Thursday, June 27, 2013
Friday, November 11, 2011
As we knocked on the door of the tiny stone cottage in the village of Vesles-et-Caumont in northern France, my brother Chuck and I finally pondered what we would say if the door opened. We had just come from the cemetery in a neighbouring town—the final resting place of an uncle we never knew—and we had decided to stop by the home of the sole living eyewitness to the plane crash that claimed his life during World War II. It was only when an elderly man came to the door that we realized we were facing an insurmountable language barrier, or so we thought. “We’re from Canada,” we blurted out. We all stared at one another until my brother thought to add “avion” and the man’s eyes lit up! The door swung open and Paul Tambouret stepped out into the yard, speaking excitedly and pointing to the air.
A traveling companion who spoke French arrived just in time to interpret as Mr. Tambouret described what he saw in the night sky above his home in the early hours of April 17, 1943. Yet words hardly seemed necessary as he remembered the sight of the Halifax bomber on which our uncle was the mid-upper gunner. It exploded in the air and then crashed in flames, a couple of kilometres east of the village, but not before our uncle and another crew member had ejected from the plane. The bomber was already too close to the ground, though, so their parachutes failed to open and both men were killed upon impact, while the other five crew members died in the fuselage of the burning aircraft. Mr. Tambouret and some of his neighbours arrived at the crash site but found no survivors. The site was quickly secured by French police until German troops arrived and took control twelve hours later.
Our uncle, Sgt. Leonard N. Jonasson, was possibly the youngest airman of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command killed in action during World War II, according to military historian Peter Cunliffe. The second child of Ottó Jónasson and Ásrún Vopnfjörð, Len grew up in St. James (then a town west of Winnipeg) with his brother Victor and sister Olive. He attended Assiniboine School and St. James Collegiate, where he excelled in mathematics and science. A few months before Len’s twelfth birthday, his father died unexpectedly and, like so many young people in similar circumstances, he was forced to grow up quickly. He eventually dropped out of school and worked as an errand boy at the Winnipeg General Hospital before moving to Pilot Mound, where he lived with his uncle while returning to his studies. Len enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on August 5, 1942, having altered his birth certificate to boost his age, since he was only sixteen at the time. Years after the war, his girlfriend Joyce Landerkin confessed that she didn’t know why he had enlisted, saying only that he “probably wanted to fly—he was quite adventuresome.” Joyce remembered him as quiet, serious and intelligent, but also a lot of fun, a gifted conversationalist—and “dreamy.”
Following his training at MacDonald, Manitoba, where he qualified as an Air Gunner, Len proceeded to England in January 1943. At 8:49 on the evening of April 16 that year, Halifax DT-575 of the 76 Squadron took off with a crew of seven from the Royal Air Force base at Linton-on-Ouse. It was on a mission to bomb the Skoda works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. This was Len’s third and last mission over Europe in a combat career that lasted just a single week! At 3:38 the following morning, his plane was shot down by a German night fighter over France, while returning to base. Len was killed three months to the day after his seventeenth birthday, the only member of the crew whose body could be positively identified. They were buried together in the Liesse Communal Cemetery, thirteen kilometres east of Laon.
Paul Tambouret seemed as excited to see us as we were to meet him on that overcast autumn day, more than sixty-four years after he had hurried to our uncle’s crash site in a field near his home. He invited us into the kitchen of the small cottage where he and his late wife had raised six children. He shuffled through some papers on a tiny desk and found an envelope. Reaching into it, he pulled out a photograph of our uncle, which had been given to him by a military historian some time earlier. Yes, this was the airman from so many years ago who had brought us together in that moment. Mr. Tambouret told us that he had often visited Len’s grave and it was strangely comforting to think that there had been someone in the vicinity, all these years, who remembered the young airman from that fateful day and took the time to keep watch over his grave. He invited us to stay for a drink and we sat around the table in his kitchen, raising a toast to our Uncle Len and his crew, to Mr. Tambouret himself, and to the peace that now reigns over this once-troubled land. An old war story had come full circle for all of us.
