Saturday, April 21, 2018

"Sprinter" is Dead. Hallelujah!

This was one of the first days of 2018 when we weren't pretending it was Spring when it was actually Sprinter. We spent lots of time outside, including chinwags with neighbours who are all recovering from the trauma of last weekend's snow/ice pellet/freezing rain storm.

Today's warmth was a blessing from the Creator, so why not click on my Groundling blog link to read about the Blessing from the Woods.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Boy on the Beach & Our Reponse

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In the Fall of 2015 I was approached by a member of the Bridge St UC, the congregation which I served until retirement. He was a retired military man, a physician who had also been a hospital administrator. A highly capable individual, he is also a compassionate Christian. As with so many of us he had been shaken by the heart-wrenching photos of "the boy on the beach," the young Syrian boy who drowned along with other members of his family as they attempted to escape to Greece. We had learned by that point that the boy had a name, Alan Kurdi.  My parishioner wanted to know if I would support efforts to sponsor a Syrian refugee family. I know that if Ian was behind this it would happen -- he's that kind of person.

I said yes and this sponsorship did happen, by the grace of God, along with the remarkable work of a coalition of church and community people in Belleville. Ours was a family of five, which arrived as the Canadian government sponsorship program was ramping up. In the end, more than 25,000 Syrian refugees came to Canada and the Belleville group which included Bridge St ended up sponsoring 23 members of the same family. It was one of the most satisfying and inspiring initiatives of my nearly four decades of pastoral ministry.

 The Boy on the Beach, by Tima Kurdi.

There is a new book called The Boy on the Beach by Tima Kurdi, Alan's aunt, as well as of his brother Ghalib. Tima lives in Canada and heads the Kurdi Foundation which provides nutritious meals, clothing, and medicine to youth in refugee camps in honour of her nephews. The Toronto Star offered this excerpt from the book and it is a reminder of the terrible family tragedy which sparked the compassion of a nation.

We must remember that the crisis of migrants and refugees in precarious circumstances continues and that we are able to live the love of Christ is practical ways.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Our Higher Loyalties

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 “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,
but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”

Reinhold Niebuhr quoted by James Comey

President Trump has been losing his mind (I considered using another, earthier word) over the new book called A Higher Loyalty by James Comey, the former director of the FBI. Trump summarily fired Comey is his usual classless way, demeaning him and practically throwing him out the door. Comey found out that he was done through the media.

Comey is an interesting character. Weeks before the presidential election he tipped the scales in Trump's favour by questioning Hilary Clinton's security measures when she was Secretary of State. While the FBI found no evidence of substantive wrongdoing, only sloppiness, the damage was done. Comey now says that he raised this publicly because he was sure Clinton would win and this would lay to rest the rumours and conspiracy theories about her competence. It sounds weak to me, but it may be true.

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I'm intrigued that Comey is something of a theological thinker and admires one of the leading Christian voices in America during the 20th century. Reinhold Niebuhr was a liberal Protestant theologian, perhaps the most prominent one of his time, and he was featured on the cover of Time seventy years ago in 1948. Comey wrote his undergraduate thesis on Niebuhr who is best known to most of us for what is often termed The Serenity Prayer.

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Comey actually used "Reinhold Niebuhr" as his Twitter handle until he was outed. Niebuhr's thought has helped shape Comey's perspective on "right and wrong" and establishing where our ultimate loyalties rest.

In A Higher Loyalty Comey offers about Trump that;“This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.” Comey also likens Trump to a mafia boss who lies incessantly and demanded a personal loyalty rather than to law and truth that he wasn't willing to promise.

I don't know if Comey repeated the Serenity Prayer is the troubled days around his firing but I suggest The Donald use it as a mantra (I won't hold my breath.)  

Just in time for Earth Day my Groundling blog has emerged from hibernation. It's just a mouse click away

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Memory and Justice

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                          Auschwitz entrance sign: "Work Sets You Free"

I grew up in the generation which heard a great deal about World War II,  some of through  the stories of parents and family members who served in that global conflict. Both my father and father-in-law served in the military. As kids derogatory terms such as Krauts and Japs were used without reservation. We watched war TV dramas such as Rat Patrol and Combat! There were even WW2 comedies including McHale's Navy and Hogan's Heroes.

We were also very aware of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis. We learned that six million Jews were exterminated in what were euphemistically called Concentration Camps but were centres for mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others designated for annihilation by Hitler's regime. Jews were targeted for their ethnicity and religion and vilified as enemies of the state and humanity even though they contributed greatly to their societies in many ways, including political and military service.

Last week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day we saw images of Israeli's stopping whatever they were doing for two minutes at 10 AM. They stop their vehicles on highways and bear witness in the silence. I have been in Israel when this takes place and it is a somber and moving reminder of the Shoah, the Calamity.

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We also learned that an American poll of Millennials found that four in ten didn't know that six million Jews had been murdered during the war and two thirds didn't recognize the name Auschwitz as the Death Camp where a million Jews perished. It's chilling that this is the case, and a reminder that even the darkest events of human history can be forgotten.

I was encouraged to see that in Poland, a country whose government is systematically attempting to downplay its involvement in the extermination of Jews, there was what is called the International March of the Living to commemorate the Shoah. Young people and others from around the world gather to walk three kilometres from Auschwitz to Birkenau, another of the notorious camps.

We know that anti-Jewish sentiments continue to exist around the planet and often promulgated by fundamentalist of other religions. We can pray that education about the past will inform just and inclusive societies.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Jimmy Carter and Faith

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Jimmy Carter has fascinated me for years, ever since he seemed to arise from nowhere to become President of the United States. Forty years ago the presidency was a position of both power and dignity, not a political clown car. Carter made a point of including humility as well, and left the clowning to his brother Billy.

