Thursday, January 31, 2008

Forgive But Not Forget

On the day I finally got around to blogging about Rob Ramage and forgiveness I came home to hear that disgraced pathologist Dr. Charles Smith apologized to one of his victims:

“Sir, I don’t expect that you would forgive me, but I do want to make it …very clear to you that I am profoundly sorry for the role that I played in the ultimate decision that affected you,” he told William Mullins-Johnson.

Although Mullins-Johnson spent years in prison for a murder he didn't commit and was disowned by his family he accepted the apology. But before doing so, he told Smith of the damage he had inflicted.

“You put me in an environment where every day I could have been killed and I didn’t do it. I didn’t do anything…. You destroyed my family…. I’ll never forget that but …I must forgive you.”

I listened to Mullins-Johnson explain that he didn't want to be destroyed by hate and that the moment of the apology was life-changing for him.

Forgiving Rob

Rob Ramage got drunk, climbed in behind the wheel of a car, then crashed into another vehicle killing a good friend and badly injuring the other driver.

This is a grim story and sounds even worse because of the way I wrote it. These are the facts. As usual it isn't that simple, although Ramage has been convicted of and sentenced for his crime.

Ramage is a former NHL hockey star and the friend was Keith Magnuson, another long-time NHLer. By all accounts, including the summation of the judge, Ramage has been a exemplary citizen. He is a pillar of the community and has a successful business. He is loved by his family and friends, including the family of Keith Magnuson.

The Magnuson family pleaded with the judge to be lenient, feeling that Ramage could do more good speaking about the consequences of impaired driving rather than spending time behind bars. The judge decided that the crime was too serious to go without the consequence of prison time and sentenced him to four years. Ramage will appeal but he thanked the Magnuson family for their forgiveness.

I am fascinated by forgiveness because it is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I sometimes find it hard to do, and it is one of the areas that parishioners struggle with the most. Lives get smashed, head-on, and it is hard to clear away the wreckage. The scars aren't always visible, but they are there. A person from a previous pastoral charge contacted me recently saying that she is seeing a counsellor about forgiveness for those who caused her pain in childhood -- what resources did I have? She struck me as a fairly quiet but positive person (still does) but there are wounds from the past which need healing in mid-life.

I just picked up a book called Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy which has received positive reviews. I will probably let you know more about it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Transfiguration and Snow Squalls

In what Canadian community is this guy skiing his way around town? There are certainly enough places today where it is snowing and blowing but this is actually in Israel. It doesn't happen often yet there are occasions when the country is virtually shut down by snowfall. This time around it is more than a dusting. The international airport in Tel Aviv has been blanketed in snow and on Mount Hermon in Galilee there are accumulations of 40 centimetres.

This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday and as always we will read the story of Jesus and three of his disciples going up a mountain where they have a mystical spiritual experience which involves the historical figures of Elijah and Moses.

It's tempting to put certain bible stories into almost fairy tale status as we read them. We forget that Jesus and those who followed him lived in a real historical and geographical setting. When they climbed a hillside they would have breathed hard and perspired -- or dealt with a snow squall. Hard to imagine in sandals and a skirt!

The challenge for us is always to bring our faith in Christ into our everyday worlds even though sometimes we have to work hard to make the connection.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


I must correct a factual error from an earlier blog entry. I mentioned a 98-year-old member of the congregation. I visited her yesterday and she is actually 99!

Ears to Hear, Eyes to See

It can take me a bit of time to process what happens on a Sunday morning. It needs to "sift down," as the Quakers say. It makes me think about the old-fashioned flour sifters with God turning the crank.

I have been musing about this past Sunday.

As the children gathered at the front for their time one little guy tapped my arm and let me know it was his sister's tenth birthday the next day. We acknowledge such moments when we light the Christ Candle and he was concerned we didn't know (we did.) It was a loving act by a delightful, sometimes boisterous boy. As the children left for Sunday School another boy leaned over and solemnly said "thank you Reverend Mundy." He is probably the only child in the congregation who addresses me this way and it was impossibly sweet. I felt blessed in the deepest sense of that term.

During the same time for children we acknowledged a girl who had much of her long hair cut so that it could be used by a cancer patient without hair. She even brought the snipped locks with her for examination! She will turn six years old on Tuesday. What a remarkable act of generosity for one so young.

During our gathering time following worship a mother told me that her ten-year-old daughter has been following our series on death, heaven, and hell with interest. Several children have filled in the questionnaires and wondered about staying in for the sermons. They are curious.

As my brain slowly assembled all this, it brought into focus, once again, the reality that our children are compassionate, generous, and inquisitive theologians. The Christian community is not "prep school" for a future life in faith for our kids. They are living the gospel of Jesus Christ, here and now. Over and over again I benefit from their faith. I learn at their feet, even as they gather close to mine.

