The NHL All-Star game is being played in Los Angeles, California this weekend. Los Angeles is not about hockey, it’s about entertainment. It is also the 100th anniversary of the NHL so it should have really been held in Canada but hockey, like other professional sports, has become more about entertainment revenue than the sport itself [None more so than the Super Bowl next weekend where the half time show and the commercials generate almost as much coverage as the game itself]. I do celebrate the fact that all seven Canadian NHL teams have a legitimate shot at being in the playoffs at this critical juncture in the season.

I feel some ethical ambivalence surrounding professional sports and I am keenly aware of my own hypocrisy. There are the multi-million dollar contracts, the drug use and mental illness, the media analysis ad nauseam, greed and exploitation, and all the other industrial characteristics of what has indeed become an industry. And then there are the racist and militaristic team names and logos… Some would say it is merely a modern sanitized version of the brutal and bloody activities that took place in the Roman coliseum of old. At the same time I believe that play and “re-creation” is fundamental to being human. I enjoyed playing a number of competitive sports with some tenacity [track & field, baseball, football, soccer, hockey, volleyball] as a young person. Due to my aging body, my competitive spirit is now channeled into watching my children and college students play sports. I also enjoy watching sports on TV, especially NHL hockey. It’s almost a Sabbath activity: a cessation of the stress of work and the temporary suspension of life’s harsh realities.

I find watching sports a nice diversion from real life. Professional sports are not real life. Although I understand that athletes have become entertainers who have the “job” of amusing people and providing temporary relief from the humdrum of daily existence, it is not exactly an essential service. I appreciate that athletes and others in the entertainment industry are including other auxiliary activities in their work: hospital visitation, raising funds for worthy causes, speaking out on behalf of marginalized and hurting people, etc. It is good that these activities continue whether a team wins or loses. But let’s put it the whole thing in perspective: even though I will cheer mightily when a Canadian hockey team wins and sigh deeply when they lose, it really does not matter one iota to real life.

This reminds me of Tripp York’s satirical prayer included in his book, Third Way Allegiance. Here are a few excerpts [I have Canadianized it by substituting hockey teams for his baseball teams]:

Dear God, Could you please stop fixing sporting events? Seriously. Your unpredictability is killing me at the betting table. I can never figure out who you’re helping. One moment you’re hooking up a player with the Canucks and the next another player for the Flames. How am I supposed to figure out which one you love the most, or which one prayed the hardest, if you keep flip-flopping? Could you be a little less fickle with your handouts?

You are after all immutable. That means you are unchanging. It says so right here in the Bible, Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change.” Yet when it comes to sports, I am far more consistent than you. I have been a Leafs fan since 1961. Other than those few Cups in the 1960’s where you clearly graced us, do you know what misery I, along with other Leafs fans, have had to endure for decades? What do you have against Toronto? It’s no more pagan than any other city (though you have been a little more generous to the Raptors lately). Perhaps I should speak to the owner of the Maple Leafs about requiring team prayer before each game?

Anyway, do you think you could just pick a team and stay with them? No one likes a bandwagon fan. I just thought I would ask. I assumed, since you are so concerned about touchdowns, home-runs, and over-time goals, you wouldn’t mind.

Oh, and another thing (sorry to be so needy): I know you are omnipotent, but it seems you have been giving more attention to Saturday night scores than to a few other things in the world. Granted, I know extremely affluent athletes who own multiple cars and houses are crucial to you, but do you think you could, oh, I don’t know, do something about the ongoing genocide in Syria? South Sudan? Tibet? Perhaps you could send a little help to ease the tensions between your followers in Israel and Palestine? There is also this AIDS epidemic occurring in Africa. Cancer is not good. Nor are blindness, paralysis, global warming, and the near extinction of pandas…

Perhaps (I’m feeling a bit like Abraham here), perhaps you could tone down the number of tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes you’ve been sending lately? While I’m asking, any chance you might convince your world leaders to stop making nuclear missiles? I know it’s a longshot, but since all governments are ordained by you, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Also, did you know that almost every four seconds someone dies of starvation? Of course you did. You’re omniscient.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning your justice; I’m sure their prayers for food and the basic necessities of life deserve to go unanswered. If I learned anything from the book of Job it is to tread quietly and not ask too many questions. But since you are overly concerned with who wears championship rings, and Jesus did, after all, say that whatever we ask for you will provide… well… could you please make sure the Leafs have a better team this year? [Is this prayer actually being answered?]

