Friday, June 29, 2007

O Beautiful Canada

A week ago I climbed a ladder to put our Canadian flag in its bracket on the front of the house. Within a couple of days our next door neighbour installed his own standard and a flag -- bigger than ours! I wondered if it would start a trend on our street but so far we are the only ones.

I regularly think about the accident of my birth in this great country. What would my life be like if my grandparents had not taken the risk of moving to this land from the United States on one side and Britain on the other?

I have lived in relative prosperity all of my life, I have been able to practice my religion freely, and I have not been required to go to war to defend myself and my family.

I appreciate our democratic freedom. While my chosen candidates for municipal mayor, member of provincial legislature, and federal MP did not get elected, I exercized my right to vote and still feel that we enjoy "peace, order and good government."

When I watch the evening news I am impressed that the faces of reporters reflect ethnic diversity. When I walk into hospitals and nursing homes I am aware of the high level of care for the sick and the elderly. I am so glad that my daughters have the same opportunities as my son.

I consider all this to be a blessing from God that I don't take lightly. I resolve to complain less about smog alerts and mosquitoes and politicians -- not necessarily in that order.

As a proud and privileged Canadian I want to be stirred to generosity and concern for those in countries where poverty is the norm and where children forget what it is to play because of constant violence. I never want to become complacent about injustice for our First Nations. I want to live as though my nationality is cause for humble gratitude rather than smugness and false pride.

Thank you, God, for the opportunity to live in Canada. Happy Canada Day!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Farewell But Not Goodbye

A few weeks ago I spoke with a visitor from Nova Scotia. Even though we had never met before it turned out that we had a mutual acquaintance in the person of a long-time Halifax resident, Tommy Sweet. Tommy and his family ran the legendary Diana Sweets restaurant on Spring Garden Road. We agreed that Tommy, one of my Halifax parishioners, was a a great old guy. He always had candy for the kids at the church and he loved talking baseball. Tommy was a huge Yankees fan and attended a number of World Series games over the years. Neither of us knew if he was still alive.

This week I received a note from the visitor with Tommy's obituary enclosed. He saw it in the paper shortly after his return to Nova Scotia. Tommy was 88 and I'm sure he is in Christ's presence, but I still felt a pang of loss. I also have a death notice in the rubble on my desk for another member from another church. A brilliant, fun-loving woman, she was killed in a single car accident. And there is a sticky note from a book returned by a woman from yet another congregation. It is just a few words of thanks from this person who died of cancer in her mid-fifties. I found it months after her death and I just couldn't throw it away. She never missed an opportunity to say an encouraging word.

It may seem morbid to hold on to these things, but these people meant a great deal to me -- still do-- and they were an important part of the richness of Christian communities I have served.

Scripture speaks of the "cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us. I'm grateful for the ones I have known. I feel that I am a better person because of them.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


A new series starts on CBC radio today about healthcare. In the preview interview this morning the producer made the point that physicians can now interview patients before accepting them. With a million Ontarians without a doctor the physicians can pick and choose who will be part of their practice.

Health care is such a complex issue. South of the border hospitals actually advertise their services as a consumer item like virtually anything else. I saw a TV spot the other evening for a hospital that bragged about its low wait time for kidney transplants. Anyone waiting for a organ transplant does so with a degree of anxiety. The ad seemed almost ghoulish, feeding into the stress, yet time is of the essence for those on the list.

I will go to see Michael Moore's new documentary called Sicko, which is about the U.S. healthcare system. While Moore is more of a polemicist than an arm's length documentary maker his work is thought-provoking. Does any one system adequately meet the needs of the majority?
Probably not.

As I visit people in hospital or their homes I am aware that Jesus was a healer and that addressing body, mind and spirit was his way of life, not just a slogan. As a pastor I want to be a non-anxious presence, helping mediate the love of Christ as folk navigate their way through the medical system.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Blast from the Past

There was a day when most congregations had a Sunday School picnic or an outdoor service. They seem to have disappeared, which really isn't surprising because mainline church Sunday Schools are disappearing as well. The two tend to go together.

On Sunday we had our annual outdoor service at a Conservation Area a few kilometres north of Bowmanville. It didn't start out well because we were locked out of our designated area but a resourceful member phoned for help and got it.

It turned out that this was probably the best attended outdoor service yet. But it wasn't so much the numbers as the spirit of the event -- or perhaps I should say the Spirit. People of all ages were in attendance including four generations of one family. One of the couples with two young children trace the origins of their relationship to one of these services/picnics.

Our congregational committee did a fine job of feeding everyone and a couple of Lions wangled their organization's barbecues. Games were organized for the gaggle of kids and only one child fell in the pond. Adults sat in little groups and chatted. As I am writing I can hear someone visiting our outer office speaking of what a fun morning it was.