Friday, November 04, 2011
Eileen Margaret Jonasson died peacefully at Grace General Hospital on November 2, 2011, surrounded in body or in spirit by those who loved her deeply.
Eileen leaves to cherish her memory her children Charles (Shell), Debra Jonasson-Young (Scott Young), Stefan (Cindy), and daughter-in-law Liz; grandchildren Erin (Julian Carlyle-Gordge), Kristjan, Adam (Lisa Neyedly), Cara, Brynne (Colin Marnoch), Lindsey Jonasson-Young (Sinisa Dinevski), Brandis and Heather; great-grandson Aiden; dear friend Donna Megarry; and several cousins.
Eileen was predeceased by her loving husband Victor; her son Eric; her parents, Charles and Eva Dipple; her parents-in-law, Jonas and Asrun Thorstenson; her brother-in-law Leonard; and her sister-in-law Olive Pybus.
Eileen was born on October 7, 1922, in St. Boniface, the daughter of Charles Henry Dipple and Eva Marie Lamontagne. She spent her first three years on her parents’ farm at Sanford before the family moved to St. James, where Eileen spent the remainder of her life. She attended Britannia School and St. James Collegiate, graduating in 1939. She furthered her education at Angus Business College on a scholarship and then went to work for D. Ackland and Son, first as a stenographer and then as a cost accounting clerk, until she left the company in 1948 to raise her family. She was then a full-time homemaker, raising her children and helping to raise her grandchildren, never fully retiring from the work of caring for others.
Eileen married Victor Otto Jonasson on December 4, 1943—the day before he was sent east for overseas training in the Canadian Army. They enjoyed a deep and abiding love that, despite Vic’s premature death in 1978, sustained Eileen to the end of her days. When Vic returned from overseas, he and Eileen lived with her parents on Brooklyn Street until they purchased their first home on Marjorie Street in 1950. They moved to Riverbend Crescent in 1959 and raised their children in a neighbourhood that was more like a village than just another street. She remained in her home and recently marked her 89th birthday there.
Eileen was a wonderful storyteller and transmitter of family lore. She was the centre of her family and she relayed family news at lightning-fast speed. She was a superb cook and often hosted lavish feasts for her family and neighbours. Eileen loved to knit and crochet, supplying afghans and clothing to family and friends alike, her handiworks spanning the globe from Iceland to Afghanistan. She followed current events with great interest and held carefully considered opinions about world affairs. She attended the Unitarian churches in Arborg and Gimli and modeled its affirmation that “love is the spirit of this church and service its law.” Eileen possessed a sharp wit and rich sense of humour; she was a person of firm convictions, yet tolerant of others’ views; she was supremely self-confident but genuinely humble; and she was a steadfast friend who loved her family with the deepest devotion.
