Sunday, December 04, 2016

All Creation Waits in Advent

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This is my 37th Advent Season as a worship leader and yesterday I admitted to our son Isaac, also a United Church minister, that "the thrill is gone." Actually, Advent has never been that exciting a time in the church year for me. For all the talk of anticipation of the coming of the Christ there is a certain pensiveness to this season.  And I don't like this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is just too dark and gloomy and I can hardly wait for the Solstice so that the daylight will begin lengthening, inching their way toward summer fullness.

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Each year I look around for resources that are fresh and offer a different perspective and the book All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings does just that. Boss created her own Advent Calendar for her children years ago, with each day a reflection on a creature. Now she has penned a book with beautiful illustrations by David Klein. Her introduction to Advent is excellent, and the descriptions of the various creatures in winter are informative. Here Boss describes the one of the first creatures from twenty years ago:

I drew a turtle behind the door of December 1 because, days before, my son’s godmother had sent me her meditation on turtle as a symbol of the soul in its dark season. And because I knew my son, like all children, liked pictures of animals.

Thanks to Boss and Klein for this lovely Advent gift. Next Sunday which is Advent III we'll hear from Isaiah about the blooming of the desert, so this book may become a sermon illustration!

"Book Notes: Advent with the Animals" by Gayle Boss (

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Jesus and the Opioid Crisis

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

What do I know about illegal and addictive drugs? From personal experience, next to nothing. I can hardly convince myself to take prescription drugs, let alone anything society has deemed illicit. While ministry might have driven me to drink at times, I don't consume much alcohol either. Two beers is a bender for me.

In an earlier day I listened to a fair number of inmates whose lives were messed up by drugs and ended up in prison. All through my ministry there have been members of congregations who had substance abuse problems, past or present. I've always felt inadequate in responding.

In the end it isn't about whether our drugs of choice are legal or not, it is about what they do to our bodies and souls, our relationships and whether we are able to live fully, the way God intends.
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There has been a lot in the media about drugs lately, specifically opioids such as relative  newcomer Fentanyl. In some cities first responders are overwhelmed by the number of calls related to opioids and they are often too late to make a difference. There were 200 Fentanyl related deaths in British Columbia in the first three months of 2016, so this really is a medical crisis.

The Christian Century had a cover article recently which interviews pastors who have ministries with addicts. One, Mike Clark, realized that the people coming to a recovery meeting in his church far outnumbered his congregants on a Sunday. They were in the basement while his congregation was upstairs. Slowly but surely he connected with the downstairs congregation and some of them began to migrate. There was no plan, so Mike figures it was God's idea.

In another church that ministers to addicts the emphasis is on honesty, and they have a weekly prayer: God show us the way to spread your holy word, and give us the means, courage and stamina to follow it."

I wonder how welcoming many congregations which love to sing Amazing Grace are ready and willing to welcome addicted wretches? How many of us are able to be honest about our own wretchedness and need for Christ's saving love. Maybe that's where we begin. We won't arrest our way out of this crisis as a society. Perhaps communities of faith can play a role.


Friday, December 02, 2016


Yesterday morning, on World AIDS Day, I tweeted my mindfulness of those I have known through the years with HIV/AIDS, including, sadly, those whose funerals and memorial services I conducted.

I was recruited for the AIDS committee of Sudbury in the late 1980s when there was still a fair amount of uncertainty about the disease and widespread stigma. I was uncertain about my involvement on the committee, particularly when I was asked to visit men in the hospital and eventually to preside at the services.

Looking back I'm grateful for what I learned about grace and acceptance, despite my discomfort. As is so often the reality in ministry I have grown as a person and a Christian when I am pushed beyond my places of safety and security. I am required to ask what the Good News means, and for whom Christ is Good News.

There have been a number of these occasions for reflection since I announced my retirement, thanks be to God. What I know in my heart is that I don't own the gospel. It is my sacred responsibility to share it, to live it.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Fidel and the Jesuits

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Prime Minister Trudeau took heat at the beginning of the week when he praised the late Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. He seemed to let his father's affection for Castro get in the way of an honest perspective on Castro. Fidel was a revolutionary who had a socialist vision for his country, and the overthrow of the government of Cuba in the late 1950s was an opportunity for change. There were impressive advances in health care and education which might have been an impressive legacy. But in the end Fidel was a repressive dictator whose policies hindered rather than helped his people.

I was interested to see that Castro, head of an officially atheistic country, was educated by the Jesuits. Apparently he was a rebellious child, so his father sent him to schools run by this Roman Catholic order of legendary discipline and intellectual rigour. The revolutionary who closed religious schools and jailed priests conceded that the Sermon on the Mount was compatible with Marxist principles. Castro maintained a relationship with one of the Jesuits until that priest's death, even though he had expelled the order from the island decades before.

There were even rumours that Castro had developed a renewed a personal  interest in Christian faith in his waning years. His  daughter Alina commented “Fidel has come closer to religion: he has rediscovered Jesus at the end of his life. It doesn’t surprise me because dad was raised by Jesuits.”

