Saturday, March 25, 2017


Slide 6 of 32

I just saw a photo piece on the "new normal" of the retail apocalypse. As online sales of just about everything grow almost exponentially, "bricks and mortar" retail locations suffer. This includes shopping malls, many of which are bleak with shuttered stores. There is a growing phenomenon of closed malls which are falling into ruin. Some of us have lived through the rise of the shopping mall, which squeezed out smaller retailers in communities. Now they're getting their comeuppance, it would appear.

Slide 22 of 32

Isn't it an eye-opener that the institutions we figure will be around forever have their day? We hear of school boards announcing the closure of neighbourhood schools because of aging populations, much to the dismay of parents whose kids live near them. Schools tend to be neighbourhood and community hubs hosting a range of activities.

The same can be said for churches and their buildings. Congregations struggle to let go, even as their numbers dwindle. So many of these consecrated church structures have a beauty that transcends utility, as well as a deep patina of celebration and sorrow going back generations.

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Are there easy answers to what happens with our buildings? Nope. Will changes and closures be inevitable? They've actually been happening for decades. Drive along back-country roads and you'll see "re-purposed" schools and churches, sometimes alongside each other.

We'll grieve their loss, but not much stays the same anymore.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

A Living River

Members of the crew rest their paddles after paddling with Prince Harry on the Whanganui River during a visit to Putiki Marae on 14 May 2015 in Wanganui, New Zealand.

 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    the world, and those who live in it...

Psalm 24:1 (NRSV)

Today the Trump administration in the United States summarily dismissed protests, consultation, and the Obama decision to halt the Keystone pipeline by giving permission for its construction. By doing so Alberta tarsands oil can make its way to the southern United States for refining. The pipeline will cost billions to construct at a time when there is a glut of oil on the market and prices are low.

The pipeline will also cross many rivers in Canada and the United States, as well as the huge Ogallala aquifer.

This decision brought to mind a recent unprecedented decision by the New Zealand government to grant a river the same legal rights as a person. Here is how a BBC article describes the decision:

The New Zealand parliament passed the bill recognising the Whanganui River, in North Island, as a living entity.Long revered by New Zealand's Maori people, the river's interests will now be represented by two people. The Maori had been fighting for over 160 years to get this recognition for their river, a minister said."I know the initial inclination of some people will say it's pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality," said New Zealand's Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson."But it's no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies."
The Whanganui River, New Zealand's third-longest, will be represented by one member from the Maori tribes, known as iwi, and one from the Crown.

The recognition allows it to be represented in court proceedings. "The river as a whole is absolutely important to the people who are from the river and live on the river," said MP Adrian Rurawhe, who represents the Maori."From a Whanganui viewpoint the wellbeing of the river is directly linked to the wellbeing of the people and so it is really important that's recognised as its own identity."

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Humanity consistently treats the environment with utilitarian contempt, some thing to be used for our benefit, whatever the consequences. This legislation invites a different perspective, and one which I can only pray will set a precedent. Actually, a small number of countries have granted legal rights to the environment. In 2008, Ecuador passed similar ruling giving its forests, lakes, and waterways rights on par with humans in order to ensure their protection from harmful practices.

The bible doesn't suggest personhood for the creatures and systems of the planet, but there are many places where we are reminded to "live with respect in Creation."

God help us all to do so.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Water Justice

First Nations Water
Yesterday was United Nations World Water Day and there was plenty in the news about the ongoing challenge of providing clean water. We are reminded that at least 800 millions people, the majority in developing nations around the world, don't have access to clean water. It may actually be twice that number.

Canadians brag about how much fresh water we have, regularly over-estimating how much of the world's supply is contained within our borders. We have some of the largest lakes on the planet within Canada, or we share them with the United States.

The wonderful reality is that we can turn on the tap and expect the water which flows to be immediately drinkable. We can bathe in it and use it for a variety of purposes.