A memorial service will be held on Tuesday, November 8, at 3:00 p.m. in the Neil Bardal Funeral Centre, 3030 Notre Dame Avenue (across from Brookside Cemetery), with Rev. Millie Rochester and Rev. Stefan Jonasson officiating. The service will be webcast live for those who cannot attend in person (www.nbardal.mb.ca). For those who may wish to attend, there will also be a viewing at the Neil Bardal Funeral Centre on Monday, November 7, at 7:00 p.m. and a brief interment service at Brookside Cemetery on Tuesday, November 8, at 11:30 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Manitoba Heart and Stroke Foundation or a charity of your choice.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Thursday, November 19, 2009
“In its essential nature religion is not an intellectual speculation about the constitution of the universe or an elaborate ritual by which the priests hypnotize us into the belief that their services are indispensible to our salvation here and hereafter but rather a moral act of confidence in the meaning and purpose of life, a faith that the universe, whose children we are, contains the elements that can satisfy in some way our deepest aspirations.” (Robert J. Hutcheon, Frankness in Religion, 1929)
Unitarian Universalists seem hesitant—even a little uncomfortable—to admit that we are people of faith, perhaps because we are anxious to distinguish ourselves from the excesses that are so often associated with the expression of faith. Or perhaps it’s that we like to imagine ourselves to be on more solid ground than simply standing on faith, which we have been taught to think of as ephemeral and groundless belief. Indeed, there was recently some controversy among us, out on the prairies, because some of our members objected to the theme of the regional fall conference, which was, “Unitarianism: An Evolution of Faith.” Now if you were a Universalist, you might have objected to the omission of that part of our name. Or if you were a fundamentalist, you might have raised your eyebrows at the inclusion of the word “evolution.” But the quarrel was over the presence of the word “faith,” and some, equating faith with uncritical and unfounded belief, argued that whatever else it might be, Unitarian Universalism ought not to be described as a faith. Is that so? I don’t just beg to differ—I insist upon differing!
When we affirm “the worth and dignity of every person,” that is an affirmation of faith, for each of us can surely name many individuals who feel unworthy, perhaps even worthless, or who live in ways that invite the criticism and scorn of others. But we know that even in the worst among us there flickers the spark of the divine and that within each of us, somewhere deep inside, is the faint glimmer of a dignity of purpose.
When we seek to promote “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” that is an act of faith, for the society in which we live is so filled with injustice, inequity and hard-heartedness that we might forgiven for believing that this is necessarily the way of the world. But we somehow feel, in the part of us called conscience, that we are called to live beyond the world’s imperfections and work toward these magnificent objectives which are so precious precisely because they are too rarely achieved.
When we proclaim “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” we stand on faith, because in practice, human societies are too often unaccepting of large numbers of people, and too often discouraging of the nurture of the soul that leads to happier, healthier individuals. Yet somewhere in our hearts, we know we must accept others as we long to be accepted and we understand that spiritual growth is sometimes the only thing that makes life worth living.
When we insist upon “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” we do so in faith—faith that a capricious deity doesn’t play tricks on our understanding, but that the laws of nature are reliable even if they’re not always to our liking; faith that we can discover, bit by bit, a little more about the world in which we live and even turn that knowledge to good purposes; faith that the truth will set us free, if we will only open our minds to receive it; and faith that our lives somehow have meaning, not only in joyous times but also in the times that try the human soul.
When we advocate for “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process,” that is a two-fold act of faith, for we know that the conscience is sometimes mistaken and that conscientious people are oftentimes pains in far more than the posterior regions. It is an act of faith because, while we know there are more clowns on Parliament Hill than there are in the average circus, there are many more dedicated and conscientious public servants there who struggle daily to represent the people’s will and create some reflection of the kingdom of heaven through the most unlikely of means—public policy.
When we espouse “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” that is a declaration of faith, for in a world in which whole nations greedily seek after their self-interest, it compels us to walk upon the same ground as the prophets of old, and the seers of every age, who knew we must live beyond the narrow bounds of tribe and nation to embrace all people as our neighbours, if not as our kin, and extend to them the same liberties and living conditions which we would claim for ourselves.
And when we pledge our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” we kneel before the entire world as the altar of our faith, for this dear and pleasant earth is our only certain home and the web of relationships we call life is our only certain immortality.
We cannot prove a single one of these affirmations but we hold them to be true. Not faith? By who’s definition? Call it whatever you want: I call it faith!
More than that—it is a faith worth risking everything we have for the hope it inspires. “We all live beyond our objective knowledge,” wrote Robert J. Hutcheon. “Business, especially in its early stages, is a venture. Radio was at first a venture. So was aeronautics. So is every marriage. We live toward and plan for a future which we never really know until it becomes the present and the past. The element of belief, hope and trust is very large in every forward-moving life and to eliminate this element would bring complete stagnation. We must strive to eliminate risk and to act on objective knowledge as far as possible but to refuse to venture beyond that is to limit the possibilities of life.”
