Thursday, April 27, 2017

Even the Pope!

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During Holy Week Michael Higgins wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail paper about the growing criticism aimed at Pope Francis. For some of us Francis is moving excruciatingly slowly toward reform of the Roman Catholic church and a more open interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many in the hierarchy of the church who have become more vocal in their opposition, as well as parish priests. Here is how Higgins describes what the pontiff is facing:

As Pope Francis begins the holiest cycle in the Catholic liturgical year – the Triduum – the sufferings of humanity will not be lost on him. There are many walking their own way of sorrows, and Francis has diligently taken up their cause: the nameless migrants stranded at points of entry, the victims of violence in the Middle East, those directly affected by famine and drought in South Sudan. He has been their companion in sympathy from the onset of his pontificate.

[Francis] has washed the feet of Muslim women prisoners; he has personally housed refugees; he has travelled to dangerous regions to stand in solidarity with the persecuted.
But this year’s Passiontide also has a strong personal connection. The Roman pontiff is a bridge-builder and a symbol of unity. It is part of the job description. Dissension, disagreement, threats of division constitute the mother of papal headaches and Francis is not the first pope to face down internal threats to doctrinal and institutional unity.
But he is the first pope in centuries to have to do so in the face of increasingly aggressive displays of criticism coming from his own collaborators in ministry, from anonymous staff emboldened by a new climate of attack and by laity alarmed by the consequences of mature discipleship.

Resistance to his prophetic synodal document Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has not diminished, disdain for his general indifference to the priorities of canon law has not abated, and defiance – dressed up as fidelity to tradition – by ecclesiastics, fearful of the decline of their authority and prestige, is growing in intensity if not in transparency.
Unflattering caricatures of the Pope have appeared in graffiti and posters on Roman streets, traditionalist Catholic scholars and clerics have publicly called for some kind of intervention because the church, as they see it, is “drifting perilously like a ship without a rudder, and indeed, shows symptoms of incipient disintegration.”

Yikes. Even the spiritual leader of the world's largest Christian body takes major heat, which is some comfort for those of us who are the clergy foot soldiers in congregations of every stripe. There are always people who are grumpy, angry, and even vile in churches. They want their own way, even when they're not sure what their way is. My experience is that some individuals have no desire to consider other points of view, and in some cases they don't really care about being Christian. And some people hate change, even though they want churches to be full like the 50's.

I got a message from a United Church colleague, ironically a former Roman Catholic priest, who is enjoying a positive ministry but is dealing with a very difficult parishioner. He is exasperated by what to do, and I certainly understand his dilemma. Apparently the pope does as well. We can pray for him and all those who are under fire in the communities where love should abound.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

For God So Loves Us All

The funeral of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was held on Monday in his hometown of Bristol, Conn. Hernandez's body arrived at a funeral home in Bristol on Saturday and the private burial will be at an undisclosed location.

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16 (NRSV)

I have written in the past about John 3:16, the verse found in an exchange between Jesus and a religious leader named Nicodemus who sought Jesus out in the quiet of the evening for what became a baffling and profound conversation about birth and rebirth, the unpredictable wind of the Spirit, and the nature of God's love.

This verse has been stuck onto bumpers, banned from sports venues, quoted and misquoted. It may be the best known verse of the New Testament. Recently it showed up in an sad and unsettling manner, on the forehead of a dead man.

Former National Football League star Aaron Hernandez died in his prison cell in Massachusetts recently, where he was serving a life sentence for the murder of a former friend. He had been acquitted of two other murders days before his death because of lack of evidence. Hernandez was an exceptional tight end who seemed quiet off the field, but a rough and violent early life appears to have continued into adulthood.  

When Hernandez's body was found there were suicide notes and a bible near his body. On his forehead he had written the bible reference, no doubt aware that many would be familiar with it.

