Friday, March 30, 2007

Pausing to Pray

On Sunday two individuals approached me at different times during the "meet and greet" time following worship. They asked me to pray for them during this week. One was about to undergo a job review. The other was in the midst of jury duty and deliberations were about to begin.

I said that I would pray and have remembered to do so. I nearly always encourage people to pray themselves because my prayers have no more "suction" (the term of a Afro-American preacher) than those of anyone else.

Even though people pray in virtually every culture around the world it can be a challenge to know what to pray. In Canterbury Cathedral there is an invitation to light a candle as a focus for prayer:

I didn't know how to pray

I didn't know what to say

I didn't have much time

The light which I offered was

a little of my time

a little of myself...

When we pray we reflect Christ's light and we are the light of the world.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Walking With a Limp

I huff and puff my way through work-outs at the gym several times a week. As a middle-aged man I am aware of the energy of youth around me. I also see the handful of older people who continue to attend to their health. One older man looks to have suffered a stroke. One side of his body doesn't function well and everything he does is slow and laboured.

This morning he was in the change room and simply couldn't get the zipper of his jacket to work. He asked a muscular young guy to help him out, which he did patiently and cheerfully. The other day I was next to the same senior on the rowing machines. The handle slipped from his weakened grip and clattered against the machine. I saw him sigh at the prospect of unstrapping himself to retrieve it, so I popped over to pull it back for him. He is grateful for the support he gets, but it must be humbling to need the help.

I have great admiration for the perseverence of this man. I also have a wierd mind, so the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis surfaced for me today. You might remember that Jacob prevails, but he walks with a limp as a reminder of the encounter. It occurs to me that most of us "walk crooked" as we make our way through life, whether physically or psychically.

As a minister I see that a lot of people I meet live with some form of pain, and only with time and trust do they reveal their wounds. Sometimes I wonder how they carry on. What they have taught me is that we can be defeated by the injuries, large and small. Or we find our way forward, with God's grace and with the support of others.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fool's Golden Rule

On Sunday 25,000 people paid about $100 to go to the "church" of Donald Trump. He was paid 1.5 million dollars to be a speaker at a wealth seminar in Toronto. Among his pearls of wisdom was "when someone screws you, screw them back." What a perverse version of the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule is that we should do unto others what we would have them do to us. There is a poster which points out that every major religion of the world has its version of the Golden Rule. While in some ways it is counter-intuitive, the notion that we would offer to others what we would want for ourselves offers an alternative to selfishness, as well as the escalation of retaliation and violence. Religions connect the concept of a loving, generous God to our generosity of spirit in relationships.

The 25,000 who listened to Trump are misguided about the true meaning of wealth if they think that his message makes sense. Surely this is the Fool's Golden Rule. "Fool's Gold" is another name for a shiny mineral which has deceived treasure seekers for centuries, but is worthless.

We don't always "get it" as followers of Christ, but it is worth the effort. I don't need Donald's Rule. With God's help I'm sticking with the other way, the other Rule.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lenten Life

Late yesterday afternoon the sky began to clear, so I left my work and drove to Second Marsh on the shore of Lake Ontario. I had a hankering for signs of Spring and I was rewarded. As I walked the dike toward the lake I startled a muskrat sitting out on the ice of the marsh. It quickly disappeared down an opening. On the other side I saw a mink which was patrolling the edge of the creek. Mink are bold creatures and this one watched me for quite a while before entering the water again.

At one point I was confronted by a pair of geese on the dike. They get territorial at this time of year and don't like intruders. These two honked and flapped as I got closer but eventually gave way. In the water I saw bufflehead and goldeneye ducks and with the binoculars made out long-tailed ducks, a more unusual visitor. A beaver magically emerged from under the edge of the ice where a lead had opened.

Everywhere there were robins and red-winged blackbirds. The grating song of the blackbirds is a welcome announcement of a new season. Even though the grasses are still brown and the ice is still on the marsh there are clear indications of new life and I could feel my spirit lift. I feel closer to heaven and earth in these days.