The exception to this is for First Nations where, as the image above suggests, about three quarters do not have access to contaminant-free water. Although this graphic is several years old, boil-water orders are still in effect across the country.
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I certainly believe that as a wealthy nation Canada should be involved in water projects in developing nations as an aspect of foreign aid. It must also be a high priority to get our own house in order. There is growing concern that the Federal government is distancing itself from this responsibility for clean, safe water on First Nations by contracting with for-profit, private companies to provide it.

There was an interesting letter to the editor in the Globe and Mail newspaper yesterday:

Bottled-up  inequities
Re Stuck On The Bottle (Life & Arts, March 22): Since NestlĂ© leads the Canadian bottled-water industry, which generates “$2.5-billion in annual sales,” perhaps the company could send bottled water (complimentary?) to our First Nations that do not have safe drinking water.
It is a travesty that our government has allowed these areas to suffer with contaminated water, while companies such as Nestlé are raking in billions of dollars as they usurp our precious resource.
Jeffrey Manly, Toronto

Inter-denominational organizations such as KAIROS have been raising concerns about First Nations water issues for years, as a matter of justice, and I'm glad that our United Church is part of this coalition.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Creative Bible Expression

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I have my Salvation Army officer grandfather's well-worn King James Version of the bible. It is marked in many places and underlined. My father underscored key verses in his bibles as well, although he used a ruler for precise lines. Despite these precedents I have been reluctant to "mess up" my bibles. It's always felt sacrilegious somehow, even though my undergraduate degree was in art history and I use visual images in worship every week. I have loosened up a little through the years, discreetly using a yellow highlighter, but I never DRAW or PAINT in my bible!

So, when I was contacted by a publisher offering a review copy of Complete Guide to Bible Journaling: Creative Techniques to Express You Faith (how is that for a title!) I offered an unqualified...maybe.
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The publisher bravely sent a copy of this book by Joanne Fink and Regina Yoder just the same. At first look I thought "nah, this isn't happening for me." It was so colourful, and rather splashy, not what I imagined myself doing at all. But the more I leafed through, the more I enjoyed the creativity of the various artists featured throughout the pages.

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I'm not sure whether their  imaginative "holy doodling" inspires me or intimidates me. For some of this art work pages need to be prepared so that bleeding doesn't occur. Hmm, that's a strange term to use given aspects of the gospels.

It occurred to me that the book is a refreshing modern take on the notion of the illuminated manuscript, the decorated copies of the scriptures from medieval and renaissance times. More recently the St. John's Bible was created as the first calligraphed bible since the invention of the printing press. (immediately below) This is certainly an encouragement to engage imaginatively with scripture texts and to literally colour outside the lines. It's a lot better than having our bibles gathering dust on shelves.
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 If you would like to see my copy of the Complete Guide to Bible Journaling, and are close at hand, let me know. Otherwise, order a copy. Hey, it includes stickers!

What are your thoughts about "desecrating" your bible? Do you underline or jot in notes when you read? Do you ever doodle in the margins like a medieval monk?

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Down Syndrome & God's Love

Down Syndrome Flyer

Until I arrived at Bridge St. UC this morning I wasn't aware that this is World Down Syndrome Day, or that there is a such a day, for that matter. There is a family which is very much a part of our congregation with three children who have Down Syndrome, although they are becoming adults in a hurry. One is in his mid-twenties, is a successful athlete, and is training in a culinary arts program. The two daughters are teens now, and the older of the two assists in the nursery. All three are open, active persons, affectionate and friendly, and I admire their parents for the commitment to give them every opportunity to be engaged in every aspect of life, including Christian community.  Bridge St. wouldn't be the same without them, nor would other congregations I've served with members who have Down Syndrome.

I have mentioned before that both Ruth, my wife, and Isaac, our son, have worked in group homes with Down Syndrome residents. These folk have their own personalities, likes and dislikes, as well as loves. They are persons, made in the image of God, deserving every opportunity to grow and flourish.

