Saturday, September 24, 2016

Like Trees Planted By Streams

Happy are those    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper...
                  from Psalm 1

Wednesday of this past week was National Tree Day, planted in the middle of National Forest Day, which concludes today. Got that straight?

I'm a big fan of trees and we've planted a number on our property, even though there are trees all around us. A silver maple which had been coming along nicely appears to have succumbed to the drought-like summer. Sliver maples like wet feet and I wasn't attentive enough. I'm in mourning.

There are lots of tree references in scripture, as I regularly point out, and the Book of Psalms begins with the metaphor of those who are true to God being like a tree planted beside a sustaining water source which gets them through life's droughts. The Old English word for tree is related to being firm, solid, steadfast, true. I like that. There is a "tree spiritual" often sung during the American Civil Rights movement based on Psalm 1.


We have been much more aware of the trees around us since our wonderful vacation in Iceland, a country of  seemingly unlimited natural beauty and very few trees. Apparently the Vikings were impressed by the trees when they first arrived more than a thousand years ago, but they probably weren't that abundant or diverse -- birch and willow. A million sheep make sure that saplings don't stand a chance, and while there has been some planting for windbreaks and in yards, it is a largely treeless landscape. The colour, the shade, the sound of rustling leaves are all marvelous gifts of the Creator, not to be taken for granted.

Are trees among your circle of friends? Have you planted trees through the years? Where do trees rank amongst the wonders of Creation?

Friday, September 23, 2016

An Anniversary of Violence & a Call to Care

Women stand in solidarity in front of the courthouse in Pembroke, Ont., on Sept. 23, 2015, the day after the murders of three Renfrew County women.

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of a tragic day in Ontario. A man who was known for violence in his domestic relationships systematically killed three women in rural Renfrew County. We are supposed to say that he allegedly murdered these women, and so I will. But he knew them all and if he's convicted, it will stand as the worst case of multiple-partner violence in Canadian history. Of course he blames them and police harassment for the outcome. Abusers rarely want to take responsibility for their violent behaviour.

It's important to note this anniversary for several reasons. It was such a terrible sequence of events and yet it really didn't get much media coverage at the time, as though this is just a grim reality of our society.

It also pointed out the difficulty of providing services and protection for women in rural and isolated settings. When my wife, Ruth, worked as an outreach counsellor for a women's shelter she was instructed to hold events in rural communities to raise awareness of the services of the shelter and the outreach office. Posters went up everywhere and the events were advertised in church bulletins. Essentially, no one came. In one store the proprietor figured women would be reluctant to even look at the poster lest someone think they had problems at home. There is no anonymity in small communities.

The anniversary reminded me once again that churches usually do next to nothing to identify the realities of domestic abuse. When Ruth worked for the outreach program we developed a relationship with the shelter and the congregation became aware of her work. Over a decade nine or ten women from the congregation approached her about concerns for daughters and granddaughters in abusive relationships, or concerns in their own relationships. Church households are not immune from domestic abuse in its various forms.

Perhaps we can all say a prayer for those living in situations of isolation and fear and desperation. And we can resolve to say more and do more as communities of faith.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Talking about Alzheimer's

Image result for can't we talk about something more pleasant

In a few minutes I will head to Mississauga to preside at the funeral of a fine member of the Bridge St. congregation. Life has been hectic since my return to work, hence my blogging silence.

Today is World Alzheimer's Day, which is an invitation to consider the implications of a disease which affects tens of millions of people, not to mention those who provide care in families and institutions. There are somewhere between 25 and 30 people in our aging congregation with dementia in some form, and we are constantly considering how to provide support for these individuals and households. A wonderfully supportive wife has managed to keep her husband at home, despite his deepening dementia. She was recently diagnosed with cancer and now wonders what to do for his care. I am impressed by her strength in the midst of such difficult circumstances.

I plan to do a study series on the subject this year, in the hope that it will provide the opportunity for discussion about dementia. The graphic book pictured above is an award winner, both humorous and poignant. It is one of the resources we will use.

Well, off I go. Comments?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Still Places

Do you remember those KIA Sportage "welcome to the swamp" commercials where they ran around in the bayou hootin" and hollerin'? No? Well, we rented a Sportage in Iceland and it was the ideal vehicle for getting off the road heavily travelled. We did have some moments when we felt we were chasing our tails, but the built-in navigation system saved us a lot of "ei-ees!"

Iceland is spectacular and exceeded our high hopes for natural beauty. The challenge is that the world is beating a path to Iceland's door. There are 330,000 citizens, making it one of the least populated nations, but this year there will be between 1.3 million and 1.5 million visitors. At some sites there is a crush of humanity and Icelanders admit that it is difficult for them, even though tourism is now an essential one third of the economy.

We are early risers and were usually on the road by 8:00, which meant we visited certain popular places before the crowds showed up. At others we discovered that lots of people want to hop out, take their "nature porn" selfies and then boot on down the highway. We would walk to the far end of the beach or promontory to get away from the press of people.

