It has been a few weeks but the sweetness of the Winnipeg Blue Bomber’s Grey Cup victory on November 24 still lingers. It was an emotional—almost spiritual—moment for me. And the story-line is so like Advent and Christmas!

As a teenager my favourite sport to play was Canadian football. I also listened to all the Winnipeg Blue Bomber games on the radio and was depressed for a week after they lost a game. Thus, I was depressed a lot in my teenage years! During my twenties I was so busy going to college, getting married, starting a career, and having kids that my interest in the game waned somewhat during the 80’s when they actually won a few championships.

The Blue Bombers won their last Grey Cup in 1990. Advent is about waiting. Blue Bomber fans knew how to wait because they waited 29 years before they won another Grey Cup, and all this in a league with only 9 teams! Talk about longing. (Another story of waiting is just as deep. Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL hockey team know all about this waiting and longing. They last won the Stanley Cup in 1967 and they have struggled in the basement of the league almost every year since.)

My hopes were not high this year because I had been disappointed too many times in those 29 years. Perhaps not unlike God’s people who had waited for centuries for a leader to deliver them from oppression. Leaders came and went but none would ever bring the permanent peace and prosperity they longed and waited for. Waiting for a favourite sports team to win a championship might be trivial in comparison but just like children waiting to open a present, it is illustrative of our deeper longings.

Professional sports and the season of Advent have nothing in common. Some might consider it irreverent to even use one as analogous to the other but then again even the idea of the divine taking on human flesh is kind of irreverent anyway. In exchange for the usual Advent words: peace, joy, hope, and love, I offer four other words for contemplation this Advent season. Each one will be illustrated from the world of sports.

SILENCE

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” No church Christmas season is ever without this classic Christmas carol. Although a human mother giving birth in a stable was probably anything but calm and silent, the aura of a “silent night” as a symbol of Christmas is endearing and enduring. In Canada Christmas is associated with snow; there is nothing more silent than being outside on a cold winter’s night with snow softly falling. I’ve experienced it! One my favourite winter activities that I experienced on the prairies was ice skating on our horseshoe slough in the evening with a full moon overhead. There is no sound but the silent swish, swish of the skate blades on ice. Silence is beautiful. Silence is reverent. Silence is wonderful.

Unfortunately, Canada’s national sport played on ice has been anything but silent of late. The clean ice and the soft white snow have been assaulted with verbal diarrhea. First, it was hockey commentator, Don Cherry, ranting about immigrants on Hockey Night in Canada. Then it was Bill Peters, coach of the Calgary Flames, who was called out on racist comments made while he was a junior coach. Mike Babcock, one of the most respected coaches in the game, was revealed as full of arrogant words and mean-spirited ways. Then reporters and tweeters weighed in with all their opinions, from saying that the “trash-talking” is just part of the game to self-righteous condemnation of the public scapegoats.

Perhaps we should all shut up. Hockey is not the only culprit. Politicians, preachers, party-goers, pontificaters, puny peons… all people, pay attention! We live in a noisy world where one of the most difficult disciplines is to stop and be silent. That first Christmas night may not have been particularly calm and quiet but there is something about the event of Christ’s birth that should cause us to stop our noise and words to pause in reverent silence. “Let all the earth keep silent” is a word we need to hear this Advent season.

 

 

The series of blogs about elections must continue because today it is exactly one year until the presidential election in the USA. Twitter has expanded to 280 characters so since politics can now be done by twitter, allow me a brief rant for 280 words.

Today kicks off a 365 day campaign that will make Canadians never complain again about our elections! Despite what the red hats say, the American empire is crumbling. The incumbent president and candidate for the ruling party is in danger of being impeached after three years of constant scandal. (Why did it take this long?) The other party has to try to stay unified while seventeen candidates duke it out to be his rival. (You’d think it would be a shoo-in for whoever the rival is but apparently not.) And then the political mud-slinging—perhaps political grenade-throwing would be a better description—will begin. Perhaps the worst thing about the next year will be the billions of dollars spent on media blitzes, travel, and paraphernalia such as shirts that say “God, Guns & Trump.” I actually saw this on a T-shirt on the news last night! The wearer had better not be referring to the God that was incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth! People of the US of A, can somebody explain to me what is going on down there?

I thought my series of blogs on the election would be over by now but one more thought came to me.

