make calls. When high school senior Kate Henjum talks to voters, each person gets a different message.

“So when I have those conversations with a woman, it is about what Barack Obama is doing to help women,” she says. “What is it Barack Obama is doing to help youth? What is Barack Obama doing to help the Latino community?”

The two campaigns may have different advertising strategies.  But it seems to me that they operating within a similar framework.  Each campaign is working from the assumption that voters will do whatever is in their best interest.   The Romney campaign has repeatedly asked voters the question: Are you better off than four years ago?  Now the Obama campaign is doing all it can to help them answer that question with a resounding Yes! Because this is what the President did for me.

Politically, it’s a safe bet.  After all, what is more American than pursuing our own (enlightened?) self-interest?   For that matter, what is more human than looking out for old number one?   Of course the politicians expect us to go into the poll booth asking What will be best for me?

But I suspect Jesus would want something different from those of us who pledge our allegiance to Him.

Theologian Miroslav Volf argues in his book A Public Faith that the greatest hope we carry with us to the polls should not be for a “satisfied-self.”  Instead, it should be a vision universal flourishing, a profound hope that all people can experience the good life.  After all, when Christians follow Jesus into the voting booth, we are following One who was radically other-directed; One who “who emptied himself” and went “all the way to death, even death on a cross” for our sakes.  Therefore, Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, our attitude needs to be the same.  We need to look first not to our own interests.  But to the interests of others.    The first question we need to ask is not Which candidate will be best for me?” The first question we need to ask is “Which candidate will be best for others?”

Approaching politics this way will certainly not make things any less complicated.  (For starters, which other do we focus on?  The single mom on food stamps or Afghan villager or unborn child or small business owner or Guatemalan immigrant or Detroit auto worker or Wall Street banker or inner city GED student?)  And as Christians, we may have legitimate disagreements about the right answer.  But I wonder, can’t we all at least agree on the question?

How about you?  Who will your vote benefit? 

 

Two Burritos

Today I brought my paycheck to the bank. As I waited for the teller to do whatever bank tellers do behind their crenelated counters, I looked out the window and saw a homeless man in a wheel-chair roll himself into some shade and hoist himself down to the grass of one of those “parking lot islands.” I was struck by the irony of the situation. Here I was coolly handing over hundreds of dollars in a comfortable building and not 40 yards away was a man sweating in the noon sun with a card board sign asking for food. I left the bank, got measured for a suit and stopped at a fast food restaurant for a quick lunch. This is when something weird happened. I ordered two meals. The weird thing was that I didn’t intend to buy two. The words came out as if from elsewhere and then there I stood holding two burritos. Holding the burritos in a numb confusion I remembered what I had read earlier that day, “If you have two cloaks, give one to the poor.” (Grrrr.  Sometimes Scripture ‘pops-up’ at the most inopportune times, does it not?) So I found the homeless man in the parking lot and sat with him for lunch.

I must say that I hesitate in sharing this story because I do not in anyway wish to present a story that might make me seem more righteous than I really am. In fact I share this story as a way of showing just how unholy my thoughts and feelings were concerning this whole burrito event. Perhaps you might relate to my experience.

There must have been at least 45 minutes between the time I saw the homeless man and the time I bought the lunch. Those 45 minutes where chock full of moral debate. I could not shake the man from my thoughts. I had finally convinced myself that buying the man lunch would not do any good anyway and giving him money would only enable his current life style so there was nothing I could do. After all, “The poor will always be among us.” Right? Cold logic and reason insulated me from this man’s poverty. I sinned against him. That is when I suddenly found myself holding two burritos.

Now as I sit here again in my office thinking back on my lunch I wonder why I did it. Why did I bring that man that lunch and then sit with him as we ate together? It certainly was not because I had any illusions about fixing this man’s condition. I think I had two reasons for doing what I did.

Unfortunately, the first reason I brought that man lunch was I knew it would make me feel better. I knew it would stroke my conscience to be able to say I brought a lunch to a homeless man. I thought God would be proud of me. Then and there I sinned against the Lord. As if a heartless offering could dupe the Prince of Peace. I suppose that is why 1 Cor 13 says that if we sell all we have and give it to the poor without love it is meaningless.

The second reason I ate lunch with that man I did not discover until I ate with him. As we munched on tortilla chips and chicken burritos a gap was bridged, albeit for just 15 minutes. I longed for contact with that man. I needed to talk to him, eat with him, share with him. Not just for his good, but for my good. I needed his forgiveness. As we ate the lunch became my unspoken but sincere apology and recognition that his poverty was not simply a result of his sin. His poverty was just as much a result of MY sin.