Sometimes it takes a little work to actually become aware of this, but it is actually unfolding before us if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Monday, January 28, 2008

More Kenya

Thanks to Glenn in Sudbury for responding to my Kenya blog entry with news from medical missionary friends of his family who work there. Please read their thoughts.

What are we doing in the midst of these trying times? Our prayer throughout has been to model Jesus' response, and to be Jesus to those in need. Our entire family has been involved in this:

-The boys helped build a shelter for displaced persons (IDPs) in nearby Mai-Mahyu;
- Dita has been challenging our Kenyan workers to chose Christian love over tribalism;
- Dan has led a small BethanyKids team to the Nakuru IDP camp, where they delivered food and clothing, dispensed medicines, and evacuated>untreated patients to Kijabe;
-Together with the Nairobi-area Rotary clubs, Dan participated in a city-wide collection of goods, to be sent in a large convoy to the more>remote IDP camps.

Can you please pray with us for.

Next week's (Wednesday-Friday) 16 "peaceful" rallies organized by>the opposition throughout the country - can we pray for the miracle of no>more violence?
A large planned food and clothing convoy to Western IDP camps,>possibly next week-end. Dan hopes that the BethanyKids ambulance will join>in with a medical team. The camps we have in mind have fallen between thecracks of the humanitarian efforts, but security in those areas remains>precarious.
Funds to sustain the relief efforts, probably needed for months to>come. For those interested, we have opened a special "Kenya relief" account>with AIM Canada (; 1641 Victoria Park Ave., Scarborough>ON M1R 1P8).


Saddam Hussein as a boy

I had to watch the Sixty Minutes interview last night with the FBI agent who was assigned to develop a relationship with Saddam Hussein while he was in custody. His goal was to break down the barriers of suspicion with the disgraced Iraqi tyrant and gain valuable information about his years in power.

It worked. Slowly but surely he gained Saddam's confidence. Day after day they talked. The agent discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction when the US invaded Iraq, although Saddam considered redeveloping the program dismantled under the UN. He did order the poison gassing of innocent Kurdish villagers and felt no remorse for doing so. Evil.

Saddam also wrote poetry, relentlessly. He wanted to have a garden, so he was provided with seeds. He admitted to his young interrogator that he felt he had grown closer to him than he had been to his own adult sons who died when cornered by US forces. When the interviews came to an end Saddam embraced and kissed the FBI agent farewell and tears came to his eyes. In other words, he was human, at least to a certain degree.

That's the problem with evil. It is always "evilish." My experience working as a chaplain for a summer in a maximum security prison taught me that rarely are people "bad to the bone." Even murderers and child molesters can exhibit what we consider positive human traits. Those few months were life altering for me.

Perhaps the key is the way in which we give ourselves over to evil and our willingness to repent, to express remorse and turn in a new direction. In the end Saddam said he was ready to die because he had lived a good life and had no regrets. He obviously deluded himself.

Will God have mercy on his soul?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Highway of Sorrows

We were on our way home from a walk this afternoon when we drove over Highway 401 at Waverly Rd. People were gathering on the overpass in anticipation of the motorcade carrying the body of the latest soldier killed in Afghanistan. Those gathered want to pay their respects as the funeral coach and other cars travel what has been named the Highway of Heroes. Canadians flags had been erected on the bridge as a tribute.

Oddly, this is the third time we have happened upon one of these impromptu assemblies, each time as we were heading to or from a walk. In the summer we ended up driving parallel to the motorcade on the service road. We were deeply saddened that day, as we have been on each occasion. We talked about our son, age 25, and how devastating it would be to lose him to war.

John Manley and a team of independent fact-finders published a report this week on the Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan. The report was fair and honest and told us that there is no easy "stay in or get out" choice. It is much more complex and uncertain. I spoke about this last November 11, which happened to be a Sunday. The exhibit at the War Museum in Ottawa points out what an important role Canada and other nations invited into Afghanistan are doing in this beleagured, desparately poor nation.

There are no easy answers. In the meantime young Canadians will die there and people will salute as their caskets pass by and we will pray for the grieving families. God be with them.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Nolen in Kenya

Stephanie Nolen is a national treasure. She is an award-winning writer for the Globe and Mail newspaper who has covered Africa for several years. That is a broad statement and some would suggest an impossible task because Africa is a huge and diverse and complex continent. Somehow she flourishes in this assignment. She has written about HIV and AIDS with both compassion and urgency. I have listened to her in interviews and been surprised by what an up-beat, jocular person she can be given the pain she has witnessed.

