Whither spirituality?

A friend recently passed on an article from the Toronto Star published on December 26, 2018 entitled “A New Type of Church for the Community”.  This kind of article turns up infrequently – usually in a slow news period – in which the reporter presumably tries to find a new thread of hope in what is generally seen as a declining religious presence.  In this case, it’s a storefront church, with white plastic chairs, a row of computers against a wall lined with Bible verses – an example of a concept called a church plant.  Interestingly the concept is supported and funded by existing denominations as the answer to their failing numbers and impact.

 The writer goes on predictably to report the decline in numbers in religious affiliation and the storefront pastor’s seeing this as an opportunity to meet local needs for faith in a neighborhood setting.  Like more conventional denominations, the storefront already has programs, services at times other than Sunday, and responses to other immediate social needs. We also learn that this plant is supported by an organization called Church Planting Canada which is using modern marketing methodology with Facebook video ads and expensively designed websites free from denominational affiliation.  All this is totally predicable based on what the late writer Phyllis Tickle told the book publishing industry and the traditional denominations twenty years ago.  Her book, The Great Emergence outlined the cultural changes affecting religious life in Europe and the United States that were happening decades earlier.

 Among these changes is the reality that science and technology are the primary cultural forces - but there are others.  The doubts of Albert Schweitzer that the Jesus of Nazareth was the the Christ of history led to new scholarship.  Pentecostalism is a new and growing religion – and incidentally forms the base of Church Planting Canada. Alcoholics Anonymous is a strong healing ministry that calls on a nameless higher power and anticipated the rebirth of the small group movement – and more often than not meets in Church basements. Self-help dominates as a literary form.  While immigration is front-and-centre of the news today – with the misguided narrative that immigrants are all terrorists - except that we ourselves are mostly descendants of  immigrants who destroyed the habitats and spirituality of our native people. We now live in multicultural environments where the teachings of other religions have seeped into our consciousness.  And I find it fascinating that most of these profound changes have occurred in my own lifetime since the end of the second world war.

 While the planters are hopeful, it is instructive that their projects cost $50, 000 to $100,000 in grants in their initial year and considerable additional ones in the years following – ending up with exactly the same challenges that conventional churches face. Leaders often burn out quickly like those of any start-up in the arts or technology and the next set of leaders institutionalize the project.

Tickle in her essay also talks about the three strands of any religion – the approach to spirituality and recognition of the divine - the institutional framework and how it deals with leadership, formation, property, statutes, governance - and the approach to morality. In a recent article in the New York Times, the writer Donna Freitas notes an interesting feature of formation that I should pay more attention to – the fact that writers are discouraged by their editors for writing on the subject of religion for their young adult readers.  Sex is fine – and so are LGBTQ topics - but faith is off limits unless you lampoon it.  And I find in my own experience of working with young people from toddlers to teens - from learning to be nice, to learning the intricacies of liturgy, denominational history and pretty literal reading of scripture - that the one thing we hardly ever talk about is spirituality.

 Donna Frietas talks about her own reading as a young Catholic and my own mirrors it to some extent.  God talk at this stage and later in the early years of University were informed by books we read – more often metaphorical readings of authors like Lewis and Tolkien which also helped us deal with the stories of religion and how to ground their truth.  I have to wonder whether Bible verses on a wall above computers is going to do the job.  But what Ms Frietas does point out is that spirituality is immensely important to young people.  How many meaningful articles about religious traditions of spirituality do we see in the press about that?  Understanding that, of course takes much more preparatory work and research than interviewing a storefront pastor.

 Someone I met at the 2018 Parliament of World Religions does get it.  In response to the young people interested in spirituality and wanting to know more, he has created a very impressive website,   What he said when we met was, “I’m not an expert on spirituality, but I know who some of the experts are – and I am trying to direct young people to them – and I try to help them avoid the too many quick fix answers that are out there.”

 If mainstream denominations took this quest for spirituality more seriously, they might focus on their spiritual traditions rather than their historic denominational ones. That culture leaves them fighting old battles wearing new clothes.  The old stories have frequently lost their context, leaving the young adrift on a planet with its own cosmology that is not being addressed for them.  The young know that and they want better answers than the ones we are giving them.

