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”.
As 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 →
A sermon preached today in the Chapel of The Presbyterian College.
Nadia Myre is an Algonquin and Quebecois artist originally from Maniwaki who now lives and works here in Montreal. She’s not well known across the country, but her work is significant enough that she has a solo show at the Musée des beaux-arts here in Montreal right now. That exhibit explores the encounter between the Indigenous peoples and western, colonial cultures – an encounter she actually embodies in her own person.
Nadia Myre is perhaps best known for what she called “The Scar Project.” It was 8-year undertaking that ran from 2005 to 2013. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t Myre’s own work. Rather, the scar project was a communal work – a work created by many people over those eight years.
Over those years, the artist invited participants to sew their scars – physical scars, emotional scars, or psychological scars – to sew their scars into a 10-inch by 10-inch canvas. Each participant, each person, was given their own framed canvas, into which they could sew representations of the pain of their lives, the scars of their bodies and souls. Each participant was also invited to write a narrative, short or long, to accompany their canvas. Myre brought this project to schools, to seniors residences, to museums, and to galleries – and over the eight-year period, a total of 1,400 canvases were completed. She then exhibited them in a variety of contexts and a variety of ways. Myre created both a video installation and a book that brought together the images with the stories. Let me give just two examples of the anonymous narratives shared as part of the project: Continue reading →
Several weeks before she passed away this summer, Shuling Chen gave her friends an opportunity to travel with her on the path of suffering and dying and living and loving. She did so by hosting a time of worship and reflection with us at the Jewish General Hospital where she was receiving palliative care. It was a deeply meaningful service of song and testimony and reflection and prayer, held in a beautiful solarium looking out on St. Joseph’s oratory. It was as human and honest an event as anything I have experienced in my life.
To be human is to travel in company with others. Some of those others are family members and close friends, with whom our truer selves may be revealed. Other fellow-travellers are women and men who walk alongside us more at arms length. Whoever our travelling companions, however, and whatever the degree of openness and disclosure between us, being together on the way defines us as human. In fact, we betray our humanity when we try to walk in isolation. Shuling’s invitation to celebrate and pray and worship with her represented an insistence that even the path toward death is one that we can and must share with others, in faith.
Shuling’s death came at the end of a very difficult year-and-a-half struggle with cancer. And one of the questions I wrestled with through that time was how to remain in company with her – how to remain a friend during her hospital stays, her days at home, and her return trips to the emergency room. I wouldn’t characterize Shuling as an intimate or close friend, but would describe her as a dear friend – someone with whom I shared in work and laughter and friendship over a number of years. So for me it was a question of how to accompany Shuling without my presence being a burden to her; how to speak with her and learn from her on this path while also respecting the nature of our relationship. Continue reading →
The word forgiveness is a difficult word. It’s a word we come across in novels and in biographies – it’s a word we will hear others using – it’s a word we ourselves will use from time to time. But it’s a slippery word. The meaning of the word often changes from one situation to the next. The meaning of the word often changes from one person to the next. Two different people may use exactly the same phrase: “I forgive her.” But they might each mean something quite different when they use those words.
Of course it’s possible through discussion and study to get some clarity about what the word forgiveness means. We don’t have to remain forever in a fog of misunderstanding. But even when we arrive at some point of clarity about the meaning of forgiveness, we run into quite a different challenge. As I mentioned last week, the idea of forgiveness is not only a slippery idea, but it is a contested idea. There is disagreement in our society about what forgive should look like – there is disagreement about what forgiveness is.
And this morning I want to focus on one particular disagreement about forgiveness – a disagreement about what forgiveness is. But in order to explore this particular disagreement, we aren’t going to start with the disagreement itself. In fact, we are going to leave aside the whole question of forgiveness for the moment. Continue reading →
This summer will mark 5 years of ministry for me at Knox Crescent Kensington and First Presbyterian Church. And over the past weeks I have been taking a tally of some of the changes the congregation has been through over the past 7-8 years.