One thing that is troubling about the election results is the polarization and regionalism that is evident. The Conservatives have all but one of the seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan and the Liberals have none. The Liberals got most of their seats in the so-called “905” area in and around Toronto and almost all the seats in Atlantic Canada while the Conservatives have very few. Perhaps the most troubling development is that the Bloc Quebecois [BQ] went from 10 to 32 seats in Quebec by taking seats from all three major parties. I’m not even sure how we can have a purely regional party sitting in a national parliament; if that would be the case across the country (some Albertans are thinking about it) we may as well just have meetings of the provincial premiers and be done with a national election. But we are not the United Provinces of Canada and we do have some issues of national concern that could not be addressed by such meetings. This is not the solution for the problem of regional polarization and definitely not the solution for national unity! I’m aware of the history of the British domination of the French and how French Quebecers have a valid claim for a distinct society, although they ignore significant French settlements in New Brunswick and Manitoba and smaller ones throughout Canada. I remind us that both official language peoples are guilty of the subjugation of our First Nations; that’s who needs some national representatives at the table if anybody does!

For religious people, the most disconcerting thing about the resurgence of the BQ is that they are supportive of the “secular law” put forth by the provincial government in Quebec. This law, that forbids any civic employees from having any visible religious symbols on their person while at work, is a slap in the face of Canada’s constitution that guarantees the freedom of religion. The sad thing is that no national leader, other than Jagmeet Singh, spoke up with any clarity against this, which is why the NDP lost more seats in Quebec than any other party.

As an Anabaptist Christian, the freedom of religious choice and expression was what my ancestors in the faith died for in a time when citizens automatically, or by force, adopted the religion of their region’s leaders. Quebec’s leaders are in effect forcing all its citizens to bow to the god of secularism or at least keep their faith completely private and invisible which is an impossible thing for any devout religious person to do. Albeit, according to an earlier blog, it is a very Canadian thing to attempt! Secularism is not neutral “non-religion” as those making the law seem to assume; it comes with its own set of dogmas, rituals, symbols, and moral codes that are no more Quebecois or Canadian than the values of other religions. Each one has something to contribute to the whole.

Although it seems I may have been overly optimistic about responsible government in my last blog, I continue to pray that Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer will put the common good of all of the country’s citizens ahead of their personal and party agendas. As the kids said in the Green ad, “It works better when you work together.”

I just got back from the polling station. In our riding, cynical people sometimes wonder why they vote because it usually has one of the most one-sided results in Canada with the winner often capturing more votes than all the other parties combined! But each vote is a voice, each voice is a person, and each person matters. Our riding is completely unlike what seems to be happening in Canada as a whole. Pollsters and political pundits are saying this could be the closest election in recent history. I always like it when they are wrong but from all I am hearing I tend to agree this time. I have a theory as to why this is.

Although this year we have six major parties vying for seats across the country, there are only two who have a legitimate chance of forming the government. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives have galvanized the electorate this time around. Last election voters were tired of Harper and Trudeau was the fresh face of positivity with new vision and energy. Now, after four years in power, Trudeau’s youthful face and sunny ways have been marred by scandal. It seems power corrupts no matter who is in power. The alternative, Andrew Scheer, seems like a nice guy but he has not drawn voters to himself or his party; their negative ad campaign highlights the fact that the main reason people will vote for him is because it will be a vote against Trudeau. Both of them will be splitting their vote with other parties. Scheer has to contend with his former Conservative rival, Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party while Trudeau will lose votes and even seats to the NDP and the Greens.

The unattractiveness of the two main leaders is contrasted by the surprising popularity of Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s so-called “third party.” Although nationally unknown when he became leader of the NDP, his youthful energy, charm, and wit have captured the hearts of some of the same voters who were taken with Trudeau four years ago. But he leads the NDP and they were just too far behind to start with; and as noted, they are fighting for some of the same votes as the Green Party and the Liberals. Singh’s sudden and surprising popularity will not make him prime minister but it will add to the closeness of the final results today.

Journalists are saying that there is a good possibility, not only of a minority government, but also of a coalition between two or more parties. It might be messy but I don’t think a close election result is all bad; minority governments can be very effective. A minority and/or a coalition forces parties to work together on behalf of the electorate. Although the Green Party will probably not get enough seats to make a big difference, I do appreciate the spirit of collaboration that is exemplary to all parties. Their recent ads with children holding signs are good advice to all party leaders, e.g. “The best way to build is to work together.” The Pearson minority government in the 1960’s, although chaotic, got us the Canada Pension Plan, universal health care, and a new flag. Not a bad record! Very few people, including me, thought the NDP/Green coalition in BC would last more than a few weeks but here we are a few years later holding our own as a province. Although it makes things messier than a clear majority, I think the foundation of Canada’s political stability will hold fast and we will have another responsible government no matter the election results.