In the end he was a rarity, a one-term president, and the analysis proclaimed him weak and ineffectual. I would take that over the strutting "mission accomplished" posturing of Bush 2.0 and Trump. Carter went on to broker peace on several occasions and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

At 93 former president Carter continues to be a remarkably active man, emerging from what was supposedly life-ending brain cancer to champion the cause of women around the world and challenge the activities of Israel in the Occupied Territories. He left the Southern Baptist church eighteen years ago over unequal treatment of women and men. He has actively worked for Habitat for Humanity and had a "spell" working on a house building project in Winnipeg last July.

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Carter is also a Christian, and not the skim-the-surface nonsense of many politicians in the States. He taught an adult Sunday School class before his presidency and returned to it afterward, although he has decided to step back from this role as a nonagenarian.

He has just released another book, his 32nd, called Faith and in a Religion News Service interview about it he responds to a question about prayer:

You write that “God is not my personal valet.” What do you mean by that?

(Laughs) When I was younger I used to devote my prayers primarily to things that I wanted God to help me get or to do or to accomplish. As I’ve gotten older and older I realized that my main prayers — I didn’t make this decision in advance — but my main prayers are ones of thanksgiving. And I had this feeling in particular when I thought a couple of years ago that I was going to die in a couple of weeks from cancer. I had cancer in my liver and also four places in my brain. And so I thought my life was about over and I realized at that time that I didn’t have any fear of death. I was just grateful for the wonderful life that I had been granted.

What a guy, although he does not play golf.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

A Death Penalty Religion

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While there is a trend toward remaking Jesus into a thoughtful sage rather than someone considered dangerous to the state, let along the saviour of the world, the reality is that Christianity is a death penalty religion. Whether you consider Jesus as God incarnate or a profound teacher he died an excruciating death on the cross. It was one of the grisly forms of execution used by the Roman Empire and it was meant as a deterrent for those with revolutionary ideas, along with pesky common criminals. We know too that followers of Jesus, including the apostle Paul were executed as well.

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Amnesty International just published its Death Penalty Report for 2017. It appears that the planetary trend is toward fewer capital punishment deaths. Fewer executions were carried out around the world in 2017 than the year prior and the number of people sentenced to death also went down. This is encouraging, although there were still nearly 1,000 verified executions, and no one knows how many people China put to death. Given that China employs the death penalty more than any other nation, this is a significant gap in knowledge.

The report also reminds us all that statistical evidence shows that the death penalty doesn't act as a deterrent: "For example in Canada, the homicide rate in 2016 was almost half that in 1976, when the death penalty was abolished there." I remember well the outcry during the debate about abolishing the death penalty with the argument that murder rates would soar. A few years after the abolition  I worked as a chaplain intern at Kingston Penitentiary. I listened to many convicted murderers and I can't recall a single one suggesting that they carefully considered the consequences and possible sentences for their crimes.

Even today many would like the death penalty to be reinstated in Canada as a punitive measure. I don't get the sentiment. Sure there would be the possible immediate terror of dying, but when you're dead you're dead. Long-term incarceration can be a living hell, so why kill the perpetrator? Of course, there is always the possibly of a change of heart, which does happen even though it doesn't change the sentence

According to the Amnesty report, for the 9th consecutive year, the USA remained the only country to carry out executions in the region. The number of executions (23) and death sentences (41)  in the USA slightly increased compared to 2016, but remained within historically low trends of recent years. For the second year in a row, and the second time since 2006, the USA did not feature among the top five global executioners, with its position in the global ranking dropping from 7th to 8th.

I have my days when my anger rises and I figure barbaric world leaders such as Assad of Syria or those who kill children should be executed. I come back around to "do not repay evil for evil" which shows up a couple of times in the New Testament. Not to mention the question on the button below, one which I wore years ago.

Oh yes, crucifixion is still a possible form of capital punishment in Syria and Saudi Arabia

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Revisioning Ministry in the 21st Century

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I wrote this blog entry on Saturday with the threat of a storm looming for the rest of that day and well into this one. It may mean cancellation of Sunday morning worship at Trenton United, our new church home. We make the 25 minute drive because son Isaac has been the minister there since the beginning of January and thankfully is a creative, thoughtful, and Christian worship leader. And we get to see the rest of the family, including out two beloved grandlads, to boot.

There is another service scheduled for today, Isaac's covenanting, which is supposedly at 2 PM. This is the service of welcome and promises involving the new minister, the congregation and the presbytery. It may be relegated to another date. I'm ready, though, as the preacher for this service. In all my years of ministry I can't recall a parent speaking at a child's covenanting, although it may happen more often than I know. I certainly consider it a unique privilege.

Isaac felt a sense of call early in his life, "kicked tires" with some other career options, and eventually returned to God's nudging toward ministry. While at seminary professors encouraged him toward the academic life because he has a fine theological mind but he's been steadfast that his calling is to pastoral ministry.

I wish I could claim to be a wonderfully supportive Dad in terms of that original call, but I wasn't always. Even though there are several generations of clergy on both sides of the family I'm a Babyboomer who has lived through the steady decline of the United Church as it ages and shrinks. I have no regrets about answering my own call, but there was a sense that we were becoming the denominational version of the Cheshire Cat, with little more than the grin left in place. I just wanted to protect my child from the frustration and heartache of these circumstances for his ministry.

Isaac sees it differently, accepting some aspects of a church radically different from the one in which he grew up and also willing to be imaginative in revisioning ministry for the twenty-first century. He realizes that he may not have the same length of ministry as his father or grandfathers. There is always a certain risk to answering the call of God, and maybe even a touch of madness.

I will pray that his gifts will be fulfilled and that there will be a blessing for the congregations he will serve.

As expected, today's services were cancelled and the Covenanting Service will be rescheduled.