The colour of life – with Toni Morrison

My latest column in the Christian Courier.
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There are a few instances of colour that stand out in my life and memory. The warm red of a steel wagon that was a childhood gift to me; the deep indigo of a Fula shirt my wife (girlfriend at the time) sent to me from West Africa; the myriad blossoms of Springtime annuals in the greenhouses of my late uncles.

Colour has been especially on my mind since I went back to the writings of Toni Morrison several weeks ago. Morrison, who passed away on August 5th, this Summer, wrote as an African American woman and wrote for a specifically African American audience. While she acknowledged the presence of a non-African American, white readership, she worked hard not to let the questions, concerns, or judgments of that audience determine the shape of her craft. That is, she wrote as a woman of colour for people of colour. She was, as the New York Times put it recently, “an iconic author of the black experience.”

Toni Morrison

Photo by Maggie Hardie/REX/Shut-terstock (490822g) Toni Morrison, 2004.

So again, colour has been on my mind. Yet it has been on my mind not only in terms of the acute questions of identity that Morrison raises, but also in terms of the simple reality of colour (blue, orange, violet) as she weaves it within her work. For example, in Morrison’s unfolding of the difficult and compelling narratives of Sethe and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, in Beloved, colour finds a place of subtle prominence. For Baby Suggs, in the last years of a life marked by violence, oppression, and slavery (a life equally marked by her articulate and faithful resistance), colour becomes central. Continue reading

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What you know doesn’t matter!

My opening reflection/homily for the new academic year at The Presbyterian College.

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Let me begin today with what might seem a provocative statement. Let me begin by saying this:

What you know, doesn’t matter.

If this isn’t a provocative statement, it’s at least an unusual thing to say – particularly given where we find ourselves in this moment. Here we are in a theological college, on the edge of major Canadian university. Here you are, either beginning a new academic program or continuing for another year in an academic program. Over the coming months, much of your energy is going to be put into acquiring knowledge. And your knowledge is going to be tested. The entire premise of this enterprise called theological education is that knowledge matters. But this morning I still want to say this unusual and perhaps provocative thing.

What you know, doesn’t matter.

Now this statement might be somewhat palatable if I’m only referring to certain kinds of knowledge – if it’s only certain kinds of knowledge that don’t matter. For example, knowledge just for sake of knowledge, or information without wisdom, or knowledge that isn’t integrated into life. Continue reading

The Wounds we Share – Remembering #JeanVanier

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

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You couldn’t help but notice Jean Vanier when he entered a room. This was simply on account of his size – he was a big man, standing six feet, six inches tall. So just by virtue of his physical presence, he would likely draw your gaze. But if Jean Vanier drew sustained attention, and more than a passing glance, it was on account of the loving attention he gave to others. Many were drawn to him because his large hands and his wide embrace so evidently embodied a deep and sincere love for others.

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of listening in as some who knew Jean Vanier (1928-2019) shared stories of encounter with him. This took place at the 10th annual Summer Institute on Theology and Disability, held this year at Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Almost all of the stories that were shared painted a picture of someone who drew you in by giving his full attention. He was decidedly present in the moment, listening and sharing in a way that demanded as much of you as he gave of himself in the encounter.

One participant in the conversation shared about a time Vanier visited the Daybreak (L’Arche) community in Toronto. It was a mob scene as Vanier entered the home and was surrounded by members of the community. Yet this wasn’t adulation; not the adoration of a celebrity. Rather, as the speaker put it: “They drew near to him because he was a shepherd and these were the sheep who knew his voice; these women and men with intellectual disabilities knew he was responsible for this place (Daybreak) that had given them life.” By his loving presence, Jean Vanier shared and embodied the loving presence of the Good Shepherd. It is perhaps no surprise that so many were drawn to his life and voice. Continue reading

Touch, Sight, and Faith #worship

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

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A large wooden crucifix stands toward the front of the crypt sanctuary in St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal. While the crucifix is not central within worship, it evidently receives much attention. A striking feature of the crucifix is the worn nature of Jesus’ feet — the paint is worn away and the surface smooth from the many hands that have rested there. Over the years, thousands of hands have been placed on those feet in a posture of prayerful need, of seeking the grace of God.

For those of us in the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition, this devotional attention to a crucifix will likely raise questions — questions as old as the Reformation itself. Doesn’t every artistic representation of Jesus somehow diminish him? Why not turn to the living Jesus in prayer, rather than to a lifeless statue? Aren’t these acts of prayerful devotion tied up with the idea that a human creation (a crucifix) can dispense grace?

Our tradition has been almost entirely word-centered, which means we are suspicious of visual and sculptural representations of Jesus or of God. In terms of the questions posed above, we have wondered whether such representations (idols!) distract us from the free grace of the living God. Our Reformed tradition has created only one narrow opening for such visual representations, in the specific case of those who could not read. In such cases, images (pictures) have been seen as a way to tell the story of Jesus and to share the truth of that story. This allowance for images focusses on their educational and not their devotional use. Continue reading

We should’ve just drawn straws!

This post is a reflection on the most recent General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and, specifically, on the ranked-ballot process followed as it worked toward decisions on questions of human sexuality and the welcome of LGBTQ persons. As the title makes clear, I think we should’ve just drawn straws…

In Acts 1:23-26, rather famously, the disciples of Jesus draw lots in order to choose a replacement disciple for Judas. The narrative identifies the need to replace him, then continues: “So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.”

Many in the church today will wonder whether such a drawing of straws is really a legitimate way to discern the will of God – whether we can trust that the Spirit could be at work in such a process. But evidently Luke and the early church had no such qualms. The 11 disciples ended up with two options candidates before them, and rather than enter into protracted and vigorous debate about the merits of either candidate, they drew straws. “Ok, Matthias, you’re the one.”

