Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Fiery Loss

Yesterday a fire in downtown Bowmanville destroyed two historic buildings and damaged others. Residential tenants lost their homes, businesses were ruined, and the outreach work of Bethesda House, the local shelter for women and children at risk was dealt a huge setback as their clothing store and offices were wiped out.

This has a very personal impact because my wife, Ruth, is the outreach worker for Bethesda House. Not only did she lose many personal items she had used to make her office attractive, the accumulated wisdom of her years in training as a counsellor in the form of presentation notes and course outlines went up in smoke. Ruth does presentations in the school system, the college and university, and with community groups. There can be no dollar amount set as compensation for this "intellectual property" and the loss is overwhelming.

Please pray for the clients of Bethesda House who will be affected by this disruption, those who lost businesses and residences, and the staff members who lost their work home, including Ruth.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Uncertain Democracy

It has been nearly a month since the supposedly democratic electon in the African nation of Zimbabwe. The citizens of that country still await word on the results. Most pundits believe that the government of Robert Mugabe was defeated and he is simply refusing to publish the results in order to hold on to power. The opposition leader who was probably elected president left the country awaiting the results, certain that he would have been attacked if he didn't absent himself for a time.

The word we get is that many people have been arrested, beaten, threatened since the election, as a crude way of suppressing democratic freedom. Yet thousands returned to Zimbabwe from neighbouring countries for the election because they wanted to exercize their right to vote.

Christian churches and church organizations such as schools and hospitals continue to function in this uncertain environment but it is not easy. We can pray for the well-being of these faithful Christian servants and for the steps toward democracy.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Easter Promise Continues

A month ago we celebrated Easter with snow on the ground and a chill in the air. We are fortunate to get a second chance thanks to the different liturgical calendar used by the Orthodox communion. There are approximately 225 millon Eastern Orthodox Christians around the world, so their celebration today is significant.

We are encouraged to believe that every Sunday is a little Easter, a time to celebrate the resurrection of Christ and our resurrection hope. We can lose the excitement of the promise of new and eternal life in the busyness and business of the church. Yet it is an extraordinary story of God's personal and incarnate love which can't be taken for granted.

Virtual Christian Community

I am pleased to see the exchange of information about reusable containers for childrens' lunches prompted by an earlier blog. It points out that there are alternatives to disposable plastic. It also serves as a reminder that we can be a practical community as people of faith, even if the community stretches from Saskatchewan to Ontario.

I had never heard of Kleen Kanteen until Nancy pointed out its existence. I am now an owner of one of their products which I procured at Trailhead on Princess St. in Kingston. While there are some of us who can make our way there from time to time it is a long drive from Saskatchewan.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Kindness Intravenous

I have been pleasantly surprised by the daily expressions of support by parishioners, friends, family during the past two weeks. Going on restorative leave was not an easy decision for me and there has been a strong sense of disorientation during the first days of adjustment. I have yet to "ramp down" and Ruth has enjoyed the flurry of washed windows and floors, yard work and folded laundry.

Every single day someone has reached out. I wouldn't describe the response from folk as a torrent. It is somewhere between a trickle and a stream, a steady flow of kindness and reassurance. Maybe it is a form of emotional and spiritual intravenous drip, helping me in a process of recovery. Some of the cards and emails have been brief in content. Others have contained messages and candid reflections on similar experiences. All are appreciated.

I don't anticipate that this will continue for long but in these first couple of weeks it has been just what I needed. Our experience of God's grace and love is often mediated through those around us and I appreciate what I have experienced.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Food Shortage Tsunami

I am going to tap on the drum of the environment a little more during this week of Earth Day. I had a conversation with my brother recently about the price of bread. He is a sales manager for a specialty bread company and the industry has been hit by both rising fuel costs and soaring prices for wheat. While most of us can afford a few more cents for a loaf of bread, millions in the world cannot.

The United Nations is warning of what it is calling a food shortage tsunami sweeping across the world. You may have noticed that there have been demonstrations and even riots over the rising cost of food staples such as rice, corn, and wheat. In Egypt soldiers were taught to make bread to help address demand. Food stockpiles are diminishing and must be guarded.

Why has this happened? Corn is being diverted from tortillas to ethanol. Large areas of rice production are affected by water shortages and urbanization. All these crops are affected by the cost of transportation which climbs steadily because of rising oil prices.