Of course we worshipped as part of this gathering with music leadership from several of our folk.
St. Paul's excells at enjoying the company of the community. It was definitely an enjoyable event and Christ was there.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Alternate Wedding Bells

This weekend is the Gay Pride Parade in Toronto and word is that more than a million people will be on hand. How times change. The mayor will be there and other political leaders who would have run in the other direction a decade ago. I have gay friends who are not big fans of this parade and others like it because they feel that they feed into certain stereotypes of gays and lesbians but there is no doubt that homosexuality is out of the closet and marching down main street. Certainly what will happen today and tomorrow is no more outrageous than what happens during Mardi Gras.
I had lunch with some of our senior women last week and one commented that the Grand Marshall for the parade this year is a Bowmanville man, one some of them know from childhood. They discussed all this in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way, even though they have different opinions on the subject.
I am at the church this afternoon to conduct the wedding of a heterosexual couple. Their license has boxes for the signatures of Applicant and Joint Applicant rather than Bride and Groom, reflecting other changes in our society.
We believe in the institution of marriage as Christians because it upholds the covenant of love between two people and the fidelity of a couple within the shelter of marriage before God. We know that we live in a culture that often celebrates sexuality without commitment.
Whether it is "bride and groom" or "applicant and joint applicant," it is loving faithfulness that we uphold. That doesn't change.

Friday, June 22, 2007

It Isn't Easy Being Green

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was in our region earlier this week to announce a 650 million dollar Green Automotive initiative. It's no accident that he did so in Oshawa where lots of cars and trucks and things that go are turned off assembly lines. There will be incentives for auto-makers to produce fuel efficient vehicles.
I'm glad that this will probably mean more jobs and job security for lots of folk in this area, including members of our congregation. At the same time this seems like a safe and savvy choice for the government which is aiming to be re-elected in October.
Why do the big auto companies need help to sell what the customers want? Other manufacturers in this province are profitable because they offered more fuel-efficient vehicles while the former Big Three have stuck with the dinosaurs. Fifteen years ago GM and other companies developed electric cars in California, only to shelve them (crush them actually) when the state government relented on requirements to produce environmentally friendlier vehicles.
Perhaps the funds announced this week would be better spent as seed money for smaller companies which are working toward the "outside the box" concepts some of the big companies are reluctant to develop.
WWJD -- What Would Jesus Drive?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

National Aboriginal Day

This Tree of Life painting by aboriginal artist Blake Debassige hangs in the chapel of the Anderson Lake Spiritual Centre in Northern Ontario. The centre is run by the Jesuits for the benefit of aboriginal peoples in the area, but I have spent time on retreat there. The simple, beautiful chapel is "in the round" and there are symbols which reflect native spirituality and Christianity. In this painting Christ is nailed to a tree with the creatures of the forest perched on the branches. Each one has meaning for the artist. I find this painting inspiring and have a copy of it.

June 21st, the summer solstice, is National Aboriginal Day in Canada Our wonderful country has a sad history of mistreatment of First Nations peoples and the churches are not exempt. The United Church of Canada has attempted to restore that broken relationship through a public apology, a healing fund, and reparations to those who were abused in the residential school system. We have established a conference among the 13 of the United Church called All Native Circle.

While these efforts are probably not enough, they are a beginning. Jesus had a special heart for those who were marginalized in his time and that desire for justice can be at the heart of our concern for the more than 500,000 aboriginals in Canada. Read the Apology to Native Congregations made by the United Church in 1986

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Weighty Matters

June is a caloric-intake nightmare! Just about every group I am involved with has a special gathering involving food during this month. I am eating with:

the St. Paul's newcomers and board
the ministerial
the clergy lectionary group
the day-time bible study group
the St. Paul's staff
the choir.

I have begged off a couple of other meals which I'm sure would have been pleasant. Ministers are never thrilled with the notion that activities are "over" for the summer, but life does quiet down. It is important to mark the transitions of our life, including the life in faith, so why not do so over a meal?

Jesus got in trouble because he enjoyed parties and eating with those who were considered spiritually and culturally questionable. I'm glad that he provided this example of conviviality.

I would muse about this some more, but I have to get to the next potluck.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ordinary Evil

On Sunday a mother asked if I would sign the passport application for her daughter. I have filled out a number of these lately, a consequence of increased security for international travel. I offered to do it then and there, and we chatted as I filled in the various boxes.

The mom told me that recently her daughter had been taunted with racial slurs at school. She was adopted from China seven years ago and while this doesn't happen often, it is still hurtful.

