Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A retrospective on 2015

This retrospective involves looking back over my shoulders at the year that is now over. It seems only yesterday that 2015 began and now a new year is already starting. The years flash by, seemingly faster and faster as I age. My parents learned this a long time ago, and now I am convinced. 

Aging can be a good thing if you talking about a fine wine or cheese, but for people, it means becoming more and more decrepit.  It means aches and pains and frequent doctor's visits. That is part of my story this past year. Dr. Seuss expresses the problem of aging in his distinctive way. Thankfully, my condition is not this bad!

Having already past the "three-score years and ten" milestone, I am only too aware of what the psalmist in Psalm 90 is referring to when he describes people as "dust." This phrase is echoed on Ash Wednesday when the priest intones, "Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return." All of us are mortal. In fact, the mortality rate of the human species is 100%. There are no exceptions!

God, according to the psalmist exists "from everlasting to everlasting." The psalmist writes that for God "a thousand years . . . are like a day that is just gone by, or like a watch in the night." For me, and indeed for the rest of us as well, our lives are over before they have hardly started, just as 2015 has flashed by.

These are not simply the idle musings of an old codger but this is a truth that everyone discovers if they live long enough. Teenagers tend to be blissfully unaware of this fact, but that does negate it. The year 2015 is now history, and one day all of us will be too. In the meantime, let us savor these brief moments.

Permit me, therefore, to engage in a brief retrospection. What happened in 2015? To answer this, I don't want to rehash old newspaper headlines. There were too many noteworthy events to list in this short posting. Instead, I prefer to ask myself: Did any of the things I speculated about early that year actually transpire? More important: Are any of them related? And if so, how?

In January, I wrote about five things that I expected to happen in 2015. Most were relatively safe bets, but I am surprised at how well my guesses turned out. For the record, here are the five I listed (unchanged from last year):
  1. Pope Francis will continue to make waves in the Roman Catholic Church.
  2. The growing wealth inequality in the world.
  3. More racism in the U.S. and some other countries.
  4. More conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
  5. Greater progress on climate change.

What I discovered by looking back at the five speculations is how closely connected all of them are. I wrote extensively about many of them during 2015 or at least touched on each one. All of them, as is my self-imposed mandate, deal with religion in some way. Let me briefly describe each of them. 

Pope Francis did indeed make waves and thereby earned the ire of many people both inside the Catholic hierarchy and outside of it. Yet this self-effacing Argentinian -- a first for the Americas! -- has endeared himself to millions of people, whether Catholics or not. Both in his lifestyle and his proclamations, he has clearly affirmed that he stands with the poor of this world. Like Luther, he could say, "Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise!"

The growing inequity of income and wealth in this world has been in the news consistently since Thomas Piketty exposed it in best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), Pope Francis, who was elected the same year, has crusaded not only on this issue but also on climate change.

Piketty's book has done much to wake up the world, even if the captains of the corporations who receive the megabucks have not changed their ways. Nor are they likely to do so while the governments of the world remain in their thrall. They are the ones who buy elections for their chosen candidates. And they are the ones who may yet stop Donald Trump from getting the Republican nomination. 

Trump's vision for 2016

Trump's supporters are typically less educated, poorer, white males, who feel that they have been left powerless by the elites who run the country. These men are often racists and are opposed to any form of gun control. They are afraid of terrorists and are thus susceptible to appeals that play upon this fear.

Not only Trump but also former Prime Minister Stephen Harper used such fears in order to win re-election. Harper's supporters tend to be more elderly and rural people who are terrified by the influx of refugees, many of whom are Muslims. A proposed ban on women wearing niqabs defined their fear.

Harper restricted the number of refugees that would be admitted to Canada. In contrast, the new Liberal government has enthusiastically welcomed them. But some European countries, such as Denmark and Hungary, have banned any refugees from entering. Islamophobia is a form of racism nd it seems to be growing all over the world.

There are many other examples of racism such as the wholesale killing of blacks in the US by white police. In many cases, the police have not been criminally charged, although civil suits have been filed. 

