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My Job

January 9, 2015

Not so long ago, my daughter introduced me to Pinterest. I had of course been aware of this popular mobile application, but had not been sufficiently interested to investigate it. Now that I have, I am both delighted and disturbed by it—delighted at the wealth of ingeniously creative ideas I find there, and disturbed at how addictive this addition to our culture of distraction can be.

A couple of days ago while glancing through the latest pins I came across this inspirational message:

Your job is not to judge. Your job is not to figure out if someone deserves something. Your job is to lift the fallen, to restore the broken and to heal the hurting.

The quote is attributed to televangelist Joel Osteen, Senior Pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, the largest Protestant church in the United States. Although I am not particularly enamoured with the man, I immediately recognized the depth of wisdom embodied in those words. They brought to mind ideas I have recently been pondering, and some very spirited recent discussions with family and friends. Most significantly, they stuck a chord with something that runs deep within my very core.

Anyone who has been acquainted with me for any length of time knows that justice is a burning issue in my life. On the flyleaf of my Bible, penned there years ago, is my watchword, Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” My passion has brought accusations that my sense of injustice is perhaps too sharply honed, my preoccupation with the injustices of the world perhaps a bit too consuming. Perhaps, but by standing fore-square against injustice and not averting my eyes, I see the human anguish. I see the faces of the victims, look full into their eyes. There I see my suffering saviour, understand in some small way his pathos at injustice. For me, faith without indignation at evil is impossible.

The word justice is a chameleon, taking on the colour of the mind in which it resides. I have come to be convinced that the vision of justice one holds is a reflection of the God in which one believes.

For some, justice means vengeance, payback. That’s Lamech’s justice, The Song of the Sword (Genesis 4:23-24). Though not many would wish for a justice system based on vengeance, the idea is regularly applauded. Revenge is one of the most popular themes in cinema, where it is frequently characterized as “justified”.

Our legal system operates primarily within the framework of retributive justice, the theory that the best response to wrongs is punishment of the offender. The system focuses on satisfying abstract legal principles, and naming the government as the primary victim, relegates those harmed to the status of witnesses for the prosecution at best, and at worst, helpless spectators of the courtroom dramatics. It attempts to overcome evil with evil, imposing hurt to remedy hurt, requiring violence to balance the scales of morality. This form of justice best serves to keep power in the hands of the powerful and privileged, the laws, policies and punitive practices they put in place maintaining the “peace and order” necessary for the perpetuation of a self-serving status quo founded on injustice. It does little to make anything “right”.

The pervasive lust to punish reaches beyond the parameters of our justice system. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11, states: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”. Section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is similar: “Any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal”. Yet despite being fully entrenched in statute, the presumption of innocence seems to be in short supply. Consider the accusations leveled against high-profile personages over the past few months. In many minds, the assumption of guilt was instantaneous, and arbitrary punishment began to be meted out immediately, with shrill calls for more severe punitive measures hard on its heels. Trial and conviction in the court of public opinion. All in the name of justice.

The majority of Christians are staunch supporters of retributive justice. They believe it is what the Bible not only advocates, but indeed mandates. They believe God executes retributive justice on his wayward children and that we are to do likewise. I disagree on both counts. Confident that I am on pretty solid ground here, firmly anchored to one of the core themes of the Biblical narrative, I am not afraid to speak my truth no matter how unpopular it may be.

My reading of the Bible tells me that God’s ways are not man’s ways, that his vision of justice is very different from ours. That vision is delineated not only in isolated texts, but also through an ongoing theme that flows from Genesis through Revelation. God’s great mission is to restore his creation, a creation that he dearly loves and desires to bring back into relationship with him. That is God’s justice—making all things right—for all of creation.

For just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity shall make all well that is not well.            

– Julian of Norwich

The message of God’s justice was on the lips of the Prophets and its echoes reverberate in Psalms. Jesus was God’s justice incarnate. He clearly restated his Father’s vision as he opened his ministry, and reflected it through both his words and deeds throughout his ministry.