At the time Hernandez was convicted I shook my head at the callous nature of his violent act. I felt sadness, though, when I heard that he had died in this way. It is a reminder that beneath the horrendous acts which some people perpetrate there is a human being created by God and loved by God, who became present to us, in Jesus, our Saviour and Friend.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Resurrection Promise

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Last weekend we went to see my elderly mother to wish her a happy Easter. We took her chocolate eggs and flowers so she would have a sense of occasion, but she is moving into the twilight of awareness of the seasons of the Christian year, even though her faith has always been important to her. Usually we can find at least one fruitful thread for conversation, but not during this visit.

Mom did brighten and smile at photos and a little video of her great-grandsons. She always does. And she listened attentively as I read her the story of resurrection morning from the gospel of John. My mother had a beautiful singing voice so I told her that we had sung familiar Easter hymns in worship. Ruth and I fumbled our way through the first verse of Welcome Happy Morning, and she joined in. Then we turned to Jesus Christ is Risen Today. We were good on the tune, but not the lyrics. Fortunately Mom remembered where we forgot, which was a poignant moment.

This past week has been tough for her, with lots of confusion. Twice staff found her waiting to be picked up, once to be taken to the airport. She was a travel agent for many years, wending her way around the planet with groups in tow. She loved her work, so perhaps hope springs eternal for one more adventure.  

At 91 it seems unfair that life for her has come to this. Yet we realize life is rarely fair, and despite many difficult challenges through the years Mom has always carried on with grace. Our hope is that she will soon enter her resurrection promise, but in the meantime we will do our best to be a loving and supportive family.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Worthy Earthy Worship

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When we chatted after work this past Thursday I announced to Ruth, my wife, that I was ready for Sunday worship, including a completed sermon. She know that my goal each week is Friday, noon, so she asked how and why I was done so quickly. Today is Earth Sunday, and I derive great pleasure, even joy from the preparation for this service, as with the Creation Time services in the Fall. Everything seems to come together more readily because of my passion for the subject. Creation Time requires more planning, because it is a series of services in a mini-season, but Earth Sunday is an occasion to celebrate Creator and Creation as Spring emerges in southern Ontario. Easter Sunday roams all over the map, so there are no guarantees that the March and early April dates won't include snow. But Earth Sunday tends to be safe as the closest Sunday to Earth Day, which is always April 22nd (this year, yesterday.) 

Earth Sunday isn't really part of the liturgical calendar, although it shows up as Earth/Camping Sunday on the Canadian Church Calendar. More than ever though, we need to connect our hearts, our heads, and our actions with an appreciation that we are called to be responsible creatures on God's good Earth. We also affirm that "God so loved the world" that God entered into the created order in the person of Jesus. In my sermon today I'll quote a portion of the observation below by Wendell Berry, a writer and "geologian" who is so wise about our relationships with the soil and the water and the sky.

I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a “hypaethral book,” such as Thoreau talked about—a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbably or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of the water into wine—which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.
                                           Wendell Berry,  Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community

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Friday, April 21, 2017

The Root of Environmental Responsibility

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Radical U.S. environmentalist calls Trudeau ‘stunning hypocrite,’
targets museum’s links to oil.

This headline in an article from the National Post by John Ivison made me chuckle aloud when I discovered who this "radical" is. Bill McKibben has been writing thoughtfully about environmental issues for decades. I corresponded with him years ago because I discovered he was a Sunday School teacher in his Vermont congregation and was intrigued to find out a little more about his Christian faith.

McKibben has certainly become a more vocal and, well, active activist through the years. He heads up the organization which fights climate change and he got himself arrested along with some celebs when protesting the Keystone pipeline in Washington D.C. But c'mon, the guy wears a suit to get thrown in the hoosegow!
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Last week he wrote an article in Britain's The Guardian newspaper criticizing Prime Minister Trudeau and the Canadian government for speaking out of both sides of their mouths on climate change. Here is how Ivison begins his Post piece:

Bill McKibben, a radical U.S. environmentalist who would prefer to keep all carbon in the ground, has upset the Trudeau government by calling the prime minister “the brother” of Donald Trump on climate change. Now, McKibben is lobbying the Canadian Museum of History to cut ties with its sponsor, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an organization he calls “sleazy oil lobbyists.” The Liberals are apparently concerned about the criticism denting support for their twin-track policy of approving pipelines and imposing a national carbon tax. They are encouraging more moderate environmental voices to disassociate themselves from the what one called McKibben’s “stratospheric hyperbole.”