Resolutions for the Planet

I’m often concerned about how little I am doing to combat the climate crisis and I’m reminded by a column today in Fast Company of a few practicail things. One that it doesn’t mention but one that should always be central is that we are not the only species on the planet . As writer and theologian Sally McFague observes, animals and plants were here long before us - and would survive much better without us.

But here are a few I can try.

  1. Watch the number of bottles containing cleaning fluids - keep the sizes that fit on the counter and buy future ones in bulk sizes to refill them. I’ve already been using a concentrated detergent and one large bottle from Method will last a year. It doesn’t hurt that the laundry machines specify using less.

  2. Washable bags for storage - I haven’t found any yet, but I do reuse the ones I have.

  3. Recycled paper in every room in the house - I could do batter on that one.

  4. More meatless meals - because of the crops that are needed to produce meat. It probably means looking at the vegetarian cookbook or the sections of the cookbook that I tend to avoid.

  5. Buy things locally that don’t require more shipping whenever possible.

  6. Never leave the house without a reusable bag to carry stuff home in - I’ve also stopped driving to the grocery store and buying more food than I need. The walking is doing me good and I’ve buying less and saving - since carrying it becomes an issue.

  7. Wear the clothes I already have - fortunately most of them are from materials that have lasted well

    These are easy and doable. Now to get on thinking about how to be an advocate.

What if . . . ?


What if we just stopped tweeting - all of us.? What if it became as unfashionable as smoking? What if we found it rather pathetic and childlike and turned the other way when someone does it in the early morning, as we do when a child has a tantrum in the supermarket and we smile sympathetically at the mother, knowing we were once in the same position with our own kid?

We cringe at the image of a president demeaning other people. But aren’t we totally complicit in the game and actually reinforcing it when we strike back? Why do the newspapers and the media present the information more than once - telling us what someone said - then quoting it verbatim and then complaining about it? We are amplifying every word several times over. We are retweeting, sharing and adding our own fuel to the fire. In a “Lord of the Flies” mode we are falling into the very trap that we deplore.

What if we just went silent - and reflected a bit rather than reacting? It might not help - but it might hurt less.

A New Sense of Place


How do we situate ourselves?  Where are you from, we ask?  Where are we going? Where is our world going, we ask even more in the midst of political turmoil, war and environmental destruction? How do traditional powers and patterns of continuity collide with cultural changes of all kinds?

Thomas Berry (1914-2009) Photo by Lou Niznik 10–6–1999

Thomas Berry (1914-2009)
Photo by Lou Niznik 10–6–1999

Academic institutions used to provide forums for such questions and some still do. It’s interesting to review the life of religious and cultural historian Thomas Berry, who taught at Fordham University and later founded the Riverdale Centre which used to present lecture series twice in the academic year and workshops in the summer. Now his ideas and practice is now conveyed several years after his death though film, books websites with rich resources well as online courses and social media.  The ideas haven’t lost the relevance that first came to light in the seventies of the previous century.

 Starting from his own religion and culture, Berry studied others searched to find their wisdom and points of comparison.  This big picture thinking inevitably led him to focus on the earth itself as our common home and develop new questions with a new framing based on all the disciplines that were involved. These were not just religion also but geology anthropology, archaeology, biology, paleontology, and astronomy,   We live in the world where all these play a role. Their combined role in industrial development and technology became a subject of concern for Berry as well as the lack of response to them of religion.  Two world wars and subsequent ones were part of his life experience too. Most of us, in contrast, have specialized knowledge and lack a broader understanding of these multiple fields. One place to start to remedy our shortcoming is this resource for kids to learn some basics of “ologies”

Did the teachings of the world’s religions have anything to say to these scientific fields of knowledge?  Did religions themselves need to get to know one another better as well as well as examining new developments and discoveries from their own perspectives? 

The environment I where grew up in the thirties and forties was a comforting but basically limited world of a street, a neighborhood, a city, a province and a country. It reminds me of a scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town a play where the dramatist ponders life and mortality in a scene where a young girl meditates on this fact even more widely.