God’s justice is relational. It is always about bringing us closer to him and to one another in community, restoration of whole relationships. It brings hope into broken contexts, opening the possibility of healing for those injured. It compassionately confronts those who have caused injury and encourages the turning toward life that is repentance. It liberates victims and offenders alike through the merciful offer of forgiveness. It is the creative transformation of evil into good, making things right. It is inclusive, addressing the needs of all involved—victims, offenders, and the community at large. It is not about strict fairness, but rather a spirit of generosity that reaches beyond fairness to self-sacrifice. It is, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it, the “impossible possibility” of loving our neighbors, and—heeding Jesus—turning Lamech’s threat on its head, forgiving seventy-seven times.

Since this kind of justice cuts diametrically across the grain of normal human behaviour, it is impossible without God being part of the equation. Despite man’s best efforts, without God, justice runs roughshod. With God, justice becomes inextricably tied to mercy, and ultimately forgiveness. It is about grace. It is about redemption. It is about love.

Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour, attempting to identify and meet the needs of victims, offenders, and everyone else touched by the crime. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders, for often the truth is not in the facts, but lies hidden between them. Truth and reconciliation commissions and First Nations healing circles are excellent examples of restorative justice in action. There have been a few halting moves in the Canadian legal system toward restorative justice, but the prevailing system is jealously territorial, relegating these initiatives to the fringes, restricting them to cases deemed “less serious”. I have long been convinced through my intensive involvement in our euphemistically labeled correctional system that retributive justice does more harm than good, and have supported and participated in restorative justice initiatives.

I learned long ago through bitter experience that I cannot change the system substantially. Canada’s justice system is a multi-billion dollar business with many vested interests, all determined to defend their turf. All I can do is change myself, how I think, what I do. I can keep in mind what I am called to do, what my job is. I can lift the fallen, restore the broken, and heal the hurting. I can do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God. That’s what the Lord says is good.

In the Beginning ….

January 4, 2015

I subscribe to the online magazine, Medium. It is published daily, and buried beneath an ever-growing mountain of media vying for my attention, often I simply cannot give time to it when it arrives in my mailbox. Sometimes I quickly scan the list of recommended articles, peruse those that catch my interest, and ignore those on topics in which I have little or no interest. Other times I save issues without even opening them, in hope that I will find time for them later.

But sometimes an article jumps out from my laptop screen and demands my immediate attention. Most recently it was Ethan Siegel’s Can science prove the existence of God?  Responding to the appropriately timed Christmas Day article in the Wall Street Journal by Eric Mataxas (author of excellent biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of which I highly recommend) entitled Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God, the writer lays out his arguments for the existence of life elsewhere in the universe, indeed not just life but intelligent life, being not only probable, but inevitable, and that this life, as did life on earth, came into being as a result of random forces rather than by intelligent design as Mataxas asserts. Although well written, both articles are shopworn restatements (albeit dressed up with the latest scientific foofaraw which both authors insist supports their case) of opposing sides of the tiresome dispute between scientism and creationism.

[You can read the articles I discuss by clicking on the titles.}

Although very emphatically declaring he himself is not a man of faith, Siegel’s arguments, like those of many scientists who contend for extraterrestrial life, suggest to me that he indeed is. It’s just that he has faith in something different, and as much as we who believe in God often do, he presents those beliefs as fact.  Science, it would seem, has abandoned its empirical roots and proclaimed theory to be truth.

But there were bright spots in Siegel’s article. He asks a question that I suggest every person of faith ask themselves:

“can your beliefs — whatever they are — stand up to whatever scientific truths the Universe reveals about itself, regardless of what they are?”

I was especially impressed with the closing paragraphs of the article. There may be stronger arguments for people of faith embracing scientific discovery as evidence of God rather than fearing it as an assault on their belief, but I cannot remember having encountered one.