The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians shows no signs of abating. Part of the problem is the unwavering support that some Western countries provide to Israel while neglecting Palestine. Canada is one of these countries. I hope that will soon be past tense. The war in Syria and Iraq has fed anti-Muslim feelings and thus has exacerbated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by encouraging further support for Israel.
Climate change finally got the attention it deserved at COP21 in December in Paris, where more than 190 countries reached an agreement on limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees C as compared to pre-industrial levels. This accord is unprecedented and represents an enormous advance over earlier agreements. 

The support of Pope Francis no doubt contributed to this successful development but there was also a widespread realization that something had to be done to reduce the effects of greenhouse emissions. Even some climate change deniers reluctantly came on board and approved the agreement.

2015 was quite a year! In spite of the way the year flashed by, which may have been just my personal impression, much happened during this year. I was impressed not so much by my own speculations but rather by the way all these things came together. That is the nature of the world in which we live. Events are never isolated from each other but are woven together in ways that only become apparent in retrospect.

For 2016, I am not going to hazard any new predictions. Instead, I suggest that these five are good for another year. Let's wait and see what happens by the end of the year. If my experience is a reliable guide, we will probably not have to wait very long. Fasten your seatbelts! It's going to be quite a ride!

Enough of my rambling! I wish all of you a blessed 2016! 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Some Christmas Prayers

Prayer is central to the Christian life, as it is also for people from other faiths. It is their lifeline to God. The purpose of prayer is not so much to list our many needs (God already knows them, although he doesn't mind our mentioning them), but it is really focused on praising God and listening to him. It is not our will that ultimately matters, but God's will: "His will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

That is what the Christian prayers that I have selected do as well. Sweeping the centuries from St. Ephraim the Syrian until today, they are Christmas meditations dwelling on the significance of Christ's birth. For Christians the Incarnation is fundamental to their faith: God sent his only Son to dwell among us and to restore not only us but the entire world that he loves so much.

As a result of the Incarnation, the Christian Church throughout the centuries has confessed that Christ is both fully divine and fully human. Judaism and Islam deny this, but that difference ought not to be a barrier to Christians, Jews, and Muslims accepting each other. For that matter, people of every faith must accept what they have in common and not accent the differences as is all too prevalent today.

That acceptance is the focus of the last prayer which welcomes all refugees as brothers and sisters regardless of their religion. When we welcome them, we are welcoming Christ whose birth is celebrated at Christmas time and will be in perpetuity, as St. Ephraim writes.

The entire world must welcome strangers and not reject them as some people do, even those who profess to be Christians. I can think of no more appropriate way to celebrate Christmas this year than by welcoming refugees. Do you hear me, Donald Trump?

Again, I wish all of you a blessed Christmas, whether you celebrate it or not. Do not be distracted by the consumerism that detracts from the real meaning of Christmas. And, as you enjoy your Christmas dinner, don't forget to leave a place or two for the strangers in your midst. Welcome them with open arms!

Nativity Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

The feast day of your birth resembles you, O Lord 
because it brings joy to all humanity. 
Old people and infants alike enjoy your day. 
Your day is celebrated from generation to generation. 

Kings and emperors may pass away, 
And the festivals to commemorate them soon lapse. 
But your festival will be remembered until the end of time. 
Your day is a means and a pledge of peace. 

At Your birth heaven and earth were reconciled, 
Since you came from heaven to earth on that day 
You forgave our sins and wiped away our guilt. 

You gave us so many gifts on the day of your birth: 
A treasure chest of spiritual medicines for the sick; 
Spiritual light for the blind; 
The cup of salvation for the thirsty; 
The bread of life for the hungry. 

In the winter when trees are bare, 
You give us the most succulent spiritual fruit. 
In the frost when the earth is barren, 
You bring new hope to our souls. 
In December when seeds are hidden in the soil, 
The staff of life springs forth from the virgin womb. 