Today in the Globe there is an extensive and gripping article on her travels in Kenya. As she has moved around this formerly stable nation she has seen the outcome of violence and destruction which has come in the wake of the national election. At times she has been in the midst of dangerous situations which have caused her great fear, yet she courageously continues her reporting.
I was struck by her references to the church and church agencies as places of refuge. A Cistercian monastery becomes a sanctuary for hundreds of frightened people. She sleeps overnight in a makeshift shelter established by nuns. These are Christians who are bravely putting themselves in harm's way for the sake of others.

I have pointed out before how challenging it can be for us to stay informed and prayerful about places in our world where others suffer. We are given snapshots of situations rather than portraits and the media tend to move on to the next crisis.

Thank God for reporters such as Nolen and for compassionate people of faith in these places.

Friday, January 25, 2008

One More Day

I received a double dose of good news about elderly parishioners during the past few days. A 98-year-old fell before Christmas and spent time in hospital. She couldn't return to the residential side of the home for the elderly where she lives and the nursing side was full. So when she was able to leave hospital she had to go to another facility, which seems so unfair for someone at her stage of life. Happily for her (not for the person who went to his or her reward) a bed came open at her former home and she will be back in familiar surroundings. This cheered me greatly. Old age is a tough gig in many respects and happy endings are few and far between.

I also discovered that a 93-year-old who was at death's door before Christmas is out of hospital and in a nice private nursing home. I went to see her in hospital on Christmas morning thinking that she was on her way out. I knew there was a chance for recovery when she greeted me and then pointed out that if she didn't eat her waffles they would get cold. Humility is an important aspect of the life of a minister. Waffle...? Chat with the minister...? No contest.

I tracked her down in her new home yesterday and we had a great visit. She was full of vim, vigour, and humour. She entertained me with a story from when she was young (80.) She received a notice from the government informing her that she had died. Since she knew otherwise, she visited the appropriate office and argued with a young woman who insisted she must be dead because it said so on the computer screen. I laughed out loud.

I have been doing ministry long enough to know that either or both of these women could fall asleep tonight and not wake up tomorrow. It is the reality of old age. Both of them have told me they are ready to go. But thank God they are able to enjoy some more of this precious life.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hope for Gaza?

The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated territories in the world. It is only 40 kilometres long and ten wide, yet roughly one and half million people live there. In 1948 only 80,000 people lived in the same area. Sixty percent of the population live in poverty and hundreds of thousands are not connected to water and sewage. In recent decades there has been a daily migration in and out of Gaza as people travel to Israel to work at jobs that tend to be low-paying, menial labour. The underlying tone is misery and only from time to time do we get glimpses of life there. Often the borders are sealed for security reasons making daily life even worse.

Yesterday an estimated quarter million people "escaped" by knocking down sections of the security wall between Gaza and Egypt. People went on a rampage -- a buying rampage-- in Egyptian stores, buying the essentials of life which weren't available in local stores. Israel had cut off the flow of supplies into Gaza, including fuel to run the electrical generating plant.

I won't "take sides" on this issue because the presence of groups such as Hamas within Gaza are of real concern to peace. It is still a deeply discouraging situation for those who live in the territory. I heard an interview with a person on the street who said "we just want peace."

A former moderator of the United Church, Bob McClure, was a medical doctor who worked in Gaza and saw it as a place where too many young people lived without hope. When he made this comment almost a generation ago he could not have known how desperate circumstances would become, but he was prophetic. Hopelessness leads to despair and despair to violence.

I encourage you to pay attention to what is happening there. Whatever our own political leanings, the day-to-day lives of so many people are bleak and unfair. We can pray that the prosperous nations of the world will figure out how to provide resources to improve the dismal reality.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On Our Way to Hell -- Everyone Welcome!

Hieronymus Bosch

Yesterday I joined my colleagues for our lectionary discussion group even though I am using different scripture passages for worship as part of a series. As we were departing one of them said "I'm not sure where I'm going with this." My response was "I do, I'm going to hell!"

Our three-part series will conclude this Sunday with the subject of hell, which has followed death and heaven. On the Sunday prior to each of these sermons I have included a questionnaire with five simple questions on the next subject. Those who wanted to filled them out during worship and put them on the offering plate. For death there were 70 responses and heaven 71. For hell there were 90. I thought the last questionnaire would elicit the least response rather than the most.

Every week quite a few people chose to offer more than a simple yes or no. Someone scrawled, "I don't believe in hell!" in large letters then wrote a brief dissertation on the subject. I really enjoyed the comments both serious and humourous. I think "Will the Leafs win the cup before I go to heaven?" was intended as humour!

I wonder if we give our folk enough opportunity to participate in discussion of important topics of faith. While there are study groups in our congregation, issues of time and intimidation may keep people from getting involved.

I'm just glad that we heard from so many.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A New Line on the "Right to Dry"

The snow is falling this morning and the temperature is -5C. Care to hang out your laundry?
Probably not, but should you have the right to put your laundry on the clothesline rather than use your dryer? It ought to be your choice as to whether (weather?) you stand out in the freezing cold, teeth chattering, to save electricity and make your clothes smell fresher.

