Sunday, August 28, 2016

Earthquakes and Miracles

When an earthquake hit the central Italian town of Amatrice the nuns of the local convent were asleep in their beds. A young man heard cries for help and pulled three of the nuns from the building, perhaps saving their lives.

One of those rescued nuns, Sister Mariana, said that is was a miracle that the man heard them from so far away. I'm grateful that they were rescued, yet several other nuns, along with several visitors, are still buried in the rubble. Why was there a miracle, which would be God's extraordinary intervention, for some of the sisters and not for others? And why have hundreds, including children, had their lives snuffed out? Rather than a benign, loving presence, God would be capricious and unfair. When one person walks away from the plane crash,  or the trailer park after the tornado roars through, can he or she claim that a miracle has occurred?

I'm not denying the existence of miracles, either the miracles we read about in scripture, or the possibility for miracles in the present. I am much less certain about their possibility than I once was, and I have come to realize that we are not magically protected from illness, or suffering, or the effects of the natural processes of the planet, including earthquakes.

I do trust that God is the source of our strength in every circumstance in life, even those dark mysteries which are beyond our comprehension in the moment. We can pray for these devastated communities and consider how we might respond with practical compassion.

What do you think about claims of miraculous intervention? Have you every experienced a miracle? What about Sister Mariana's comment?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

So, Who is the Oppressor?

I am so angry that armed French police accosted a Muslim woman on a beach and forced her to remove items of clothing, then fined her. A number of municipalities in France have instituted a draconian law prohibiting Muslim women from swimming in what is being called the burkini, a full length swim suit which corresponds with supposed religious requirements for modesty. I say "supposed" because there are Muslim scholars who argue that many of these rules are cultural rather than required by the Quran. Then again, many restrictions in certain expressions of Christianity related to modesty, past and present, have more to do with patriarchy than biblical directives.

The point is that the government is targeting Muslim women in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks which have been perpetrated by Islamic extremists. The irony is that these have been carried out by disaffected men, most of whom were not strongly observant Muslims. The women who are now the subject of this ridiculous law are not terrorists. They want to go for a swim or sit on the beach on a hot summer day, or go to the pool with their kids in clothes which suit their views on modesty. Since when is that a crime worthy of intervention by armed police?

Australian muslim swimming instructor Fadila Chafic wears her full-length 'burkini' swimsuit during a swimming lesson with her children Taaleenand Ibrahim at swimming pool in Sydney

It's crazy that "the powers that be" have deemed that virtually naked women on beaches represent French values but these Muslim women are antithetical to them.

At times I do wonder whether the hijab and other clothing requirements are repressive, yet when I see a cheerful young woman reporter on the evening newscast wearing a headscarf I don't have the impression that she is a poor repressed creature in the thrall of controlling men. And I'm glad that the RCMP will allow women officers to wear the hijab, if they choose.

What are your thoughts on this?

Friday, August 26, 2016

Preach that Word!

This week the Pew Research Center released the results of a survey of 5,000 people about what would attract them to a new place of worship. For more than eight out of ten --83%-- the top of their list is preaching. “This is what people value in a congregation — a good message, a good homily that resonates with them and gives them guidance,” said Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director for religion research.

I was gratified to read this, because the way we receive information has changed dramatically in the last decade, let alone through the centuries. I know that people respond to music as a powerful aspect of worship, and a  warm welcome is essential. In the day-to-day life of a congregation pastoral care matters a great deal. Once again, though, preaching is at the core. United Church studies have discovered the same through the years.

This is both an encouragement and a humbling reminder. I figure I have prepared and preached more than 1600 Sunday sermons through 36+ years of pastoral ministry, along with hundreds of other messages for special liturgical occasions, as well as weddings and funerals and in nursing homes. I do my best to bring my A-game, week in and out, and I've yet to bail on a Sunday morning, with an unscheduled absence. I don't get pastors who claim they don't have time to be well prepared for Sunday morning.

