Face to Face in Quebec

My latest in the Christian Courier, found here.
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Quebec has been in the news again over recent weeks. And again it is in relation to questions of religious tolerance and religious accommodation. In this latest round of political and cultural controversy we are in the news because the government of Quebec has passed legislation that prevents those with covered faces from receiving government services.

Arguments against this legislation have been widely rehearsed over past weeks, and most opposition to the law is well founded. The Minister of Justice Stéphanie Vallé tried to argue, for example, that the law applies to anyone with a covered face, including masked protestors – as if the government is addressing a question of public security. But it is more than obvious that the government is targeting niqab-wearing, Muslim women.

It has also been pointed out, rightly, that Muslim women who wear the niqab are very few in Quebec – and, that this marginalized group will only be further marginalized by a law that cuts them off from public services. If there is a question about the wearing of the niqab in Quebec, presumably there were constructive ways to approach this as a social question, other than with the full weight of the law. Conversations with women who wear the niqab might have been a good place to start.

Face to Face in QuebecAll of this is to say that I am in very real sympathy with those who object to this law. I think it should be retracted. But having said that, I also want to suggest there may be two important intuitions beneath the surface of this legislation – intuitions worth attending to. Continue reading

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Daycare Debate (reprised)

A piece I wrote 14 years ago this month, published in the Montreal Gazette.  Time has flown, but the cultural issues are much the same.

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A child’s first birthday is a wonderful event in the life of a family – filled with balloons, cake and party hats.  For many parents, however, the joy of first-birthday celebrations is tempered by the realization that mom’s year of federally-subsidized maternity leave is coming to an end.  Going back to work means finding someone else to take care of a child.  And as my wife and I recently discovered, a year of advanced notice doesn’t make it any easier to work through this time of transition.

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They are all angels while sleeping.

As a part-time pastor and full-time graduate student, caring for our little one didn’t seem to be in the cards for me – time was in short supply.  And my wife was returning to full-time work as a nurse.  Her twelve-hour shifts, seven days out of fourteen, meant that we needed someone to care for our daughter two or three days a week.

Thus it was that we turned to daycare, that near-universal institution, to solve our dilemma.  It wasn’t easy to find a daycare that would accept a child for only two or three days each week (five-dollar-a-day daycare seems only to be available to those who part with their children five days a week), but we eventually found a non-subsidized daycare space we thought would be good for our daughter.

The first week of September our daycare ordeal began – and it was an ordeal.  Day one was no problem – our daughter found everything new and interesting at the daycare.  Day two wasn’t so pleasant – this time she knew that mom and dad were leaving her behind and she clearly expressed her displeasure.  Days three through four left us guilt-ridden and in tears – our little one was equally teary-eyed on each morning’s hand-off, and again at pick-up. Continue reading

Put in your place!

My latest column for the Christian Courier.

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It is difficult to be indifferent when someone is “put in their place!”

On the one hand, we are likely to experience real satisfaction, or a sense of justice, when another person is brought down a peg or two. “He was getting too big for his britches but she put him in his place!” On the other hand, if we are the one who has been put in our place, the feeling will be quite different. There will likely be some degree of shame or humiliation when someone insists that we have spoken beyond what we know or have acted beyond our competence.

It seems to me that nothing would be lost if that phrase (and the experiences that accompany it) were banished from our lives and lexicons. There is little grace in the smug satisfaction of the one who has put another in his place. And the person who has been put in her place will generally have little sense that the other has acted with genuine compassion toward her, or with a view to her growth as a person.

Putting someone in their place always seems to be a blunt, ungracious action.

At the risk of reaching beyond the scope of that phrase, however, it seems to me that there is still something to be said about discerning, and remaining within, our place. There is a set of boundaries that defines “place” for each of us – a set of relationships, and a geographic circumference, that creates a decidedly local web of awareness and familiarity. If we think of place in this way, then it is certainly important to remember that we have been put in our place and that we have some duty to remember our place. Continue reading

Love is Love, Right?