Hey, I have considerable misgivings about the mixed messages we're getting from the Liberal government. Sign on to the Paris Climate Change agreement? Well done. Carbon tax? Hopefully a step in the right direction. Approve pipelines? Hmm. Tell Texas oil types we have a sea of tarsands just waiting to ooze their way?  Justin, please help me understand. I want more than gleamy grinned  platitudes.

Is Bill McKibben a radical? Maybe, but not in the blow-up-a-pipeline, live-in-a-treehouse notion of the term. He is pushing us to get "to the root" of the challenges we face, which is what "radical" means. He rattles all our cages, the way the prophets and Jesus did. Isn't that what we're supposed to learn about in Sunday School? Perhaps we all need to be radicals as faithfully concerned citizens of Planet Earth.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Shall We Gather at the River?

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Through the years I have worked with evangelical pastors who have a deep concern for the wellbeing of the environment, believing that Creation Care is biblically mandated. The ministerial in the community where I lived before coming to Belleville was mostly evangelical clergy and we sponsored a day-long workshop on faith and the environment which was well attended.

There have been other conservative Christians and leaders who are deeply suspicious of any efforts to include care for the Earth in their God-talk. We know that in the United States evangelicals have enthusiastically supported a president who denies climate change and is dismantling environmental regulations. This is deeply discouraging.

News that evangelical pastors along the Colorado River are preaching and teaching environmental awareness and care for ecosystems in encouraging. An article in the New York Times a few days ago began this way:

YUMA, Ariz. — The Rev. Victor Venalonzo opened his New Testament to the Book of Revelation on a recent Sunday and offered the men and women assembled at Iglesia Betania for a weekly Bible study a fresh look at its apocalyptic message.
“We’re failing as stewards of God’s creation, but these changes we’re seeing, that’s not God punishing us — we’re destroying ourselves,” Mr. Venalonzo told them. He alternated between English and Spanish, as he does all day in his Pentecostal church, which sits across from a trailer park and a half-mile from the Mexican border, serving Latinos who have recently arrived in the country and those born in the United States.
Until recently, the environment was never a topic that Mr. Venalonzo included in sermons to his congregants, who are mostly concerned about how they will pay their bills, find work, and keep their children on course in school and away from drugs.
But that has changed as development, drought, overuse and a drier, warming climate threaten the Colorado River, the source of the water they drink and use to irrigate the fields where they work. “Our lifeblood,” Mr. Venalonzo calls it.

The once mighty Colorado has become a trickle in it's lower reaches and no longer flows to the sea. There just isn't enough water to meet all the demand, so everyone suffers.  Some of the pastors would baptize converts in the river, but is now so shallow that this isn't possible in some places.

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We all come to an understanding of our human effect on climate and our need to protect the world around us in different ways and at different stages. I'm just glad to hear that God is opening the eyes and ears of these Christians. Let's hope that more will pay attention.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Violence in the Desert

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I have no "bucket list" and don't really like the term, but I hoped that one day I would get to St Catherine's monastery in Egypt's south Sinai desert. The monastery is at the base of the mountain associated with God's numinous revelation to Moses, and the giving of the commandments which would become foundational for Judeo/Christian ethics and morality. It is a Unesco world heritage site and one of the oldest monasteries in the world.  From all accounts St. Catherine's is in a remarkable, holy location and climbing to the summit to greet the sunrise sounds like an extraordinary experience. I actually planned to take a flight from Israel during a trip that was cancelled.

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Sadly, it is not immune from violence. Earlier this week Islamic State fighters opened fire at a nearby checkpoint. Again we need to be aware of the persecution of Christians and desecration of Christian sites in many places. We know that recent attacks on two Coptic Christian churches left 45 people dead.

Will I get to St. Catherine's now? Probably not, but that it of minor concern. I can't complain given that I've been to Israel several times.  What really matters is the security of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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