A Lovely Spiritual Journey You Can Take from Your Armchair

The Galápagos Islands

A Spiritual Journey by Brian D. McLaren (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2019)

          Today I want to tell you about a book I have recently read: a lovely non-fiction book by a favourite spiritual writer, Brian D. McLaren. I have read a number of Brian McLaren’s books over the years. While we were born around the same time, and hence are both second-wave Baby Boomers, our early experiences of religion were largely dissimilar. He grew up in an ultra-conservative Christian home, where he experienced religion as “pressure”. Although I did witness this kind of Christianity as a youth when I joined my best friend’s Evangelical Youth Group, I had the moderating influence of my home denomination, the more liberal United Church of Canada, which has had its problems too! I also had a father who was faithful but not afraid to question his religious faith. My  friend left the church for good when she moved away from home for precisely the same reason McLaren gives for leaving his home church: “It was just too high pressure!” That was exactly the way McLaren described his early religious life:

“Pressure. Pressure to avoid being punished — or punishable if not by adults, by the Supreme Adult. Pressure to be morally perfect and doctrinally right in the eyes of God and the religious authority figures who represent him (a fitting pronoun in that context). Pressure to be different and set apart from ‘sinners’ and the world, and especially the liberals. Pressure to evangelize and convert everyone I can so they will go to heaven with us. Pressure to be vigilant against science and ‘secular’ education because they dare to challenge our inerrant Bible. Pressure to be grateful for the amazing grace that saved a wretch like me (and would damn everybody else). Pressure to keep my inner being under strict vigilance and control because I could at any moment slip into desire, which could mean slipping into sin. Pressure not to question because questioning could lead to doubt and doubt could lead to heresy and heresy could lead to hell. Literally.” (pp. 186-187)

Clearly, location matters. As McLaren writes at the outset of his book, theology and spirituality are influenced by where you do them. (p. xi). As he notes, most of western theology has been done indoors, not from the perspective of Creation. It’s also been written largely by white, heterosexual men in highly controlled settings and not in the wilderness of the great outdoors. This is one of the reasons McLaren chose to make a second trip to the Galápagos  Islands. Invited by his friend, theologian Tony Jones, to write a book on the islands that would be part travel guide and part spiritual reflection, McLaren chose to feed the “wild” side of his theology and head for the Galápagos. He could not have found a more beautiful – or more remote  venue – in which to undertake his spiritual adventure. Consisting of five large volcanic islands and many smaller ones, the islands are located about six hundred nautical miles off the coast of Ecuador. Known for their large number of endemic species, the Galápagos Islands are famous also because it was here that Charles Darwin spent a significant time studying the wildlife. His research was to contribute to his later formulation of the theory of evolution.

The first seven or eight chapters are full of interesting pictures of the various species of birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians that make their home in the Galápagos. These chapters read like one of Rick Steves’ travelogues. I smiled as I read about the white sand of the beach that derived from thousands of years of parrotfish poop! I marvelled at McLaren’s description of the large black marine iguanas, remembering many years ago holding one of their cousins in my hand while on a visit to Mexico as a young person. The large tortoises, that can live for 120 years (to die at 70 is to die young!), the colourful flamingos, puffer birds, and variety of finches that Darwin had also observed,  all formed part of the colourful and fascinating wildlife. As McLaren writes,  “…for eight days in the Galapagos islands, I swam in everything I loved about God. It was genuinely ecstatic.” (p. 188)

But it is in the second half of the book, chapters 9 to 14, that we discover the real treasures that this little book holds. Here he delves into Darwin’s theory of evolution based on natural selection. He notes that Darwin said that it was not the smartest or the strongest who survived, but rather those who were “most adaptable to change.” (p. 144). There is a message in here for those of us who love the Church and want to see her survive, namely, that we have to be willing to adapt and change if we are to continue. This means being willing to expunge those bits of our tradition which continue to oppress peoples and destroy the planet. It means recognizing and acknowledging that our Christian faith has drifted far away from the teachings of Jesus, and instead of loving our neighbour, it has often caused untold harm and destruction. Today, as McLaren notes, we still carry the colonial legacy of racism and slavery, with its subjugation of native peoples (which even Darwin found appalling back in the early 1800s), the brutal annihilation of many species, and wanton killing of wildlife like the merciless killing of pelicans by the local fisherfolk because their feces was so acidic it burned the paint off their boats! (p. 234)