It was a Lenten moment in the natural world. Lent means "lengthen" and the days are stretching out. And after the pinched feel of this liturgical season, Easter and resurrection are at hand.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Getting Ready

I tell people that getting ready for Holy Week and Easter is a little like preparing for a funeral and a wedding on the same day, something I have been required to do more than once. There is a mixture of profound sadness and great joy as we move through Good Friday and awaken to Easter.

I am trying to keep the various services and messages straight as I make my way forward. I have a pile of books on my desk about Judas, but I will wait for another year to address his part in Jesus' death. I am reading a book called The Last Week by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan which is very helpful in looking at the implications of each day of Holy Week.

I hope we will have meaningful worship, worship that honours Christ and leads us into life-changing faith all through this season.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

We Shall Overcome

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Great Britain. This decision put pressure on the United States to change its laws, although it took more than half a century.

The man to the left is William Wilberforce, a diminutive soul who was crippled and constantly in poor health. He worked for decades to bring about this legislation despite his illness. He was motivated by his Christian faith and his desire for justice.

Last summer I read Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of those "I'll get to it someday" books. It was full of little sermons on the evils of slavery, again from a Christian perspective.

Thank God for those who have worked to bring about the reign of God even when that work has been lonely and misunderstood.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Setting Priorities

The bad news is that I missed three meetings this week. The good news is that I attended seven. Or maybe it is the other way around. Meetings tend to be the bane of clergy existence, especially for veterans. After a while there is a sameness to them. I had to set priorities this week and go to what I could. Several of the meetings were routine, while others were productive.

In addition I conducted a worship service in a senior's community, led a bible study, touched base with several parishioners, got ready for this Sunday, etcetera, etcetera. Am I whining? Maybe. Actually it hasn't been overwhelming, although it has been one of my busier weeks since coming to St. Paul's.

The challenge is setting priorities. What is necessary? What is less important in any given week than something else? Did I spend enough time in "idle chat" with God so I could be present to the folk I'm talking with and not looking at the clock? Will I have been contemplative enough to preach a message that has meaning instead of just filling the sermon slot?

It's always good to have a week like this to remind me that our parishioners must set priorities as well. Most of the meetings involved people who "made time" to do the work of Christ's church in the midst of their busy schedules.

I just realized I should finish by saying "thank you."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Here's the Church...what, no steeple?

Remember Here's the church and here's the steeple,
open the doors and there are the people.

Maybe you are too young, or maybe you don't care much about steeples. That little rhyme and the finger exercize that went with it worked for generations who related to church buildings. Many of the thriving congregations these days worship in unconventional places. The Meeting House communities (six of them) gather in movie cinemas in the Toronto area on Sunday morning. Spirit Garage is a congregation which meets in a theatre which was a garage.

Do we really need "churchy" bricks and mortar to be the body of Christ? There are three churches on --you guessed it -- Church St. in this community. Two of them are United Churches. I'm forever explaining to people which one we are and why we all exist so close together. Honestly, I have trouble convincing myself, let alone others.

It's probably well past due to be honest about our "edifice complex" and consider how we can be most effective in sharing the gospel. Can Christ inform our imagination about being the church for our time?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Everyday Courage

Remember Dorothy helping the Cowardly Lion find courage in the Wizard of Oz? In the end, the message for all the characters was that the attributes they were seeking resided within them.

What does it mean to be courageous? It is demonstrated regularly by our military personnel in Afghanistan on patrol and during the heat of battle. But what about every day courage?

I keep thinking about an elderly woman I visited two weeks ago who has leukemia. When she first let me know about her diagnosis the words were accompanied by tears. Only a year before her husband died of cancer which was only discovered after dogged persistence by the family. He was gone in a few months and she wondered if this would be her fate.

