Monday, July 16, 2012

The Last Hunger Season

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change
By Roger Thurow
304 pages

In western Kenya, the Luhya people often name their children for the time of year in which they were born: Boys, for instance, may have as one of their names Wafula (rain), Wanyonyi (weeding), Wekesa (harvest), or the most common, Wanjala (hunger). The hunger season lasts from the time the food from the previous harvest runs out to the time when the new harvest begins. As the harvest in this part of Kenya is in August and September, May and June are the high point of the Wanjala, the hunger season.

Here in our part of rural eastern Canada, this summer's dry conditions are putting our corn and soybean crops in jeopardy, but while farm families will suffer financially they are unlikely to starve. However, a crop failure in Kenya, and in many other places, will cause widespread starvation, and in fact that was occurring elsewhere in Kenya during the time frame covered by this book.

I was fortunate to receive a review copy of The Last Hunger Season by Roger Thurow, senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He tells the story of four smallholder farmers in western Kenya - Leonida, Francis, Zipporah and Rosoa - and their experiences with the One Acre Fund, founded by American social entrepreneur Andrew Youn after he saw the effects of the hunger season in Kenya.

In Africa the yields of corn, wheat, rice and beans lag as much as 90 percent behind those of farmers elsewhere. The smallholder farmers of western Kenya work in what is essentially a time warp, farming without machinery in the same way as 50 years ago, prior to Kenyan independence, or 80 years ago - just with cell phones as one of their tools. One Acre is one attempt to increase yields for Africa's smallholder farmers by providing groups of such farmers with hybrid seeds and fertilizer on time for planting, and following up with advice on planting, tending, and harvesting, on a credit of about 4,500 Kenyan shillings (US $50) per half-acre of corn. I know that the Canadian Foodgrains Bank - in which our United Church of Canada, and local congregations and farmers here in eastern Ontario, are participants - has been involved with a partner organization in Zimbabwe in a program that sounds similar.

Thurow's book reads like a thriller as he follows these four farmers through the year, receiving their seeds and fertilizer from One Acre, struggling to keep families fed and pay school and medical bills and the One Acre debt, and dealing with weevils and mould ruining the stored corn and catastrophes like drought and then heavy rain washing away a food storage hut. Will the rains come in time to save the corn crop? Can the money be found to keep a child in school so that he can take the all-important exams for further study? How to juggle sales of stored corn, cattle, and milk to pay the bills? Will One Acre manage to get a hybrid bean seed approved by the layers of bureaucracy so the farmers can plant it this year? Will families survive the hunger season, getting by on just a cup of tea a day while tending their crops and keeping hungry children in school? Will enough corn be grown on the One Acre plots to keep families fed throughout the year and make this the last hunger season? Meanwhile, decisions are being made far away that will affect the livelihoods of these farmers, as the US Congress debates cutting the Obama Administration's Feed the Future initiative that funds global programs focused on smallholder farmers and in turn assists One Acre and other organizations.

The reader gets a feel for life on these small farms and the impact initiatives like One Acre can have on global food security and the lives of farm families. It is also apparent how important a role faith plays for these farmers: the One Acre groups meet in the churches that are found throughout rural Kenya (Baptist and Assemblies of God congregations are mentioned), farm houses are decorated with Biblical sayings, and as they work the farmers and their children quote the Bible. For example, Leonida's son Gideon repeats Philippians 4:4 as he works on the house: "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice."

The world needs to double food production by 2050 to keep up with a growing and more prosperous global population. Improved food storage, higher crop yields, and more efficient markets for smallholder farmers in Africa are crucial if this goal is to be met. The Last Hunger Season provides a great insight into the farmers and organizations that are vital to the future of agriculture in Africa and the world.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Liturgical Colours, Liturgical Dancing: Sermon, July 15, 2012

Once again David assembled the select warriors of Israel, thirty thousand strong. David and all the troops who were with him set out for Baalah, which is Kiriath-jearim of Judah, to bring God’s chest up from there—the chest that is called by the namen of the LORD of heavenly forces, who sits enthroned on the winged creatures. They loaded God’s chest on a new cart and carried it from Abinadab’s house, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, Abinadab’s sons, were driving the new cart. Uzzah was beside God’s chest while Ahio was walking in front of it. Meanwhile, David and the entire house of Israel celebrated in the LORD ’s presence with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.

So David went and brought God’s chest up from Obed-edom’s house to David’s City with celebration. Whenever those bearing the chest advanced six steps, David sacrificed an ox and a fatling calf. David, dressed in a linen priestly vest, danced with all his strength before the LORD. This is how David and the entire house of Israel brought up the LORD ’s chest with shouts and trumpet blasts.

As the LORD ’s chest entered David’s City, Saul’s daughter Michal was watching from a window. She saw King David jumping and dancing before the LORD, and she lost all respect for him.

