150705 – All My Relations

Yr B ~ Pentecost 6 ~ Psalm 130

From the moment I discovered it I’ve been drawn to Celtic spirituality. It’s so attractive – a blend of traditional Christian and so-called pagan Druid indigenous spiritual practice. St. Patrick was captured and held prisoner as a young man, escaped and became a priest, and went back to the land that had captured him and sought ways to bring the gospel to them. It wasn’t to tell them they were heathens or savages and they had to be brought around to his way of thinking – rather he learned to live with them and find commonalities between the formal religion of the church and the lived spirituality of the people.Crest-uccan-aboriginal

Through Patrick (and others), Christianity in Ireland took on the feel of the indigenous spirituality which was earthy and folksy and intimately interwoven with creation. In the end he is credited with “converting” the country but what emerged was a wonderfully authentic and rich Celtic spirituality that to this day we find very appealing.
Maybe the country converted him too.

How different was the North American experience. No doubt much good was done with and for the indigenous peoples by the church. I am not casting aspersions on the authenticity of their faith at all. But what happened differently here was that instead of listening our forebears spoke – because clearly we were more advanced and we knew better. The churches were caught up in the prevailing wisdom of the time which preached assimilation and annihilation of what was perceived to be inferior.
Looking back now it’s so clear how wrong-headed and hurtful that was.
I wonder what we’re doing today that a century from now they’ll look back and shake their heads at us?

Recently the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed their work of listening to survivors of the Residential School system and sharing their recommendations for how we might move forward. I’m sure you saw it in the news. Some are using the term cultural genocide to describe the doctrine of assimilation that our government used and our churches were complicit with. The words sting. But the commission wasn’t called blame and scapegoat it was called Truth and Reconciliation.
Well, we’ve heard the hard truth.
Now it’s time to get on with the long process of reconciliation.

The United Church had a hand in residential schools and we have been coming to terms with that for quite some time. Long before the Canadian government we formally apologized in 1986 for our colonialism and in 1998 for our complicity in the residential school programs.

Since then we’ve been working toward reconciliation and right relations. In 2012 we changed our United Church crest to include the 4 colours of the aboriginal medicine wheel and to include the phrase “All my relations” in Mohawk. [aw gway – nyah day day waw – nay renh]

All my relations speaks to the aboriginal understanding that we are deeply interconnected with one another and with creation – and so everyone and everything is our “relation”.

Here in our Conference we have a strong group called Dancing the Circle of Right Relations that is leading us in listening and learning. Our youth are leading the way for us. At gatherings of the wider church it has become our new custom to acknowledge the traditional native lands on which we are meeting (I believe Faith United is on the traditional lands of the Mississauga people), and we strive to have a person from that particular nation speak to us. Much of the time it’s hard to hear, but we are trying to learn to listen. Some have participated in smudging ceremonies, in drum circles, and in sharing the talking stick. But we do need to be careful that we are learning and not appropriating.

Appropriating someone else’s spirituality would be inauthentic. We can’t be about patronizing but about listening and learning and walking the path of reconciliation. We have much to learn, and the terrible irony is that as we explore things like the Season of Creation and Celtic spirituality we are clamouring for a spirituality that is grounded in the earth and aware of our profound interconnectedness and that is precisely, horrifically, what we beat out of the Aboriginal people.

And so Psalm 130 is an appropriate lament:

Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear our voices!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of our supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark our falling short, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered
We wait for the Lord, our souls wait, and in God’s word we hope;
our souls waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O people, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with the Lord is great power to redeem.
It is God who will redeem us from all our short-fallings.

The point of these kinds of messages is not to make us feel guilty but to awaken us to our challenges and stir us to learn and do what we can. Our first instinct, I think, is our defense mechanism. “I didn’t do anything to them. I wasn’t around. It’s not my fault.”

This is true. None of us personally practiced or enforced the policy of assimilation. We didn’t run residential schools and we didn’t directly hurt kids. But we are here in this place today, living the lives we lead, having benefitted from those terrible practices. We stand on the shoulders of those who did those things.
We have attained our privileged place in society in part because of those injustices. So this isn’t about us being guilty, it’s about us acknowledging our privilege – even if we’ve never consciously tried to cash in on it we benefit from it every day.

So where do we go from here? We listen, and we learn, and we pray.

As you know my passion is about a spirituality that recognizes God’s Presence in every place and opens us to constant communion with that Presence – encouraging us to be fully present to God wherever we are. It’s a spirituality that seeks to see every tree, flower, animal, landscape and person as a window to the Holy, as a trigger of awareness that we are ever and always immersed in the mystery of God’s Presence.

I am becoming aware of how resonant what I’m talking about is with Native spirituality in North America. In my limited interactions with Native spirituality as I meet and work with new friends, I have found it to be wondrously rich

As some of you may have heard I have been appointed to a pretty big task at the national level for the next three years. No, I’m not leaving here. I’ll be the chair of the planning committee for the next triennial General Council meeting which will be in Oshawa in 2018. Our conference is co-hosting with the All Native Circle conference. This will be a huge learning for me. As I said, I have limited experience working with Aboriginal peoples. So my own journey over these next three years will include a lot of listening and learning. I think approaching the relationship with humility and respect is the key.

I’d like to close with the words of an aboriginal minister, Rev. Sanadius Fiddler, written for a Lenten devotional a few years ago.

“I was one of 300 Native people anxiously waiting at the parking lot in Sudbury in August of 1986. After putting up the tipis and building a bonfire, everyone held a piece of tobacco on their hands. As we burned the tobacco, I remembered that God had created everything and controls everything. I also remembered my grandfather; God had made him Native; God had given him to know how to live as a Native person and to respect [God’s] creation. As the moderator of the United Church came down to our circle around the fire and gave us the apology, there was so much emotion, everyone burst into tears of joy, hugging each other, crying, dancing around the fire with drummers beating their drums.

“It is too much to put into words what everyone felt at that moment. In my reserve, our Native tradition wasn’t completely lost. There are still little pieces left. What we have to do is gather those pieces up and start from there. We can never go back and start from the beginning.

“My grandfather was a minister a long time ago. My people told me he held his Bible in his right and his drums in his left hand, but he didn’t give us the Native culture that God had given him. Now, we can pick up the pieces and teach our children, grandchildren, that they are Native. We can walk and work together as brothers and sisters—and best of all as Christians. Every tribe has different languages, beliefs, cultures, and religions, but we should not discriminate against each other. This includes our white brothers and sisters in Christ.”

(And he closed with this prayer)

Creator God, we are different peoples holding values and traditions;
yet we all share a common humanity.
You embrace all in your love calling us, each one, to fullness of life.
Help us to understand the depth of your love, which calls us to honour and respect all as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We rejoice in reconciliation.

Akwe Nia’Tetewa:neren        [aw gway – nyah day day waw – nay renh]