After that initial dismay she has been remarkably strong, spiritually. Although treatment has made her physically weak, she continues in her own home and has resumed some of her hobbies. When I visited, we laughed together and talked about the birds that come to her feeders. A neighbour called recently to say that a Great Horned Owl was in his backyard and she huffed her way down the street, unwilling to let this unusual sighting go by.

She was very grateful for our conversation and the prayer which concluded the visit. She had tried to deter me from coming in the first place, because "really, I'm doing okay." As is so often the case, I figure I got more from this encounter than the person I saw. Without question, this is courage informed by Christian faith. Christ is the one we seek and the one who is already within us.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Passion, then and now

Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and to mark the occasion a poll was released outlining the opinions of Iraqis about the "regime change," to use the Bush administration phrase. A mere 39% say that life is better since Saddam Hussein's ouster. 50% say that life is worse. Considering Saddam's brutal tyranny, this is a terrible indictment of the way the transition has been handled and the toll exacted on ordinary citizens.

I was one of millions who marched through the streets of cities around the world before this conflict began. We were living in Halifax at the time, and four of our family members took part on what turned out to be a series of very cold march days. I felt a bit foolish, a middle-aged man in the midst of a rather boisterous crowd of mainly university students. At intersections we walked past cars stopped to let the protesters by. It felt as though we were on display as some throwback to the 1960's. Or perhaps the first century.

We are a couple of weeks from Palm/Passion Sunday and the story of another protest march led by a peasant who was in Jerusalem for a religious festival. The expert and heavy hand of the Roman military was "keeping the peace."The empire of Jesus time took note of the procession on that Sunday and quickly silenced and executed him.

I'm angry about has happened in Iraq. I'm angry about the lies. I'm angry that nations which supposedly uphold Christians values and the principles of freedom have brought about such hardship and pain. When will we learn?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

How the World Works

At times it is hard to understand how the world works. Canadian soldiers are in Afghanistan as part of a military team fighting for the freedom of the Afghani people. The Americans and British are there as well. We know that the U.S. and Britain are embroiled in the terrible mess in Iraq where a despot was deposed only to see civil war wrack the country.

Meanwhile another tyrant, Robert Mugabe continues his systematic oppression of opposition parties in Zimbabwe. The people of that nation live in abject poverty and have lifespans that reflect the stone age rather than the 21st century. The economy is in ruins and children starve. Yet Western nations have essentially turned a blind eye to Mugabe's personal excesses and his brutality, issuing occasional admonishments.

This photo is of Morgan Tsvangirai, an opposition leader who was arrested at a prayer meeting recently and badly beaten. When he walked into the courtroom a couple of days ago his face was swollen and some of his supporters were in casts for broken bones. This situation cries out for justice.

I'm grateful that the United Church has been a ministry partner with the churches in Zimbabwe through the years and we have done a great deal to support the Christian community there, along with a long history of education. I wonder if this is enough. I would never advocate violence as a solution, but this simply seems wrong.

How do our governments set priorities for intervention in distant places? What should we be saying as the church? What does God require of us?

...what does the Lord require of you but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Healthy Growth

My brother stopped by for a brief visit the other evening and we drove north of Bowmanville to visit a mutual friend. Along the way he expressed his surprise at the subdivisions which have sprouted up since his last drive along the same road last summer. Our community is growing rapidly, but is it expanding thoughtfully?

The release of 2006 census figures yesterday reveal that areas such as the "905," the communities surrounding Toronto, are growing at a much faster rate than the rest of the country.

Lots of good things can happen in an expanding community, including the opportunity to reach out to those who are looking for a faith home.

Yet are these developments designed with any encouragement for the purchasers to connect in a meaningful way with the existing community? We are told by many newcomers that when they first move here this is where they sleep, but its not really where they live as they commute to and from work. What about the green space for those who take up residence? Most of the parks in this community are in the older part of town.

And where are the churches? Again, they are clustered in the established areas of Bowmanville.