(My family worshipped here before I was called as minister, so I was able to see all of it initiated and implemented.)
Through this period of time, the congregation has made amazing strides. In the 3 years before my time there was interim leadership from the Reverends Allen Aicken and Rod Ferguson (with the Reverends Glynis Williams and Kate Jordan as Interim Moderators) . In the mix during that time were also the (now Rev.) Stephen Jenvey, the Rev. Lynne Donovan, and the Rev. Angus McGillivray.
So here’s a partial tally of what we’ve done as we have worked to be faithful to Christ and to his call upon our life together. And we know that behind each and every one of these changes there was work and prayer, and that there were challenges and doubts: Continue reading →
In the Gospel of Luke we find the words “good news” on lips of many.
The angel Gabriel says to Zechariah, who would become the Father of John the Baptist: “I have been sent to bring you good news.”
An angel appears to the shepherds out in the field and says: “Behold I bring you good news of great joy.
Later on in Luke’s gospel, we will find Jesus in the synagogue, quoting from Isaiah the prophet: “The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”
Good news. These words are everywhere in Luke’s Gospel – they are at the centre of Luke’s history of Jesus and the early church.
In our passage for today – the narrative of John the Baptist – Luke again gives us this language of good news. At the conclusion of this passage in chapter 3, Luke says: “So, with many other exhortations John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Continue reading →
It is a peculiar thing that Jesus’ followers don’t recognize him after his resurrection. In the narrative of John’s gospel, think of Mary Magdalene, who comes first to the empty tomb – she turns around and there is Jesus. But she doesn’t recognize him. She mistakes him for the gardener: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.” Also in John’s gospel, you may remember that the risen Jesus appears to his disciples some days later. It is just after daybreak on the shore of the sea of Tiberius when Jesus appears, but the disciples don’t recognize him.
We could also turn to Luke’s gospel, to the familiar story of two disciples on the way to Emmaus. Jesus comes and walks with them along the road, but they don’t recognize him. He speaks with them about the scriptures and everything that has happened, but they don’t recognize Jesus.
What a peculiar thing that Jesus’ disciples and followers don’t recognize him. Perhaps the problem is that they are so convinced Jesus is dead (and why wouldn’t they be convinced of that) – they are so convinced Jesus is dead that their minds can’t accommodate his presence.
My sermon from yesterday, which was the first Sunday in Advent.
Does that name ring a bell with you? Well, Thessalonica is a city in modern day Greece – also known as Salonica. But for our purposes what’s interesting is that the city of Thessalonica existed already in the time of Jesus and the earliest Christians. In fact, this city was founded three hundred years before Christ by the King of Macedon – he named it after his wife Thessalonike.
Well, it must be nice to be able to name a city after your wife… Reading that historical tidbit this week I wondered whether I might try that this Christmas. Becky, there’s a beautiful little village in the Eastern Township called North Hatley, and but I’m going to re-name it for you as a Christmas gift. More than likely that’s a gift I’ll never be able to give. Continue reading →
I participated in a pulpit-exchange this past Sunday with the Rev. Paul Wu of the Taiwanese Robert Campell Presbyterian Church, which is just a few blocks over from us here in NDG. It was perhaps a first step toward a closer relationship, and greater cooperation, between our congregations. This is the sermon I preached there.
What is it that lies over the horizon? Do you have a sense of what is approaching over the horizon?
As my wife and I drove from Montreal all the way to Vancouver Island several years ago, we often had a pretty good idea what lay beyond that place where sky reached hill or field.
As we made our way through rugged Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario we couldn’t see much beyond those stone outcroppings. Yet we were confident that over the horizon, Prairie would soon enough open up before us. And sure enough – as we came through Kenora and sped on toward Winnipeg, the trees began to melt away and the landscape opened into the vastness of farmland. Continue reading →