Because of two burritos and a homeless man I understand my own humanity better than I did before. Or perhaps I now see the truth in those famous lyrics, “No Man is an Island.” We were created together. We are not independent, but rather are interdependent. As Bishop Desmond Tutu writes, when one of us is dehumanized, we are all dehumanized. The Nazi guards who tortured and killed millions of Jews are frequently described as animals. There is more literal truth in that analogy then we often admit. The more the Nazi’s dehumanized their prey the more inhuman they became. In a much more subtle and sophisticated manner, the more we ignore the poor, the more we dehumanize them…. thus the more we become less human. I now understand perhaps a little better why Jesus named the greatest commandment of all to be “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” Obeying this commandment is at the core of who we are. Obeying this commandment makes us more human, more like the only perfect human – Jesus.

Jesus did say that the poor will always be with/among you. I have always used this text as a rationalization for their existence. I have converted this text into a pillow for my guilty head whenever my consideration for those poorer then myself and what I might do for them gives me a headache. But when I looked at the context for these words Jesus spoke I see that Jesus said them while surrounded by liars and cheats and his feet was being washed by the perfume owned by the village hooker. When you consider his context I don’t think Jesus was saying poverty was ok, rather I think he was saying that wherever HE is found there you will find the poor. Wherever grace is found, you will find the poor. An old mentor of mine likes to say, “Grace flows downhill and pools in the lowest places.” Maybe that is what Jesus was saying.

I never thought I could learn so much from two burritos.

Build, Plant & Eat

The following post was an address given on September 30th at the University of Ottawa at the launch of the Ottawa Christian Reformed Campus Chaplaincy.

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“Build, Plant & Eat” – Jeremiah 29:1-14

Ottawa Chaplaincy Inauguration Address – Sid Ypma

September 30, 2012

On the other side of the Perez building we’re in, on Laurier, a sausage vendor sets up his grilled meat market every day.  For those of you who may be vegetarian this merchant of meat might not grab your attention.  But I confess that I am a carnivore and the very site of the gleaming silver mobile barbecue already makes my mouth water.  And on the occasion that I pass by the sausage vendor during a lunch hour, the smells that engulf my nostril often make me resentful of the peanut butter sandwich I have waiting for me in my office.  But imagine if that sausage vendor grilled his bratwursts, frankfurters and kielbasas, but never actually sold any of his product?  He wouldn’t remain in that location, he’d go out of business.  But then imagine if his mandate had been to give his sausages away for free to the faculty, staff and students, but instead of doing so he proudly grilled every day tempting everyone with the smell but kept it all to himself?  Not only would those tempting smells be nothing more than cruel joke to starving students living on macaroni and cheese, but all that meat which came at the cost of an animal’s life would go to waste.

Now imagine the same scenario but we’re not talking about sausages, we’re talking about a vision for life and an understanding of how beauty and justice are best restored to a world where selfish ambition and personal experiential happiness often seem to rule the day.  Would it be right for those who have been given (and I stress given so that we recognize that such a vision is a gift and not attained by personal piety or intellectual prowess)…  Would it be right for those who have been given such a vision by a spirit other than their own to hold on to it as though it were a family heirloom that you store in a safety deposit box at the bank?  We might want to answer no, but yet if one looks at the history of Christianity far too often, followers of Jesus can be accused of either holding on to the gift God has given with little interest in giving it away or they can be accused of forcing it down the throats of their neighbours so that it is not so much a gift but a poorly exhibited imposition whose message is lost in the medium of its delivery.

And all one need do is read the Bible, the very story that defines the gift of a vision of life that has already been described earlier by Mark Wallace,  to see that our Biblical brothers and sisters had difficulty with God’s gift as well.  Consider the people of the exile to whom the words of Jeremiah were written.  As descendants of Abraham, the forefather of the world’s great monotheistic faiths, they had been given the gift of being God’s redeeming agents in a broken world.  They had been called out to be a light and a blessing to ALL the nations.  But time and time again they drifted into self-sufficient nationalistic tendencies in which status was more important than blessing their neighbours and giving witness to God’s WORLDview.  They wanted to keep their sausages and spend too much time shining their cart.  So God sends them into exile.