 

In the midst of the partisan politics of an election campaign it is easy to forget how good we have it in our country. Here are ten things I am thankful for about Canada:

  1. Voting. I have the privilege of casting a ballot to elect my local representative. Citizens of many countries in the world do not have this privilege so I do not want to take this for granted.
  2. Political stability. Sure we have regional differences, five political parties in parliament, two official languages, and threats of separation but we have never had a bloody civil war and our election campaigns are relatively tame when compared to those south of the border.
  3. First Nations. Before there was Canada there were many nations. They have been hospitable and humble hosts even though we brought some really bad gifts from Europe.
  4. Geography: coastal beaches, mountains, deserts, prairies, forests, muskeg, and the Canadian Shield—a unique collection of rock, lakes, and trees that covers almost half of Canada.
  5. The People. If the USA is a melting pot, Canada is a salad where every distinct people group is encouraged to embrace their uniqueness while still contributing to the whole.
  6. Winter. Although on the west coast we can hardly claim to have winter, to brave the harsh winter elements is a truly Canadian experience. Other than licking a metal pole at minus 30—which I would not recommend—that feeling of your nostrils and eyelids freezing together beats sunburn any day.
  7. Universal Health Care. Invented by Tommy Douglas who was voted the “Greatest Canadian” in a poll a few years ago. We complain about wait times but the fact that all sick people can go to a hospital for treatment without incurring massive debts is one of the best things about Canada.
  8. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]. A state-owned radio and telecommunications network that is more critical of the government than any privately owned network. I like the irony of this.
  9. Hockey. World’s fastest game on ice and sometimes our national religion. The regular season has just begun. Now if only a Canadian team could win the Stanley Cup!
  10.  Self-deprecation. It seems to be our national psyche and why we have the best comedians. “Sorry for bragging.”

Speaking of political stability, this past spring I had the privilege of traveling to Prague and Poland to study Mennonite history. Poland has been one of the most volatile political regions in Europe. My spiritual ancestors, the Mennonites, lived there for 400 years, constantly negotiating how they might live out their faith in changing political realities. If you are interested in seeing pictures from my trip arranged in a political theme, please check out my new slide show “Prague, Poland & Politics” by clicking on the “slide show” tab above.

Contrary to the USA, where it seems it is an unwritten expectation that the president has to be a Bible-carrying, church-going (at least publicly) Christian in order to run the country, in Canada it seems that the prime minister is expected to keep his or her religion a personal and private thing. All of the prime ministers in my lifetime have always publicly said that their faith is something private that does not affect or interfere in their public political life. Privately, most prime ministers in Canada have been at least nominal Christians. (Mackenzie King might be the only exception. He did keep his spirituality private as required but after his death Canadians learned about his bizarre spirituality that was not even nominally Christian. Mackenzie King communed with spirits, used séances with paid mediums, claimed to have communicated with Leonardo da Vinci, Wilfrid Laurier, his grandfather, several of his dead dogs, as well as the spirit of the late President Roosevelt! Yet he was the longest serving prime minister, leading Canada through a world war, economic depression, and nation-building.) But I’m curious and religious, and even though it goes contrary to what most Canadians expect and might hurt their chances to get elected, here are some things you might not have known about the religious life of our national party leaders:

  1. Elizabeth May is the most open about her faith among any of the national leaders. She is an active member of an Anglican church in her riding in Sidney and considers her politics to be an integral part of her faith. Her emphases on environmentalism (creation care), women’s rights, social justice, etc. all come out of her deeply rooted Christian faith. Before she became the leader of the Green Party she was actually studying to become a priest; thus, she is the only national leader with graduate theological education.
  2. Justin Trudeau was a self-confessed “lapsed Catholic” when his brother Michel died in a back country skiing accident. In his memoir he writes about how Michel’s death affected his faith in that he experienced the presence of God in a new way and how this tragedy brought him back to the core elements of his Christian faith.
  3. Andrew Scheer and Justin Trudeau do not publicize many things they have in common but they are both members of the same Christian denomination: Roman Catholic. While Trudeau is more “liberal” in his beliefs, Scheer could be described as a “conservative” Catholic who grew up with and still holds many traditional Christian beliefs and values; for example, his pro-life position on abortion which has just recently come to light.
  4. Jagmeet Singh is the first leader of a national party to belong to the Sikh religion. Although wearing a turban and carrying the symbolic dagger are part of the traditional outward marks of Sikhism, Singh is progressive in his social and political views, making him an appropriate candidate for the New Democratic Party. Note that all major religions have their liberal/progressive wings and their conservative/fundamentalist wings.
  5. Maxime Bernie’s religious views, if he has any, are so private that I could not find out anything in my research. By all appearances he is part of Quebec secularism that believes that special interest groups such as religions do not have a place or a contribution in public life.

And here’s one more interesting tidbit about religion and politics in Canada. All major parties now would claim to be secular but did you know that both ends of the political spectrum (Conservatives and New Democrats) have their roots in evangelical prairie populist spirituality? The present Conservative Party was formed out of the Reformed Party which has roots in the Social Credit Party which has its roots in “Bible Bill” Aberhart’s revival preaching in Alberta. The present New Democratic Party has its roots in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation which has its roots in the social gospel movement and Tommy Douglas’ preaching in a Baptist church in Saskatchewan. Fascinating eh?