It seem an odd time of the year for the provincial government to announce that it will soon become the law for people to have that freedom of choice. Then again, if we know now, we will be ready and waiting for the warmer weather. Some municipalities have passed and enforced silly by-laws prohibiting the use of clotheslines on aesthetic grounds. It is such nonsense and we are finally coming to our senses.

It's estimated that the average household saves $30 during the three hottest months of the year by using a clothesline. It's not a huge sum, but I'm guessing that it has more to do with the environmental impact for most people than the cost-saving. And what if several million households joined the solar and wind-powered clothes-drying revolution?

One of our families purchased a new home recently and she is delighted that there is a long stretch of clothesline. Why not believe that all of these rather modest acts of conservation contribute to the care of the world that God has created.

I wonder if Al Gore and his family use a clothesline?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Flawed Greatness

Since my youth I have admired the late civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When I was a teen he was an iconic figure, promoted to sainthood. As the years have gone by we have learned that he was a human being, wracked by doubt at times, prone to infidelity. He has even been accused of plagarism in his doctoral thesis. For all these possible failings he was a great and godly man whose commitment to peaceful change is an example to us all. Today commemorates King's memory in a public holiday in the United States.The thoughts below come from the Seattle Times.

Martin Luther King Jr. has now been dead longer than he lived. But what an extraordinary life it was. At 33, he was pressing the case of civil rights with President John Kennedy. At 34, he galvanized the nation with his "I Have a Dream" speech. At 35, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. At 39, he was assassinated, but he left a legacy of hope and inspiration that continues today.

Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran when the last Shah was still in power. His regime was an oppressive one under which people who opposed him were jailed. Yet once he was deposed the number of political prisoners and executions increased exponentially. Under harsh Islamic rule women became second class citizens. Satrapi wrote about her experience in a graphic novel and now there is a fascinating film based on her story.

It is called Perspolis and it is unique in that it is animated. As improbable as it sounds, this black and white animation is beautifully, expressively done. We weren't sure if we could trust the universally positive reviews but it is an excellent film.The story is captivating and informative about those dark days.

Satrapi includes God in her reminiscence, a God who is very male. She ends up rejecting this God because of the suffering inflicted on family members and friends. Of course all women in the Iran she describes live restricted lives because of the way God's law was and still is interpreted. Unfortunately religions tend to do this, pushing women into subservient roles. Equality before God seems to be a concept men are slow to accept, although it can and does happen.

Who knows whether Persepolis will ever come to this end of the GTA, but it well worth seeing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Blessings and Thanks

Did you know that St. Anthony is the patron saint of agriculture? I didn't either until I saw the film footage yesterday of farm animals being blessed in Vatican City. January 17th is St. Anthony's feast day. A rather happy looking cardinal blessed the creatures who had been trucked in for the occasion.

On Wednesday evening we received the decidedly sad news that Jim, our last farmer at St. Paul's, would no longer be bringing the donkey and goats and sheep to our annual Living Nativity. He stated that he was getting too old and so was Cricket the donkey. Jim has done this for more than 25 years and Cricket has logged 20+. We won't talk about what happened to the goats and the sheep!

What a lovely gift to our congregation and community through the years. It's always interesting to see the children make a bee-line for the animals after each Living Nativity performance. Their enchantment is part of the "holy moment" as we honour God's incarnation in Christ.

Thank you, Jim, for the many faithful years and to Cricket and to Goat and Sheep 1, 2, 3....
God's blessing and St. Anthony's too.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Courage of our Convictions

What could be a better symbol of Canadian technological know-how than the Canadarm? It was a joint US/Canadian initiative built in this country. We have watched proudly through the years as the robotic arm was deployed on various American spacecraft.

The division of the Canadian company which makes the arm was sold to a US company recently. A company that is a major weapons manufacturer. This outfit makes cluster bombs and anti-personnel devices -- essentially landmines. Nasty stuff. Former federal minister, Lloyd Axworthy is wondering why the Canadian government is allowing this sale given the amount of government funding which went into the Canadarm. We have signed an international agreement to ban the manufacture and sale of landmines.

An engineer with the Canadarm division has resigned saying he can't in good conscience work for a company that makes such destructive devices. He figures others will follow.

I admire his conviction and wonder how many of us would be as courageous. We aren't told whether this is a matter of religious conviction but there have been many Christians employees of companies in the US who have chosen other employment rather than continue doing work in the arms industry which contradicted their fundamental values.

How far would we go to live faithfully?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Fear Not

The novel Exit Ghost by Philip Roth gets to some important questions about our fear of threats known and unknown. A young New York couple in this story trade homes with a reclusive writer who lives in the country. The wife is constantly anxious after 911. The writer has lived his solitary existence for years because of death threats. As he approaches the end of life he decides to end his self-imposed exile.