But this should not be understood simply as an act of divine punishment, as it so often is interpreted, but as a way of pushing his people into the places where they should have been in the first place.    As God’s people were conquered by foreigners they were stripped of their power, wealth, homes…and identity.  But which identity were they stripped of? They were stripped of national pride, religious arrogance and self-sufficient lifestyles.   An outsider at the time would have said that it looked as though God’s people had lost and that their God was impotent.  But what the world views as impotent, God viewed as restorative.  What the world viewed as weakness leading to slavery, God viewed as humility leading to servitude.  God’s vision of humanity in a good world did not and does not contain a clause that says his vision is carried out by power but rather that it is defined by weakness and servitude, defined later in the Biblical story by God himself through the incarnation; by Jesus.  In exile, God was redefining this vision for his people.  By pushing them outside the perceived centre of power in the Promised Land of Israel, he was reminding them of their true identity and role in the world.

Yale Professor, Miroslav Volf, in his book “A Public Faith” writes quite candidly about the desire of some Christians in the west who work tirelessly to obtain political power because they feel as though it is the way that they can somehow exert God’s influence upon the society at large and ensure that it remain or become a Christian society.  But Volf rightly explores the historical reality of when Christians were and are the most influential, and questions whether or not it is when they are at the centre of political power.  He says,

“Those familiar with the early history of the Christian church – and for careful observers of young and vibrant Christian communities in the non-Western world – there is something odd about the present sense of crisis in the West.  The early Christian communities were not major social players at all!  They were not even among the cheering or booing spectators…To be tucked in a dark corner outside the public view was not a sign of failure but of keeping good company.” [i]

In the course of history when Christianity has been at the centre of political power, so often it has lost its identity and failed to live out it’s calling to be a light in darkness and blessing the world.  Some may mourn the loss of Christianity as the so-called centre of our current society, but perhaps in getting pushed to the margins…which is a societal label for who can or cannot say what is truly marginal… perhaps in getting pushed to the margins we are where we should be.

It was a lesson that God already taught the people of Jeremiah’s day who were living in exile.  Once in this position, outside of political power, God gives them the message we heard:

 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:6&7)

The word used in this declaration translated as peace is not simply a call to put on a long flowing robe, grow your hair out and pass daises to those who pass you by.  The word translated as “peace” is the Hebrew word “Shalom.”  The word carries with it a connotation of something much more than the absence of war.  The word shalom describes time, space and matter all coming together as Mike Goheen and Craig Bartholomew describe it, in a “rich, integrated, relational wholeness that God intends for his creation.[ii]  God tells his people that they should bring shalom to this marginal place of exile, to those considered to be enemies, to a world they have for so long ignored.  “Seek the peace and prosperity not for yourselves, but for the city I have carried you to,” says God.

And so it is that we consider God’s words to His people in the exile as we begin a new Campus Chaplaincy in Ottawa.  Now let’s be clear, we’re not saying that a life in Ottawa is the equivalent of exile.  (Though if you hear the way people talk about politicians one might be inclined to think it is.)  And we also would not claim that the University is in any way a marginal place within the western world.  (Even if we hear people say that the academy is out of touch with reality.)  But it can be said that the University does not have the Christian church as its power centre.  And I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing for once again Christians find themselves in the margins.  And it may be that this is where God wants us to be because instead of getting lost in power struggles, we can focus correctly on building, planting and eating with the community we are in.  If God has given us a vision of how things are supposed to be, if God has given us a gift of shalom, especially as we know it in Jesus, then we must share it.  Shalom is a man and a woman working side by side to eradicate poverty.  Shalom is a professor and a student sharing a meal because they both have things to learn from each other.  Shalom is a student from Nigeria and a student from Renfrew, Ontario discussing French poetry because each can offer a unique perspective.  Shalom is a Muslim student and Christian student working together in a laboratory doing kidney research because kidney disease is blight on a good creation.  Our faith compels us to work with others in these areas because God’s redemptive call is one of shalom.  Through the power of Jesus we know that all things are possible and as we work for the good of the society we are in, the world we are in, day by day we will see what God is doing and trust that his vision will be embraced by those he calls.

So as we celebrate a new beginning in this place and at this time, we do so with the knowledge that all territory is God’s territory and there is nothing marginal about where we he has pushed us to be.  Let us build our sausage stands, plant our grills on these campuses and share a meal with our neighbours in Ottawa.  Let us eat together in this place, because God says,

“For I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Thanks be to God for the opportunities he gives. Amen.


[i] Miroslav Volf – “A Public Faith” – Brazos Press c. 2011

[ii] Mike Goheen and Craig Bartholomew – The Drama of Scripture – Baker Academic  c.2004 – p.42