Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Least of These

Yesterday I attended a turkey dinner beautifully prepared by a group from St. Paul's. They fed the regular participants of a drop-in centre. There are several group homes in Bowmanville for those living with mental health issues. The drop-in is an oasis of caring for people who have been pushed to the margins of our society.

Our folk include the drop-in gang at a dinner they put on once a month at the church for seniors. For the past few months they have set another table so that the drop-in group can enjoy a nourishing meal and a caring atmosphere.

Yesterday I said the blessing, but the true grace of Christ came through the hands that prepared the meal. I was deeply touched by their commitment.

And the people who were the recipients were gracious themselves, welcoming us warmly and thanking us profusely.

They say that the shepherds who first heard about Christ's birth were on the margins of their culture, among the lowly of first century society.

I'm grateful for this Christmas reminder.

The Longest Night

Today marks the Winter Solstice and the shortest number of daylight hours in the year. Some churches hold "Longest Night" or "Blue Christmas" services for those who find this time of the year difficult. It may be because of the darkness, which seems oppressive, or the psychological gloominess which comes from loss or separation. Christmas isn't an uplifting time for many and in these services Christ's light is acknowledged.

Recently I got a call from the library saying that the book I had reserved was in. I hadn't requested a book, or so I thought, but it turned out that months ago I asked for Joan Didion's remarkable memoir called The Year of Magical Thinking. Just before Christmas 2003 Didion's daughter was hospitalized with a totally unexpected and life-threatening illness. A few days after Christmas her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, died at the dinner table, struck down by a massive heart-attack.
Her life was suddenly and irrevocably changed. In January 2004 she wrote:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

Although Didion carried on with the demands of life and supported her daughter back to health, that first year was marked by the "magical thinking" that Dunne would return. Her writing about grief is excruciating and exquisite at the same time. Often we don't know what those around us deal with in the silence.

While we won't have a Longest Night service, I will pray for and remember those who experience sadness and grief at this time. The painting above is by Holman-Hunt, a British artist of the 19th century. The Light of the World is a bit romanticized for my taste but it does offer the message that Christ lights our way.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Away in a Trash Bin

The ice around the North Pole reached a critically low level in September 2005.

I feel good this year about finishing up my Christmas shopping. Now I will grab a few minutes to wrap, although an article in the Toronto Star yesterday made me think twice about this practice.

At the risk of seeming like a Grinch here is a portion of the piece and the link.

Away in a trash bin

Envision Christmas morning, after all the hullabaloo, the pretty wrapping paper and bubble wrap and Scotch tape sitting in the middle of the living room.

According to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Ontarians throw away 900,000 extra tonnes of garbage during the holidays, including 288 million Christmas cards and 23 square kilometres of wrapping paper – enough to cover 3,000 football fields. We throw away 900 tonnes of aluminium foil and about 35,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.

Yikes. I regularly preach and reflect on caring for God's good earth, yet I know that too often I am part of the problem rather than the solution. Every day poses it choices and challenges, including our celebrations.

All cultures have their feast days and holy times, and we need to be joyful at the prospect of Christ's birth. But it was a simple, low-tech, and recyclable event, which we can honour by our own practices.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christ's Surprises

This year I have experienced several situations where Christ has managed to make what could be the overly familiar both fresh and meaningful. Last week I went to visit one of the dozen or so folk in our congregation over the age of ninety. She is terribly crippled by arthritis, twisted like an ancient tree. If that isn't enough, strokes have made communication difficult and she has reverted to her childhood Dutch rather than the English she learned after coming to this country following the war. I have visited before but I always feel helpless and awkward. I'm never sure what she is hearing. It must be so frustrating for her.

This time one of her three attentive daughters was present. She speaks Dutch, so "interpreted" some of my comments and questions to her mother. Then I suggested I read the Luke 2 Christmas story and she could translate. I worked my way through the passage, phrase by phrase, which the daughter patiently and creatively repeated in Dutch. It was tricky at points -- she was stumped by "while Quirinius was governor of Syria" -- but her mother nodded and helped out.

God has always reached over and around the barriers so that Good News can be shared.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Holy Infant so Tender and Mild

Last evening was the first of three for the 2006 version of the Living Nativity at St. Paul's. A stable is erected every year on the front lawn, a star is placed on the side of the building, and a constellation of stars emerges from the congregation to take various roles.

A great deal of work goes into making this production a success. Through the years folk have braved fierce cold and pouring rain and just about every other form of weather you might imagine. This year we are putting global climate change out of our minds and giving thanks for balmy temperatures. The cast and audience numbered about 100, which wasn't too shabby for opening night.