St. Ephraim the Syrian (AD 306-373)

Nativity Prayer of St. Augustine

Let the just rejoice,
for their justifier is born.
Let the sick and infirm rejoice,
For their saviour is born.
Let the captives rejoice,
For their Redeemer is born.
Let slaves rejoice,
for their Master is born.
Let free men rejoice,
For their Liberator is born.
Let All Christians rejoice,
For Jesus Christ is born.

St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-440)

Nativity Prayer of St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Let Your goodness Lord appear to us, that we
made in your image, conform ourselves to it.
In our own strength
we cannot imitate Your majesty, power, and wonder
nor is it fitting for us to try.
But Your mercy reaches from the heavens
through the clouds to the earth below.
You have come to us as a small child,
but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts,
the gift of eternal love
Caress us with Your tiny hands,
embrace us with Your tiny arms
and pierce our hearts with Your soft, sweet cries.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (AD 1090-1153)

Prayer for those who seek refuge in our land

Sheltering God,

You were born in flight,

Your parents anxious and given no rest.

The manner of your birth calls us to
Open-heartedness and sensitivity to the strangers in our midst.
Help us not to flee your challenge.
The violence of the present time teaches us fear of the stranger,
Reluctant to reach out to those who are different.
Grace us this day as we seek
To see you in the faces of those uprooted,
Weary, as they seek refuge and peace. Amen.

Blessed are the wanderers and those adrift.
Blessed are the strangers at our door.
Blessed are the unfed, the homeless on the road.
Blessed is the child crying in pain.
Blessed is the mother working to provide for her children, left behind in her native country.
Blessed are those who welcome Christ to be born again when they welcome these ones.
Blessed are we who struggle to make a place in our hearts for all of our brothers and sisters. 

O God,
You welcome all your children,
And embrace the prodigals ones,
Help us open our hearts
And welcome all who come, searching
As our ancestors did,
For asylum and the promise of a new land, a new life.

Root out fear from our souls;
Help us form the words
‘Sister’ and ‘Brother’
As we greet those who seek refuge in our land.
Let us remember that,
With your grace,
There are enough loaves and fishes
To go around
If we come together
As your family.

Give us the courage
And the compassion
To respect the rights of all
In this country of abundance,
To embrace all in
The name of your love. 

(Uniya is a Jesuit social justice centre.)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Trump, Trudeau, and the spirit of Christmas

As 2015 draws inexorably to an end, it is time for me to reflect briefly on two of the most noteworthy politicians in North America. I use the word "noteworthy" cautiously since many people may question whether Donald Trump is truly worthy of note. In contrast, Justin Trudeau well deserves this accolade. I will close with some remarks on Christmas, especially as it relates to how these two men demonstrate the Christmas spirit and what it means to be a Christian politician today.

I picked North America since that is where I live and where this year I have had a frontrow seat watching these two men, only one of whom, strictly speaking, is a politician. The other is a wannabe politician. These men have much in common, yet there are also crucial differences. It is these differences that come to the forefront during this Christmas season.

Trump needs little introduction. This bombastic and narcistic billionaire has the whole world in a tizzy. Not only Americans but also people everywhere are anxiously watching the Republican race to select their presidential candidate for the election next year.

If much of the world cringes at the prospect, millions of Americans support him. In national polls, he currently holds the lead with 34%. This is true in nearly all categories, except for Tea Party and "very conservative" voters where his support drops two percent. In a recent poll in New Hampshire, his support rose to 39%.

Remarkably, Trump's support did not collapse after he announced support for a ban on Muslims entering the US. That position is highly popular within the GOP; more than 50% support Trump's proposed Muslim ban. Among Trump's own supporters there is 82% support for it while slightly less than 50% support a national database of Muslims. But only 28% of GOP primary voters go so far as to think mosques in the United States should be shut down.

What many of his supporters don't realize is that Trump has changed his position on many issues. For example, he used to be pro-choice, now he is pro-life and opposed to abortions. Similarly, his position on gun control has intensified.

