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.

__________________

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?

OKN:  I would say not exactly! For one thing, people’s world views are different and that constitutes an impediment to total integration. There is always this tendency in humans to judge the ways of others and to disapprove of them because they are different from theirs. In some cases, the disapproval is articulated, but in most cases, it can be through non verbal communication.

RDV:  Have you perceived differences in how “belonging” is understood between your home context and the Canadian context?

OKN:  Of course. For one thing, Cameroonians value community over individualism and that has an effect in the way they perceive “belonging”. As such my reading of the Cameroonian perception is that they try as much as possible to make the other feel a sense of belonging, even when they have a negative impression of the one.  They may talk ill of the “stranger” behind his or her back, but they can go to great lengths to make the one comfortable even by sacrificing their own comforts. Many Canadians on the other hand, are too honest to the point that they just won’t do what inconveniences them, an attitude many Cameroonians may judge as impairing community.

RDV:  Thinking about the Canadian context, what is the most significant thing others have done to give you a sense of belonging?

OKN:  I would greatly commend the Canadian context for the commitment with which service providers render their services. For about one and a half years that I have been here, I can’t remember any office to which I went and was treated shabbily. Even when I found it hard to understand something either because of accent, or even because it was a concept with which I am not familiar, I always found a patient ear willing to serve me. At such times, I felt a strong sense of belonging in my new community.

RDV:  What are the most significant things others have said or done to make you feel like you don’t belong?

OKN:  I remember an incident, when I was serving as Interim Dean of Residence in Summer 2018. A homeless middle-aged man decided to spend the night in the courtyard of the College and a resident called my attention to it. When I politely but firmly insisted that the one should leave, he eventually succumbed but before he did, he made very racist statements. He wondered aloud how a “n- – -” like me would come to his country and tell him what to do! He blamed the situation on a government that has opened their country to all kinds of “n- – -s”.

RDV:  This difficult encounter makes me think both of the harsh way this man tried to diminish your belonging to a community and also the way in which he has perhaps lost his belonging to a wider community, based on his homelessness and other possible life experiences.

OKN:  In addition to your comment, it makes me think of how he might have felt as he left the courtyard. Could it be that since this space belonged to a Christian institution, he felt refused by the same people who are supposed to take in the homeless? I actually felt bad as he left, as I wondered what might have become of him, if he got turned away from everywhere he went.

RDV:  Are there ways that people resist belonging in your Cameroonian context?

OKN:  Sure! Heightened by the multiplicity of ethnic groups in Cameroon, there is much, even if often covert hostility between indigenes and settlers. The former would often give the impression that the others are welcome, but there is always some resentment. Sometimes this can even take the use of some derogatory slangs to describe the settlers such as “come-no-go” (a pidgin expression meaning one who came visiting and has refused to leave; “Les anglofous” (a derogatory term used on anglophone by Francophones); and “francofools” and “frogs” (two terms used by anglophones to ridicule Francophones).

RDV:  As you have already seen, this kind of hostility isn’t unknown or uncommon in the Canadian context. What is your sense of how our belonging is transformed by our faith in Christ?

OKN:  Belonging is transformed by our faith in Christ in that any Christian community worth the name can never fail to be conscious that we are only Christians by being grafted into a community to which we originally did not belong (Romans 11:17, 24). Thus, faith in Christ facilitates belonging, for it reminds all that no one owns any particular community, just like none is a “stranger” in any part of God’s earth.

RDV:  In our personal lives we face opportunities and challenges in belonging. How does faith in Jesus shape your approach to the question of belonging?

OKN:  Personally, I try to make empathy my watchword, and I would recommend the same to all who have found faith in Jesus, the one who incarnates inclusivity. Just like we all resent it when our sense of belonging is hampered, so do others feel.

 

img_2723

Advertisements

Telling the truth about our lives #Bach #Zagajewski

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

______________________

Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by JS Bach—the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution.

At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of eleven hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah”.

bachAs we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics—we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. Continue reading

What is (a) man?

My latest in the Christian Courier.

_________________

Having explored the question “What is woman?” in my last column, it seemed only reasonable to follow up with the question of man. In asking about man, however, we quickly discover an interpretive problem that didn’t arise in asking about woman. In the case of “man” we have to clarify whether we are referring to the human in general (“what is man that you are mindful of him”) or man as a specific sexed/gendered being different from woman.

My interest is in the latter question—man as a specific sexed/gendered being. But this interpretive problem already points to an important issue in any conversation about the identity of man/men. Specifically, that for most of history man has been defined as representative of human being. To speak of men was to speak of the human, and vice versa. At one level, of course, this has been no burden since it has meant a privileging of men’s lives and experiences Yet it is a kind of burden since man must now learn to be himself without also the measure of the human.

Man is what my son is becoming as he learns to play the flute, forgets to shower after a soccer game, studies for an English exam, or talks and argues with his sisters. In these things and many others he is sorting out what he cares about, what he enjoys, what he finds difficult, and what matters to him (or doesn’t). And in all of this we, his parents, encourage him to seek the way and service of the risen Jesus, since we believe that his identity and ours are found in Jesus. Continue reading

What is woman?

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

__________________

What is woman?