My latest in the Christian Courier.

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You can hardly argue with the title of the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit presently on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit is a display of wedding gowns and wedding attire created by Gaultier over the years. And the title of the exposition is the same as that given to this column: “Love is Love.” Who could argue with that?

But as soon as we insist on the truthfulness of that phrase the question arises as to what, exactly, it means. “Love is love” seems like a perfectly circular argument in that it starts with itself and ends with itself and goes nowhere in between. But perhaps that is the only way for Gaultier to make the point that love is singular – that there are not many loves or multiple definitions of love. Rather, there is only one love. Love is love!

To make this more concrete, let me offer a simple definition of love. Love means being patient and kind with another person; it means seeking the best for him or her; it means building them up; it means serving them; it means challenging them; it means pointing the other to Christ and his way in the world. We are each able to extend this love to others, and also receive it. Wherever love is expressed, well, there is love. Continue reading

A return to relics?

My latest column for the Christian Courier.

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I thought my 12-year-old son would find it both creepy and cool, but it turns out he just finds it weird, and kind of gross. In response to my question, he mimes the action of taking a man’s heart out the chest cavity and holds it up in the air with a look of confused disgust on his face. His expression asks, simply: “Why? Why would you do that?!?”

I’ve become something of a regular at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal since our son (see above!) sings in Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal. This is the boys’ choir that accompanies Mass each Sunday morning at the Oratory, and his particular group sings every other weekend. On the days that I serve as a parent-accompagnateur I can’t help but pass by the small shrine that holds the heart of Frère André (Brother Andrew) – the shrine is just outside the choir room door.

Oh, and here’s the question I asked Reuben: “What do you think of that heart?” Continue reading

Canada. A country of reconciliation?

My latest column for the Christian Courier.

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What would be an honest answer to the question posed by the title of this column? Some might offer a half-hearted “We are trying?” in reply to that question. Others would say that even such a half-hearted answer gives us too much credit – that the correct answer is closer to a flat-out “No.” For my part, I would venture that we have taken some baby steps in the direction of reconciliation, but that we still have a very long way to go.

Now this is not a resoundingly positive note on which to begin a column marking Canada’s 150th birthday. Couldn’t another question have been asked? Perhaps one that would invite more celebratory reflection on our national identity? Perhaps, yes. But I must confess my uneasiness with the Canadian predilection for national self-congratulation, and so my reflections here will not trend in that direction.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has now come and gone, and much meaningful work was done within the seven years of its mandate. Most important, survivors of the residential schools came with grace and courage to share their stories – reminding the nation and its churches of the violence that was done to them and their communities in the name of Christian faith and of civilization. Stories of abuse. Stories of loneliness. Stories of language lost. Stories of families torn apart. Continue reading

When a half measure isn’t a half measure

When I refer to the Life and Mission Agency in what follows, I am referring to the Life and Mission Agency Committee and not to the Life and Mission Agency. While this distinction will be lost on many, it is an important distinction that should have been made in the initial writing.

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The Life and Mission Agency of The Presbyterian Church in Canada is presenting the following recommendation to the General Assembly of the denomination in two weeks time.

That clergy in The Presbyterian Church in Canada be permitted for pastoral reasons to bless same sex marriages conducted by civil authorities.

This is a very carefully crafted recommendation (politically speaking) because it is just the kind of recommendation that commissioners to the General Assembly will instinctively want to pass. It is presented as a kind of half-measure, as an exception, and as a compromise for the short term. There are very few clergy and elders who aren’t inclined to vote in favour of recommendations that are presented in this way. “Don’t worry,” the recommendation suggests, “we aren’t changing the definition of marriage, we are simply providing a blessing for same sex couples married by someone else!”