How this opportunistic, misogenistic, Islamaphobe can receive such widespread support illustrates the malaise that has gripped the US. The NRA speaks for a majority of American with 58% having a favorable view of this organization. Sadly, too many Americans have bought into the idea that guns are necessary for self-defense, whereas there is overwhelming evidence in other countries to the contrary.

If Trump -- God forbid! -- does achieve the presidency, I expect some Americans will want to flee to Canada. Since Canada is now favorably inclined to accept refugees, they will be welcomed with open arms. However, I have just one piece of important advice: leave your guns at the border. Guns are not welcome here.

Trudeau, whose surname begins with the same three letters as does Trump's, is a bird of a different feather. In the federal election in October, his opponents from both major parties dismissed him as "not yet ready." What they overlooked is that Trudeau learned about politics on his father's knee. Pierre Trudeau served as the15th Prime Minister of Canada from 1968 to1979, and again from 1980 to 1984.

Trudeau does not have Trump's billions, but he is a multi-millionaire. Admittedly, both men inherited much of their wealth. Unlike Trump, however, Trudeau is a politician: he was elected to the House of Commons for the first time in the 2008 election. Although not as seasoned a politician as his father, he can claim that title better than Trump, who has never held an elected office.

Trudeau and his new (and diverse) cabinet at the swearing in ceremony, November 4, 2015

Trudeau displayed his political skills by moving the Liberal Party, of which he is the leader, to the left of the NDP, which is Canada's mildly socialist party. The NDP aided this shift by advocating a balanced budget during the election in order to ward off the stigma that the NDP has had of being profligate when it hasa been in power provincially.

Very few people in Canada initially predicted a plurality for Trudeau's Liberals, much less a majority. They won 184 of the 338 seats, with 39.5% of the popular vote; a gain of 150 seats compared to the 2011 federal election. This gain was the biggest numerical increase for a single party since Confederation, and marked the first time that a party had rebounded from third place in the Commons to a majority government.

The Canadian Press just named Trudeau as Canada's "Newsmaker of the Year." Unlike the hard-fought Oct. 19 election, this wasn't much of a contest. He was the runaway choice of news editors and directors across the country. This award speaks volumes about Canada's new prime minister and his politics.

Trudeau's electoral success has been credited to his performance both on the campaign trail and televised election debates exceeding the lowered expectations created by Conservative advertisements. He made many promises durin the election, many of which will be difficult to implement, especially those on electoral reform and the many recommendations of the Truth and Reconcilation Commission.

One election promise that Trudeau implemented immediately was to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. Although later scaled down to 10,000 by December 31, he is still pressing for the full 25,000 to be admitted by the end of March, 2016. His government has now promised that another 25,000 will come to Canada by the end of that year.

There is now a new tone in Ottawa that differs markedly from that of the previous Conservative government which was marked by divisiveness and the politics of fear. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper had taken a page out of the playbook of the Republicans (especially Donald Trump) in the US in order to win reelection.

But Canadians soundly rejected the politics of fear and opted instead for the "sunny ways" of Trudeau. This phrase was first used 120 years earlier by former Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier and became synonymous with his political style. Trudeau has now adopted it as the slogan for a new era in Canadian politics.

The contrast between Trudeau and Trump is striking. While Trump would not accept any Syrian refugees because they might be terrorists, Trudeau welcomed the first plane load to Canada at the airport in Toronto. While the passengers on that plane were Christians, who could more easily and quickly pass the screening process, future planes will be filled with Muslims. No doubt Trump and many Americans would be horrified, but this is Canada.

Welcoming refugees is part of the DNA of Canadians. While Canada has not always welcomed them -- think of the boatload of 907 Jewish refugees who were turned away in 1939 -- it has done much better, especially with the Vietnamese boat people beginning in 1978 and continuing until the early 1990s, as well as many other groups over the years.

The Conservatives did everything they could to discourage the reception of refugees, but this changed with the new Liberal regime. Now Canadians express their pride once more in being a welcoming nation. Many have volunteered to sponsor families or individuals and have been extremely generous in providing housing and the necessary funds for the resettlement of refugees.

