Wednesday, 20 April 2016

“Christian Humanism”: a sermon (Acts 11:1-18)

Perhaps you remember the television commercial from some years ago in which two Australian backpackers were travelling through the Himalayas. They were eating a meal in a local village. One of the backpackers used sign language to ask their hosts what they were eating. One of the villagers drew a picture of a sheep. The backpackers say “lamb” with some reassurance - until the villager finished his drawing to show exactly which part of the sheep – which part of a male sheep - provided the meat. The Australians then reached into their backpacks for the upset stomach remedy which the commercial was advertising.
Many of us have strong reactions to particular foods. Sometimes, it’s just an individual preference. At other times, it’s because of an allergy. For many people, there are cultural reasons why they believe some foods are good to eat and others are not. For many people, there are religious reasons for their choice.
  • Muslims and most religious Jews don’t eat pork, ham, bacon, or any other meat from a pig.
  • Most religious Jews also don’t mix meat and dairy products in the same meal. Nor do they eat shellfish.
  • Most Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarians.
  • Muslims, Mormons, and some members of other faith groups don’t drink alcoholic beverages.
  • Mormons also don’t drink coffee or tea.
For many people, there are religious reasons for their choice not to eat some foods or drink some beverages.
In our lesson from the Book of Acts, Peter was forced to confront his religious-based attitudes to food. While he was praying, he had a vision in which he saw food of all kinds. Some food was kosher; Jews (such as Peter) were allowed to eat it. Other food wasn’t kosher; Jews couldn’t eat it. A voice called out to Peter, instructing him to eat. Peter identified the voice as the voice of God and replied, “By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
God’s response came loud and clear: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
At the simplest possible level, this story about Peter’s dream is for the purpose of explaining why Christians don’t follow the Jewish dietary laws, even though Jesus and all the earliest disciples (such as Peter) were all Jews. 
Now, for myself, I’m happy that I don’t need to follow the Jewish dietary laws. The one about not eating shellfish doesn’t bother me in the least, but I eat bacon, ham, and pork (far less since the time I gave them up for Lent earlier in the year). There are many foods I enjoy, such as lasagna or pizza, which involve mixing meat and dairy products. 
Personally, I have the greatest respect for the Jewish people, their religion, their spirituality, their culture, their ethics, and their many positive contributions to the shaping of our contemporary society. I believe that much of what is good in Christianity is a direct result of our heritage from Judaism. I also believe that much of what is bad in Christianity is a result of our ignoring one or another aspect of our heritage from Judaism. Many of you know I’ve been personally involved in multifaith relations, particularly Christian-Jewish relations, through much of my ministry. 
Nevertheless, I’m happy I don’t have to follow a kosher diet. 
Personally, I’m glad that this passage tells us that no foods and no beverages are “off limits” for Christians.
But I believe there’s much more to this lesson than explaining why a Christian can eat a ham sandwich, or even why a Christian can enjoy a glass of wine. I believe that this passage is one of the most important passages in the whole New Testament, outside of the gospels. And it’s about far more than food and drink. It’s about our whole attitude as Christians toward the world around us. 
Despite the words to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” there is a strong tendency among many Christians today to view the world around us as very profane, as hostile, and even as evil.  
I cannot help but feel uneasy at this tendency. I believe that Christians should not isolate ourselves in a warm, fuzzy “Christian” ghetto. We need to be a creative element within the broader society. We need to engage ourselves in the fullness of the community’s life, affirming God’s answer to Peter: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” We need today to recover a sense of what I like to call “Christian humanism”. Now this phrase has some problems in our culture. 
One problem is that many extreme secularists have tried to claim a stranglehold on the word “humanist” as a sort-of up-market term for an atheist or any other extreme secularist.   
The other problem is that the more narrow and rigid sort of Christian uses the term “humanist” as an insult hurled both at those they regard as extreme secularists, as well as at the sort of Christian – such as you and I – whom they regard as soft on extreme secularists.
 Both of these uses of the term ignore the fact that, when the term “humanist” was first used during the Renaissance, the people who were so described by this word were not militant non-believers, but people such as Erasmus or Sir Thomas More, people of a strong and committed Christian faith but also with a commitment to live out the faith in the midst of a broader culture.
In this connection, using the term “humanist” not as some contemporary people misuse it, but in its real meaning, I believe we need to recover a sense of “Christian humanism”, a conviction that God loves this world, and that God also calls us to love this world in Christ’s name and to be a creative presence in its midst. 
This conviction includes the attitude that God has placed us in a natural world - and a human community - that is: 
  • essentially good - most of the time;
  • essentially reliable - most of the time; 
  • essentially healthy - most of the time.
From this conviction we can celebrate any examples of goodness, mercy, and generosity within the community as signs of God’s presence - whatever the beliefs of those practising these examples of goodness, mercy, and generosity.
From this conviction, we can share an enthusiastic interest (and hopefully an active participation) in the public life of the community, the nation, and the world - knowing that this is the arena of God’s passionate concern.
From this conviction, we can be stimulated by the creative arts, even when the arts are a bit provocative, knowing that human creativity is an extension of God’s creativity.
From this conviction, we can engage in dialogue with people of other faiths and spiritualities, as people who also love (and also are loved) by the same living God.
This “Christian humanism” affirms God’s response to Peter: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 
There are real difficulties, though. 
There are many people in the community outside the church who hold firmly to the old Australian stereotype of Christians as wowsers. Many will assume that we will want to describe much in the world around us as very “profane”. (Remember, the whole stereotype of “Christians-as-wowsers” is one of the two classically convenient excuses for many of our neighbours to reject the Christian faith, alongside the denominational conflict that was already a thing of the past a generation ago.) Still, there are many in the community who are all too happy to assume that all Christians will always be negative, bigoted and narrow-minded wowsers.
Then there is the sort of Christian who assumes that it is our Christian duty to maintain the old stereotype; ... our duty to be wowsers; ... our duty to be negative, bigoted, and narrow-minded; ... our duty to call many things “profane” ... often ... and loudly. They’ll think we’re letting down the side if we are too closely engaged with the culture around us. They’ll call our Christian commitment - and maybe even our right to describe ourselves as Christians - into question if we seem too accepting toward the wider community.
If we seek to make links between our faith and the life of the community, we risk being misunderstood - both by other Christians and by the wider community. With God’s help, we can wear these difficulties.
In Peter’s dream, I believe God challenged him to a “Christian humanism”; a “Christian humanism” that went far beyond questions of whether or not Christians can eat a cheeseburger. I believe God challenges us to a similar “Christian humanism”; a conviction that God loves this world, and that God calls us also to love this world in Christ’s name and to be a creative presence in its midst. 
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
The meal we celebrate in our worship is a sign of this. We use common elements of bread and wine as a means of God’s close relationship with his people. The bread and the wine themselves are not particularly sacred to begin with, but they become God’s own means of relating intimately with all who would draw near.   
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

