Sunday, October 28, 2007

He Got Away

I received an email yesterday from my colleague whose husband has been so ill. The title was "he got away" which was a reference to her mother-in-law's standard comment when someone died that "he got away." Early yesterday her husband died while she sat at his side.

Several hours after my visit on Friday he began to fail and they knew the end was coming. She called another minister friend who lived nearby to come and say a prayer.

I am still thinking about our afternoon prayer and how when I bowed my head and closed my eyes she asked me to look up. Her husband had lifted up his hand for me to hold while we asked for God's loving embrace and I hadn't noticed. Of course I took it as we prayed. I trust that Christ has taken his hand now and taken him to his eternal promise.

Please pray for his wife and two young daughters.

I'll be back to blogging in a while.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Go right, no left!

On Monday I will fly to the American southwest to visit a retreat centre in New Mexico called Ghost Ranch. The course I will participate in is offered by an Anglican priest now living in Britain but Canadian by birth. Go figure.
I must fly through Denver on my way to Santa Fe, so I will stop for a couple of days with friends who live near the mile-high city. Colorado is the heartland of right-wing Christianity in the States and there are huge, modern and ugly churches all over the place.
This weekend the New York Times has a lengthy magazine article on the shift in evangelicalism in the US. Christians feel burned by the almost blind support of President Bush which resulted in the fiasco of Iraq. Others have grown weary of the unrelenting emphasis on a few issues such as abortion and homosexuality while the environment and world poverty are ignored. An increasing number of evangelical church leaders are inviting their people to broaden their horizons and take a new look at the gospel.
The United Church is a very left-leaning denomination and we pride ourselves in our liberal views and not being fundamentalists. But at times I grow frustrated with our focus on just a few issues at the other end of the spectrum, as important as some of them they may be. What about sharing the gospel with others and figuring out how to be Christ-centred in a pluralistic world? We do this poorly and we appear to be paying the price.
Neither left nor right holds all the answers and we need to be willing to regularly reassess what it means to be the people of abundant life in Christ. The body of Christ must be animated by the Spirit or it will wither and die, at least in some of its expressions. But what wonderful possibilities if we are able to be faithful to the gospel.
Here are the places I will visit and the speaker for my time away.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Challenging and Real Life Stuff

When I came home late this afternoon I decided to hit the gym for an hour before heading to the church again. I needed the opportunity to let off steam after a tough visit at Oshawa hospital. I went to see the spouse of a colleague who has been very ill. I feel badly for him and for his family as he struggles. It doesn't seem fair and I grow weary of unfairness.

We prayed at the conclusion of the visit -- I couldn't leave without praying --but I still felt rather helpless. As I drove home I realized that a number of colleagues have gone through challenging stuff lately. Diagnoses of cancer and stress leave and more. Challenging and real life stuff -- clergy aren't spared what everyone else faces.

The gym helped and so did the St. Paul's Halloween party planned by Rev. Cathy. Roughly fifty children and young people remembering the saints and showing off their costumes. They were adorable. It was good to see their happiness in the midst of pain.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Another Rendition of the Story

I wish U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was as contrite as she looks in this photo. She spoke this week about the case of Maher Arar which I blogged about a few days ago.

While admitting that the state department mishandled the situation it was an anaemic response with no admission of responsibility and no apology. So Arar continues to be on a no-fly list to the United States and he fears flying anywhere else in the world as a result. Where is the justice?

Dreaming Big

Silken Laumann is the woman in the yoga pose painted by Bowmanville artist Jane Eccles. Silken is also the former Olympic medalist in rowing who now offers inspirational messages at various venues including schools. She was in town for a couple of days this week and we heard her. I can say that she was vibrant and animated and --yes-- inspirational. She was certainly worth hearing as she told the familiar story of personal triumph over what could have been a career ending accident.

If you recall, she was at the pinnacle of her skills when rammed by another rowing shell. Even though she was told that she might someday row again recreationally and walk with a limp this wasn't enough for her. She managed to recover for the Olympics in only ten weeks and somehow captured a bronze medal.

I appreciated what Silken had to say about imagination. She encouraged us to believe in the power of imagination to propel us toward our goals. Of course her personal journey included countless hours of gruelling work-outs and boring repetition but she began with the dream of being an Olympic athlete.

One of our readings for this week says "your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions." This passage from Joel is quoted by the disciple Peter on the day of Pentecost as he invites people to become followers of Christ.