Trudeau has captured the hopes of Canadians and helped to make them a reality. This is in the spirit of Christmas, which celebrates God's gift of his Son in order to restore his creation. Christ's incarnation is the greatest example of love that the world has ever experienced: "For God so loved the world  that he gave his one and only Son . . ." John3:16. Our response should be similar: a display of love for our neighbors, whether they live nearby or far away.

Trudeau's birthdate may have contributed to the spirit that pervades his government: he was born on December 25, 1971. Trudeau's father was a devout Roman Catholic, but Justin describes himself as a lapsed Catholic; he was baptised and attended mass regularly as a child, but now no longer attends church, except perhaps on special occassions.

In spite of this, Trudeau better expresses the love for the neighbor that Christ commands from his disciples than Trump, who was baptised in a Presbyterian Church and claims that he is Presbyterian, although he has also stated that he attends Marble Collegiate Church (which is part of the Reformed Church in America); this is where he married his first wife. That church, however, does not consider him an active member.

While it is dangerous to judge Trudeau and Trump as to which best personifies the spirit of Christmas, I would conclude that Trudeau wins hands down. Not only in his response to the refugee crisis but also in the other policies that he has enunciated and vows to implement Trudeau behaves as a Christian. The same cannot be said of Trump. They may both be Christians who do not actively attend church, but their behavior indicates where their faith truly lies.

Many Canadians, whether they or Christians or not, identify with the generous spirit of Trudeau and his government and reject the fearfulness that Trump generates. They rejected Harper when he used the same tactic, and sent him and his party out to pasture. 

I hope and pray that Americans will reject Trump and his deplorable politics. How can any American who is also a Christian support this man whose words and behavior are the antithesis of what it means to be a follower of Christ? Christ would not approve of what Trump is currently saying and doing. "By their fruits you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:16). 

I wish every one of you a blessed Christmas!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

New impressions of Cuba

I have been to Cuba three time now, and yet every time I see different aspects of life in Cuba. This time, my impressions were of a country that is quickly changing, even though it has a long way to go before it becomes what many Cubans are hoping for.

Admittedly, an all-inclusive resort is hardly the best place to witness the new Cuba that is slowly dawning. Yet every time I come back, I see more signs of change. Cuba still has a way to go, but it is heading in the right direction.

The first time I went was when I broke my arm only half an hour after arriving at a resort. I ended up that night in a Cuban hospital in Santa Clara, I wrote up this experience in a posting on October 2011. For a day and a half I was a patient I confess that I received excellent care.

When I returned to the resort, I was able to enjoy long walks on the beach, even though I could not go swimming because my arm was in a sling. The food was not the greatest. As I have told many people since, "This is Cuba!"

I concluded that piece with a remark about Cuban hospitals and doctors:"I grew to appreciate the Cuban medical system. The doctors and nurses are among the best in the world, even if their equipment was old and obsolete. They are well trained and in high demand elsewhere in the world." 

Finally, in that post I asked myself: "Would I go back to Cuba again?"  And I answered: "Definitely! But next time I hope to avoid Cuban hospitals." On subsequent trips I have avoided Cuban hospitals, but I got to enjoy Cuba very much. Cuba is justly famous for its beaches and its hospitality. That helps to explain why I have come back several times.

Hemingway's home in Cuba

My second visit was to a resort close to Havana since my wife and I, together with some good friends, wanted to see the capital city of Cuba. This resort was the worst we have ever been to. The facilities were inadequate and the food was terrible. We vowed never to come to this resort again.

Havana was interesting, even though it rained cats and dogs the day we went. Unfortunately, too many streets were torn up for repairs, which only made matters worse. A few days later, the four of us visited Hemingway's home, which is near Havana. This is now a museum dedicated to this great American author who loved Cuba.

The latest trip was the best yet. The resort was excellent and the food was the best we have ever  had in Cuba. Even if it lacked the variety that one expects in many Caribbean countries, the quality was good. The service too was great.