I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America. 

What's funny about that? 

But listen, it's not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God--that's what it said on the envelope. 

What do you know! 
And the postman brought it just the same. 
What do you know!

Now my family and I travel and communicate in a world more like the second part of the letter whether we go the entire distance or not. But I still start from the ideas of my original spiritual background, cosmology, music, literature, painting, sculpture and dance. I now encounter those of others - including my own family’s digital natives’ world on an equally superficial and introductory level at the start. How am I going to go beyond that? More on that soon.

An important anniversary

Earth rising.png

50 years ago an iconic picture from space gave us a real sense of the planet when the image Earth Rising was taken by one of the Astronats. The wonderful writer Bill McKibben has reflected on this recently in the Huffington Post and also outlined how the world has changed.

The image brought a sense of hope then., he says. It was the inspiration for the first Earth Day. The Silent Spring had been published. The Grand Canyon had been saved. Here’s what McKibben quotes Margaret Mead saying about that era:

“Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space,”

There was a brief period when the idea of limits to growth had traction - but McKibben notes that it didn’t last and quotes Margaret Thatcher’s contrasting “There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and their families.” Decades later this is an all too common prevailing view where we live off the earth instead of on it. In watching a show on Netflix recently, I was disheartened to hear a cosmologist join the voices of the Silicon Valley mega-millionaires who looked forward to space travel so that we can “colonize” some other planet. That’s madness. Read the full article from the link above. The scientists warn us - but it may have to be the poets that move us:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
  • Maya Angelou

There is no one but us.

A remarkable performance


I’ve heard some wonderful musicians in my time but a recent performance was remarkable. In the complex where I used to live we started a small concert series for the neighborhood and it has lasted several years with a variety of performers. This one was special because we were introduced to something totally new to us.

When a five year old starts to play the accordion look out. Michael Bridge has not only mastered the traditional one but introduced us to the digital one. The following performance is done entirely on this single instrument. It appears on his most recent recording.



The orchestral conductor, Benjamin Zander, is a frequent business speaker and famous for his TED talk. now viewed by more than eight million people.  Conductors are sometimes viewed as the last of the great dictators.  Zander is different.  He had an epiphany some years ago when he realized that the conductor of an orchestra plays a different role.


The insight transformed his conducting and his orchestral musicians immediately noticed the difference.  Now he’s a leader who asks for input in the form of written comments at every rehearsal.  He understands that the musicians’ skills and experience enhance his own.

His gifts as a teacher are remarkable too and they are now shared through masterclasses for all of us on YouTube.  The students perform with technical brilliance before he enters in with a consistent message –  it is time to relax and let go of the kind of competitive excellence their preparatory training has provided and instead relate to their audience.  Transformation happens before our own shining eyes.  You can watch several of his master classes on YouTube and see him actively engaged in making the music come alive - even resorting to hair pulling - not a conventional teaching technique – but see how effectively it works in creating a totally different kind of performer).

Zander’s passion is for introducing classical music to those unfamiliar with it and he does so with incredible skill and experience in making audiences and performers connect.  It’s a worthwhile example of how a leader inspires and transforms performance.

Originally published on another site in 2017

A Different Take on Leadership

Some time ago I attended a meeting relating to the roll out of a strategic plan. The agenda was  to review the requirements for leadership and leadership training.  The context was for a mainline church denomination but some of the discussion could apply more broadly.

Several participants had been asked to research and bring  leadership concepts and common key words emerged for leadership roles.  Words like “mediating”, “perfecting”,  offering” and “blessing” appeared in one report.  In another the author had been fond of the letter “C” – and used nouns like “character”, “calling”, “competence” and “community”.  “Servant” leadership was also on the table.

My own contribution came from a longer paper I wrote some years earlier and I focused first on changes in  world view, vision and mission, structural change, personal characteristics and personal development.  My key words echoed some of the others – “discipline”, “humility” and  “learner”.  I was also strong on “collaboration” rather than “hierarchy” even though we are still working within a hierarchical structure. But leader still assumes followers and someone has to take the first step.