At the moment I am completing my sermon for a week from now because I'm away this Sunday, and I've started on my message for the first week of  Creation Time in September. I'm at the church on Sunday mornings by 8:00 AM, preaching to an empty sanctuary so I don't have to rely on my notes too heavily come 10:30. I'll keep up this regimen until I retire.

I can't speak to how folk receive my preaching, and every preacher has fans and detractors. I've said before that I am somewhat bewildered by what individuals do and don't hear, and what they thought they heard that just wasn't there! I don't hoot or holler or point, but I do hope that I touch hearts and minds.  All I can do is be as faithful to the texts of scripture, and endeavour to be as creative and current as possible, without being too captivated by the idol of relevance.

I actually enjoy preparing a sermon and the actual proclamation of a message. Even though I'm often my own strongest critic, I consider preaching a privilege. I've changed my style of preaching in a number of ways over the years in the hope that I will be authentic and responsive to the moment I find myself in.

Would you be amongst those eight out of ten who value the sermon highly? Have your expectations for preaching changed over time? Do you enjoy the addition of visual images and even videos at times?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Colouring Outside the Lines

Pastor Steve Shirima, the leader of Jesus Is the Key of Life, a Pentecostal church, explains how his church was painted yellow. The church is deep within the shacks of a slum. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

Pastor Steve Shirima, the leader of Jesus Is the Key of Life, a Pentecostal church, explains how his church was painted yellow. The church is deep within the shacks of a slum. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

Not only do some people use their supposed love of God as the justification to hate others, in certain instances Christians perpetrate violence against other Christians, Muslims kill other Muslims. It is enough to cause some to become atheists.

An encouraging story out of Kenya caught my eye because it is about people of faith moving in the other direction. Even though Kenya has significant issues with ethnic sectarian violence, some faith communities are choosing to boldly identify themselves as places where love and acceptance are celebrated:

Colour in Faith encourages expressions of acceptance and tolerance, and reaching out beyond one’s own church, temple, synagogue or mosque. So far two churches — one Anglican and one Pentecostal — and one mosque in Kibera have been painted, out of a planned total of six churches and four mosques that will be primed for the yellow paint. Nationwide, 25 churches, temples and mosques are planning to turn yellow. “The yellow color symbolizes our openness. It indicates that we can work together as people of faith,” said the Rev. Albert Woresha Mzera, of Kibera’s Holy Trinity Anglican.

One Sunday a group of Muslims attended worship at one of the churches as a statement that they are not terrorists.

Here in Canada we don't engage in violence against our religious neighbours but we are inclined toward stereotypes, competition, and even "bearing false witness." It should embarrass us, but it doesn't. Perhaps we need to be looking for a paint sale ourselves.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Value of Water

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Quinte Conservation has been reminding area residents that despite some significant rainfall on two days last week there is still a Level 3 Low Water Condition notice for the region. Basically, while my lawn may be green again, and our water barrels were replenished, water levels are not sufficient for the demand. While we are on Belleville city water, drawn from the bay rather than wells and rivers, we have been mindful about water use and redeployment. We use a dishpan so that we can water plants with the grey water and our dehumidifier nourishes the plants as well. And we don't flush as often --nuff said!

The last two days I've listened to reports out of Aberfoyle where a Nestle water bottling plant draws 3.6 million litres of water a day from the aquifer despite the drought conditions in the surrounding area. Nestle pays about $3.75 per million litres to extract the water, which amounts to less than $15 a day, by my math. Does anyone else think this is insane?

I do everything I can to avoid bottled water, and when I'm offered a bottle I often comment that it is against my religion. While I say it with a smile, the person offering it often looks puzzled and sometimes offended. Yet I'm telling the truth, to a degree. Water is a precious gift from the Creator and this insanity of bottling a resource readily available to most Canadians from the tap is a sin, from my perspective. Of course many Native communities would disagree but that's a different story.

When I heard a Nestle's rep speaking as though they provide an important community service with what is really a garbage-producing scam I found myself getting angry. This is about making money from what is a non-replenishable resource in many instances. A lot of aquifers are closed systems, or recharge over millennia. When the water is gone, it's gone.