We spent a day in Havana again, and again it rained. But this time the street were finished and we had a chance to see the main parts of old Havana on foot. Later we toured some of the newer parts as well in a 1955 Chevrolet.

The 1955 Chevy that took us to Havana

There are lots of vintage cars still on Cuban roads, but many of those I saw are intended for tourists. The bodies have been repaired, and new diesel motors and brakes now replace the originals. Diesel, because diesel fuel is only half the price of gasoline. But these cars don't come cheap; after a complete restoration, they can cost as much as a new vehicle.

As tourists who stay in resorts, I am hardly qualified to speak about what is happening in Cuba; I can only offer impressions based on a very short stay and a very small sample of Cubans that I talked to.

Nevertheless, I am impressed by the progress that Cuba is making. There is still a lot of poverty, but there are also many signs of improvement. Salaries are pitiful, especially for those who have no access to hard currency. A pair of shoes can cost a whole months salary for those who are paid in Cuban pesos or "national coin" as it is also called.

Yet a new middle class is readily apparent. I met a few Cubans who were using the facilities at our resort.  I also a fair number of new cars.  And a fair number of guests in the hotels we visited spoke Spanish, although I did not inquire if they were Cubans.

Most revealing to me were the churches. In spite of decades of Communism and repression of religious freedom, some churches are open. Atheism was not able to destroy the church in Cuba any more than it could in other countries.  

Pope Francis conducted a mass in Plaza de la RevoluciĆ³n in Havana

The Christian faith has not died out there. Many people still attend mass regularly, even if many outward signs of piety are discouraged and many churches were closed or converted to other uses. The same thing happened in other formerly Communist countries; now they are being returned and restored to their former use.

Thousands welcomed Pope Francis during his recent visit to Cuba, where he delivered a message of reconciliation for the former Cold War foes, while carefully avoiding controversy on the US trade embargo. Cubans wanted him to condemn it.

Yet he did plead for greater freedom for the church. He is widely credited for facilitating the new agreement between Cuba and the US that led to the reopening of their embassies, the easing of the embargo and opportunities for Cubans to travel out of the country.

The US embassy building in Havana is a visible symbol of a new era in the relations between the two countries. The easing of the embargo has been widely welcomed by Cubans who hope that it may finally end so that their economic situation may improve.

Cuba is only 145 km from the nearest point in the US

But Cubans have mixed feelings about this. They welcome the arrival of Americans in the near future with both joy and dread: joy for a flood of US dollars to help stimulate the economy, but they dread the drugs and guns that the Americans will also bring.

The Cuban Revolution ended some of evil that is attached to the American presence before 1959 and thus Cubans have little willingness to see that repeated. They are still angry about the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion which was intended to overthrow the Castro regime.

In the National Hotel I witnessed photos of all the foreign dignitaries, including Americans, who have stayed in the hotel. To me, however, these photos resemble a rogues' gallery. Just outside the hotel I saw how Cubans interpret the Bay of Pigs.

Cubans are not alone in fearing a new American invasion. Many of the people at our resort, the majority of whom are Canadians, told me that they were visiting now before the Americans would ruin everything. I confess that I shared this concern.

Cuba is rightfully praised for its human right's policy and for its health and educational system. Cuba sends many medical personnel overseas to help train people there. That help has been gratefully received in many countries.

The resort where we stayed this time in Cuba

As to what will happen in Cuba after the death of Fidel Castro, people can only speculate. Some Cubans whom I spoke to expect even greater reforms than those that have occurred until now under the presidency of Raul Castro who took over from his brother in 2008. Yet the very fact that they were willing to reveal this to a foreigner is an indication of the changes that have already taken place.

I hope and pray for many more and greater changes so that hardworking Cubans may finally enjoy a better life than they do now. But Cubans have much to be thankful for. The Cuban Revolution was not the unmitigated disaster that the Cuban exiles in the US have portrayed it as.

In Cuba I found a people who hope for a brighter future for themselves and their children. May God grant them that! They richly deserve it!