Sincerely, A distraught fan

The date often used as the official beginning of the Reformation is October 31, 1517. Although Anabaptists and later Mennonites are most often identified as Protestants, they are really neither Protestant nor Catholic but a third stream during the time of the Reformation. At the same time they are both Protestant and Catholic, having been influenced just as much by mystical medieval monasticism as by Lutheran evangelicalism. The date often used as the official beginning of the Anabaptist movement is January 21, 1525.

One of my favourite stories of 16th century Anabaptism is the emergence of the young radicals of Zurich: Andreas Castleburger, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock, who were all students of the well-known reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. Their little band became known as “the school of heretics” who took their mentor’s teaching farther and implemented it faster than he ever intended. On January 21, 1525 they baptized each other as an overt break, not only with their teacher but with their entire society. As a result, some of them were arrested and killed by Zwinglian authorities.

As a professor and mentor myself, it caused me to pause and wonder about my own students and young adult children when I visited the sites associated with this story. What is my response when they take my teaching to new vistas I may not have intended or even imagined? We now laud these young men of Zurich for their courage, but today, I am Zwingli and my students and young adult children are the young radicals. Do we turn around and label our young people as heretics and say, “Whoa, not so fast… Are you sure you know what you are doing? We’ve never done it this way before.”

A short distance from the Grossmunster where they met regularly, on a fishing platform in the middle of the Limmat River, Felix Manz was preparing for his “third baptism” by drowning. As he was being given his last chance of recantation, his mother shouted from the shore, “Stay strong Felix! Stay strong!” As we stood on the shore looking at the plaque in his honor, my wife and I wondered whether we would say the same to one of our young adult children. Maybe rather it would be, “It’s ok… you’ve made your point… don’t go to extremes… come home, get a job and live a nice life.”

What are the challenges in this story for parents/teachers? What are the challenges for young adults/students?

 

Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth name was Michael, not Martin? He was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929. In 1934, however, his father, a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, traveled to Germany and became inspired by the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther and renamed himself and his young son after him.

It seems appropriate to recognize this link on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in the 500th anniversary year of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. The following is my conclusion to a sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 that reflects on both of the above.

What are the differences and barriers that separate us today?

In the day of Paul it was the Jew Gentile division; then it was the barrier between Roman and barbarian. In the sixteenth century it was Protestants and Catholics.

If we jump ahead few centuries it was the barrier between black and white in the USA, between settlers and indigenous in Canada, or the German and English division in Mennonite churches. We have had many other human differences that have divided us.

In the church we have wrestled with the differences between men and women and the generation gap between the old and the young. Today our denomination is struggling with the division of heterosexual and homosexual orientation.

But as Paul says in another text in Galatians, “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman. We are all one in Christ Jesus.” What are the walls that separate us today? What are the barriers that keep us from relationships of respect and dignity? What are the barriers that create suspicion between us and those different from us? We are assured that even these Christ has removed and made into one.

One of the most poignant movements toward oneness in Christ was the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1960’s. I would like to close with some excerpts from one of Martin Luther King Junior’s speeches. It speaks specifically of the division between blacks and whites but we could insert any division that we wrestle with today. Insert any barrier that keeps us from friendship in our neighborhoods. Insert any walls that create suspicion in our communities. Insert any differences that keep us from unity in our denomination. Insert anything that causes enmity in our world. We are assured that all these Christ has removed and made into one.

I have a dream that one day little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is our faith. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”

Canadians love to talk about and complain about the weather. We live through some of the most dramatic seasonal weather changes on the planet. We have lived in five Canadian provinces so we have experienced our share of variety and weather drama. We have now lived in BC’s lower mainland for almost 17 years. While the rest of the country has to endure the cold and misery of snow and cold for up to six months, we usually get about a week of it. So I really should not complain that we have had snow on the ground for a record four consecutive weeks—with at least one more forecasted—and the temperature has dipped below zero for two of those weeks! I know, this would be a mild winter in every other province and on the east coast they are in the midst of a serious blizzard right now but they are used to it; here, this kind of weather is cause for some serious Seasonal Affective Disorder [SAD]. In this light, or lack of it, I bring back part of a post from a few years ago.