Unitarian Universalists have been too timid for too long. We are reticent to offend, we are reluctant to express our faith to others, and we are so allergic to proselytizing that we find it difficult, at times, even to be proactively welcoming. In that reticence, ours seems almost to be the quintessential Canadian religion. In other aspects of our lives, we’re not nearly so modest—we offend people politically all the time, without giving it a second thought, and we are scarcely reluctant to express our social views. As for welcoming others, I wonder if we simply fear being rejected. At the heart of it all, I suspect that we’re actually risk averse.
This is where we need real leadership—and we need it to come from our strongest, most vital congregations and their ministers. Our faith needs its congregations and adherents to ring out the glad tidings of liberal religion as crisply and clearly as the carillon in the Peace Tower.
In the closing chapter of Frankness in Religion, Robert J. Hutcheon reflected on the hope of immortality, which he came to understand as a quality of living rather than a duration of existence. In the end, any intimations of immortality, any glimpses of eternity, any hints of transcendence that may come to us, will be found in “whether we have the courage and the venturesomeness to live ourselves as though it were true and to treat our neighbors, not as hewers of wood and drawers of water, but as though they were immortal spirits in the earthly stage of an unpredictable evolution.” An evolution of faith, perhaps?
We are called to live beyond all we know. We are called to embody in our very lives the best of this liberal religious tradition we hold dear—its teachings and its truths, its principles and its practices, its faith and its fortitude. We are called to strive to achieve its highest aspirations—of a world more fair, a society more just, and a nation more compassionate and kind. We are immortal spirits on an earthly journey—brimming with faith, motivated by hope, and inspired by love. And through this, we can surely live beyond all we know.
Excerpted and adapted from a sermon delivered at the installation of Rev. John N. Marsh as minister of the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa on Monday, November 16, 2009.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
On an autumn day in 1857, Henry David Thoreau confided to his journal, “One wonders that the tithing-men and fathers of the town are not out to see what the trees mean by their high colors and exuberance of spirits, fearing that some mischief is brewing. I do not see what the Puritans did at that season when the maples blazed out in scarlet. They certainly could not have worshipped in groves then. Perhaps that is what they built meeting-houses and surrounded themselves with horse-sheds for.” As the most noteworthy resident of Concord ever to resign from its First Parish, it is somehow comforting to think that he simply preferred the blazing forest groves of autumn to the clean lines of the meeting house as a suitable place to worship. Nearly seventeen years had passed since he had sent the town clerk a note indicating that he did not wish to be considered a member of the church, an act which today might lead someone to quip, “he’s just not that into you,” but at least he never said of the Unitarian church what he said of its more orthodox neighbor, after lecturing in the basement of its meeting house: “I trust I helped to undermine it.” While the Transcendentalists in Concord were institutional gadflies in their own day—sometimes something of a nuisance to the church—it’s plain that, a century and a half later, Thoreau and his philosophical companions have long since won the hearts and minds of religious liberals, laying the foundation for the dominant tendencies and expressions of Unitarian Universalism as we know it today.
Now, to my knowledge, there are not many churches around which happen to have taverns located on their campuses, as does the First Parish in Concord, although I do recall reading a newspaper story some years ago about a church in Florida which acquired the bar next door through a bequest from its deceased owner. Unlike Wright Tavern, which I’m told was originally acquired by First Parish so that the taps could be turned off, thereby preventing some of the men-folk from lingering there over a pint or two while the town’s more respectable residents attended worship and meetings, this Florida church continued to operate the bar next door, keeping the spirits flowing freely—but not for free!—under the watchful eyes of its priest, who no doubt saw this as an expansion of his mission field rather than an unseemly conflict. The article left me with this frightening picture of “communion on tap” and pretzels that were actually disguised wafers sprinkled with the salt of the earth. Of course, this arrangement did provide this hitherto declining congregation with a revenue stream that pretty much solved its financial difficulties.