It can be difficult to view urban planning as a spiritual issue, but if our faith includes all of life --including sense of place -- we need to be aware and active.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Giving Up Worry For Lent

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wea. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Matthew 6:25

We are about half-way through the Lenten season with its themes of contemplation and repentance. Both those words are rather theological and remote, but the notions of taking more time to think and to turn in a different direction make them a little more accessible for me.

In the history of the church the faithful have often given up something for Lent. This could mean fasting through the forty days. I've been told that we have Easter eggs because half-starved folk would take hard-boiled eggs with them to break their Lenten fast on Easter morning.

Through the years I have given up television on a challenge from my son, and meat on the prodding of the same son, and sugar. I managed to be steadfast with TV and sugar but I cheated shamelessly when it came to being a carnivore.

One year a young man in his twenties asked for a suggestion as to what he could give up for Lent and I suggested anxiety. He came to see me regularly and he was such a bundle of nerves and anxiousness I was exhausted by the time he left. He was in the choir and drove everyone around the bend with his need to address every tiny detail. While he was highly intelligent he was taking forever to get through his undergraduate degree because he took so long to do each assignment.

To suggest that he not worry may have been unfair, not to mention self-serving. I might as well have encouraged him to give up breathing. And after all, many of us struggle with worry. But we did end up having a good conversation about Christ's presence in the midst of our anxiety and fretting.

There is still half of Lent before us. What are we giving up?

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. Matthew 6:34

Monday, March 12, 2007

Images of Jesus

Remember when I discussed the United Church advertising campaign a few months ago? Part of the furor --okay, kerfuffle -- that ensued revolved around a bobblehead figure of Jesus. Yesterday a member of the congregation with a playful sense of humour brought me a bobblehead Jesus as a gift. He ordered two, one for his work desk and one for me. Somehow he found the same one which is in the ad campaign. The reaction in the coffee time following the service was mixed. I wandered around talking to people as usual, but with the Jesus figure in hand. Some laughed, others seemed mildly shocked --what was I going to do with it?

It raises some important questions about our images of Jesus and what we consider appropriate. A few years ago I was given a Christmas gift of a two-foot tall plaster Jesus that could be plugged in and illuminated. It was hideous, but I couldn't express my distaste because the person who gave it to me did so in sincerity. It was offered as an object of devotion.

In our membership classes I use a poster with twenty portraits of Jesus from around the world. Jesus is white, and black, and Asian, and aboriginal. I ask participants which one appeals to them and it always a worthwhile discussion for the group because choices are so varied.

What image of Jesus do we have? How do we decide what is reverent and irreverent? Movies in the fifties and sixties chose not to show Jesus' face, or only briefly, for fear of offending.

I think Jesus would nod assent to the notion that we can all wrestle with our images of who he is. Chances are that they will be shaped and reshaped over the course of a lifetime.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Clocks set to God

I came to the church this morning at 8:30 and reset my computer clock to address the time change -- Daylight Saving Time.

Saving time. We talk about making time, saving time, wasting time. There is an old saying "a stitch in time saves nine."

The Benedictine nun Joan Chittester reminds us that no one can "make time" for anything. We are all given a standard twenty four hours in each day with which we do what needs to be done. The hope is that we will establish the balance in each day, and week and month and year so that the time we have been given by God will be meaningful and fulfilling.

While I have been writing this someone knocked on my door to chat for a moment. I want to be "in time" for worship, so I will run -- or at least move purposefully toward the choir room. We can synchronize our timepieces to God's time.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Courage to Lead

Sometimes it takes courage to lead the way. The almost predictable response to the calls to reduce carbon emissions and employ alternative energy sources is to say that it will kill the economies of the prosperous nations. Even though President George Bush admitted that the U.S. is "addicted to oil," neither America nor Canada are in any hurry to address that dependence.

Yesterday the European Union announced a major challenge to this "wisdom" about what makes us economically healthy. The EU nations have agreed -- not without some dissent -- to take steps to create a sustainable future economy. They are willing to lead, and ask that other Western nations, including Canada, follow suit as an example to the rest of the world.