The most interesting submission was a summary of a work by Ed Friedman entitled A Failure of Nerve. The writer of the summary had limited himself to 500 words and boiled down the role of the leader to a non-anxious presence.  We spent little time on Friedman’s idea in the meeting, but I had read his book some years before and its mention whetted my appetite to return to it.

A Failure of Nerve  was compiled after Friedman’s death in 1996 by his daughter and students and has been recently reissued.  It is timely. Friedman was a rabbi and psychotherapist by training and as well as founding a successful congregation he served as adviser to six US presidents as well as to many senior church leaders and individual clients. Even before his death he saw that America in the nineties had become a frightened society, fearing change and seeking safety as opposed to the spirit of adventure of its early explorers and founders.  He’s strongly critical of this stance and challenges us to change our mental models.

Friedman is often caustic and witty – and several readers have collected maxims that represent the substance of his thinking.  Here are some that apply to leadership:

  • Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.

  • ‘no good deed goes unpunished; chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better! Vision is not enough.

  •  Leaders need “… to focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others.”

  • Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about.here

Much of where Friedman is coming from is defining church congregations and enterprise units as  family systems, a concept developed fully by therapist Murray Bowen. It posits that we call rational  in congregations and enterprises is always framed by the emotional responses learned in our personal birth and extended families.  Those families and tribes, like all systems, seek equilibrium.  When things get tense, it’s likely that learned behavior in earlier systems are in play.  When things are going well, Friedman says, expect sabotage.

The remedy is for the leader to develop self-differentiation rather than to try to persuade or motivate others to change.If a non-anxious presence is required it assumes there is already anxiety and conflict in the room.  But it is working on one’s own development that allows others to learn by example – and take responsibility for their own development.

There is much more to  learn in Friedman’s approach – and that will be a feature of future posts.

First published on anther site in June 2017

Summer Reading


This isn’t an exhaustive list - l read whodunits and lighthearted novels in the summer in addition to the endless newspapers and magazines - but some time ago I decided that hard cover and paperback books still count. Those pictured above are important and life changing.

With the Harari trio I started in the middle with Homo Deus as a Christmas present from family members who know I like this kind of thing. The second earlier one, Sapiens, was inspired by reading the first - and the last, 21 Lessons, was immediately on my must read list. I note that within days of publication it is already second on Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller List with its release only this September.

Harari can be described as a cultural historian and these three books deal with the the future, the past, and the present. He is insightful, opinionated and always provocative. Critical of both religion and politics for their insularity and selfcenterdness, he repeatedly says we need a new story for a global world. Journey of the Universe just might fill that role and I am curious whether he has read it. The authors are not cited in the index in any of them.

Journey of the Universe is a book, a movie - available via a website with that name - and also a conference at Yale in which the last book in the image is a Christian reflection on the story. It’s focused not solely on the planet but on an even bigger story. Author Brain Swimme is quoted on the back cover of Living Cosmology saying that mulling over the contents could be life changing. I agree. I don’t know whether all faith groups have responded to this - but they should. More on this in coming posts.

Why Festivals Enchant


A recent review of the closing of the Toronto Summer Music Festival is highly positive but questions why the audience is moved to so many standing ovations. In one way I know what he means.  Some years ago at the conclusion of a performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thouand, I found myself propelled to a standing position by the sheer force of it.  There was nothing polite about it involving a decision to get up. It just happened.

The critic wishes that the crowd wouldn't jump up so enthusiastically so often, even though he commends the Festival format with its combination of free and paid performances, a tight time frame and a summer timetable.

Perhaps I can help - as a well tempered listener who attended more than 25 of the events.  The reviewer does note that there is a core audience  like me that attends everything.  I'm a relative newcomer, but some have attended in the same way over the last 13 years. They know the returning performers by name and have a strong sense of who they are.

I had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the late Nicholas Goldschmidt  in the 80's. At that time Niki was already more than twice the age of current artistic director Jonathan Crowe and he had honed the concept with an understanding that Festivals create excitement and momentum in a way that a single performance never can.  Even subscriptions, great as they are, have too much space between events for that. 