I am reading Barbara Coloroso's book called Extraordinary Evil which looks at the roots of genocide. Some of you will know Coloroso because of her important work on the subject of bullying. Her premise that it is not a long walk from childhood denigration of others to genocides such as Rwanda seems at first to be a stretch, yet we have to wonder where the roots of prejudice and hatred take hold.

When the mother told me of what had happened to her lovely child I was saddened, and even a bit surprised that in this multicultural day these incidents still occur. My comment was that the perpetrator did not come by this prejudice naturally. It was learned, probably at home.

While those who are religious often foment intolerance, I am convinced that communities of faith can continue to be places where kindness and openness are nurtured and promoted. One of the best-loved parables of Jesus is about an "outsider," a Samaritan who shows compassion to a stranger when no one else would.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Joy of Baptism

In a few minutes I will go into the St. Paul's sanctuary and sit with my wife, Ruth. It is the Sunday School service and the only responsibility I have is to baptize a seven-year-old boy who found out that he hadn't been baptised and asked for this sacrament.

The first six months of 2007 has seen a "run" on baptisms in our congregation. This is the fifteenth, the most I have ever done in half a year. Last year we went through a similar period with none, although there are always a fair number here because of the profile of our church family. This year we have baptized infants and older children and adults. Since I came to St. Paul's I have baptized at least six adults, maybe more. For me it is such a positve statement to the congregation as a whole. We all come to Christ in various ways through a lifetime, some quiet and internal, others public and declarative. Some happen before we can understand the meaning and others as a conscious choice of faith.

We need that interior experience and that public profession. I look forward to today's "holy moment."

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Roles Fathers Play

This is from the online resource called Soundbites. It speaks to my other blog entry for this day

Spiritually connected fathers can play a significant role in their children's lives. One of the benefits of spirituality is learning to handle difficult situations by developing faith and hope in the midst of adversity. That does not mean that there is no suffering, no setbacks, and no disappointments. It means that despite our human shortcomings, and despite the challenges and frustrations of life, there is some good that can come out of difficult situations, sorrow and pain.

Fathers can teach their [children] about the faith, and their hope for the future. Fathers can be supportive role models, and can demonstrate healthy coping skills when faced with adversity, disappointment, and frustrations.

-- Dr. Michael Obsatz in UMMen Magazine, Winter 2000

Fathers --We Need You!

This photo is from Life magazine, circa 1959. It appears to be a father, laying down the law for a passle of kids before heading off to church. I remember similar marching orders from my Old Man on Sundays. He was the minister and could keep a watch on my behaviour and that of my brother from the vantage point of the pulpit. We were often found wanting!

These baby boom children may be grandparents by now and our culture has changed. The number of people who go to church has dropped by more than fifty percent since then, and men are scarcer in congregational life.

We need the involvement of men and fathers in church life. This congregation is fortunate to have a significant number of involved Dad's. Some of them teach Sunday School. I'm impressed by their commitment. I had lunch with a young father from St. Paul's last week and I can tell he wants to do his best with his children in every area of life, including Christian faith. Still men are outnumbered by women and fathers are more likely to be ferrying children to sports events on Sunday than to worship.

To all the involved, faithful fathers and grandfathers -- thank you. You are absolutely essential to our health and well-being as a family of faith.

Have a wonderful Father's Day. I hope I see you in church.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Every Kindness a Prayer

I just spoke with a woman who is not a member of St. Paul's but whose elderly father is. He has been in hospital for weeks and may never leave. She is attending his needs as well as supporting her ailing husband as he undergoes radiation.

I often wonder how people manage to carry on when they have so much to deal with. When I phoned this woman to enquire about medical developments with her Dad (he is too frail and confused to tell me during our visits) I encourage her as best I can.

Today she told me that her prayers and the prayers of others are important. And she mentioned how much strength she takes from the cards and letters she receives from friends. It seems to me that these messages are a form of prayer. We don't always consider them to be prayers, but think of the letters from the apostle Paul to congregations across Asia Minor. So often the messages are deeply personal and from the heart. A good reminder.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Audacity of Faith

Someone kindly passed on a copy of Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope. Obama is one of the Democratic presidential hopefuls south of the border. While I have read the book by fits and starts I am impressed by his intelligence, his willingness to speak of his own flaws, and the sense that he has a genuine faith.

In the States the issues of faith, usually Christian, are far more politically important than here in Canada and religion ends up being worn on sleeves and everywhere else at election time.

The cover article of the latest Christian Century points this out. It looks at Obama's home church in Chicago and its Africentric approach. It was at Trinity that Barak Obama became a Christian, experiencing a powerful, emotional conversion during worship. While Canadians may be leery of mixing religion and politics in some strange alchemical brew we might benefit from some lively discussion of faith by our political leaders. Surely God loves politicians too.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Encouraging News

At the end of May I told you about a woman and her children who were at risk of being deported. The mother feared that her daughter would be subjected to genital mutilation, against her will.