“The truths of the Universe are written out there, on the Universe itself, and are accessible to us all through the process of inquiry. To allow an uncertain faith to stand in as an answer where scientific knowledge is required does us all a disservice; the illusion of knowledge — or reaching a conclusion before obtaining the evidence — is a poor substitute for what we might actually come to learn, if only we ask the right questions. Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, but if we use our beliefs as an excuse to draw conclusions that scientifically, we’re not ready for, we run the grave risk of depriving ourselves of what we might have come to truly learn.

So as this year draws to a close and a new one begins, I implore you: don’t let your faith close you off to the joys and wonders of the natural world. The joys of knowing — of figuring out the answers to questions for ourselves — is one that none of us should be cheated out of. May your faith, if you have one, only serve to enhance and enrich you, not take the wonder of science away!”

Creation itself was, and continues to be, my First Bible. The wonder of it all spoke loudly to me from the time I was a child, and still does to this day. Indeed, as Claire Yiyi Zhang commented in response to Siegel’s article:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

Psalm 19:1–4

“I’m not an expert in what the universe has to offer. Still, I appreciate your article. Science and God are not exclusive. Like music, you can learn the mechanisms of how sound waves reach the eardrum and the technicalities behind it all you want; but to really get music is another matter entirely. Only first hand experience can teach us what music is like. Hence, for someone like me who has personally felt the change in her life since learning her life was bought at a price, being able to confidently deny God’s existence in the face of the intricacies unearthed by science — now that would takes guts that I just don’t rationally have.”

In the final analysis, seeking to prove the existence of God is a mug’s game.  For what can be proved requires no faith at all.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

Hebrews 11:1-3

God can no more be removed from science than God can be removed from my being.

Timeless Truths

December 11, 2014

Fifty years ago today, December 11, 1964, the day following his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a powerfully moving lecture entitled The Quest for Peace and Justice in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo.

Recently, on one of my Odyssean forays into the labyrinth of the Internet, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the text of that address. Aggravatingly, I couldn’t get the accompanying brief audio excerpt to work. But over the years I have listened to some of the messages that survive from this great disciple of Christ, and as I read, I could almost hear his rich voice rise and fall, exhorting his audience with this riveting sermon that clearly reverberated from the very core of his being.

King’s words that day conveyed timeless truths that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. I offer you an excerpt, the closing paragraphs of his impassioned challenge.

 

“All that I have said boils down to the point of affirming that mankind’s survival is dependent upon man’s ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war; the solution of these problems is in turn dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony. Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested story plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.

This means that more and more our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response which is little more than emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone
that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His
love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. Love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.

Let me close by saying that I have the personal faith that mankind will somehow rise up to the occasion and give new directions to an age drifting rapidly to its doom. In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period something profoundly meaningful is taking place. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away, and out of the womb of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. Doors of opportunity are gradually being opened to those at the bottom of society. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are developing a new sense of “some-bodiness” and carving a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair.

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.”

 

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Believing in Tomorrow

November 29, 2014

The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.

                                                                       Gertrude Jekyll

Recent arrivals in both my mailbox and my inbox have infected me with seed catalogue fever. Since my new summer digs have plenty of available yard space, this fever will inevitably develop into the ecstasy of full blown gardening mania. The struggle will then be to keep things from getting out of control, to balance my passion for all things growing with the spirit of keeping things simple.

However until the land is resurrected from under the icy pall of the Prairie winter I will be limited to all planning and very little doing. But gardening is excellent exercise for the imagination, and my brain is rife with ideas, some having lain dormant for years awaiting their time to bloom, and others newly gleaned from a variety of sources, notably Pinterest.

I was lately introduced to that resource by my daughter. The seemingly bottomless online pit is such a wonderful medium for a daydream, a veritable mother lode for the creative mind. In addition to providing welcome inspiration for my planned vegetable and herb potager, and fuelling technicolor dreams of glorious flower beds, Pinterest has been the source of dozens of ingenious budget-friendly renovation ideas—inventive ways to make use of used, rescued, repurposed, and vintage materials scrounged from junkyards, yard sales and thrift stores—that I will incorporate as I work on making the old trailer that will become my summer home “my own”, a reflection of who I am. And recipes! So many delicious amazing recipes! But this gold fever can also be highly addictive. I am too easily hooked into endless quixotic searching for that bigger nugget, that perfect idea, just waiting to be revealed with the next click of the mouse.