We need to be as imaginative and "dreamy" and Spirit-filled as we can be in a time when many churches seem to be puttering along without enough air in their tires. Another of the passages this week is a reminder to run the race and keep the faith. I hope we have it in us.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Value of Study

Minutes ago I finished seven weeks of study with a group of about fourteen women (the membership varied from week to week.) The book we looked at, The Rapture Exposed, was daunting at times because it was examining one ot the most challenging and confusing books of the bible, The Revelation to John.

Most mainline Christian denominations studiously avoid the book while some conservative Christians are almost obsessed by it. The wildly popular Left Behind novels are loosely based on Revelation.

What struck me again is how willing this group is to study and grow in faith. The bible can be both transparent and apparently inpenetrable at the same time. We can read passages that speak to us with great clarity and then turn to others that baffle us.

This makes sense, really. The Good Book is a collection of books written over centuries by many authors in diverse cultures. Even though we may believe that scripture is divinely inspired we must "work up a sweat" to understand the bible. I learned a great deal through my preparation and from the people involved. We had some tense moments at the beginning because of our different viewpoints but in the end this was a valuable and faith-affirming exercise.

In November we are going to have an evening study looking at different forms of prayer. If you are close at hand, please join us.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Valuing Each Breath

In life, in death, in life beyond death
God is with us, we are not alone.
Thanks be to God

United Church Statement of Faith

This morning our younger daughter got word that the father of one of her closest friends had died through the night. An active and robust man, probably in his late forties, he suffered a stroke on Saturday. It was so massive that he never had a chance for recovery and his family is devastated by his loss.

From time to time through the years I have been called upon to respond pastorally to those who have experienced sudden and untimely deaths. The worst may have been a family who lost a young child who died because his throat swelled shut as an allergic reaction. His mother responded to his calls in the night and calmed him down and back to sleep. When she went to him in the morning he was gone.

What can we say? These are the times when life seems so unfair and we are left wondering where God has been. I have no real answers other than my sometimes shaky conviction that God never abandons or foresakes us.

I keep coming back to the prayer which I often use in funeral and memorial services which includes the words "since we have been but a hair's breadth from death since birth, teach us how breathlessly close we are to life in all its fullness."

Monday, October 22, 2007


The film Rendition starring Jake Gyllenhall and Reese Witherspoon is a fictional examination of the American practice of shipping terrorist suspects to foreign countries which have lax human rights laws. These "renditions" allow for torture which is not permitted within the United States.

As the film opened across North America a real-life rendition story continued to play out. A group of U.S. politicians apologized to Maher Arar, the Canadian who was flown from New York to Syria on vague suspicions of terrorism and without any legal representation or formal charges. Arar was flying on a Canadian passport and was on a stopover on his way home but he was simply spirited away to hell.While the Americans did this, it was with the assistance of the RCMP in Canada. Arar was tortured and brutalized in a Syrian prison and while eventually released and exonerated thanks to his wife's tireless efforts he may never be the same.

The movie Rendition has received mixed reviews, as should the shameful actions of the US and Canadian governments in the Arar case. Both of these countries hold to a rule of law and democratic principles which decry torture and denial of due process for those accused of criminal activity. And both countries were founded on Christian principles which uphold justice.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Saint Mel

Someone wants to put a halo on the handsome devil in this photograph. Earlier this week Mel Gibson was chosen (anointed?) as the Most Powerful Christian in Hollywood. My first thought was that the pickings must be slim these days.
Of course Mr. Gibson took huge personal risks to produce and direct a film about the last days of Jesus' life called The Passion of the Christ. I have made no secret about my dislike of this movie because it takes the violence against Jesus to a place that is disturbing and actually directs us away from the bigger picture of Jesus' ministry of compassion and of resurrection hope. Yes Jesus suffered and died on the cross and yes this is vital to the Christian message. It's not the whole story and The Passion didn't tell this portion well.
Mel's personal life is also perplexing. At times he hits the bottle as hard as he smites his enemies in various films. He was stopped on a DUI a while ago and ended up making anti-semitic remarks toward one of the police officers.
I suppose we would all suffer image problems under the glaring lights of Hollywood but I know that Gibson is not my Christian role model. Even the term "most powerful" seems to be an oxymoron when applied to Christianity.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Penny for Your Thoughts

A penny for your thoughts? How about 500 billion pennies? Prime Minister Harper's throne speech held out the prospect of another cent knocked off the GST that we all feel is excessive.
I would be glad if all of the goods and services tax disappeared, except that I want the services it provides. Each cent reduced from the GST results in about 5 billion dollars in lost revenue for the federal government.