The cast picture above (click on it for a larger image) does not include some important non-human actors. The extras includes sheep, goats and a donkey named Cricket who has taken part for more than twenty years.

Last night, at the meaningful moment of Jesus' birth, Cricket answered the call of nature. The torrent of pee was loud and long. Afterward the woman who played Mary shared that she almost said "Joseph, my water broke!"

Hey, two thousand years ago God was born in a stable and laid in a manger. If there were animals present, they would have been real animals. The baby Jesus was a real baby. Thanks for the reminder Cricket.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Christ's Orchard

I went out to the country to visit a parishioner this week and on the way I passed an apple orchard. This is apple country, and the orchards are everywhere north of town. I slowed down on my way by because a backhoe and driver were methodically plucking the apple trees from the ground and laying them in rows. Why would the owners destroy an orchard? I asked one of our folk who is in the business and he told me that the trees probably weren't producing adequately. There is no room for sentiment in apple growing.

Not all that long ago apple trees were "traditional," growing to ten metres or so. Nearly all those are gone now, replaced by dwarf trees which give a much greater yield per hectare. That must have been a tough decision for the growers. It is a risk to take down trees that guarantee a crop in the present, with the hope that some new-fangled method will produce more in the future.

During Advent we hear about John the Baptist, Jesus' wild and crazy cousin, who says in this week's reading from Luke: "even now the axe is lying at the roots of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire." Then John points to Jesus as the Promised One, the Messiah who bring about God's new way.

I'm not the biggest fan of John the Baptist because he seems so harsh and "out there," but at times we need to hear the voices that can seem strident. They are really just getting our attention. A lot of congregations seem to be orchards that no longer bear much fruit even though they blossom from time to time. At the very least we need to be challenged beyond our places of comfort. John wasn't the first prophet to do this.

Are we willing to take risks so that Jesus can be seen and heard?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hanukkah Baptism

We are focussed on the lights of Advent and Christmas in the Christian church but tomorrow evening begins another festival of lights, the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. Hannukkah celebrates the miracle of light in the re-dedication of the temple many centuries ago.

I will put a Hanukkah menorah, or candelabra, on our communion table this Sunday because we will be celebrating the adult baptism of a relative newcomer to our congregation. He came to see me a few months ago, explaining that while he was raised in a Jewish family he had undergone a profound experience of Christ which led him, with some trepidation to our church. Coming to a Christian worship service was an entirely new experience.

I have to admit that in the beginning I was nervous, only because I am earnestly United Church and felt that I shouldn't be messing around in someone else's religion. In my mind this would be sheep-stealing of the worst kind. Mainline Christian clergy worry alot about "theological correctness."

Fortunately he persevered through membership classes and "learning the ropes" of worship and eventually he requested baptism. It finally occurred to me that I would be fine baptizing a converted atheist, but somehow leery about baptizing someone from the same faith in which Jesus was nourished, so I should lighten up. I can be a slow learner at times.

This Sunday I will experience a first -- the baptism of someone who has had a bar mitzvah. It will be one of the great privileges of my ministry.

I'm sure the Messiah will be pleased by this little but important miracle of re-dedication.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Silent Night, Holy Night

Yesterday I drove to another community with the daughter of an elderly woman who fell in her own home and is now hospitalized. The mother doesn't have a faith community so I offered to go and visit and pray. In the 45 minutes I was there it was apparent that while she had her times of clarity she was also slipping into confusion in other moments. It happens regularly with the "old old" and of course it is disconcerting for family

Everything came back into focus when I read a passage of scripture. I chose the Christmas story in Luke 2, with the angels and shepherds and the baby in the manger. She followed every word with a smile on her face and stopped me at one point to tell me how well she knew the story. It was one of those moments which make ministry very worthwhile. Here we were, not really knowing one another but the birth of a baby two thousand years ago gave us an intimate moment.

One year I visited a nursing home and went to the rooms of my various parishioners reading the same passage repeatedly. One of the last was an ancient soul who sat in the quiet when we were done and then said "we never get tired of this story, do we?" I was tempted to answer, "as a matter of fact I do" because I have gone through the words countless times. Ho hum. She was right though. The story of Christ's birth is so extra-ordinary we should never develop tired ears or hearts that are unable to be moved.

God can always be born for us again. Christ is coming.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Emily Carr

Last night I saw a CBC piece on an exhibit of the work of painter Emily Carr which is currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I have been an admirer of Carr's work for years. She was a contemporary of the Group of Seven painters but she had her own unique style. She had an unconventional spiritual perspective, at least for the time, and to my mind she was a nature mystic, experiencing and expressing her spirituality through paintings filled with motion and energy.