It's important that societal attitudes have changed over time and it hadn't occurred to me that there is a new challenge for those with Down Syndrome. As genetic testing in  the womb becomes more sophisticated there is a greater possibility that Down fetuses may be aborted.

A conference held yesterday that included Down speakers explored this difficult topic. There is now a “non-invasive” prenatal blood test which gives parents a 99% indication of the Down’s status of their baby. It is being heavily promoted throughout the world and many governments have started implementing it into public healthcare.

When our daughter-in-law was pregnant with their first child they were made to feel uncomfortable by a doctor who was quite insistent that she have this test. They declined, in part because of the work Isaac had done in the group home, and also on the basis of their moral and faith convictions.

Any observations or comments this World Down Syndrome Day?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lenten Journey to Forgiveness

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Thanks to "on demand" we've now seen all nine Academy Award nominees for Best Film. They were all worthwhile with excellent acting, although Ruth and I differed on Fences in terms of our appreciation of the film. We also came to different conclusion about which one was best. She agreed with the Oscar nod for Moonlight, which was powerful. The film which touched me most deeply was Manchester by the Sea. I found it to be a fascinating exploration of the meaning of forgiveness within a community, between individuals, and of oneself. There is a scene where Lee, the central character who has done the "unforgivable," is offered forgiveness and grace from his former partner, who still loves him. He cannot or will not receive this gift and so the opportunity for reconciliation is stillborn. He acts out his self-loathing with destructive drinking and reckless bar fights.

I have a row of books in my study on the subject of forgiveness, and I've led a number of studies on the subject through the years. New titles appear regularly, although I pause in purchasing them so close to retirement. This new book by Martha Nussbaum intrigues me.

Anger and Forgiveness

I've had many conversations with those who wrestle with whether forgiveness is possible. They speak about anger and forgiveness for the living and dead. A fair number have been about self-forgiveness, and there are no easy paths.

What I do know is that forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel, and the story of the crucifixion we will repeat a few weeks from now on Good Friday. Jesus spoke about forgiveness with his disciples and uttered the words, "Father, forgive them" from the cross.

Did you see Manchester by the Sea? What did you think? How is it going with forgiveness in your life? Are you forgivable?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Precious to God

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God sees the little sparrow fall,
It meets His tender view;
If God so loves the little birds,
I know He loves me, too.


He loves me, too, He loves me, too,
I know He loves me, too;
Because He loves the little things,
I know He loves me, too.

Snowstorms in Canada this past week resulted in the deaths of several people in different provinces.  he roads become treacherous and accidents occur and some individuals die. We are saddened by these deaths and usually relieved to hear that they have been kept to a minimum even though the pile-ups might be scary in scope.

What constitutes a tragic loss of life? Every death is significant, we are inclined to say, but do we subconsciously feel that some lives matter more than others?

At the beginning of the week I read that a massive mound of garbage collapsed at the edge of the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa. The dump had been scheduled to move, but the people who depended on the festering mountain of refuse wanted it to stay because it is a source of livelihood. Portions had been bulldozed to mine for methane, which probably destabilized it. Those who lived in shacks at the edge of the dump were inundated. I've been searching reports all week. The first death count was in the thirties, nearly all women and children. Each day the grim tally has increased and now stands at 110.

One hundred and ten desperate yet valuable lives snuffed out in one incident within minutes, yet we've heard so little about it. Can we even find Ethiopia on a map? We are better informed about the skiers or snowmobilers who go out of bounds and are killed by avalanches than about incidents such as these.

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The children's hymn above fell out of favour, in part because of the male language to describe God, but it did remind us of the passage in Matthew where Jesus, who was eventually crucified on a hillside near a garbage dump,  says that even lowly sparrows are precious to God, so each hair on our heads are counted and we truly matter.

If this is true, then we should all pause for a prayer to honour the precious lives of those who died at the edge of a dump.

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