Five billion would go a long away toward addressing child poverty and affordable housing or a national day care system. How about a few billion toward refurbished infrastructure? I have begrudgingly become accustomed to that penny and so I'm fine if it stays and does some good in this country, especially for those who could use the help.

I'm proud of Canada and the social safety net we have created, even though there are some gaping holes. Mr. Harper is a Christian so surely he understands.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cause for Celebration

Question:What do you call 75 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?
Answer: A good start!

This is an old and mean-spirited joke, but sometimes I wonder if we should substitute the word lawyers with clergy. We don't always get along and we aren't the best witness as we accentuate our differences rather than celebrating that we are all grafted onto the vine who is Christ.

I am a member of the Bowmanville ministerial which has about fifteen members. We are unusual in that many communities have different ministerials for those of conservative and liberal persuasions. Our group has clergy from the Salvation Army, as well as Presbyterian, Christian Reformed, Baptist, Anglican churches. Although the two United Church congregations have a different theological flavour, both are represented. It means that we don't always see eye to eye and there have been times when I wondered whether it is worth attending.

Today encouraged me. We ate together, visited together, worked together. We agreed that we would hold an ecumenical service celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January. And that we would adopt a Celebrating Creation Care weekend close to Earth Day in April. Becoming one in Christ is a challenge for congregations, including their pastors and priests but we have recognized the importance of following Christ's lead.

Isn't that cause for celebration?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Glory of the Night Sky

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament* proclaims his handiwork.
2Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
3There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
4yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19

The Dunlop telescope in Richmond Hill doesn't work any more even though it is the largest optical telescope in Canada. It's not the telescope's fault. The city of Toronto has grown out around the 180 acre location and the light pollution has rendered it ineffective, So the property, now worth 75 to 100 million dollars, may be sold.

Every summer we try to spend time somewhere that the night sky "declares the glory of God." This year it was the Saguenay region and Killarney Park in Northern Ontario.

Looking up at the night sky makes us feel ridiculously small and we love it.

Later this month I will be travelling to New Mexico for a course. The state is one of the best places in North America to view the stars. I can hardly wait.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Simple Beauty

After worship today forty of us climbed onto a school bus and headed for the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg. We went to see the artwork of Robert Bateman, a Canadian artist who has enjoyed great commercial success but hasn't been well received by critics.

I can't say that the works we saw today touched me very deeply, except for a few like this one of a redwinged blackbird landing on a rail fence.

I do appreciate Bateman's ongoing commitment to environmental projects, both financially and through his influence as a well-known artist. His care for creation was blatantly evident in some of the paintings we saw, and subtlely so in works which reveal the simple beauty of the world around us.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Disappeared

Burmese activist leaders are being rounded up day by day. At least one has died in custody and others are missing. When journalists have visited Buddhist monasteries they are virtually empty, except for children.

The oppressive regime has also gathered up thousands of monks and either put them in prison or forced them to leave the country. The media tend to move on to the next crisis, but we need to pray that countries that uphold freedom will continue to ask difficult questions and pressure the junta to release prisoners.

Here is an article from the BBC news service that may be illuminating.


Today was Applefest in Bowmanville. The main street in town was shut down so visitors could amble along and enjoy the many booths set up by vendors. As the name suggests, many of the products are treats produced from apples grown locally.

I met many St. Paul's folk on the street and we stopped and chatted. So did just about everyone else. People were introducing puppies and showing off babies and even though it was a blustery day there was a positive community atmosphere.

Isn't this what happens when people walk and talk? Usually King Street is so busy with vehicle traffic it is a life-threatening experience trying to get from one side of the road to the other. For all the supposed concern about supporting downtown businesses this is not a pedestrian-friendly community.

Last week an international conference was held in Toronto called Walk 21 . The sessions looked at the ways in which urban environments can be more conducive to those on foot. We have become such a "car culture" that we are losing the simple pleasure of walking about our communities. Maybe this day in October should be Amblefest as well as Applefest.

Jesus did most of his travelling on foot and some of the most important conversations in the gospels resulted from encounters while walking. If it was good enough for Jesus...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Peace for the Planet

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

For the second time in the 21st century the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to an environmentalist. Wangari Maathai, the African activist, won in 2004 for her remarkable "regreening" work. Once again we are reminded that shalom is not just about relationships between human beings.