As I think about the ranked-ballot process recommended by the Special Committee and followed by the General Assembly, I offer the following (rather strongly expressed, I realize):

Drawing straws would have been as rational and scientifically rigorous as the ranked-ballot process followed by the General Assembly. And, from the other side, the ranked-ballot process was as irrational and lacking in scientific rigour as would have been a process of drawing straws. Continue reading

On the failures of a ranked ballot. (A thread unrolled.)

I’ve unrolled, below, a Twitter thread I wrote starting this morning. It is a reflection on the recent meeting of the General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada—and on a voting approach used to help decide a difficult and divisive issue. (Further tweets added, based on a Twitter exchange with a friend.)

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On the *insanity of ranked ballots – or, ranked choice voting [RCV] – a thread.

(Ok, ‘insanity’ is probably too strong a word!)

RCV – where you rank your preferred options and when all ballots are submitted, the winner is the Option that obtains 50% + 1.

The ballots (with 4 Options, in our case) are divided up according to the first choice selected, and counted. If one Option is the first choice of 50 % +1 of voters, that Option wins.

Example: There are 100 voters, and 53 rank Option A as first choice – then Option A wins.

But if no particular Option is selected by 50% +1, as first choice, then you drop off the Option that received the least number of first-choice rankings.

And: Those ballots that ranked the least-favourite Option as first choice are re-distributed according to their 2nd choice. Continue reading

Here we go again, #Quebec #Secularism

My latest in the Christian Courier.

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The debate over secularism is ramping up here in Quebec. Again!

It wasn’t too long ago that the government of Pauline Marois introduced the Charter of Values in the legislature (Bill 60)—legislation that would have prevented public employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. That legislation died in the National Assembly when the minority government of Marois went down to defeat in the 2014 election. The bill only died, however, after generating a significant measure of anger and social division within the province.

And here we are, just five years later, with Premier François Legault making his attempt at legislating secularism. Legault hopes that Quebecers will see his Bill 21 as the less offensive cousin of the earlier Bill 60. His legislation, after all, only forbids religious attire among government employees in positions of authority; for example, school teachers, police officers, judges, and prosecutors. Legault also points out that his proposed law will only apply to new employees, meaning that no one who is presently employed in such a position will be fired for wearing a hijab or a turban. Continue reading

Lost: In the Memory of God

My latest piece in the Christian Courier.

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We’ve all had that feeling of disorientation at some point.

Perhaps you are staying at a friend’s house, and in the middle of the night you wake up not knowing where you are. The room is unfamiliar and you feel lost. You look for points of familiarity but can’t figure out why the door isn’t where it should be. Then, suddenly, clarity! You remember where you are; you can locate yourself in time and space. Your unease dissolves.

I have had a peculiar experience along these lines. One night some months ago I awoke after midnight and walked down the stairs of our home. As I did so I couldn’t think of who I was and also had a sense that someone was missing from the house. The person that I thought was missing was “dad” (though I didn’t know exactly who “dad” was). As I came into the dining room (where my wife was up late working) I asked: “Where’s dad?” She looked at me in great confusion, not knowing what to say. Then, after just a few brief moments, there was clarity for me: “Ah, it’s ok. I know, I’m dad.” Somehow, I was looking for myself?

There are different possible responses to such an experience. Some would laugh it off: “Wow, that was weird.” Others might worry: “Do I have dementia? Am I ok?” Still others might take the experience as an opportunity for armchair psychoanalysis: “Who is ‘dad’ anyway?” My initial response was to worry, though within a very short time I had moved on to the phase of “Wow, that was weird.” But since then I have also taken the experience as an invitation to think about my life and identity. Continue reading

Quebec and Religion: Response

In the light of Quebec’s proposal of a new “secularism” law today, I share this (entirely appropriate and relevant) statement of the Presbytery of Montreal from 2014.

Response to Bill 60 from
The Presbytery of Montreal, of
The Presbyterian Church in Canada (2014)

The Presbytery of Montreal, a body of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, hereby offers its response to Project de loi no. 60: Charte affirmant les valeurs de laïcité et de neutralité religieuse de l’État ainsi que d’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes et encadrant les demandes d’ accommodement. We offer our response in terms of the following affirmations and the following areas of disagreement.

  1. AFFIRMATIONS

1.1  We acknowledge and celebrate the unique identity of Quebec as a Francophone nation and province within Canada, and acknowledge the particular religious and cultural history that has shaped its values, laws, and social fabric. We also acknowledge and celebrate the presence of other linguistic and cultural communities within Quebec – including a large Anglophone minority – and celebrate the contributions such communities have made to the history, identity, and success of Quebec as a liberal democratic polity. We believe that Quebec has been enriched by this diversity.
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Belonging and Exclusion – A Conversation

The latest issue of the Christian Courier takes the question of belonging as its theme, with a particular focus on issues of race and culture. Here is my “column” for this issue.

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The theme of belonging is rich with challenge and possibility and it seemed to me that I would do better not to try and explore this theme merely on my own. As a result, I share with you the content of an interview/exchange I had with the Rev. Oliver Kondeh Ndula, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and a graduate student at McGill University/The Presbyterian College, here in Montreal.

RDV:  The idea of “belonging” is understood in variety of ways. How do you understand “belonging”?

OKN:  I understand “belonging” to mean the ease with which people get integrated into communities, especially communities other than those of their origin. From this perspective the concept is dualistic. On the one hand the other needs to take the initiative to get integrated into his/her new community. On the other hand, the new community can either facilitate or impair the process.

RDV:  Do you think it is possible to fully belong in some place or community? Continue reading