An article in yesterdays New York Times made me think once again of Gerald Hughes' observation that there are 365 encouragements in scripture not to be afraid or anxious.
One for every day of the year. Jesus said, don't let your hearts be troubled or afraid.

January 15, 2008
Living in Fear and Paying a High Cost in Heart Risk

Which is more of a threat to your health: Al Qaeda or the Department of Homeland Security?
An intriguing new study suggests the answer is not so clear-cut. Although it’s impossible to calculate the pain that terrorist attacks inflict on victims and society, when statisticians look at cold numbers, they have variously estimated the chances of the average person dying in America at the hands of international terrorists to be comparable to the risk of dying from eating peanuts, being struck by an asteroid or drowning in a toilet.

But worrying about terrorism could be taking a toll on the hearts of millions of Americans. The evidence, published last week in the Archives of General Psychiatry, comes from researchers who began tracking the health of a representative sample of more than 2,700 Americans before September 2001. After the attacks of Sept. 11, the scientists monitored people’s fears of terrorism over the next several years and found that the most fearful people were three to five times more likely than the rest to receive diagnoses of new cardiovascular ailments.
Almost all the people in the study lived outside New York or Washington and didn’t know any victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. But more than a 10th of them reported acute stress symptoms (like insomnia or nightmares) right after the attacks, and over the next three years more than 40 percent said they kept worrying about a terrorist attack affecting themselves or a family member.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Pastors for the Pastors

I went to the north end of Toronto on this flakey morning for a meeting. I decided to drive into the deepest, darkest centre of town afterward to see a colleague who underwent surgery yesterday. Crime in the big city? I call eight dollars for an hour's parking major robbery.

The guy I saw serves a nearby pastoral charge and I figured that he was a long way from his support systems, so I would go. Who pastor's pastors anyway? There is no real day-to-day provision for this in our United Church system. He was glad to see me and I could chat with him and pray with him. On the way out I met his wife by the elevator. She was very appreciative of my visit. Who pastors ministers' spouses?

A few weeks ago another colleague had a stroke which was life-threatening for a while. His wife sent out an email asking for privacy. I was in his hospital and decided to pop in the door of his room, say hello, and hastily beat a retreat to respect their wishes. His wife beckoned me in as I was backing out. She too was relieved to have some support and a prayer. Ministers get sick and get scared and need prayer too. So do their families.

Last year we got the results of a major survey on isolation in ministry. While it said that clergy were, for the most part okay, many felt alone in their vocation. The report wasn't much help really because my sense is that while the majority of us learn how to function reasonably well, even in trying circumstances, we are loners and we don't do much to care for one another. I decided that whenever possible I would extend friendship and Christ's presence to my sisters and brothers "of the cloth." I don't know whether it will make much difference but I'm going to try.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Blessed Are the Peacemakers...again

"Better late than never" when it comes to George Bush's recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories? He was there as a broker of peace between adversaries in that troubled region, so we will try to forget that he has waited until the end of his presidency to take an active and personal role in this process.

What I did find jarring was President Bush's visit to the Church of the Beatitudes on the northern shore of the sea or lake called Galilee. I have visited this spot several times and love it not so much for the church itself but for the view it affords down the hillside and out over the water (see above.) When there I can imagine Jesus speaking to a crowd of poor nobodies, telling them that they are blessed somebodies who can be agents of peace and humility in a troubled world. Because they are God's people they have an unseen wealth and power.

The visit by Bush came in the same week that a new report says that 150,000 Iraqis have died since the beginning of the ill-fated war which began in 2003. A war that was initiated on the basis of false information and fear. It appears that the American people recognize this war as a dark moment in their history. Neither Republican nor Democrat candidates include the subject in their speeches or debates. The movies on the war are box office disasters. Who wants to be reminded of the mess?

We all know that Saddam Hussein was a monstrous man who imposed a reign of terror. The estimates are that 300,000 people died during his regime but of course that was over decades. Didn't Jesus also say "do not repay evil with evil?"

What was Mr. Bush thinking and praying as he visited the Church of the Beatitudes? Perhaps he allowed himself to repent of his sins and listen for the voice of Jesus. I hope so.
Bye the way, the church was built with financial assistance from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. God moves in mysterious ways.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Free at Last

When my wife, Ruth, graduated from Queen's University she had a wonderful convocation "speaker" who didn't say a word. The jazz pianist Oscar Peterson was awarded an honorary doctorate that day and was invited to play his address to the graduating students and their guests.