I first ventured into the world of raised bed gardening a number of years ago and immediately applied for citizenship. The beds make toilsome soil preparation, even removing existing vegetation, unnecessary. Just build the frame, spread a weed barrier in the bottom (landscape fabric or cardboard) and fill it with suitable garden soil. It is entirely possible to complete a seed-ready bed in a few hours (barring complex frame design). This economy of time and physical effort is perhaps a double-edged sword: going this route will happily free me up to attend to some of the many, many other projects I have on the drawing board, but I would probably profit from some gruntwork after a sedentary winter.

There are several additional perks to raised beds. They provide excellent drainage and prevent soil compaction. The soil warms quickly, allowing earlier planting and resulting in quicker germination, more vigorous growth, larger yields, and earlier harvests. Since my garden will be located in a clearing carved out of poplar bush, raised beds will make it much easier to defend against “the invasion of the sucker shoots”, far more troublesome to a gardener than zombies.

I plan to build my beds deeper this time which will offer some added benefits. The higher sides will entail less bending, allowing me to sit on the edge while working, a great boon to an old back. I intend on building them out of some combination of old pallets (free for the taking from a number of sources) and salvaged corrugated metal (also free I hope). I will orient the beds north-south so my entire garden can benefit from both morning and afternoon sun. Tall plants will be grown at the north end of the beds so they don’t shade their shorter companions. To lessen the volume of soil I will need, I am thinking of putting down a substantial layer of rock as filler. But not yet having weighed that option carefully, as per usual, my plans remain fluid; I will have to see what’s available to this penny-pinching gardener.

To keep vining plants from taking over my beds or spilling onto the lawn, I will construct a cucumber arbor formed from 6”x6” welded wire mesh arching over the walkway between beds, and a pea trellis of stucco wire. Finding many of the cheaper tomato cages too flimsy and the better ones too pricey, I plan to use simple wooden stakes this year. I may get around to making heavier cages for future use. Hot caps fashioned out of plastic milk jugs will help keep my peppers cozy until nighttime temperatures are consistently about 15°C. To save my plants from my times of my forgetfulness, I plan to install an inexpensive drip watering system.

Square foot gardening has grown in popularity over the last few years. Plants are set out in one-foot-square blocks, with 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants per block according to their need for elbowroom. Very large plants such as tomatoes and kale are allotted 4 blocks apiece. This method makes better use of space to provide higher yields, and discourages weeds. I always wondered why if plants could be spaced 3” apart in the row why was it necessary to space rows 2’ or more apart? I have grown vegetables with success in double rows in a traditional garden and crowded them tighter in my raised beds, but square foot gardening is a more consistently intensive approach to planting. So having dipped my toes into the edges of this method, I have decided it’s time to get my feet wet once and for all. I am already in the process of developing my garden block layout keeping companion planting in mind, and have plans for a set of dibbles (for those who aren’t diehard gardeners, a tool for making holes in the ground in which to drop seeds) that will make accurate seed spacing a breeze.

Widely sprawling plants like pumpkins and melons in my opinion are too aggressive to share space in raised beds, so if I manage to shoehorn them into my seed budget I will provide them their own homes in little plots (perhaps also raised beds?) at the edge of the bush. Cucurbits (members if the gourd family) will coexist nicely with the poplars, perhaps even climbing into their branches. I rather look forward to seeing pumpkins hanging overhead like the calabash common to Haiti.