Canadian pundits often argue that our contributions to climate change are minimal compared to China, India, the United States. Is that really the point? Leadership is always more than "crunching the numbers."As I read my bible, we are called to make uncomfortable choices at times, in order to be faithful and just people of God.

Take a look at this excerpt from the BBC about the EU announcement:

The 27 EU states will each decide how they contribute to meeting a 20% boost overall in renewable fuel use by 2020. On Thursday, EU leaders agreed to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by the year 2020. Member states have also agreed to set a 10% minimum target on the use of bio fuels in transport by 2020.

Speaking in Brussels, Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "These are a set of groundbreaking, bold, ambitious targets for the European Union.
"It gives Europe a clear leadership position on this crucial issue facing the world."

I hope we will now respond to the challenge.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

International Women's Day

This is International Women's Day and at our breakfast table we heard radio reports about the arrests of women in Iran who have been vocal about their right to freedom, and of violence against women in Central America.

This may have prompted my wife, Ruth, to tell me about a contact with a woman yesterday who has left a tyrannical situation where her husband controls every aspect of her life. She is not allowed access to money, does not drive, does not have possession of her own passport. She is regularly abused physically, verbally, sexually. Ruth is an outreach worker for a local shelter and while she is extremely careful about what she shares with me (no names or identifying specifics), the snippets I hear remind me that the issues of equality for women are not just in distant lands.

Our older daughter is taking a feminism and religion course at her university this term and has been challenged by the discussion of patriarchy and abuse in Christianity. She realizes that her background in a church that uses inclusive language and has women clergy has left her somewhat uninformed and unaware of how oppressive religion can be at times.

We need to make that links between our faith in Christ and our commitment to gender justice and equality. None of this can be taken for granted. Our witness to the world begins with our own practice and example.

We also need to remember that there are women and children close at hand who are desparate for support and sanctuary, even though they may not be linked to a Christian community. Our congregation is connected with the shelter in town in a number of ways, but we can pray for a day when it is no longer necessary for these shelters to exist.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Don to Earth

One of my blog readers passed on a Toronto Star article about Donald Crowdis who, at the age of 93, is one of the oldest bloggers around. His Don to Earth has made him something of a celebrity.

Scores of people -- sometimes more than a hundred -- read his entries which are simply written yet eloquent musings on the twilight of life and the inevitable end. Here is an example

Apparently, I have had a TIA, a transient ischemic attack, and like blogs, this is now a part of my life, for a long time to come, I sincerely hope. To those less familiar with medical terminology, I've had a small stroke. This was just hours before I turned 93, and it affects my writing. If it is a good thing, it is because it will also affect my behaviour, causing me to attend to matters that I have postponed, but which should not be left to my heirs. Some of what I need to do is simply to simplify.

His honesty and an ability to write have attracted a fan base that surprises him. It's encouraging to know that his sage reflections on life are being received so positively. He is an elder in the deepest sense of that word, and his readers understand this.

I notice that he hasn't written since February 14th --Valentine's Day. God be with him and his wife.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Blood Done Sign My Name

I have been reading a remarkable book, a reflection on race issues in America from a personal standpoint. The author, Tim Tyson, is a professor of African-American studies who grew up in the South and witnessed first-hand the tensions, violence and racism of the small towns where he lived. His parents were both white liberals when it came to race relations, his father a Methodist pastor who was both courageous and stubborn in challenging the mores of the sixties and seventies.

One reviewer has suggested that there is a resonance with To Kill a Mockingbird in this telling, and I think this is an apt observation. Although it is a first-person account it often reads like a novel. It is humorous at times, profoundly sad at others, as well as stirring and honest.

It has challenged my own racism, which I would prefer to say doesn't exist. It has provoked me to think about the paternalism and systemic wrongs in this country, where our treatment of Aboriginal peoples continues to indict our statements about equality. I would strongly recommend this book, whose title comes from an African-American spiritual.