Reflecting on the legacy of colonial, imperial Christianity, McLaren admits that it is now painfully difficult to talk about God. (p.178) Like Darwin, he questions his faith. Like Darwin, he questions the whole notion of anthropocentrism. (p. 153). Like Darwin – and St. Francis of Assisi before him — he invites us to remember that the rocks, the trees, the lakes, the birds, reptiles, fish, insects and mammals are all part of the created family. They are, as the Indigenous peoples have always believed, our kin. What’s more: they have been around far longer than us. “For 245 million years , there were zero people around, but lots and lots of reptiles.” (p. 210). It seems God was happy to spend 99% of God’s time without human beings on the earth. If, for example, we were to look at a diagram of the evolutionary tree, humans represent only “the tip of one small branch of a very huge, verdant tree, and all created things are our grandparents, cousins, and siblings.” (p. 214) As he further writes, “the addition of humans to the [family] tree has been a net loss for the rest of creation, so far at least.” (p. 215)

McLaren lays the blame for the destruction in the Galápagos and many other parts of the world squarely at the feet of Euro-centric, Christian colonialism and exploitive international capitalism. He invites us to question biblical literalism and to re-think our Christian understanding of God. The only response, he argues, is that of love — love of all peoples and all Creation. The task of Christianity – and indeed all religions – Is “to become more fully human, fully alive, fully members of the planetary neighbourhood we share with all creatures, all our relations.“ (p. 269)

How Smart is Your Smart Phone?

The other day I could not help but overhear two Boomer women telling a salesclerk (also a Boomer) that it will be a long time before either of them gives in to using a smart phone. “I don’t want people phoning me all the time,” they chimed. The salesclerk interjected, “Ah, but folks could email or text you.” These Boomer customers were not impressed. They were not interested in receiving emails from people and even less interested in getting text messages.

My husband, who is a late wave Boomer, carries a cell phone for emergency purposes only — and because our children and I would not stop nagging him about it! He purchased data in May, only because a trip home to Scotland for his father’s funeral meant that he would need to be able to access the Arrive Can App in order to re-enter Canada.

When all the family is at home and around the dinner table, Richard and the kids (now young adults) even have contests to see who can find the answer to a question on some issue or historical event, Richard using our hard cover encyclopaedia and the kids using their cell phones. Interestingly, Richard wins a lot of the time, as long as the event in question does not precede 2001, the year my Dad died. The encyclopaedia were his final gift to our children, but in fact are used much more by Richard and me. (Note, too, the presence of cell phones at the dinner table. That is something we would never have been permitted to use as Boomer children, even if such technology had existed then.)

I recently read an article that highlighted the fact that every generation adapts to technology differently. Usually Baby Boomers are thought of as Technology Immigrants, since they were in their late twenties to mid-forties when they started using a PC, whereas those in Generations Y and Z are Technology Natives since they never knew a world without computers and cell phones. They grew up with the internet. My youngest son, who is Generation Z, does virtually everything on his smart phone. When a senior in high school, he even wrote a two-hundred page screenplay entirely on his cell phone.

But while there are definitely some technology hold outs in the Boomer and older adult demographic, I have to say how impressed I am generally by my Boomer — and especially by friends in their late eighties — who often send me text messages or message me on Facebook. And in the Church I notice that it’s not just the young who use their cell phones to read scripture in worship or at weddings or funerals, but more and more of my Boomer friends and colleagues rely on their smart phones for this purpose. Even Richard and I will sometimes FaceTime our son and daughter-in-law in Kuwait using our smart phone — although they always have to remind us not to hold the phone up to our ear when we do so! (I guess our smart phone is only as smart as we are!)

How smart is your smart phone? How comfortable are you with modern technology? And what do you see as it’s pros and cons? I would love to hear from you!