Yesterday I listened to the live broadcast of the tribute concert for Peterson held at Roy Thomson Hall. People lined up for hours to get into this free concert and I'm sure it was a thrill to be there. Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones were among the many who eulogized their good friend in word and music. Governor General Michaelle Jean was eloquent and his 16-year-old daughter, Celine, was touching in her reflection.

The finale was Peterson's Hymn to Freedom sung by opera star Measha Brueggergosman and several choirs. This piece was written in the early sixties and was adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement as something of an anthem. It has the quality of a gospel call to freedom for all peoples. I have heard it before, but never in such a stirring rendition. It really was a tribute to one of Canada's finest musicians. R.I.P, O.P.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Scrambling For Innovation

I can't save a written blog entry for another day so I will offer up my thoughts for tomorrow at the end of this work day.

Last Saturday I was standing at the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets in Toronto, one of Canada's busiest intersections. I waited for the light to change and started thinking about the plan to try a "scramble" at this corner. When the lights go green they will all go green so pedestrians cross the intersection in any direction. Although it sounds chaotic, it is working in other major cities around the world and it encourages and protects those who are on foot.

As I headed west along Bloor I thought about all the changes and innovations at that corner through the years. In George Brown's day Yonge and Bloor was an important crossroads in the midst of farmland. In the photo above from 1924 there were streetcars, and by the next year the first crossing lights had been installed. The subway opened in 1954 and the other line a few years later. The streetcar wires are long gone. The geography remains the same but the landscape and the ideas keep changing.

I figure this has to be the same for the church. Nostalgia is nice, but it doesn't help us live in the present or plan for the future. Not only do our buildings change, our ideas are renovated along the way. Some changes are great and others silly but we only find out by doing.
We still follow Christ to get our bearings, but how we get from "point A" to "point B" will be different, and that's okay.

An Inconvenient Incinerator

Cocoon and watch Jeopardy or go to a public meeting on incinerating our garbage? Somehow we talked ourselves out the door and to the meeting which was held in a union hall in an industrial section of Oshawa. On the way there we wondered how many people would show up. Would it be a small crowd?

Ha! We had to park down the street and the hall was packed with perhaps 350 concerned citizens of all ages. Our own Dr. Debra Jefferson spoke briefly and well. The "imported" speaker for the evening pointed out that incineration is an absurd answer to our waste disposal challenge. It is simply a move from burying garbage to burning it. And for every three tons of burned junk there will be a ton of toxic ash which will still have to go to landfill. Since we are being told that the incineration will solve our landfill problem it makes no sense. As an American he informed us that 300 municipalities in the States have turned down incinerators since 1995 because they are seen as yesterday's solution. He wanted to know why we are considering an "energy from waste" incinerator right next to a nuclear generator.

He did offer that Durham and Clarington are already doing an excellent job of diversion, but could do much better. It will be through setting achievable "zero waste" targets that we address garbage disposal.

There was a downright evangelical call to simplicity which I appreciated. We know that an essential aspect of Jesus' message was a call to live simply, humbly, finding our deepest satisfaction in our relationship with God, not stuff. Surely Christians can be part of this cause. Surely we need to wake up.

Yesterday's Globe and Mail had an article by John Barber in which he comments:

Our poor lake. Drive east to see how badly we have used it, despoiling what should be the soul of this whole place, our epic waterfront, with some of the most polluting factories in Canada. Then weep to learn the primitive rulers of these tragic borderlands have done it again - deciding this week to fill one of their last unspoiled slices of Lake Ontario shoreline with a huge, mass-burn garbage incinerator.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Death, Heaven, Hell

Last Sunday I announced that I would preach sermons on the subjects of Death! Heaven! HELL!
Church life can be a little slow in January so I figured that these largely unexplored subjects, at least in the United Church, would catch folks' attention.

I invited worshippers to fill out a brief questionnaire on death last week and almost seventy of them did. The questions invited mostly "yes" or "no" answers but lots of people wrote in comments. I'm told that a boy in the congregation was quite intrigued and filled one out. He wondered about staying in for the sermon this week rather than going to Sunday School.

Wouldn't you know that this week I have conducted two funerals in four days. It's the way it happens sometimes. Both people in their nineties. Both of them lived good, long lives and were much loved. Both of them had a resurrection faith.

It's not always easy to consider our mortality: think of Woody Allen's quip that he is not afraid of dying, he just doesn't want to be there when it happens. I just pray that God is there when "the roll is called up yonder" for me, and while I don't have a heavenly roadmap, Christ has shown the way.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Where is God Today?

William Blake

C.B.C. radio is running a series called Where is God Today? I am an avid C.B.C. listener but with the exception of the Sunday afternoon show Tapestry there isn't much attention given to religious and spiritual issues.

This evening at 6:00 there will be a discussion of the role spirituality plays in our physical well-being and recovery from illness. They will look at the influence of prayer and other aspects of faith on our health.