I have no way of knowing whether Henry David Thoreau ever stopped by Wright’s Tavern before it was subject to a hostile takeover by the tithing-men of First Parish, but I do know that he seems to have viewed taverns more positively than meeting houses, perhaps because there were fewer Puritans and town elders to be found in taverns. In other words, he considered the company more respectable and congenial. He himself envisioned a day when, “The tavern will compare favourably with the church. The church is the place where prayers and sermons are delivered, but the tavern is where they are to take effect, and if the former are good, the latter cannot be bad.” Of course, Thoreau neglected to say just how he imagined the goodness of those prayers and sermons would make their way into the lives of tavern patrons, in the absence of their actually showing up at church, which leads me to think that he felt that the tavern bore a greater kinship to the high colors and exuberant spirit of the forest grove than it did to the stayed environment of the meeting house.
The words “tavern” and “tabernacle” share a common Latin root, taberna, which was the diminutive form of the word tabernāculum, which was simply a tent. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to visit many homes in Concord and they are overwhelmingly beautiful and substantial, but in the end, whether we recognize it or not, human beings are forever dwelling in tents. In time, nature will reclaim the essential elements of even our most substantial homes, just as nature ultimately reclaims each of us. No less is true of the temples we build to our highest values. We dwell in tents—and we worship in tents, too.
In biblical times, the tabernacle was the portable sanctuary that the people of Israel carried with them as they made their way through the wilderness, en route to the Promised Land. The book of Exodus goes into some considerable detail about the size, shape and layout of the tabernacle, the dimensions of which have led more skeptical biblical scholars to question whether Exodus can be trusted in its description of this mobile wilderness sanctuary, which sounds like a backward projection of Solomon’s Temple. Then again, it doesn’t sound any less plausible than a circus tent to me, albeit with greater refinements. It’s said that the furnishings of the tabernacle were of the finest quality and the most costly of materials, as you would expect from a nomadic people who were erecting a place of worship that reflected their lifestyle and practices. Whether or not the details of Exodus can be trusted, it seems abundantly clear that ancient Israel maintained a collective memory of a time when its people worshipped together in a “tent of meeting,” which would have been entirely natural in a desert tradition.
As it happens, taverns and tabernacles are both gathering places—and gathering places of the spirit, no less! Sociologist Ray Oldenburg has suggested that most adults orient their lives around three places—their homes, their workplaces, and some “good third place,” which offers them an informal but public place wherein they round out their lives. Unless we’re reclusive or workaholic, we all have need of some third place which is neither our home nor our workplace, but rather a gathering place where we can find companionship and meaning—a place where we are identified as the unique individuals we are, not by our occupations or by our kinship ties. The “good third place” is that venue “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came,” to quote a couple of lines of the theme from Cheers. So it won’t surprise you to know that the neighborhood tavern is a classic example of a good third place. But so is the tabernacle, which is to say those places where we gather to worship together in community and explore the deepest of life’s questions and concerns. We are not, as Thoreau suggested, fleeing the high colors of the forest grove, fearing that some mischief is brewing, seeking a safe haven in worship. No, our temples and tabernacles grow out of the very exuberance of spirit that he found in the woods, which others find in the local tavern, and which many of us still find in those sanctuaries where we gather to worship.
Adapted from a sermon delivered at the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, on Sunday, November 8, 2009.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
If the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay were alive today, he would undoubtedly devote a chapter of his landmark book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, to the current health care debate in the United States. Between the failure of the news media to report honestly and the deliberate manipulation of politicians and corporate interests, it seems that many—perhaps most—Americans have succumbed to cultivated ignorance about how their health care system compares with others around the world, while they seem paralyzed by fear at the thought of meaningful health care reform, which is demonized as socialism by those who would rather suffer than change. I don’t know which delusion is worse, many Americans’ allergy to government or their fetish for private corporations, but taken together they border on madness when it comes to health care.