We also ventured on to some rather desolate roads, making our way carefully around potholes and sheep to find truly remote spots. On the recommendation of a local along the southeast coast we travelled inland eight kilometres on a crazy little road to a glacial tongue with it's milky white lake and river at the base. We walked for an hour or so, seeing a couple of other people, and enjoying the silence. The photo below is not ours, but this could be the same place.

Image result for glacier photos iceland

This was one of my most moving experiences (there were so many) and I was aware of the presence of the Creator in that place. In some respects this was the "ugly duckling" of our glacier experiences, although how can any glacier sighting be anything but spectacular? There was something profound and numinous about the "sound of sheer silence," to quote from the story of the prophet Elijah in the wilderness. I felt the emotion rise within me, and it was a combination of gratitude and wonder.

The lonliness and uncertainty of some of those roads and the relatively remote destinations were highlights of our trip.

Does this make sense to you? Do you experience God in the still places? Are there many of those places left?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Created and Creating...

Image result for Iceland geothermal vents

We are not alone,
    we live in God’s world.

 We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
    who has come in Jesus,
       the Word made flesh,
       to reconcile and make new,
    who works in us and others
       by the Spirit.

We trust in God...

New Creed of the United Church 1968

Yesterday morning we were walking the streets of lovely downtown Reykjavik, Iceland, then drove to the airport through lava fields which look like a lunar landscape. This morning I am at Bridge St. UC preparing for worship and musing about our spectacular vacation.

We loved Iceland with its geothermal hotspots and stories of volcanic eruptions in the not-too-distant past. We visited the geyser pictured above. We were grateful that news reports about the imminent eruption of Katla, one of  those volcanos were exaggerated, especially since two of our guesthouses gave us views of the mountain! Everywhere there is evidence that this island nation is young, at least from a geological outlook, and constantly changing.

At one point I commented to Ruth that it is sad that some conservative Christians hold to the notion of a six-day, finite Creation as a central tenet of faith. All around us was the evidence that creation is still unfolding, and it is wondrous. I had the same sense of awe and connection to the Creator when I was in Yellowstone park in the US several summers ago.

Image result for Iceland lava fieldsWe are in Creation Time in the liturgical calendar and I felt that we were immersed in the marvellous work of the God "who has created and is creating." Why would any of us want to limit the divine imagination and creativity to a matter of days?


Friday, September 09, 2016

Georgetown's Shameful Past

You may have heard that one of America's prestigious universities, Georgetown, is attempting to make amends for a terrible wrong of the 19th century. Georgetown is in Washington D.C. and is one of the country's oldest institutions of higher learning. Before emancipation Georgetown had slaves to do much of the menial work. In the 1830s 275 of these slaves were sold to Southern plantations, which were notoriously crueler and harsher places of work. Families were dispersed to various plantations and the labour all but guaranteed shorter life spans. To make this even more disturbing, Georgetown was a Jesuit university, so the ownership and sale of these slaves was sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church. The school was on the brink of bankruptcy  at that time and the sale was an ungodly godsend, roughly 3.3 million in today's dollars.

Thanks to pressure from students Georgetown will apologize for this sinful behaviour and offer breaks on tuition to the descendants of the slaves. Many are contending that this isn't nearly enough by way of reparations.

This blot of the institution's reputation brings to mind our ongoing efforts in Canada to make right the egregious wrongs of with First Nations peoples. Here it has been a combination of apologies, including by the churches involved in Residential Schools, reparations, commissions, and promises to change our culture. We're still not sure where we are going and what the outcome will be.

Were you aware of the Georgetown situation? Are you shocked to discover that a religious order owned slaves? What needs to happen, and when is enough enough?

Wednesday, September 07, 2016


I have been fascinated by illuminated manuscripts, illustrated and coloured prayer books with combinations of scripture and science since I was a university student. They were owned by the wealthy during medieval and renaissance times. Some of their owners were not literate, but they were symbols of both piety and keeping score for centuries. At times it was the women in aristocratic families who could read and used these books for devotional purposes in the chapels of their estates.  It is remarkable that so many have survived the vagaries of time, and now there is an exhibit of 150 of these manuscripts in a museum in Britain I had never heard of until last week. The Fitzwilliam is now part of Cambridge University.

The majority of the exhibits are from the Museum’s own rich collections, and those from the founding bequest of Viscount Fitzwilliam in 1816 can never leave the building and can only be seen at the Museum. For the first time, the secrets of master illuminators and the sketches hidden beneath the paintings will be revealed in a major exhibition presenting new art historical and scientific research.

Spanning the 8th to the 17th centuries, the 150 manuscripts and fragments in COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts guide us on a journey through time, stopping at leading artistic centres of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Exhibits highlight the incredible diversity of the Fitzwilliam’s collection: including local treasures, such as the Macclesfield Psalter made in East Anglia c.1330-1340, a leaf with a self-portrait made by the Oxford illuminator William de Brailes c.1230-1250, and a medieval encyclopaedia made in Paris c.1414 for the Duke of Savoy.

I know, it sounds hoighty-toighty, but what a glimpse into the past.