This painting called Indian Church speaks to me because the church with its cross is in the midst of a cathedral of trees. The community of faith and the communion of living things are shown together. My constant hope is that Christians will see how interrelated they are.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Women of Faith

I am reading a book written by journalist Rena Pederson about the passing mention of a woman in the last chapter of the apostle Paul's letter to the church in Rome. Her name is Junia, although for centuries this person was called Junius in many translations. It is clearly a woman's name but it was changed to the masculine form because she is described in verse seven as "prominent among the apostles." The reasoning was that a woman couldn't have been identified and honoured by Paul as an apostle, so the name was altered. The book is not scholarly in style but it is very readable and intriguing.

For so long the church has either marginalized women or treated them as though they are "armed and dangerous." Actually, a number of religions have relegated women to second-class status, arguing both that this is God's will that and that they are really held in higher regard than it appears. These arguments are far from convincing, at least for me.

How do we honour women in our midst as the people of faith? How do we say that their roles are important? Perhaps we begin, as Paul the supposed misogynist did, with the names of those we cherish. While it was not my intent, I'm writing this on the anniversary of the dark day when a group of fourteen women were murdered in Montreal. In many of the memorial services the women are named rather than the perpetrator of the crime. The names of the Montreal fourteen are listed below.

Geneviève Bergeron, 21, was a 2nd year scholarship student in civil engineering.
Hélène Colgan, 23, was in her final year of mechanical engineering and planned to take her master’s degree.
Nathalie Croteau, 23, was in her final year of mechanical engineering.
Barbara Daigneault, 22, was in her final year of mechanical engineering and held a teaching assistantship.
Anne-Marie Edward, 21, was a first year student in chemical engineering.
Maud Haviernick, 29, was a 2nd year student in engineering materials, a branch of metallurgy, and a graduate in environmental design.
Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31, was a 2nd year engineering student specializing in engineering materials.
Maryse Laganière, 25, worked in the budget department of the Polytechnique.
Maryse Leclair, 23, was a 4th year student in engineering materials.
Anne-Marie Lemay, 27, was a 4th year student in mechanical engineering.
Sonia Pelletier, 28, was to graduate the next day in mechanical engineering. She was awarded a degree posthumously.
Michèle Richard, 21, was a 2nd year student in engineering materials.
Annie St-Arneault, 23, was a mechanical engineering student.
Annie Turcotte, 21, was a first year student in engineering materials.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Advent Peace

I have always found it a challenge to stay in the season of Advent with all the Christmas pressure of the world around us. The themes of hope, peace, joy and love are too important to be glossed over.

This coming Sunday we will acknowledge peace which is God's "shalom" or wholeness, for all of creation. Last week I received the latest reflection from Peter Sawtell of Eco-Justice ministries and it bears repeating.

In it he mentions a couple in the United States, where he lives and works, who put up an outdoor wreath in which they formed a peace symbol. A neighbour complained to the homeowner's association that this was an inappropriate political statement that should be removed. The couple insisted that it wasn't a protest against the war in Iraq. It was just a peace symbol. They were still fined -- $25 a day -- until they took it down. The story made the national media across the border and finally the "powers that be" relented.

There are always principalities and powers which are suspicious of the motives of the way of peace. In another time they were unable to comprehend the message of the Prince of Peace and the brutal force of the Roman empire was brought to bear against him. Yet that empire is gone and we still celebrate the birth of Christ as the one who fulfills the promises of God.

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day. When we lived in Northern Ontario I was asked to serve on the AIDS committee of Sudbury. It was 1989 and while the scientific community was starting to understand HIV and AIDS, I didn't. I was nervous about how this involvement would be perceived by my congregation. I wasn't convinced that this disease was not communicable. When I began visiting AIDS patients in hospital I would wash my hands repeatedly afterward, knowing that I was going home to my wife and three young children.

I learned. My heart changed. This came about mostly because of my contact with those living with HIV/AIDS, both those who had contracted it and those who provided care. I came to appreciate that God was present in the living and the dying of this group of people. There were many sad moments and holy moments. These too were God's children. How could I have ever thought otherwise?

While HIV/AIDS has become manageable for most in North America, it is a devastating scourge in Africa. I just heard that former US president Bill Clinton has negotiated with the drug companies that produce anti-viral medication to provide low-cost drugs for children in African nations. It's about time.

This first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of hope. We can pray for a more hopeful future for those who live with AIDS.