When I began my ministry in Newfoundland the United Church participated in a boycott of Nestle because it promoted the use of their baby formula in developing nations, with reps actually insinuating that their product was superior to mothers' milk. That boycott was somewhat successful, although we discovered that Nestle was still selling under other brand names, which they owned.

The United Church has already chosen not to supply bottled water at its events and encouraged congregations and individuals to do the same. I wonder if we should be more intentional, not targeting one particular company, since their name is legion, but challenging the industry and those who sell bottled water.  We can certainly encourage our membership not to buy bottled water and perhaps we need to be supporting community organizations which are drawing attention to our irresponsible use of water, including essentially giving it away to corporate interests. In the name of Christ, who is Living Water, wouldn't this make sense?


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sixties Scoop

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The Tragically Hip concert on Saturday night in nearby Kingston proved to be a Canadian and international love-in, with about a third of the nation watching at some point. This was an occasion when Gord Downie might have benefitted from Autotune, but his message about our obligations to First Nations peoples and the challenge to Prime Minister Trudeau, who was in the crowd, were note-perfect.

"We're in good hands, folks, real good hands. He cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what's going on up there. And what's going on up there ain't good. It's maybe worse than it's ever been, so it's not on the improve. (But) we're going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help."

Trudeau went on to a cabinet retreat in Sudbury where the issues of the year ahead, which we can hope included relations with aboriginal peoples.

Today a class action suit will be heard in court on behalf of those who were affected by what is called the "sixties scoop," the removal of thousands of aboriginal children by child-welfare workers. Here is the Global News description.

At issue is the apprehension of indigenous children by child-welfare officials, who placed the young wards with non-native families.Speakers said the practice was a deliberate effort to assimilate aboriginal children.

The $1.3-billion class action argues that Canada failed to protect the children’s cultural heritage with devastating consequences to victims. Their lawyers are pressing for summary judgment in the legal battle started in February 2009. The ’60s Scoop depended on a federal-provincial arrangement in which Ontario child welfare services placed as many as 16,000 aboriginal children with non-native families from December 1965 to December 1984.

That's a staggering number of children and 1984 is relatively recently. On one level this has nothing to do with the Residential Schools a destructive system in which a number of Christian denominations, including the United Church, participated. On another level they are closely related. So many of the children who were "educated" in those schools were scarred for life, and raised without benefit of nurturing family structure. Their children suffered as a result, a grim truth acknowledged by many survivors. When those children were "scooped" by child-welfare agencies there was little or no recognition of the systemic causes of the troubled family situations.

We can pray today for a worthwhile outcome for this suit, and not just in terms of the possible monetary settlement. We need to be honest about why this happened, how churches were complicit with governments, and how we might be part of a healing solution.


Friday, August 19, 2016

Lament for the Sturgeon

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Last night I walked outside to view the August full moon, which is supposedly known as the Sturgeon Moon. I'm a little suspicious that the moons of each month now have names, such as June's Strawberry Moon. It feels like the emergence of exotic names for weather events. The word though is that the name comes from the time of year when First Nations harvested this largest fish of our fresh waters. The moon was certainly brilliant and fully visible at 1:30 in the morning.

The Ontario map is dotted with names such as Sturgeon Falls, Sturgeon Beach, Sturgeon Point, and Sturgeon Bay Provincial Park. The reality is that these once plentiful prehistoric-looking leviathans are hard to find today. It's probably safe to say that most of us have never seen one. The only occasion I did was on Change Islands off the coast of Newfoundland. A five-footer was caught in a fishing net and was tethered, live, to a dock. Our family, including children who were young at the time, was fascinated.

The bible includes a number of laments for a compromised Creation, as a sign of our broken relationship with God. Our faith is not just "me and Jesus" and how we keep on good terms. Scripture suggests that when any strand of the Web of Creation is snapped, we are all the weaker for it. When we hear about the bleaching of the great living organisms which are coral reefs, or the relentless disappearance of songbirds we should shed tears of contrition and ask how we might repent and be reconciled.

Perhaps the moon invites us to lament the passing of the sturgeon.


Image result for sturgeon falls