I'm pleased that the C.B.C. is willing to recognize that many of us have a relationship with God which influences our day-to-day lives as much or more than any other aspect of our culture. Check out the website created for the series.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Voting for Hope

I am trying to understand the weird marathon which is the American primaries. Both Republican and Democrat candidates have been going "all out" in their campaigning in Iowa, first of all, now New Hampshire. From what I can figure out these primaries are a way of testing popular support for party leadership hopefuls, yet they are "sound and fury signifying nothing" in some respects. The next U.S. election is still a long way off and the outcomes now may not hold in the long-run.

The key is momentum. Barack Obama is the Democrat who seems to be building that momentum. A black man in a country that has never elected a "person of colour" to its highest office even though emancipation happened officially 140 years ago and the Civil Rights movement is now in the history books.

As puzzling as all of this may be to us here in Canada we should pay careful attention. What happens across the border has a deep impact on us. The two surprise winners in Iowas, Mike Huckabee and Obama are people of Christian faith and there is a quality of hope in their very different messages which seems to have captured the attention of voters. What happens in the months ahead will be fascinating.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Green Archbishop

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is using Youtube to get his message out there. Take a look at his green New Year's message. It is thoughtful and lets you take a look at one of my favourite churches to visit, Canterbury Cathedral.
It was probably a pleasant diversion from dealing with squabbles over gay marriage in the Anglican communion.

Which God do we Worship?

Roger Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. He won the Cy Young award with several different teams, including the Toronto Blue Jays. He was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame until a report on performance-enhancing drug use pointed the finger at Clemens and many other athletes. Last night he was on the Sixty Minutes investigative television program, denying the allegations. I'm usually fairly good at identifying liars but I really had no idea if he was telling the truth.

These past few months have been miserable for the reputations of elite athletes. Barry Bonds became the home run king under a cloud of suspicion. Marion Jones, the American track star, admitted her guilt in using drugs and gave back her many Olympic medals. The Tour de France is in shambles. Michael Vick, an exceptional professional football player, went to jail for promoting dog-fighting and murdering animals. Yuck.

Whose problem is this? We live in a culture that conveys god-like status on those who excell at certain physical activities./We are rather pagan in this regard, enjoying the big, buff type of heroes. For these athletes the money, the status, the adulation are all drugs, in their own way. For the most part we don't seem to care how these heroes attain their vaunted roles, until the allegations and the scandals.

My family will tell you that I love watching professional sports, so I am definitely part of the culture. I don't have much time for curling or golf, but they seem squeaky clean! As a "gospel guy" I am keenly aware of the dangers of idolatry and the importance of staying focussed on the God of abundant life in Christ.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Faith, One Button at a Time

I thought worship went well this morning but the most meaningful moment came outside of the sanctuary before it all began. I walked by the choir room and saw a five -year-old with a grandfather leaning over him. The two of them were talking and the grandad was doing up a button on the sleeve of the little guy. They are not related, although the grandfather has six grandkids of his own, so he is a seasoned veteran. This scene touched me because it was so simple and so indicative of the value of Christian community.

Before Christmas I saw one of our seniors in hospital, someone who has no children or grandchildren. Did he want to talk about his health? Not really. He and his wife spoke enthusiastically about how well the children had done during the White Gift Service. It was as though they were speaking about their own family members.

After Christmas a mother emailed me and kindly thanked me for the services of the season. She said her daughters had benefitted from their involvement in the Living Nativity and the Junior Choir.

Faith takes root in the simplest ways. We need each other and grow with each other and are rejuvenated by each other. What a gift! Becoming Christian may involve a dramatic conversion moment, but it also happens one button at a time.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Lights, Camera, God

The post-Christmas season is great for clergy because no one wants to have evening meetings. So in our household we take the opportunity to go to the movie theatres. In the past few weeks we have seen Enchanted (enchanting), Charlie Wilson's War (great acting, interesting story), Atonement (sad and beautiful). Juno lives up to the mounds of positive reviews and Canadian star, Ellen Page, is brilliant. We are biased because our daughter, Emily, went to school with Page in Halifax.

The most thought-provoking was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is the true story of a French journalist, J.D. Bauby, who has a massive stroke at the age of 42. He goes from being a celebrated writer and rake to total paralysis, except for one eyelid. He does not recover any function, but a speech therapist teaches him to communicate with that eyelid. He laboriously dictates a book with the assistance of an incredibly patient scribe who must go through the alphabet for every letter of every word.

The diving bell is the body which imprisons Bauby and the butterfly is his free-flying spirit and imagination. He died days after the publication of his book.