This year's recipients are former US vice-president Al Gore and the United Nations committee on climate change. Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth captured the world's attention and motivated individuals and governments to work toward making peace with our battered planetary home. Bravo.

I am sorry that the Canadian nominee, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, did not share or win the prize. This 53-year-old Inuit climate change activist has brought attention to the rapidly changing environment in the North. Originally she was co-nominated for the prize with Gore, and she is certainly deserving.

Jesus called us to be peace-makers and he embodies the deepest meaning of peace or shalom. As his followers we can laud the example of those who are making peace with the planet and do our part for positive change.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Locavore Update

You may have read Nancy's response to my Thanksgiving locavore blog entry. She shared the website.

My good wife has let me know that the turnip on our Thanksgiving table was also local and the cranberries were Ontario grown. I must admit that her knowledge is first-hand, while mine is second or third hand!

Not God's Will

This morning I heard an interview with the sister-in-law of a woman murdered by her husband in B.C. only weeks after her marriage. The husband claimed that she died in a home invasion but she was actually the victim of domestic violence. It turned out that he had been abusive to women in the past. Shortly after his wife's death he took his own life.
The sister-in-law spoke of the sadness of the woman's death and her sense of loss, but went on to say that this was God's will.
It was not God's will! There is no room for fatalism about domestic violence. It is not "meant to be" and it cannot be tolerated in any form. It isn't just physical violence that leaves scars. Studies show that systematic, ongoing verbal and psychological abuse are as serious an issue as physical assault. My wife, Ruth, works for Bethesda House, the shelter for women and children in Bowmanville, and she hears the stories of soul-detroying manipulation and intimidation.
It is God's will that we enter into relationships where mutual respect and love will flourish. Of course there are no perfect relationships and conflict occurs in even the best marriages. Still our goal has to be security and well-being.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Freedom to Choose

When I go to the polling station today I can vote in a referendum on Mixed Member Proportional representation in the provincial parliament. This system means I am still able vote for and elect my local candidate but I can also vote so that parties which currently have little or no representation in the legislature will have a voice. Germany and New Zealand have been using this system for a while now and it is working well.
I have listened to those who are opposed and their concerns are well thought out. But there are advantages as well and I think I will vote in favour because our current system needs a shake-up.
This election campaign has not impressed me and the format seems tired.
I encourage everyone to get out and vote today. So much of the Christian message is about moving from bondage to freedom and I consider it a privilege to participate in choosing those who govern us.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Everyone at the Table

Photo: Rev. Norm Esdon

Children returned to the sanctuary on Sunday so they could participate in communion. At least some of them did. The "three/fours" and the Kinderkids don't get around very quickly so they stay in their classes. It seem exclusive on the inclusive day called World-Wide Communion to leave out these little ones and their teachers. We have talked about it before, but I can only be in one place at a time.

Solution! Rev. Cathy, our new staff person, left after we consecrated the elements, taking a chalice and paten with her. All the youngest children and their teachers, as well as the folk in the nursery received communion. Cathy commented that the children were very open and reverent. Even though some would argue that they are too young to "get it" they got it.

In all the aspects of congregational life we hoped for with Cathy's arrival, I don't recall this being on the list. I'm glad she raised it and it came to fruition.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Thankful to be a Locavore

This morning I listened to a CBC program on buying food locally. Here in Bowmanville we are in the midst of some of the best farmland in Canada and it is not that difficult through the summer and fall to find produce from the area.
The turkey on our table was raised near Newcastle and the apples mixed with the turnip were picked just north of town. The potatoes were local as well. The rest of the meal? I'm not really sure, but we are thinking of this more when we buy groceries. We have been patronizing local growers whenever possible and looking at labels in the grocery chains.
It makes no sense to purchase food grown thousands of kilometres away while produce rots in the fields here because farmers can't compete with the foreign imports. Nor should we be paving over prime farmland for subdivisions.
The CBC program outlined a program called Local Food Plus which encourages the production and distribution of locally grown food. It is obviously a movement which has weight.
I am thankful today to live in a country of such abundance. As Christian we can make simple choices to be nourished by food which comes from our community.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Righteous Indignation

Normally I am unimpressed when politicians go into "righteous indignation" mode. It usually seems staged and insincere. I was a little surprised when Howard Hampton had his moderate tantrum yesterday but I liked it because I think he got it right. This provincial election has been badly side-tracked by accusations of broken promises and fixation on the school funding issue.