Vegetables aside, I simply cannot do without at least a few flowers to brighten my surroundings. Psychological studies have verified what I have known most of my life: flowers have immediate and long-term positive effects on my mood, calming and uplifting me. As American botanist Luther Burbank, who developed the Shasta daisy and more than 800 other plants, wrote, “Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul.” Their fragrance and radiance are God’s great gifts. But substantial plantings take considerable preparation and will have to wait for future years. I do, however, plan to establish some succulents as soon as possible. I love these winsome little gems that ask so little yet give so much.

Of course bees are essential to gardening (to the survival of man, in fact), and I will do all I can to accommodate them. In fact, I am considering resurrecting a long-archived plan to set up a couple of hives. I will welcome butterflies, those self-propelled flowers, choosing specific plants to attract them, beginning with milkweed, essential to Monarchs. And what is a garden without songbirds? Birdhouses and feeders are on the project list. Although the effectiveness of bat houses is uncertain, I will probably try one of those as well. The prospect of having each resident bat devour up to 1000 mosquitoes in a single hour is well worth the effort.

I will have to be discriminating about what I grow this year, careful not to overreach either my wallet or my available time and stamina. I must not lose sight of the fact that gardening is a marathon, not a sprint. It is far too easy to get so involved with planting roses that there is no time to smell them. My first priority is a few veggies to provide me tasty meals that will reduce my food budget (and hopefully my waistline), mostly old standards common to my past garden incarnations with a few new varieties that have lately captured my interest. What flowers I do grow this year will probably have to be satisfied with spending the summer in containers alongside some herbs and primary salad fixings. I have long wanted to try my hand at making some planting containers out of hypertufa, a mixture of cement, peat moss, perlite and synthetic concrete reinforcing fibers that is relatively lightweight and very easy to mold. Most clearly on my radar is a replica of the stone water troughs that were common on British farms in centuries gone by. It is unlikely that time and weather will allow having my trough ready for use this season, but a few rustic planters will definitely grace my yard this summer.

In anticipation of needing a dedicated place to maintain plants in containers and store the supplies involved, I already have a plan for a very serviceable potting bench built from pallets that can be knocked together in a couple of hours. I have long dreamed of a potting bench but inexplicably never got around to putting one together.

If somehow I can, come spring, expand my available time to fit a fraction of the many projects I envision, I will be doing well. For those I can’t get to, Lord willing, there will be another year. Gardening is always an enterprise built on hope and anticipation, a belief in the miraculous.

 If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

                                                                         Marcus Tullius Cicero

 Obviously a man after my own heart.

Believing in the Seed Fairy

November 26, 2014

Having lately been plunged into the steely cold embrace of a Manitoba winter, today I have taken refuge indoors, feet up on an ottoman to save them from the coolness of the bare hardwood floor, ensconced in the toasty snugness of a generous chair that affords a comfortable view of the frigid gray streetscape outside. On this late November day, less than a month before Christmas, it is not visions of sugarplums that dance in my head. Warmed by a very generous cup of tea, I have been salivating over “gardeners’ porn”—the first of this year’s seed catalogues to arrive. Its glossy pages are lush with vibrant colour photos of plants dripping with flawless veggies and ablaze with spectacular blooms. Though their promise is seldom matched in the down and dirty of the backyard garden, they never fail to evoke dreams of future bounty.

Seed catalogues do far more than offer seeds for sale. On their pages I become reacquainted with old friends and am introduced to the latest varieties. I get an opportunity to consider current award winners. Their wisdom has contributed significantly to my gardening success. Each season as I pore over the latest editions I discover a wealth of valuable information including gardening tips, cultivation techniques, hardiness, preferred growing conditions and days to maturity for each plant, and even a crash course in botanical Latin. Every year brings new ideas.

Admittedly, all this information along with the terminology jungle inherent in seed catalogues can seem a bit daunting to the uninitiated. But with a little perseverance the “horticulture speak” can be mastered and will become immeasurably useful in making excellent choices from the myriad of seeds, bulbs, tubers and starter plants available. Besides, learning gardeners’ argot gives a gardener street cred, kind of like wearing Carhartt overalls and wielding a Hardcore hammer while banging together a garden shed.