Tyson was interviewed on National Public Radio in the US and you might choose to listen.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Pauline VanKoll

I have been asked how to read the articles written by Pauline VAnKoll.
Check out


In Southern Ontario we missed the lunar eclipse last evening because of overcast skies. Our loss.

Reports from elsewhere suggest it was impressive. We don't pay a great deal of attention to the night sky in areas of light pollution, but the moon and stars are fascinating. Our calendar is built around the "moonth" and religions acknowledge the importance of this satellite of the Earth. In ancient Israel signal fires were lit in Jerusalem to mark the new moon, then travelled from hilltop to hilltop across the country.

Our great festival of Easter is influenced by the moon. Easter is the "moveable feast" because it is on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring equinox. This isn't the best time of the year to be standing outside looking upward, but a good gawk in summertime can be a holy experience.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Many Thanks

A couple of weeks ago I asked for some indication of who is reading my blog and why. i have been pleasantly surprised by the number of respondents.

Some of you are St. Paul's members. Others have happened upon it, or may know me from other settings, other "lifetimes."

A general theme in the responses is that the reflections are thought-provoking and faith-encouraging without being too long. You are busy people who need a soul booster that is shorter than a sermon.

So, I will keep it up. I enjoy hearing from you. I have to admit that I am enough of a techno-cretin that I don't know how to contact those of you who comment through blogger and I would if I could. I'll learn!

The World at Prayer

If the nasty weather permits, groups of worshippers here in Canada, mostly women, will gather for ecumenical prayer services today. Of course in many countries the weather for these services will be warm and inviting -- best not to think about it! These annual gatherings date back to the 19th century and encompass worshippers from many different Christian traditions. It is lovely to picture people in many places entering into the conversation or dance or whatever we would like to call our communication with the one who brought every living thing into being, and who sustains us on this revolving oasis of life which is planet Earth, and offers us new life in Christ.

The term ecumenical can be extended to sisters and brothers from other faith traditions who are also people of prayer. And every day is an opportunity for expressing our gratitude and for attentive listening.

Even if we don't get to one of the services this afternoon we can light a candle and take time to breath in the all-encompassing love of God.

O Spirit of the East send us your Wisdom,
O Spirit of the South, may we tread your path of life.
O Spirit of the West, may we always be ready for the long journey.
O Spirit of the North, purify us with your cleansing winds.

Sioux Prayer

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Too Close to Home

An online newspaper has hired the two women in this photo to cover the Robert Pickton trial in Vancouver. Pickton is accused of murdering at least two dozen prostitutes or sex trade workers, as they are now described. Pauline VanKoll and Trisha Baptie were chosen from a number of candidates who had once worked the Red Light district of Vancouver themselves. They knew some of the victims, women whose lives were considered so inconsequential by our society that no serious investigation took place until the disappearances were too numerous to ignore. Natives and drug addicts who work the streets tend to be considered a nuisance rather than citizens deserving protection. Pauline and Trisha will offer their reflections as women who escaped this grisly fate.

Sometimes these stories are so far from our day-to-day reality that we can't be stirred to pay attention. I am listening, in part because one of these writers, Pauline VanKoll, is my cousin. She was adopted by my aunt and uncle who lived on the west coast. I didn't see Pauline often but I remember her sweet, round face as a child ten years my junior. Her native background was a curiosity, but not a topic of much discussion in our family until word traveled east that she was struggling with her identity in the very white world of her adoptive parents and siblings. By her mid-teens she was dealing with her own demons of addiction and had entered the sex trade.

I was glad to see Pauline at my uncle's funeral a year and a half ago, even though it was a sad occasion which brought about our reunion. We chatted at the dinner table and I heard that she had been "clean" for several years, remarried, and rebuilding her life. She was interviewed recently on Newsworld where she offered an articulate outlook on the life she once lived and the possibilities for life now. I thank God for her new beginning.