This is a question we are not supposed to ask. And is certainly one I am not supposed to answer. But in these few paragraphs I will sin boldly, as old Luther apparently suggested Melanchthon should do on one occasion. As I answer, I will write from my own admittedly particular point of view, hoping that the reasons for my writing become apparent.

Woman is what each of my daughters is becoming – what they are and become through swimming competitively, playing the piano, throwing a football, completing math tests, or reading novels. They seem to do these things more confidently and competently by the day. Each is unique in temperament, in self-awareness, and in their approach to friendship, among other things. But they are both discovering  grace and growing in grace.

These two are also each becoming woman in the particularity of their bodies – gaining coordination and strength to test against the world, whether in playful jest or with compelled determination. As embodied, each is also becoming aware of the remarkable capacity to carry life and deliver life into the world, through and for relationship. How will they respond to this gift and gift-giving capacity is at least a question that is posed to them. And they must discern their answer against the backdrop of a culture that says, astonishingly, the body is irrelevant to (their) being/becoming women. Continue reading

Safe Sex?

I came across a quote about safe sex, today, from Wendell Berry, and was reminded of this article I wrote for the National Post about 14 years ago. I might change the tone and style slightly today, but the basic argument is one that I think is worth repeating. 

_______________

Sex-education and school children can be a volatile mix when parents believe the curriculum offers more detail than their children need to know. This perennial debate arose lately in New Brunswick, where parents have vowed to fight for changes to a new sex-education program they consider too explicit. In Marysville and Woodstock, concerned parents have gathered in recent weeks to ask whether their middle-school children need to know the details of erection, vaginal secretion, ejaculation and masturbation.

The new program, based in part on a University of New Brunswick study of parental attitudes toward sex education, introduces abstinence alongside such issues as sexually transmitted disease, masturbation, birth-control methods, teen pregnancy and the nature of a healthy relationship. That isn’t good enough, however, for those parents who want their children’s understanding of their sexuality to be governed by the conviction that abstinence is the best choice, the right choice—dare we say, the only choice—for their sexual health.

Beyond the explicit nature of the New Brunswick’s Human Growth and Development curriculum, there is also a concern that it gives abstinence short-shrift. While abstinence certainly isn’t ignored, a number of parents in New Brunswick want to see advocacy for it given a place of prominence in the curriculum. Continue reading

Bodies in a Digital World

My latest in the Christian Courier, also found here.

—————

Who would have predicted that the vinyl LP would make such a comeback? But here we are. In 2018 you can get the latest musical release in 12-inch vinyl format, whether Ed Sheeran’s Divide or Kari Jobe’s The Garden. In our digital world, where a thousand songs can be stored on your phone, the cumbersome and bulky LP (long play) record is available again.

There are, of course, important differences between these two musical mediums. When we listen to music on an iPhone or MP3 player, the music has been stored in digital format – parts of the original musical sound waves have been captured or sampled and then converted to a series of numbers for software to interpret. On the other hand, when we listen to a vinyl record, the music has been recorded and stored in analog format. This means that the recording is shaped by the full sound waves originally produced by voices and instruments.

I would be out of my depths if I tried to say much more about analog and digital recording. I’m not even sure I can tell the difference when it comes to the quality of sound – and as you can imagine there’s an animated debate on that question in the world of musical connoisseurs! And to this whole conversation we must add the complicating factor that many of today’s vinyl albums are based on digital recordings – that is, many newer LPs don’t offer a fully analog listening experience. Continue reading

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.

________________

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.

tdv

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

What are you not seeing?

My latest column, for the Christian Courier.

_____________________

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

Sola Scriptura: A Baptismal Defense

A talk presented to a conference hosted by the Presbyterian Committee on History and The Presbyterian College – as part of ongoing celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Still in somewhat rough form, but clear enough to follow.

_____________

Some days you feel like you’ve drawn the short straw. And let me confess that I feel a bit that way about this line-up of five events over five years, with each year dedicated to one of the famous Solas of the Reformation tradition.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone

Sola Fide –Faith Alone

Solus Christus – Christ alone

Soli Deo Gloria – For God’s Glory Alone

And our sola for today, of course, is Sola Scriptura – by Scripture Alone.

I’ve got to say that when I thought of this line-up of topics, I said to myself: “Grace alone. That’s such a beautiful and compelling theme of the Reformation – that our lives are gift and grace – that new life in Christ is grace upon grace. Grace Alone is a beautiful and is such an uncontested theme of Christian life and faith. Who wouldn’t want to offer reflections on that topic?” Continue reading

Self love? Meh. (Really?)

It’s safe to say that Christianity has often been indifferent toward self-love. In fact, when I imagine the typically response to the possibility of self-love, I would describe it like this:

Self love? Meh.

Our own Reformed and Presbyterian tradition has often been downright negative about self-love. Within our tradition great emphasis has been placed on our brokenness and our sinfulness and our need of forgiveness – and great emphasis have been placed on the tremendous love of God toward us in Jesus. Our tradition has emphasized grace – everything we receive is through the grace of God – the undeserved love of God.

But in that kind of framework there often hasn’t been a lot of room for self-love. In fact self-love has often been seen negatively. In sermons and in books on Christian faith you will often hear that we are too preoccupied with ourselves, too focused on ourselves – this is an expression of our sinful self-absorption. We are too focused on ourselves and on what we need and what want – so focused on ourselves that we fail to love God and fail to love our neighbour. Continue reading