(For a hymn based on this passage, you may be interested in following this link.)

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Brisvegas, Sydsburgh, Melbréal, Canbawa, Adelouis, Perdiego, Hobcouver, Launvannah, and Ballarisco: Australian cities and their North American counterparts

Many people in Australia refer to the city of Brisbane as "Brisvegas".  We've done it for years.  There are Australian cities that, in my opinion are far more similar to Las Vegas than Brisbane is (such as the nearby Gold Coast).  But Brisbane is still called "Brisvegas". 

What if we gave similar compound nicknames to other Australian cities based on the names of North American cities with which they share a similar character? 

Here are a few examples.

Sydsburgh (Sydney + Pittsburgh):

This first one may be a bit controversial.  If people compare Sydney to any North American city, it's frequently San Francisco.  This is largely because of two reasons:
  • Both cities are built around large (and scenic) bays.
  • Both cities have large and highly visible LGBT communities.

But the comparison breaks down after this.  San Francisco is noted for a sense of laid-back good will among people of various racial and ethnic groups, and a generally left-of-centre political and cultural vibe.  Sydney, on the other hand, is known for increasing tension among its residents of different ethnic groups, as well as its increasingly right-of-centre political and media scene, where even the left-of-centre politicians have a somewhat right-wing streak.

Perhaps Pittsburgh is a better fit for Sydney.  Both cities have a high level of ethnic diversity across the whole city, but people tend to live in homogeneous enclaves with neighbours of similar racial, religious, ethnic, economic, and social demographics. 

As well, both Sydney and Pittsburgh are also known for an eccentrically conservative religious scene, involving local expressions of a range of denominations and faith communities which are far more conservative than their confréres in most of the country.

And, actually a better Australian fit for San Francisco could be Ballarat, even if it is much smaller than San Fran.  Not that there's any big bay to speak of near the Begonia City, but both cities are mid-19th century Gold Rush cities, and the old buildings in both cities have the same sense of being over-the-top 19th century celebrations of serious new wealth.  Ballarisco:  it could work.

Melbréal (Melbourne + Montréal)

Matching my favourite big Australian city with my favourite big Canadian city seems to be an excellent fit to me. 
  • Both cities have a vibrant arts and entertainment scene.
  • Both cities are seriously elegant, in terms both of the architecture of their buildings and the bearing, attitude, and dress sense of their people. 
  • Both cities are among the success stories of multiculturalism in their nations. 
  • Both have vibrant Jewish and Asian communities. 
  • Both are Olympic cities. 
  • The residents of both cities tend to take themselves and their city a little bit too seriously. 
Montréalers aren't quite as sports-mad as Melburnians.  (In this regard, Melbourne people are far more like the residents of such "jock towns" as Boston and Philadelphia.) 