But seed catalogues are more than information. They are harbingers of good things to come, promises that despite appearances, spring will surely arrive. They provide an escape from the rigors of winter. Transported, I can smell richly fragrant earth, feel its moist coolness on my hands and bare feet contrasted against the warmth of spring sun on my back.

I come by my green thumb honestly. My mother was an avid gardener and I very early followed in her footsteps. My first independent endeavour was at age 4, planting a few peas and castor oil beans, lovingly cradled in horse hair, in a little patch of my own on our family farm. I progressed to growing a fair-sized garden, not long afterward begging my way into a 4H Garden Club a couple of years before I was technically eligible for membership. I studied biology at university. I completed a course in greenhouse management. I planned and oversaw the landscaping of a 17-acre housing development.

Plants…can’t get enough of them. Therefore seed catalogues are a natural fit for me. I love growing vegetables of various stripes, including a very wide variety of herbs. I approach cultivating flowers, both annual and perennial, with equal enthusiasm. I have harvested a full ton of tomatoes out of my backyard plot in a single season, and over another started thousands of plants indoors. I once tore out the entire lawn in my front yard to make room for more flowers. I love trying new and exotic varieties and have nurtured “difficult” plants with some success. I am as passionate about growing houseplants as I am about gardening and have been known to have a virtual jungle in my home.

However, having been abroad several months over each of the last few years, it’s been a while since I have been able to seriously contemplate a garden. That never curtailed my zeal for seed catalogues however. As I work at compiling my wish list, it always mushrooms beyond both my ability to manage the plants enumerated and the green in my trug. In more lucid moments I prune it to a more workable size, inevitably just a bit beyond what I planned to spend.

I am finding that quality seeds have become a bit pricey. Yet weighed against the prospect of bushels of savory vegetables and beds of stunning flowers, they are still a bargain. The price of a packet of cucumber seeds would barely buy a few cukes at the supermarket even at the height of the growing season, but the 50 or so seeds will produce incomparably flavourful additions to hundreds of summer salads. In consequence, I am willing to endure a bit of famine early in the year in order to feast later on. And that’s not to mention the feeling of being able to share the fruits of my labours with friends and neighbours.

Getting back to gardening is going to be a tough row to hoe. My new summer home has no established garden. I have, however, learned by experience that raised beds are the way to go, building them far less work than breaking virgin ground and amending soil. They are also much easier to care for and give greater returns for effort invested.

But until the frost is out of the ground and I am able to turn the earth, even after I have placed my seed orders I know I will pore over my beloved seed catalogues until they are dog-eared and marked up, finding inspiration as I anticipate a varicoloured palette of blooms and the heavenly taste of sandwiches made with huge slabs of Beefsteak tomatoes slathered with Miracle Whip.

The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.

                                                                     ~George Bernard Shaw

Pave Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

November 13, 2014

Traveling south on the ruggedly beautiful Cabot Trail, one arrives at Neil’s Harbour, the north gate of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Six miles further along lies Green Cove, one of the most picturesque sites in Cape Breton. A short boardwalk from the highway-side parking area leads to a visitor viewing platform that is one of the ‘official’ look-offs onto the Atlantic Ocean.

This rocky windswept headland, jutting out into the sea, is, according to Acadia University geology professor Sandra Barr, a geological hotspot. It is the best, most accessible exposure of a particular rock unit called the Black Brook granitic suite, formed 375 million years ago. Tragically, if Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani gets his way, this environmentally sensitive pristine arm of pink granite will soon be paved over.