Mr. Hampton vented his frustration that substantive issues are being ignored, including the gap between rich and poor. Recent reports have reiterated that children who live in poverty fall behind because of poor nutrition. We know that there is little in the way of new affordable housing in the province and the existing housing in Toronto is in desperately poor repair.

I'm still not sure where my vote will go, but I'm glad one party leader challenged us to "get real." I'm not sure that the electorate was paying much attention. Then again, the biblical prophets weren't welcomed with open arms either.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

God of the Grass

Last evening as we returned home from a walk my wife Ruth commented on the patch of lawn at the side of the church. It took a beating this summer while reconstruction occurred on our bell tower but it will recover.

Ruth observed that this small area of green is home to many holy activities. Last Sunday we blessed pets and at Christmas time humans and animals also gather for the Living Nativity.

During the summer we hold a "lunch on the lawn" for the Clarington Connection group, always so grateful for our hospitality.

In August the children of Vacation Bible School extend their activities onto this lawn and the Sunday School has planted flowers around the border as a reminder of the relationship with God the Creator.

A dedicated group of volunteers tends flowers and cuts grass all through the summer. The annual plant exchange allows members to share the abundance of their gardens.

We take our "meet and greet" time after worship to this spot through the warmer months.

Three weeks ago a couple who had just been married in the sanctuary greeted their guests under the tree which stands in the centre.

Quietly impressive, don't you think? We are Christ's church in so many ways without being within the bricks and mortar which are really only the shell of any church family. Ruth is right. Our green oasis is a holy place.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Faith in Christ

There are days and even weeks when ministry is so busy I barely remember to breathe. If I'm not careful the activity loses its connection to faith in Christ. I move from one activity to another without much opportunity for reflection.

This morning I opened my devotional resource and found the instruction to turn to Hebrews, chapter 11: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convicton of things not seen. Indeed, by faith, our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible." vs 1-3

My faith and our faith will be lived out in tangible ways in the go-go of daily existence. Still, it's important to keep in mind that we are part of that "not visible" world.

I trust that Christ will be with all of through the mundane and glorious events of this day.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Jesus was a Refugee

There have been reports of hundreds of Mexicans flooding across the border into Canada creating a considerable challenge -- some would say crisis -- for the city of Windsor and other municipalities. Many of these folk were well established in the US, owning homes and businesses. But they can't stay and don't want to return to Mexico for many reasons. Are they refugees? Whatever the official status, they are seeking refuge in our country.

What if there were thousands of refugees arriving every day of the year? That is what is happening in the Middle East as Iraqis flee the violence in their country. Two million have been displaced internally and another two million have left the country. In 2006 one million entered Syria and many more are in Jordan. The photo to the left shows an Iraqi family on the move through the desert. So far the US has allowed an underwhelming 500 of these refugees into their country.

Today there was an article in the Globe and Mail by three authors, including former cabinet minister Flora MacDonald, challenging Canada to receive Iraqi refugees. They point out that it wasn't all that long ago that our country responded to a humanitarian crisis and resettled 50,000 Vietnamese across Canada. As St. Paul's and hundreds of other churches are aware, Christian congregations made a huge difference in this effort.

We can't forget that Jesus was a refugee. According to one of the gospels his family fled from the wrath of Herod and hid out in Egypt. Knowing that the Christ was a displaced person, do we need to expand our notion of hospitality?

Monday, October 01, 2007

More Than TGIF

One of the St. Paul's members who works at GM was tongue-in-cheek grumbling about the fact that he didn't get any time off last week because the strike in the US was resolved so quickly. The tentative agreement meant that thousands of people in our region who work for General Motors and the companies that supply the auto giant in Oshawa will continue to work for the time being. This situation was close enough to home that we prayed for resolution in worship. I am grateful that employees will continue to have employment. These are good paying jobs that mean prosperity for workers and the local economy.

Work is an odd entity in our lives. We do grouse and complain about our work at times and we speak of the grind. Yet when we don't have employment, even the jobs that are drudgery, we can feel bereft, without purpose. I spoke with another member of the congregation who is trying not to be too anxious about being unemployed at the moment. Confident in her skills and with a history of steady work, she is rather overwhelmed by her undesired at-home status and the mounting bills.
Please pray for those who are out of work and those who have an uncertain future. Pray, too, for those whose employment no longer brings satisfaction and want to find a new way forward.