The LORD ’s chest was brought in and put in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it. Then David offered entirely burned offerings in the LORD ’s presence in addition to well-being sacrifices. When David finished offering the entirely burned offerings and the well-being sacrifices, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of heavenly forces. He distributed food among all the people of Israel — to the whole crowd, male and female—each receiving a loaf of bread, a date cake, and a raisin cake. Then all the people went back to their homes.
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, from the Common English Bible

Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding. God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. This is what God planned for the climax of all times:c to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory.
Ephesians 1:3-14, from the Common English Bible

In the story we have been following for the last several weeks, the shepherd boy David who defeated Goliath is now king of Israel, and he brings the ark - not Noah’s ark but the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments - to his city of Jerusalem. And there is worship, with a procession and animal sacrifices and a blessing and music. The Bible says that David and all of Israel celebrated in God’s presence with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals. We may be able to find a tambourine and a rattle, and maybe a cymbal, downstairs but I don’t think we have any zithers or harps around. Since David’s time we have invented the piano and the organ.

And David dances with all his strength before God. His wife Michal watches him, and she doesn’t approve of him worshipping through this jumping and dancing. Things haven’t changed a lot over the 3000 years since then. If we had dance as part of worship today, as some churches do, some of us would probably think it added a lot to the service, and some of us would be like Michal and think that it didn’t belong.

That’s been the case with anything new in worship. And worship has evolved a lot since David’s time, and since Christians began meeting together. Christians started out worshipping in houses and eventually moved to church buildings, and that was probably controversial. Service times have changed. Our morning worship time in North America was originally to accommodate milking. Evening services have largely disappeared. Eastern Orthodox Christian services are two to three hours long, but ours are about an hour, a length that was entrenched when radio programs lasted an hour. Sermons used to be much longer – Puritan ministers in the 17th century preached about 50 minutes, which is still the case in the West Indies and Africa but not here. And folks here are probably thankful. Protestant ministers tended to wear black robes called Geneva gowns, or in some denominations no specific clerical dress at all, until the 1960s. That’s changed. And music – the zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles and cymbals of the Bible were replaced by just the human voice for most Protestants, who sang just the Psalms alone and unaccompanied. When the pipe organ was introduced into churches many people saw it as the Devil’s instrument, and disapproved as thoroughly as Michal disapproved of David’s dancing.

One thing that hasn’t changed so much in our tradition is that our worship is liturgical. Liturgy comes from a Greek word meaning an act of public service; in the time of Jesus and the early church, your liturgical act might be working on building one of the Roman roads. The early Christians applied the word to worship, as an act of service to God rather than the empire, and eventually liturgy came to mean the rituals of worship. A ritual is a structured human activity with patterns and repetitions that enact the stories of the community. And that’s what liturgy is – in worship our liturgy provides structure through repeated actions that convey the story of God’s relationship with humanity in Jesus Christ.

Within our Christian faith we can live our faith in several ways, in private devotion, in acts of service to our neighbours in our community, in working for justice here and around the world, and through participation in the rituals of our church community. Through the rituals of Sunday worship and weddings and funerals and special services, we learn the Christian story and the meanings attached by the church to events. Liturgy is a way for us to enter the presence of the holy. Liturgy gives a recognizable order to worship so that we can enter into this experience.

So as the ark is brought to Jerusalem, there is liturgy in music, which the Israelites must know in order to sing and play along, and blessing. The Psalms in the Bible were originally written for the liturgy of the Jewish Temple, and they are still used in our liturgy today, as we just said Psalm 24 together. We know that the early church had liturgy, as we have these prayers and hymns in the Bible from the first Christians, and we said one of them together as our call to worship, written probably about 20 years after Jesus.

So in our United Church, and in other mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, we come from a liturgical tradition. There are churches which are non-liturgical, although even their worship services are not complete free for alls lacking any structure.

There are lots of folks who see liturgy in the same way as Michal saw David’s dancing. They wonder what any of this structure has to do with modern life, and particularly how liturgy with its formality and references to ancient stories and repetition of very old prayers can possibly appeal to young people today. But surveys show that whether or not a church’s worship is liturgical or non liturgical isn’t actually a big concern to younger folks. And it may not be true that younger generations lack appreciation for formal signs and symbols and rituals. If you think about it, two of the primary experiences for young people are education and sports. There is ritual in education, particularly in graduation ceremonies. Sports are full of ritual and traditions. The Olympic games will begin later this month, and we will see an opening ceremony, and an Olympic flag raising and Olympic anthem and Olympic oath, and rituals and ceremonies during the games. All of this means that our liturgy need not be excessively formal and wordy, but it need not be overly casual either.

We have a liturgical tradition, but it hasn’t remained stationary. All the changes I mentioned in service time and length and sermon length and music met with as much disapproval from some worshippers as David worshipping God by dancing in front of the ark. One big change was during the Protestant Reformation when worship in Latin was replaced by worship in the language of the people. The version of the Bible read in worship and the hymn books we use have changed, during our lifetimes. Since the United Church was formed we have had the 1930 Hymnal, the Songs of the Gospel supplement, the 1971 red hymn book, the green Songs For a Gospel People supplement, Voices United, and the More Voices supplement. And all of these have been criticized as much as Michal dissed David.