Trigiani, President of food packaging company Norstar Corp., has a dream. He wants to build a war memorial on the spot “to commemorate and honour Canadians who fell in overseas wars, conflicts and peacekeeping missions.” This memorial, to be called “Remembrance Point”, will be dominated by the soaring “Mother Canada”, an adaptation of the much more modestly scaled “Canada Bereft”, the statue that stands over the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. Although I could find no reference to its size on the website set up by Trigiani and his Never Forgotten Memorial Foundation, I have seen the statue described by various sources from 18 to 30 meters in height. A “We See Thee Rise Observation Deck” will be built in front of it, and behind it “The Commemorative Ring of True Patriot Love,” a low wall featuring metal plaques naming the international cemeteries where Canadian soldiers are buried with lists of those interred in each. He’s also planning a “With Glowing Hearts National Sanctuary” that will feature capsules of soil from oversees cemeteries, as well as a contemplation pavilion, a restaurant, souvenir shop and interpretive centre, as well as parking for about 300 vehicles. A full description of the proposed project can be found at http://www.nfnm.ca/about-us

Trigiani plans to raise the $30 to $60 million dollars needed to finance his dream using corporate and private donations, but somehow projects of this nature often end up dipping into the public purse. Already Parks Canada has donated a hectare of prime parkland for the site, and is undertaking the requisite environmental assessments. In a time of shrinking Parks budgets and rising costs, it seems counterintuitive to take on a questionable project.

I cannot see how participation in this venture fits with the Parks Canada’s role as a steward of nature. It seems to me to be a profound betrayal of its publically stated commitment “to protect, as a first priority, the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole.” Even if the memorial does through some logical alchemy fall within the agency’s mandate, I think it highly questionable that an individual can plunk down his personal dream in a national park without extensive input from the citizenry of Canada.

Yet public consultation has so far been limited to a couple of town hall meetings in tiny remote communities near the proposed project site. Although Trigiani says he is open to debate, in the face of criticism he has shown his intransigence to altering his plan in any meaningful way. I fear larger public consultations will not be held until the project is a fait accompli.

The entire unfolding of this project is problematic. Trigiani’s consultations with the federal government were cloaked in secrecy. There was no design competition, no assessment of the suitability of the memorial or the artistic merit of the revised “Mother Canada”. Although Trigiani crows that his giant statue has been lovingly and respectfully modeled after “Canada Bereft”, some prominent artists have declared the design an embarrassment to Canada and an insult to the creator of the original, Toronto sculptor Walter Seymour Allward. Additionally, unlike Vimy, central to the site of the conflict where thousands fell, this memorial will be entirely without context.

The Harper government is on board, giving approval for the project in its characteristic “behind closed doors” fashion. The project is a good fit for its mission of rebranding Canada from a nation of peacekeepers to a nation of warriors. Promoting a chest-beating American-style patriotism that celebrates military exploits over social progress, Conservatives have spun a new national historic narrative that is both anachronistic and counterfactual. However it aligns nicely with their hawkish political values and vision. The Harper government knows well that Canadians are generally ill informed about their own history, and will therefore readily swallow specious depictions of our nation’s past if those depictions are rousing enough to feed their egos.

The target date for the opening of Remembrance Point is July 1, 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation and the centenary of the monument’s central focus, the Battle of Vimy Ridge. That date is expected to be the crescendo for the Conservative’s program of changing how Canadians think about their country.

It is readily apparent, however, that the government is enamoured only with the departed servicemen envisioned in our collective national memory. It has demonstrated through its recent closing of eight Veterans Affairs offices its lack of commitment to supporting living veterans in a generous and humane fashion.

While I have deep reservations about this particular project, it is not war memorials themselves that are the point of contention. I have great respect for those who served and lost their lives. What rankles me is the celebration of war. I believe we must face the truth: it was the self-serving hidebound thinking of politicians and others with power that sacrificed hundreds of thousands of Canadians, most of them young, on the altar of imperialism. I personally take issue with attempts to distort reality, to reframe the senseless slaughter that is war as something just and sacred.

I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Perhaps there is a place for this memorial, but it is not this sea-sprayed promontory in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Remembering

November 10, 2014

Tomorrow’s Remembrance Day observance will be especially poignant, as it marks the centenary of the onset of the “the war to end all wars”. Sadly, that epithet, coined by H.G. Wells, proved to be as fictional as the author’s most memorable works. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were harsh, blindly sowing the seeds of militarism, violence and new wars to come. There has hardly been a day since when people have not been dying or killing others somewhere in the world.