Beyond Representative Dennis Kucinich and Senator Bernie Sanders, I wonder if there are enough American politicians committed to universal health care to fill a minivan. Both Kucinich and Sanders have expressed a preference for a single-payer system and both have been working to preserve the ability of individual states to implement single-payer systems, even though federal legislators lack the courage to go there. At first I was amused by many people’s reaction to a single-payer system but, after several months of freely-expressed ignorance, I’m troubled by the proliferation of misinformation and fear-mongering.
Living in Canada, with a single-payer system, I’ve always been able to choose my own doctors and no medical procedure has ever been denied me in a timely manner. No government official has ever interfered with my medical treatment. Those who naively believe that Americans are somehow freer to choose their doctors, or that insurance companies aren’t more like George Orwell’s “Big Brother” than governments, are living in a fantasy world. American health care is the most bureaucratically-driven health care system anywhere in the industrialized world. The negative aspects of bureaucracy have never been the sole preserve of government and the private insurance industry has been far less accountable to the public than any government agency.
Canada’s health care system isn’t perfect, but it’s decent. I don’t mean decent in the sense of merely acceptable or average—I mean decent in the sense that people are treated decently when seeking medical care. Our medical practitioners are able to treat us as individual patients without worrying about whether or not they’ll be paid for their efforts. Yes, we Canadians have our complaints about health care in our own country. But if you listen to us closely, our complaints are, more often than not, those of people whose basic care has already been well provided for, but whose sense of personal entitlement exceeds real and reasonable needs. We Canadians don’t choose between keeping our homes, or our jobs, and caring for a sick family member.
One significant measure of Canadians’ satisfaction with our public health care system can be seen in the fact that even most Canadian conservatives support its basic principles and practices. Most of its critics support refinement and amendment, not fundamental change—even though a few of us may sometimes invoke the words “fundamental change” as a grandiose gesture! Public health insurance is as “natural” as public roads, public libraries, and public schools.
Is there room for private insurance? Yes, but not when it comes to the provision of basic medical care! Private insurance is valuable precisely in those areas where an individual’s sense of entitlement or privilege exceeds reasonable standards for public health care. My wife and I carry supplementary insurance so that we can enjoy the privilege of being in a semi-private room in the event of being hospitalized. This coverage also reimburses us for the deductible amount on prescription drugs and covers certain cosmetic procedures. And since I travel extensively, both for work and pleasure, our supplementary insurance covers any medical charges I incur which might exceed the normal rates here in Manitoba. After all, why should Canadian taxpayers pay extra for my privileged travel habits? So even under a so-called single-payer system, there can be room for private insurers—just not at the expense of providing everyone with basic medical care.
I worry that the opportunity for meaningful health care reform in the United States has already passed. It’s unfortunate that health care reform wasn’t pursued under the banner, “Medicare for everyone,” since the competing proposals for reform have become a race to the bottom, as even a watered-down version of the public option is in jeopardy. That’s often the way it is with reforms: they favor tinkering with worn-out parts over creating new mechanisms, or utilizing established mechanisms for new purposes. It’s got me thinking that maybe what’s really needed isn’t health care reform at all—perhaps it’s time for a health care revolution!
In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers of the United States correctly observed that, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” The health insurance industry is counting on the truth of this observation, aided by timid elected officials masquerading as leaders. But too many have suffered too much and for too long! Since Theodore Roosevelt first proposed a national health insurance plan in 1912, vested interests have succeeded in defeating virtually every initiative to move in the direction of universal health care. Instead of tinkering with incremental reform, perhaps the time has come for Americans to let their most progressive leaders in Congress take charge of the agenda, “abolish the forms to which they are accustomed,” and embrace Medicare for everyone. Now that would be a revolutionary and transformative change for the better!