One way that our liturgical tradition has been changing came in the 1970s. There was a liturgical movement after the Roman Catholic Church had made its shift away from worshipping in Latin, and the main Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church began looking at bringing our different liturgical ways back to their roots in the early church. This was all part of a push for ecumenism, unity among the various strands of Christianity. It produced the red hymn book, a joint production of the Anglican and United churches that were looking to merge at that time. It gave us our lectionary, the common cycle of readings that major Protestant and Catholic churches share each Sunday. If you look at the 1969 Service Book of the United Church of Canada, there’s a lectionary in there, but it’s unique to the United Church and used by no one else. And if you read through that lectionary, you see that seasons we now mark in the church, like Advent, Epiphany, and Lent, aren’t mentioned at all. Many of us can probably remember that.

I want to talk about this a little today. Part of liturgy as the rituals of worship is teaching the symbols of our faith and the meanings the church attaches to what is happening. At one time we learned this through Sunday school and liturgy just provided a refresher course throughout our adult lives. But it’s no longer true that people are exposed to church rituals from childhood onwards. When I lead wedding or funeral services there are often – no, there are always – people who have no idea what to do or what the rituals involve or what they mean. So starting in September we are going to look more closely at one part of the liturgy during each worship service and refresh ourselves or learn together about it, so it is our shared ritual.

And today I want to look briefly at how, as part of this liturgical movement, Protestant and Catholic churches began sharing a common liturgical calendar with the major seasons. The church calendar that these major churches now share begins in Advent, at the end of November or beginning of December, with the stories of the future return of Christ and of the events leading up to his first coming in his birth at Christmas. And Christmas is the next season, lasting just 12 days. Epiphany means to make known, and this season is about how Christ is made known, beginning with the visit of the wise men. Lent is the season of repentance and searching ourselves to get ready for Holy Week. In that week, starting on Palm Sunday, we relive the story of the last week of Christ’s life and his death on Good Friday. Easter is the joyous celebration of Christ’s resurrection, and lasts long after Easter Sunday, for another 50 days until Ascension and the birthday of the church in the story of the Holy Spirit coming upon the followers of Jesus at Pentecost. And the season after Pentecost is the longest, going until Advent comes up again.

Again, if you look in the 1969 service book there is a season of Creation, and there’s an effort to bring this back into the church calendar in September as a season looking at God’s act of creating the world. The season after Pentecost ends on Reign of Christ Sunday, which is November 25 this year.

This cycle of the seasons reminds us that the church’s time, God’s time, is not the world’s time, and it enables us to retell the story of God as Creator, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit each year. And each season has a colour. As I said, at one time all United Church ministers wore black gowns and tabs like lawyers. The clerical shirts I wear with the collars were originally designed to be more casual versions of that dress. In the 1960s ministers began wearing different vestments, and some no vestments at all, and with the liturgical movement liturgical colours came in for the vestments ministers wear and the furnishings in the sanctuary.

Roman Catholics and the major Protestant churches share a similar colour scheme. These colours are symbols, helping to remind us of the tone being set in a particular season. Advent and Lent are blue or purple, colours of preparation and repentance. Christmas, Epiphany Sunday, and Trinity Sunday are white, representing joy and happiness. Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Reformation Sunday, and All Saints are red, the colour of blood and martyrdom. Pentecost Sunday and church anniversaries are red too, for the fire of the Holy Spirit. What is called ordinary time, the season of Epiphany after Epiphany Sunday and the season after Pentecost, is green, standing for nature and representing the whole world.

None of this is carved in stone or made into law, so there are churches that use gold on Christmas Day and no one gets arrested. A symbol has to be meaningful to the people interpreting it, so white is used for funerals in churches that have Asian worshippers as the colour associated with grief in Asia is white, not black.

In worship we are gathered in together to encounter God, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to learn about our faith, and to be sent out changed. Liturgy is how we in our tradition do this in worship. So let’s look forward to learning more about what we do and why we do it. And thanks be to God for the ways we have been given to worship, as God’s children adopted through Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 06, 2012


There's a very sad story in Ottawa as police charge a well-known (and much-loved) Roman Catholic priest with stealing $240,000 in cheques and $160,000 in cash from his parish to feed a gambling addiction. The local CTV station ran a poll on its website asking if people would still give donations to their church in light of these charges - 66% responded no, although I have no idea what this means as there are no numbers on how many respondents gave to "their" church before the charges were laid, nor is there a breakdown of how many are Roman Catholic.

Yet in another story, the co-founder of Ottawa's Escapade electronic dance music festival has gone missing with $600,000 in funds from the event. I'm wondering why CTV is not asking if people will still attend festivals in light of this development.