Armistice Day, as it was originally called, was a celebration of the end of the horrific hostilities of the Great War. Since WWII, it has become Remembrance Day, an opportunity to pay homage to the sacrifice of those who served in that war as well. With each subsequent conflict, its scope was expanded to encompass the veterans of those as well.

Most Canadians attending tomorrow’s commemorations will wear the traditional red poppy. In WWI Europe, devastated nature’s first resurrection was in the form of the scarlet corn poppies that sprung forth from the blasted wasteland created by warfare. Memorialized in poetry by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, this delicate yet irrepressible flower became the accepted emblem of remembrance.

While I respect many of the sentiments it has come to embody, I have some issues with it. I believe the red poppy sets up a hierarchy of the victims and ignores the wider realities of war. While validating and venerating the contribution of those in uniform, elevating them to hero status, it ignores the millions of civilians who were innocent victims of conflict, those who themselves were slaughtered, incinerated, mutilated and brutalized, or whose families were shattered. It ignores those who were traumatized by the horrors of war. It ignores the families of servicemen, who were deprived of their husbands, fathers, and brothers either by death or by ongoing trauma upon their return. It ignores those who were displaced, who lost their homes and livelihoods, those who starved when needed resources were diverted to support the war effort.

Although initially symbolizing a celebration of peace, the red poppy was soon co-opted, coming to indicate implicit support of military values.   All the pro-military pageantry that surrounds Remembrance Day observances seems to me to romanticize war, political leaders who callously believe that force is the way of solving any situation exploiting the patriotic fervor of the occasion to promote Canada’s current military campaigns. The day has become subtly synonymous with unthinking chauvinistic patriotism.

Money raised through the sale of poppies by the Legion is used to support Canadian veterans. While this is commendable, it enables the government to shirk its responsibility to them. The current government has closed many Veterans Affairs offices across the country and refuses to fund proper care for the physical, psychological and moral trauma of our returning servicemen, notably the many Afghanistan vets dealing with PTSD that sometimes ends in suicide.

It seems self-evident to me that as a Christian I ought to be affirming peace, rather than war, in the name of Christ. Therefore I have come to give preference to the white poppy. It is a symbol of sorrow and regret for victims of all nationalities, armed forces and civilians alike. To wear a white poppy is to recall the terrible truths about war’s devastation, to make a statement that war is a crime against humanity. As Harry Patch, the last British survivor of WWI until his death in 2009, put it, “War is organized murder.” The white poppy acknowledges that the best way to show respect for those who died in war is to ensure that no one ever again has to follow their footsteps into battle. It symbolizes an unambiguous commitment to peace.

I know that there is considerable controversy around the white poppy.  The Toronto Sun quoted Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino as saying that the white poppies are disrespectful towards the purpose of Remembrance Day. Some question the patriotism of anyone who would wear one. A particularly vociferous blogger wrote, “Wearing a white poppy is a great way to show people that you’re a limp-wristed hippie who hates the troops and wants the terrorists to win.” In 2010, the Royal Canadian Legion sought to halt the proliferation of white poppies by threatening to bring legal action against a distributor. Is this what those who gave their lives fought for—the suppression of free expression?

I am not advocating that everyone forsake red poppies for white. That is a matter of conscience. In fact, the two are not antithetical; they can peacefully coexist on the same lapel. What I am advocating is a move away from glorifying past wars toward heartfelt grief at the seeming incapability of the peoples of our world to resolve their differences in a peaceable way, and an unwavering commitment to not contribute to the situation.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.

The Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Tomorrow I will remember my remarkable stepfather, Edwin Nordman, who served in the Motor Ambulance Corps during World War II. He never romanticized war. In fact, I could never get him to talk much about his war experiences. These words of his stick with me: “There is no glory in war. It is cruel and bloody. We all did terrible things.”