Castro did restore Christmas as a holiday in Cuba, and permitted religious rites such as baptism without reprisal. He welcomed popes to the country, and allowed the church to become a significant agent for social change once again.

There is no escaping his miserable human rights record for most of his regime but he may have "met his maker" in the end.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Prescription for Wholeness

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Years ago a United Church moderator spoke at my church and I drove him back to Toronto following the service. He was very pastoral during his term, trying to figure out how to be supportive of beleaguered clergy in turbulent times. He sought my suggestions and I offered that the denomination might work out an arrangement with a gym chain for discounted memberships, something which now exists.

He was diplomatically dubious when I went on to suggest that we be able to use continuing education funds for physical fitness, or access a fund set up for that purpose. His reaction was much the same as that of other church officials with whom I've broached this. Even though we have an aging clergy base in the United Church and do lots of handwringing about the health costs of our benefit plan we are still reactive rather than proactive.

I thought about this yesterday when I heard and read of a new report saying that physical activity is a greater indicator of health than cholesterol levels and hypertension. Doctors in some jurisdictions are now using prescription pads for exercise instead of depending largely on medication. Only about 20 percent of Canadians get the 150 minutes per week suggested as a minimum. Think about it -- 168 hours in a week and we can't manage 2/12 for physical activity?

I figure that activity is also a contributor to spiritual health and wholeness. I go to the gym for weight training, but this is my least favourite form of exercise. Ruth and I both cycle to work regularly (5 km each way) and I'll continue to do so as long as the roads are safe. I cycled to Bridge St this morning.

We love riding along the water here in Belleville. We are also walker/hikers and we love being on the water. We have kayaks and canoes and we've paddled a couple of dozen times through this season. When we're outside we are attuned to Creator and Creation. The other day I scuffled through the leaves of an oak woods and described it as a playful spiritual practice. It evoked the sound and fragrance of childhood.

Jesus was an outdoor guy, so I figure we should follow his example. He got out on the water, and even walked on it!

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Giving all Through the Year

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I'm not sure where Giving Tuesday sprouted from but it's probably meant as an antidote to the sometimes toxic effects of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consumerism at its ugliest. Buy Nothing Friday never got much traction, but Giving Tuesday has received a fair amount of attention this year.

When I arrived at Bridge St. UC, 8:30ish, the preparation team organizers for today's End of the Month meal were already at work. Soon the kitchen was filled with volunteers, including a group of students and teachers from Queen Elizabeth School.

Only 20 to 25 percent of  roughly 170 volunteers for our three meal ministries are Bridge St. members. Of today's team of 15 people, two are from the congregation,  which is unusually low. We do know that a number of our newer members have chosen Bridge St. because we have strong outreach programs in which they can be involved. I feel enriched by the many other participants who are remarkably faithful and generous with their time. Some are involved in other congregations and some just want to give back to the community in  tangible way.

Last Friday we place the order for a new walk-in freezer which would have been well beyond our reach without the generous contribution of a couple who never work in the kitchen but contribute thousands of dollars to our meal ministries every year.

I'm just grateful that so many people do give, in so many ways. It's happening on this Giving Tuesday and all through the year. Thank God for generous hearts.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Power of Forgiveness

The longer I've been in ministry the more I'm convinced that forgiveness is essential for human health and the more I understand that forgiveness cannot be mandated, only bestowed by those who have been aggrieved or wronged.

I'm fascinated that the state of South Carolina has chosen to seek the death penalty for church murderer Dylan Roof, even though the families of the victims are asking for leniency and have been open about their forgiveness for Roof

Here is a portion of an article from the New York Times:

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Rev. Sharon Risher often thinks these days about what she calls her “humanness”: the passing impulse to crave the execution of the white supremacist accused of killing her mother and eight other black churchgoers last year.
“My humanness is being broken, my humanness of wanting this man to be broken beyond punishment,” Ms. Risher said. “You can’t do that if you really say that you believe in the Bible and you believe in Jesus Christ. You can’t just waver.”
But after delays, the Federal District Court here will begin on Monday the long process of individually questioning prospective jurors for the capital trial of Dylann S. Roof, who is charged with 33 federal counts, including hate crimes, in the June 17, 2015, killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Mr. Roof, whom a judge on Friday declared competent to stand trial, has offered, in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, to plead guilty. The government has refused to make such a plea agreement.
The 17-month path to Mr. Roof’s first death penalty trial — the state of South Carolina is also seeking his execution — has been marked by public demonstrations of forgiveness and reconciliation. But the federal government’s decision to pursue Mr. Roof’s execution is widely questioned, and it is in defiance of the wishes and recommendations of survivors of the attack, many family members of the dead and some Justice Department officials. Even South Carolina’s acrimonious debate about the display of the Confederate battle flag outside the State House was less divisive in this state, polling shows.

It seems to me that the state's choice is actually creating greater sadness and loss for these families who are attempting to live by their Christian precepts. What a world.

What are your thoughts about this?