Whether to Change Your Surname Upon Marriage or Not

There is a scene in a delightful novel I am currently reading in which the protagonist is arguing with her colleague/boyfriend about whether women should change their surnames upon marriage. The book is called Lessons in Chemistry and is written by the talented Bonnie Garmus. Two chemists, the famous, brilliant Calvin Evans, and the equally brilliant but terribly overlooked and under-valued Elizabeth Zott, are having a heated discussion. The year is 1952, a time when the parents of Baby Boomers were making decisions about careers, marriage and children, a time when women did not become chemists! Calvin has just asked Elizabeth to marry him, but much to his chagrin, she declines, primarily because she does not want to take his surname and all that this implies.

Back in the 1950s most women adopted their husbands’ surname when they married. This was not even questioned in our culture, even though there were many places in the world —Italy, Spain, and much of Asia — where this was not the practice. Whether to take one’s partner’s name upon marriage became more of an issue in the late 1960s and 1970s when the oldest Boomers were entering into marriage.

My cousin and several friends chose to keep their own surname, albeit a name they inherited from the male side of their family. Most of my gay friends have also kept their own names upon marriage. Many of my colleagues chose to hyphenate their surname with their spouse’s. I also have one male colleague who took his wife’s surname, dropping his own altogether, and I know many men who use both their wife’s surname along with their own. I seriously entertained this idea when Richard (Macgregor) and I married. This would have meant that my surname (Macdonald. — NO relation to Canada’s first Prime Minister) would have become Macdonald-Macgregor. Quite a mouthful! Given that we spent our first year of marriage in Scotland and I was serving in a fairly traditional Presbyterian kirk in Edinburgh, there was no way anyone in this ancient town was going to call me anything other than Mrs. Macgregor! (The Scots at that time had not adopted our North American habit of using first names). I felt like a character out of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit! Was my task in life to bake rabbit pie?

Interestingly, before I met Richard I vowed that I would never marry someone with a name like mine, which was constantly misspelled. I would get MC donald instead of MAC donald or folks would make the d in donald a capital. But this problem did not go away when I adopted Richard’s surname, since his surname has the same challenges: Macgregor, NOT MacGregor and not McGregor.

While I have not regretted my decision to take Richards’s surname 37 years ago, I acknowledge that this tradition is highly problematic. Let’s be honest. The practice of taking one’s husband’s surname was birthed in a deeply patriarchal culture where the bride was considered to become the property of her husband’s family. That said, I have never felt like I was anyone’s personal property. Indeed, I have been able to find fulfillment in my chosen vocation both as a married woman and as a professional.

What has your experience been? Did you adopt your partner’s surname or would you do so if you were to marry now? What do you think are the pros and cons? I would love to hear from you!

Now back to reading Garmus’s novel!

John Borrows, Indigenous Baby Boomer and Professor of Indigenous Law

 John Borrows, Professor of Indigenous Law and Baby Boomer of the Chippewas

Today I highlight the contributions of Indigenous Law Professor John Borrows, who is also part of the second wave of Canadian Baby Boomers. Borrows grew up on the Cape Croker reserve on picturesque  Georgian Bay. Anishinaabe-Ojibway, he is a member of the Chippewas of the Nawash First Nation. Descended from several chiefs, he credits his mother with giving him a love of Indigenous stories and for teaching him the laws of their people. The latter led him to major in Law, earning  his PhD in Law from Osgoode Hall, Toronto.  Later he went on to create and teach some of the earliest courses of study in Indigenous Law in Canada and around the world. He has taught at the University of Toronto, Princeton, New South Wales, Waikato, UBC, and Victoria, where he currently teaches.

Borrows says Indigenous Law means “living well in the world”. It is “not just given or handed down”. Rather it is “decision making in action”. Drawing from the rugged and hauntingly beautiful landscape of his native Georgian shores, Borrows notes that Indigenous Law “flows from the rocks, the waves, the rivers and all creation”. Its sources draw on both the spiritual and natural worlds, as well as the teachings and values of the Ancestors, emphasising the principles of kindness, responsibility, nurturing and caring for others. Unlike English Common Law, which is written and focusses on the individual and retribution for individual wrongs, Indigenous Law is oral in nature, community centred, focussed on restoration and aims to restore balance to the community.