Here is the good news update.

June 8, 2007

Re: Canadian Child at Risk of Genital Mutilation (General Council newsrelease, May 29, 2007)The Minister of Citizenship & Immigration decided today that Oumou Touré can remain in Canada with her two small children.The little Canadian girl, Fanta, will therefore not be returning to Guinea and will not be at risk of Female Genital Mutilation.

Mourning the Fallen

The word came this morning that another young Canadian soldier has died in Afghanistan. He was twenty five years old, a life about to blossom, now extinguished. He is already begin hailed as a hero, a great Canadian. No doubt he was simply attempting to do his job in an efficient, meaningful way. He probably had to fight the fear at times, as soldiers do. His family will mourn his death and even while he is being honoured they will wonder why this had to happen.

We have a son who will turn twenty five in a few days. There are no guarantees for any of us, but we want him to live a long and satisfying life. I'm glad that he is not in a distant country in the midst of danger. We make the right noises about heroism in times of conflict but there needs to be the constant recognition that war creates hardship and pain. I'm grateful for Canadian soldiers wherever they are stationed. I would prefer that this loss come to an end.

God be with those who loved Trooper Darryl Caswell.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Leaders Lead

Oxfam came up with these caricatures of G8 leaders, a criticism of the lack of response to the economic crisis in Africa. These Group of Eight conferences have become lightning rods for discontent over many issues.

The good news yesterday was the agreement on addressing climate change. It seemed as though the divide between the U.S. and the European nations couldn't be bridged. The announcement gives a sense that progress has been made. Now the participating countries will need to honour their commitments.

There is a phrase which is something of a truism: "leaders lead." Sometimes those in positions of political responsibility must exhibit bold thought and action.

Surely the same is true for the church. Last weekend Bay of Quinte conference met and mused over the future of our greying and shrinking denomination. The encouragement was not to lose heart and to believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work in our midst.

My sense is that each congregation must ask God for direction and raise up its own leaders who are willing to be bold and innovative. This is not a time to be timid. Leaders lead.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Many Happy Birthdays

I visited one of our members in a seniors' residence yesterday. He told me that today he will be celebrating his 91st birthday. We always have great chats and his outlook is impressively positive. He admitted that he has been "down" lately and seemed a bit surprised. He takes great comfort in his prayer life, his "conversation with God" as he put it. And he is hugely grateful for family support and the staff where he lives. So going through a tough patch has taken him off guard.

We addressed this seriously but we also ended up laughing together about some of the foibles of his youth. I visited four people over the age of 85 yesterday, one of whom is 101! In each case we prayed and we laughed. I realize this is a winning combination, a sense of humour and a sense of God's abiding presence.

Happy birthday Grover.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Bridge of Living Water

The Oscar and Golden Globe winning actor, Jeremy Irons has been in Toronto this week. He has what may seem like an unlikely friendship with a Roman Catholic nun, Elaine MacInnes. She is also a Zen master and has written a book called Zen Contemplation: A Bridge of Living Water which I bought after hearing her interviewed on CBC radio several years ago.
One of her projects is introducing meditation to prison inmates and Irons has worked with her in institutions. His Canadian trip will include a fundraiser for this interesting work.
A while ago I quoted from Matthew 25 where Jesus tells a parable to impress on his disciples the importance of giving food to the hungry and care for the sick and visiting the prisoner. The project which Sister Elaine and Jeremy Irons are involved in answers that call.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Never Away From God

We went to see the film Away From Her last evening. It is directed by Sarah Polley and stars Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, and an exceptional supporting cast. It is about a couple married for 45 years and the effects of her Alzheimer's disease on their life together. It is touching without being maudlin and sad without becoming morose. There is not a false note in this picture and it is well worth seeing.

It was poignant for me because I have been pastor to so many folk who have slipped into dementia. There are many unkind diseases but this cluster which includes Alzheimer's is certainly among the most cruel. So often it robs the sufferer of dignity and leaves caregivers feeling defeated. At one point she comments to him, "I'm going, not gone." It is the coming and going that can be so painful and bewildering for everyone.

Recently a woman who had moved into a nearby seniors residence asked me to visit her. She is not a member at St. Paul's but she realized that our church is convenient for her. She decided to move into the residence because her short-term memory is failing and she was making dangerous mistakes. Yet she remembered my mother who lived in Bowmanville nearly sixty years ago.

It is said that Christians live between memory and hope. It is difficult to be hopeful when memory fails us. It's important to be part of a ministry of support and compassion in Christ's name.