However, there are serious problems with this recommendation, and perhaps the most serious problem is that it is not the half-measure it purports to be. In fact, if this recommendation is passed, then the conversation about the redefinition of marriage within The Presbyterian Church in Canada will be over, because it will have happened. That is, this recommendation represents nothing less than the redefinition of marriage as a relationship between two persons (rather than between a man and a woman). And it would do so without submitting this change in doctrine and discipline to the wider church for approval as is required by the Barrier Act process. Contrary to our polity, one General Assembly will have made a significant change in the doctrine and discipline of the church.

Why does this recommendation represent more than simply a half-measure? Why does it represent a change in the definition of marriage within the PCC? Consider that the following scenario is imagined and permitted under this LMA recommendation (with respect to same sex couples): Continue reading

What are you not seeing?

My latest column, for the Christian Courier.

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Up until a few years ago I had never seen them. I didn’t even know they were around, so didn’t know to look for them. But every Spring they are here. In fact, we are at peak season right now so there’s a good chance you will glimpse them if you look carefully. And it would be worth the effort, too, given how beautiful they are in their blues and greens and reds and yellows – especially the yellows.

IMG_6359Perhaps you’ve guessed that I’m referring to the birds that make their way north each spring, particularly the warblers that rest each night in the trees around us on their journey. There is the Blackburnian Warbler, the Magnolia Warbler, the American Redstart, the Chestnut-sided Warbler, and the wonderfully named Yellow-rumped Warbler. The picture accompanying this column is of a Yellow-rumped Warbler that stopped over, ever so briefly, in my backyard last May.

For so many years, I missed this annual wave of feathers and song. While I have always enjoyed watching common backyard birds (finches, cardinals, jays, juncos and chickadees), I assumed that beautiful, multi-colored birds were a unique preserve of more tropical regions. Now that I know better, I’m learning to recognize the telltale movements of these tiny creatures in high branches as the sun warms them early in the morning. Continue reading

Easter Breakfast, Anyone?

My latest column for Christian Courier – it can also be found on the website, here.

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Breakfast is a big deal here in Montreal, and breakfast restaurants are a point of pride for us. There is Eggspectation and Allo! mon coco and, of course, the classic Chez Cora. In fact, it’s just possible that Chez Cora is one of Quebec’s best-loved exports—ranking up there with maple syrup, Oka cheese and Cirque de Soleil. The success of that restaurant means you can now sample Cora Tsouflidou’s menu from St. John’s to Victoria.

At the same time, if you want to experience peak-breakfast in Montreal these days you’ll have to check out Restaurant L’Avenue in the trendy Pleateau district—there is almost always a line-up, so you’ll have to wait patiently before sampling their watermelon water or indulging in a brilliant breakfast burrito.

While it is true that Montreal has some of the best breakfast spots you can imagine, my own most memorable breakfast wasn’t served up in this city. Rather, it was served up sixteen years ago during a visit to The Gambia, West Africa. Earlier in her life my wife had directed a nurses training school there, and in 2001 we were back for a visit with friends and former students. The breakfast I’m remembering was prepared by Christiana, a former student of my wife. It consisted of baguette and baked fish. She had woken early that morning to prepare the meal for us as a send-off on our continued travels. Continue reading

The Shape of Confession

An important element of Presbyterian and Reformed  identity is our writing of, and deference to, confessions. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has three confessions that define our faith and theology – they are the Westminster Confession, the Declaration Concerning Church and Nation, and Living Faith.

One of the things you quickly discover in looking at these documents is that their meaning is determined as much by the shape of the confession as by the content of it. What do I mean by this? Simply that the order in which ideas are presented is as important as what the confession actually says about those ideas. For example, in looking at the Westminster Confession and Living Faith we notice that Westminster begins with Scripture while Living Faith begins with God – and we might ask why this difference. Can we begin talking about God before we have said something definitive about the scriptures that reveal God? What does it say about our theology that we can begin talking about God before exploring the nature of the scriptures?

There are all kinds of questions that arise when we look at the shape of a confession. Another more important question might be, why do neither Westminster nor Living Faith begin with Jesus, who is the living Word, and the one in whom we see God fully? Continue reading