I wonder. Is it possible for two legal systems to co-exist in a single territory? Might each borrow from the other and better respond to changing social dynamics? Where have you seen this happen?

Boomers Raised to be Good Citizens, Not Disciples of Jesus

Nearly 50 years ago, John Westerhoff published a book on Christian education which sold millions and was translated into no fewer than six different languages. In it Westerhoff posed a question that is even more urgent in 2022 than it was then: Will our children have faith?

In 1976, when Westerhoff published his book, the youngest Baby Boomers were twelve. It is generally agreed that Boomers were the last generation to fill  United Church of Canada Sunday School classrooms and youth groups on a regular weekly basis. Does this make them more religious, more spiritual, or more faithful to the teachings of the Church? Not really. Those who have studied the United Church of Canada in depth have found that the desire to see our children raised in the church had less to do with the saving of souls and much more to do with creating people who would become good, hardworking, law-abiding citizens of Canada. Thus, when many of these Boomers were confirmed, they did what most young people do when they graduate from high school. They left. Their education complete, they were ready to embark on the path of responsible citizenship. Some of course stayed or, over the years, found their way back to church. But many did not. We taught them how to be good citizens, but we failed to give them a faith they could live for, a faith that would sustain them not only in the good times but also through the hard times.

We also failed to connect their own story with the story of Jesus Christ, so that with each generation the story grows dimmer and dimmer. And not surprisingly, so has our faith. As probably our greatest Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “A church that no longer asks about its theological foundations [ – about its founding story — ] will be absorbed, sooner or later, in the general secular mélange. It’s only a matter of time.”

Sadly, it seems that this is where we find ourselves today.

Another Charming Coming of Age Tale for Those of Us in Life’s Second Half

Last week you may recall that I talked about a lovely coming of age novel for those of us in the second half of life: Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting. This week I would like tell you about another novel from the same genre that I read over the summer: How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior.

The curmudgeonly but loveable Veronica McCreedy sits down one evening to watch a documentary about a penguin colony in Antarctica, only to find herself inexorably drawn to these adorable little creatures.  In fact, she contemplates leaving her vast fortune to the team of scientists who work at the base. Just to be sure that this is the best use of her money, she resolves to visit the isolated outpost, even though the scientists strongly urge her not to come to their extremely remote, cramped, and humble rustic abode. But Veronica does not listen.

Thus begins an adventure that takes Veronica from the comforts of her lovely estate in Ayrshire, Scotland to the opposite ends of the earth. The adventure, however, turns out to be less about geography and more about an exploration into the human heart. Not only does Veronica connect with a grandson she did not even know she had, but she also rescues and befriends a tiny, orphaned penguin who works his way into her heart and the hearts of all the scientists at the base. As she reflects on her long life, with its sorrows and disappointments, Veronica discovers new purpose and for the first time feels that her life has meaning and worth.  More importantly, she finds her family.

A Wonderful Novel for the Second Half of Life — or Any Age

Lately I have been drawn to a new genre of literature: coming of age books for those of us who find ourselves in the second half of life. One of my favourite reads this past summer is a book by British author Clare Pooley, Iona Iverson’s Rule for Commuting. A Novel.

Iona Iverson is a fashionable, highly opinionated but loveable advice columnist who takes the train every day from her home in Hampton Court to her workplace in the heart of London. She is an astute observer of the people who also ride the train to work each day, but she does not actually get to know anyone personally. Why? Because one never talks to strangers! Then one of the passengers, a pompous git called Piers, chokes on a grape and suddenly everyone around him, including Iona, flies into emergency response mode to help him. Through this freak encounter, during which Piers nearly dies, an eclectic group of strangers is suddenly brought together in a most delightful way. Witty, fun, charming, uplifting, this feel-good novel shows what can happen when we take down our guard and open ourselves up to the possibility of caring for others quite different from ourselves. Pooley invites us into the lives of unforgettable characters who are complicated, quirky, and funny.