As well, Melbourne doesn't have Montréal's French cultural ethos (but then, neither does Montréal have Melbourne's Greek vibe.)

Nevertheless, Melbréal works for me.

Canbawa (Canberra + Ottawa)

Australia's capital city and Canada's capital city are a good fit with each other. 
  • Canberra was chosen as the capital because it was neither Sydney nor Melbourne, but it's between the two larger cities.
  • It's the same with Ottawa re Montréal and Toronto.

Both are major cities mainly because they're a seat of government.  Both have a range of educational, medical, arts, recreational, and entertainment opportunities that you'd expect to see only in much bigger places.  (In this way, these cities are also similar to a number of US state capitals that are neither the first nor second cities of their states:  Albany, Sacramento, Austin, Harrisburg, etc.)

Adelouis (Adelaide + St. Louis)

Adelaide is the closest big city to the middle of Australia, particularly on an east-west line.

St. Louis is one of the closest big cities to the middle of the US on both east-west and north-south lines.

Both cities grew quickly in the mid-19th century at least in part because of German immigration, with many of the new residents of the Deutsch persuasion being people who were annoyed that the King of Prussia was trying to make himself head of the Lutheran Church as well as the monarch.  (One big difference:  the St. Louis area Germans make beer, while the Adelaide area Germans make wine.)

Perdiego (Perth + San Diego)

Warm weather.  Nice beaches.  Modern public facilities. That's probably enough.

Hobcouver (Hobart + Vancouver)

Leaving the best until last, welcome to Tasmania.  Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, is a bonsai version of Vancouver, the main city of Canada's west coast. 
  • Both are located on a rugged coastline. 
  • Mountains, the sea, and the city exist in close proximity to each other. 
  • Opportunities for all sorts of outdoorsy pursuits abound (for those who choose to avail themselves of them.)
  • For those of us whose leisure pursuits are more of an artistic, cerebral, or culinary nature, there are similarly plentiful opportunities.
  • There's a strong environmental awareness among the entire community, regardless of the orientation of our personal politics.
Hobcouver definitely rocks.

And, at the other end of this amazing island, welcome to Launvannah (Launceston + Savannah).  Tasmania's northern city has much in common with many of the older cities of the southern US, such as Savannah or Charleston, particularly in terms of the great collection of well-preserved older buildings around the city, along with many spacious parks, squares, and other public places.

The other advantage is that Hobcouver and Launvannah are only three hours' easy drive (including a reasonable stop for coffee) from each other, which is a far easier prospect than driving between their overseas equivalents.

In any event, welcome to Australia.  And, if you're from either the USA or Canada, please don't be surprised if somewhere in Oz reminds you of one of your favourite cities in your own country.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Having fun with telemarketers

I try to never be abusive or rude to telemarketers.  Hey, they're trying to make a living and, if the only job they can find is one ringing strangers to sell something the stranger probably doesn't need, they're probably discouraged enough without my adding to the discouragement by losing my temper at them.

However, it's always acceptable to have a bit of fun with telemarketers while they're on the line. 

Here are some suggestions.  In each case, the goal is to encourage the telemarketer to hang up on you (and, then, to give him/her something to joke about with his colleagues during their tea break).

In each case, when the telemarketer asks for the manager of the business or the person in whose name the telephone account is in, say "Please wait a moment while I get him/her."  This gives you a few moments to decide which of these strategies to employ.

1.     When "the manager" picks up the phone, use the voice of The Swedish Chef from "The Muppet Show".   

2.     Otherwise, the "manager" can answer in the voice of Hercule Poirot (either the David Suchet or Peter Ustinov version).  Ask plenty of questions (preferably detailed and pedantic) about the company.  ("Which company handles your company's public liability insurance" is a good one.  Don't forget to ask for the policy number.)

3.    If you're feeling a bit naughty, interrupt the telemarketer to ask "What are you wearing?"  Immediately follow this question up with (in your cheesiest possible voice) "Would you like to know what I'M wearing?"

4.    "The boss" comes back on line with "Fraud Squad.  Sergeant O'Halloran speaking."

For a long time, my favourite has been:

5.     Interrupt the telemarketer's pitch with some totally irrelevant religious or political question, so that the telemarketer thinks he's about to be on the receiving end of an ideological or theological harangue.  ("What you do you know about Scientology?" is a good one to use.)

My new favourite, though, is:

6.     After the pause to get "the boss", get on the line with your best "disc jockey" voice:  "This is Action FM, rocking the airwaves 24 hours a day.  You're live and on the air.  What's your Action FM Rocking Request?"

Try these, and you may probably find yourself with far shorter calls from telemarketers. 

(However, you may find that you're getting the occasional repeat call from some companies as part of their initiation ritual for new telemarketers.)

In any event, you're helping to transform the telemarketer's call from a nuisance to (in W.S. Gilbert's words) "a source of innocent merriment".