What makes any of us human? What does it mean to be created in God's image? While Bauby rejects God himself, his daughter, his therapist, and many others uphold him in prayer. This picture is playing only in Toronto right now but I encourage you to see it.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Natural New Year

You would think that this photo of me on skis was taken in the wilderness somewhere but it is actually Second Marsh, not far from Bowmanville. I was out with my son and future daughter-in-law just before Christmas. Ruth and I ventured out again in the wind and snow of New Year's Day. Not a good plan. The wet snow formed ice on the bottom of our skis so we ended up shuffling and scraping along the trail. When we got back to the car a freight train was blocking the parking lot from the Wilmot Creek exit. Hey, you win some...

We have a history of outdoor activities on New Year's Day. One year in Sudbury we drove to Dreamer's Rock near Manitoulin Island. It is a traditional "dream quest" spot for native youth so we climbed up to the rock on a frigid but crystal-clear morning and made our resolutions. Another time we went with a group of church folk to Killarney wilderness park and snowshoed up a ridge to gain an exceptional view of Georgian Bay. We built a fire and ate our lunch.

The year we entered the new millenium we put a canoe in the Northwest Arm of Halifax and paddled on what was a calm, glistening beginning to the year. The New Year's before we left Halifax we convinced the owner of the small ferry for McNabb's Island in the harbour to transport us out there for the day. We took our cross country skis and battled some whopping snow drifts the length of the island, several kilometres in all, with no one else around. In the tranquility we looked across the water to the busiest maritime city. McNabb's has since become a provincial park.

We realize that this connection with the natural world, the world of the Creator, is at the heart of who we are and our faith wouldn't be complete without it. Even on the blustery days. As I said, you win some...

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Stellar Hockey Play

Andrew Ference is a defenceman for the Boston Bruins in the N.H.L If you haven't heard of him its because he isn't a star but he is good enough to play in the world's best shinny league. I think he has made a stellar choice to work with the Suzuki Foundation to go "carbon neutral." He cares enough about the planet to figure out how to neutralize the effects of his flights from one major league city to another. He will contribute money to "carbon offset" projects to make this a reality.

A couple of weeks ago Ference was interviewed on Hockey Night in Canada about this initiative. He was articulate, informed, and obviously committed to the cause. He is recruiting other players to do the same. The day may come when N.H.L. teams do this on behalf of their players.

In a strange twist Don Cherry, hockey hoser extraordinaire deemed this interview "disgusting" and having nothing to do with hockey. This from someone who uses his air time to promote whatever unrelated project or peeve he is espousing at the moment.

While our son Isaac was home at Christmas we talked about our flights to various places and the need to start acting responsibly when it comes to offsets. We figure it is one thing we can do as Christians to minimize our ecological footprint.

See the interview on Youtube

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Sacred Responsibility

Kenya is one of the most stable nations in Africa with a progressive education system and growing economy. The recent post-election violence threatens that well-being and has resulted in so much destruction and death. The immolation of more than 50 people in a church, including women and children, was a horrific act of violence. It was chillingly reminiscent of Rwanda.

In Pakistan the January election has been postponed, supposedly because of the instability following the death of Benazir Bhutto. What a mess.

Do we realize how fortunate we are in this country? This year, 2008, may be an election year in Canada and we can pray that Canadians exercise their right to vote. On Remembrance Sunday last November the congregation was surprised when a member stood up and offered an impromptu plea to act responsibly and vote in elections. He was responding to something I had said in the sermon and while it caught us all off guard what he was saying was true.

We tend to think of politics as secular and even profane, but there is a sacred responsibility in our freedom of choice.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's "360"

On the last day of my retreat time at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico I climbed up on a ridge to take in a last view of the breath-taking landscape. I did a slow 360 degree turn so that I could enjoy the variety of vistas from one vantage point. Even though each few degrees offered a different perspective I was not disappointed by any view.

Why do we place such importance on New Year's Day? It seems to be a rather arbitrary designation yet people celebrate well into the night approaching it and "take stock" during the day of recovery. It is a "360" opportunity, the way birthdays and anniversaries tend to be as the years roll on. Isn't it amazing that we do this so seldom when the days of our lives are so fleeting and precious? For the most part life just happens and we wonder where the days and years go.

Often people come to see me because they are confused or bitter about what life has served up. Others wonder whether God has "a wonderful plan for your life" as the TV preachers are inclined to say. My role seems to be one of encouraging folk that they are not victims. Neither does God have a set of blueprints for each of us which we must be careful to follow.

Instead we choose to trust in a Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer who will be our partner in shaping a creative, thoughtful, joyful life of meaning. Of course we may have to figuratively huff and puff our way to the vantage point where our true and deepest pleasure may be found.

When I was at Ghost Ranch I renewed my commitment to some of the passions of my faith. Art as an expression of the divine. Spending time in the natural world as a form of praise. Contemplation and prayer to hear the voice of Christ. It was a "360" experience for me.

What are your "360" commitments for 2008?