For the first time in the twelve years we have lived on the northwest coast I feel like I may have a case of SAD [seasonal affective disorder]. Other people have spoken about this and suffered from it but I have always been quite self-righteous in my proclamations that the weather does not affect me. ” I can bike to work twelve months of the year!” But for the past few weeks it has been consistently wet, cold and grey. The clouds squat mercilessly close to the ground and persistently piss forth a cold concoction that is a bit snow, a bit rain, a bit hail but really not anything other than annoying, especially when I’m cycling. The crocuses pushed up through the soil a month ago but the poor flowers remain closed because they never get anything they want to open up for!

I’ve been a miserable lout the past few weeks. Yes, my brother-in-law died a month ago, our young adult kids are in transition, our parents are aging, my brother is going through hard times, I’m in the midst of mid-life issues, friends’ marriages are on the rocks, there are debts to pay and other first world problems, but I really have no excuse other than the weather. I feel like I’m a shallow individual. I did have the flu out the back end one day last week so at least I could honestly say I felt the shits for a day, but that is over now!

Since that day in 2012 there have been two suicides, three cancer diagnoses with subsequent treatments ongoing, two divorces, two long term hospitalizations, homelessness, and two near death experiences in our circle of family and friends. As a result of witnessing one of the latter I am suffering from the ugly and embarrassing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. We don’t live in Syria but even in the lower mainland of BC this kind of winter has been long enough. In his book of reflections on the psalms of lament [A Cry of Absence], Martin Marty articulates what he calls a wintry spirituality. It is marked by the common refrain: “How long O Lord, how long?”

2017 is a special year. It is the 150th birthday of Canada as a nation. It is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation; on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. One of my hobbies is various types of Canadiana: stories of Canadian history, Canadian popular music and literature. I teach a course about the Anabaptist movement, the radical wing of the Reformation in the 16th century.

Of personal significance, it is my 7th year of blogging. Spiritual disciplines are very important to me and to follow the biblical pattern of resting on the seventh day or year I am declaring this a year of Sabbath for my blog. This does not mean I will not be posting—that would be the death of any blog, not that mine has ever been particularly alive—but that my posts will be limited to the above two topics. As I have posted various Canadiana posts as well as Reformation related posts in the past six years I will repost some that continue to be relevant and/or reflect on them for the present; and, I will have some new book and music reviews of Canadian artists that will be posted.

I welcome new followers interested in these topics and I hope that present followers will hang on and enjoy these special anniversary blogs. I know that I find personal fulfillment in writing short reflections so I would write even if no one would ever read. If someone reads and appreciates, that is a bonus.

 

Christmas is a time for family. We are grateful that we will have all of our children, two partners, and one grandchild in our home this Christmas. But we will sit around the table with some pain as it has been a year that has included living with various debilitating mental illnesses and a near fatal heart attack. All four of our children are incredible artists and one of them has captured what I call our soundtrack for 2016. Check it out and donate to Canadian Mental Health.

https://joelbrandt.bandcamp.com/album/for-your-weary-head

 

 

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.—Luke 1:52

Read: Luke 1:46-55

Reflect: God’s coming to Earth is about a reversal of status and values. Mary’s song in response to the angel’s announcement continues this theme. Mary may seem like an unlikely singer to be raging against the machine of empirical power, but that is the whole point! God often speaks through the unlikely.

Just as “pride goes before a fall” so the small will be lifted tall. Tommy Douglas was a man of small stature, a small-town Baptist pastor on the Canadian prairies during the Great Depression, yet a few years ago he was voted as the “Greatest Canadian” in a television poll. He once said, “Watch out for the little fellow with an idea.” His idea was that all people, regardless of their wealth or status, should be entitled to equal health care. He left the pastorate and went into politics, working tirelessly for the rights of the poor and marginalized and becoming known as the father of universal health care in Canada.

Mary was the little girl with an idea who, in our text, speaks just as forcefully as any preacher or politician. Did she have an inkling of who her child would become and what he would do? Her protest song is a collage of poetry from the Psalms and prophets and sounds very much like Hannah’s song from generations earlier. Mary’s son Jesus, born in a cave many miles from home, would become the Savior of the world and the Great Leader who would inaugurate the reign of God. How do we respond this advent season?

Respond: My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.—Luke 1:46-47