Niki's Festivals often crossed artistic discipline lines.  Jonathan's combine different musical genres and levels of experience in the presenters.  One of the strengths of this Festival is that it unites up-and-coming instrumentalists and singers with the finest professionals.  The pros mentor the emerging artists by rehearsing and playing with them in public - or in the case of the singers, by conducting public masterclasses.  The result is an immersion in all kinds of music and levels of understanding for both for performers and the listeners. Audience members stroll up the shady Philosophers Walk night after night fulfilled and happy.

The critic, perhaps correctly, thought the young instrumentalists in the final concert were too energetic and needed more nuance. Probably that is true.  But what he perhaps misses in the standing ovations of the appreciative audience is their dominant demographic. Put aside for the moment the worry that there will be no audience for classical music in the decades to come.  What those of us at this stage of our life recognize is the sheer beauty and poignancy of so much of what we are hearing - perhaps for the last time.  It's worth standing up and applauding for that.


Classical Music for Kids

The Stroller Parking Lot at Toronto Summer Music Festival

The Stroller Parking Lot at Toronto Summer Music Festival

Learning about classical music starts early.  I danced to recordings of the L'Arlésienne Suite in my living room to strategically chosen by musical parents.  But small people yesterday got to see and hear music performed live in an up close and personal way.

I've been attending Toronto Summer Music Festival daily since July 15, 2018.  It features world renowned professionals, including those who live in our own city and it is a joy for its quality and its reasonable concert ticket prices - as well as its many free events. The professionals work with and inspire emerging professionals in its instrumental and vocal training programs, who perform frequently during the day in concerts and master classes.

I have volunteered previously along with many other locals and have continued to do so for three free concerts targeted to a young audience. Yesterday's concert was an example of how to engage very young participants by showing them how to distinguish between different instruments and the sounds they make. 

There were four instruments to learn about - oboe, french horn, violin and piano.  The lively mistress of ceremonies encouraged each one to play a short selection.  Artistic director Jonathan Crowe took his turn.

After all had shown the basic sound of their instruments, we witnessed a competition - starting with a challenge for each musician to make a sound that would make us laugh:

Soon we moved on to a sound that would make us feel.  It was remarkable how well very young children listened.  We then had a vote and on the basis of the volume, the winner was - the piano!  The pianist was still bragging - "I won, I won" - at at an informal concert later in the afternoon.

But the most surprising event was what could be done musically with a less familiar instrument - the saw.  David Hetherington traded his cello in a later ensemble for this quite amazing rendition of Brahm's lullaby.  He noted that while this could be termed a Stradivarius saw, it could be purchased at Home Depot.

The conductor Benjamin Zander noted in his famous TED talk that the world simply hasn't discovered yet who wonderful classical music is - and he demonstrated it admirably.  The children in this audience have a head start.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if more children had a similar one.


Doing Great Work


At this stage of my life, funerals of various kinds are a regular event in contrast to weddings - though I did attend one on Saturday where the bride and groom made their way to a small church on Toronto Island from the mainland by canoe.


Walter Pitman OC Oont would have approved. Doing things a different way was something he excelled at.  He lived a full 89 years with many careers and achievements - secondary school teacher, first elected member of the New Democratic Party to the federal government, member of the provincial parliamentant so much more.  Electoral losses later never slowed him down.  He subsequently became Dean of Arts at Trent University, President of Ryerson Techological Institute, head of the Ontario Arts Council, head of the Ontario Instutute for Studies in Education - and in retirement the biographer of five outstanding Canadian musicians.  He and his wife Ida were inveterate arts attenders and I first met them as delegates of a major choral conference where they joined a massed choir for each of my eight years on the job. Incredibly modest about his own abilities, Walter always said to me, "You're doing great work!".

It was good to be cut down to size at his service of celebration.  We heard from a theatre director that he always said the same thing to him.  And we even heard in a moving tribute by his daughter that he said the same thing to his children.  But perhaps the best tribute of all came when she said of her parents, "Any time any of us came into the room - children, grandchildren and now the 10 great grandchildren - their eyes would light up.  A lovely memory of a man whose enthusiasm and support lit up so many of our eyes that evening.