While Iona wrestles with the issues and prejudices that face many older adults in the workforce, she soon makes friends with people all across the generations. In the process she discovers that strangers can teach you a lot — not only about who they are but also about yourself. You learn, moreover, that you are never too old to start again, especially if you are surrounded by supportive and caring companions.

A New Three-Session Training Program on Spiritual Care and Ageing featuring Professor John Swinton sponsored by CHAT

Returning from a three-month sabbatical study leave this week, I was delighted to find this excellent new course on Spiritual Care and Ageing which can be accessed through Zoom. It is sponsored by CHAT — The Centre for Healthy Aging Transitions in Vancouver, B.C. This very timely and helpful program is designed for those working in accredited seniors centres and residences and for multi-faith spiritual and religious leaders and volunteers. Do check it out!

Visit connect@chatcanada.org for more information and to discover new pathways to meaningful ageing with Spiritual Care Series.


Over the past few weeks I have been looking at the elements that help to build resilience in life: community, legacy, spirituality, and gratitude. The final factor in building a strong, resilient life is service. If you want to build a happy, healthy life, you need to get out of yourself and into the lives of others.

 Over the last three decades I have had an opportunity to get to know many resilient women. Some I have known very closely. Some I have only met or learned about through their memoirs. When I consider their example, service to others is a constant theme. All of them came from fairly ordinary, even humble  backgrounds. But within their own contexts, they all found ways to love and serve others.

 For example, right until her death Elizabeth was a dedicated volunteer in both church and community, sharing generously of her wisdom and mentoring many women like myself; Shirley cared lovingly for her grandchildren, who included I am happy to say my own four children who were not part of her biological family; Rena worked tirelessly to help our Indigenous relations and also made her voice heard in the cause of Amnesty International; Anna refused to let her community forget the horrors of the Holocaust and in her service as mayor kept the cause of peace and environmental justice front and centre; and Jean (Augustine) worked and continues to work tirelessly to end systemic racism and injustice in our society. She also  played a key role in establishing February as Black History Month in Canada.

          In an address that the famous missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer once gave to a class of students graduating from university, he said: “The only ones of you who will be truly happy in life are those of you who seek and find a way to serve.” He might have said: “The only ones of you who will be truly resilient in life are those of you who seek and find a way to serve.”      

So community, legacy, spirituality, gratitude, and service – five  practices that are the hallmark of a strong, healthy, resilient life. These are all practices that everyone of us can learn. To quote Catherine DeVrye, “like tiny seeds with potent power, we can push through tough ground and become mighty trees, for we hold innate reserves of unimaginable strength. We are resilient.”

Before I close today, I want to let you know that this will be my last blog for a while. On May 1st, I begin a three-month sabbatical followed by a month of holidays in August. This will be a time of learning and discernment as I pursue studies in pastoral leadership and theology at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, as well as a time for much needed rest and renewal.  I wish you all a safe, relaxing and enjoyable spring and summer and look forward to seeing you again in September. Making time for rest is also key to building personal resilience so I hope you will build some rest into your life into the coming months too!

Thank you: Two Little Words that Have Great Power

The fourth factor that contributes to a strong, resilient life is related to spirituality, which we discussed last week. I call this practice gratitude. Psychologists tell us that the expression of gratitude is a kind of meta strategy for building personal resilience and achieving happiness. Those of you who keep a gratitude journal will know what I mean.

First, the practice of gratitude can help us to re-frame those experiences in life that cause us distress or anxiety. Instead of focussing on the deep loneliness that many of us felt during Covid, for example, some have sought to look at the positive things that emerged from this experience, like more time for personal reflection and prayer, the development of patience, finding creative new ways to connect with people, and even spending more time in nature.

Think of gratitude as an anti-dote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, avarice, hostility, worry and irritation. So, it’s much bigger and broader than simply saying thank you for a gift, or a nice compliment, or when someone has passed you the butter!

The world’s most prominent researcher and writer about gratitude, Robert Emmons, defines it as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”  Dr. Anne Beattie-Stokes writes that “gratitude awakens us to beauty, to wonder, to love, to ourselves, and to others.”

When you think of it, two little words can have tremendous power for good: Thank You!