The U.N. is calling on wealthier nations to respond to this global crisis and surely we believe that in our world of abundance no one should go hungry. Jesus described himself as the Bread of Life , an important reminder that there should be enough of the basics for all.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Frosty the Plastic Man

Yesterday I decided to practice what I blog and headed out with my daughter, Jocelyn, to my favourite local stretch of Lake Ontario beach. On this barrier between Second Marsh and Lake Ontario it is unusual to see other people because it is probably a kilometre and a half from the road. We went equipped with two green garbage bags and work gloves. Our goal was to pick up garbage along the beach.

Unfortunately we were able to fill both bags within a 50 metre stretch and in less than thirty minutes.

What did we find? There was some paper junk, including cups from a popular doughnut chain. By far the majority of what we gleaned was made of plastic. Some of it was odd -- wheels from childrens' toys, a baby soother, the cup holder from a car, a travel mug. There were many disposable lighters and a syringe. In the bizarre category was Frosty the Castaway.

The clear winner by volume(no pun intended) was bottles, bottles and more bottles. Some were for soft drinks but there were dozens of disposable water bottles. A short while ago few of us drank water from bottles and the idea of purchasing H2O would have made us laugh. Now a beach which is frequented by few people is marred by this plastic junk. Winter storms had tossed this light-weight flotsam and jetsom well up into the trees.

Think about this. It's only about sixty years since plastic started into common use. Most of what has been produced during those six decades still exists somewhere, in landfills, and at the bottom of lakes and oceans and along fencerows.

Here is the good part of our recent walks on this beach. A green heron surveying the marsh from a tree branch. Caspian terns hovering and plunging into the water in search of food. Irridescent swallows doing acrobatics as they snatch insects from the air. A loon's haunting call from out on the lake.

As we walked back to the car the full bags bumped awkwardly against our legs. My determination to make a difference as a Christian who cares for this planet deepened.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

And another earthy thing...

I receive a daily email thought for the day called Soundbites. This one is worthwhile for Earth Day.


"[Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers -- all things have been created through Him and for Him. [Christ] Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:15-17 NRSV)

Come, let us dwell in God’s shelter.

Let us dwell in God’s work of art.
Come, because the Earth is the Lord’s,
And God’s Earth is our temporary home.
We live in God’s World; we are not alone.
We share this life with the heavens and the earth,
With the waters and the land,
With trees and grasses,
With fish, birds, and animals,
With minerals and creatures of every form,
And with all our brothers and sisters.
God is good and everything God makes is good.
God is love and everything God makes is love’s fruit
.Let us worship God -- Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

-- adapted from Tatiana Valdez

Tim's Reduce, Reuse, No Cycle!

My brother was driving past Bowmanville this morning on his way to business in the Big Smoke.
Was I interested in having a coffee at Tim Horton's at the 401? I decided to ride my bicycle, this being Earth Day and all. Well, the line-up of idling vehicles was as long as ever and I discovered that Tim's has no use for cyclists. There was nothing to attach my bicycle to, although I considered the drive-through pillar as an act of green protest. I ended up locking my bike to a tree in the back corner of the lot, next to the garbage bin. Nice. I might have been better off on horseback.

If you want to "read green" today go the the New York Times website and ponder the excellent series of articles in the magazine section from Sunday. Or check out the Dot Earth blog, also at the NY Times, one of the most informative around in my estimation. It's in the Science section. The Globe and Mail today has a section called Report on Green Solutions. Add to this the Green Week articles at the Washington Post website. And if you have kids, show them the Google artwork for the day.

Then again, maybe you will get out for a walk or a cycle and savour the goodness of creation and Creator.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Earth 24/7

Tomorrow is Earth Day and as Christians we can do our part to express love for the planet which God created in love. While we were away this weekend we walked across the hills of our friends' farm and stopped for a moment to read the words of Genesis which describe Gods' work of creation, each day punctuated with the words "it was good." The story of Genesis chapter one reminds us that before the creation of humans God valued other creatures and the earth itself.

What might we do tomorrow? Using the clothesline instead of the dryer is easy enough. Minimizing our incidental car driving even though some of us are required to commute. Speaking with our children about simple acts of conservation that will make a difference. Walking through the neighbourhood and collecting some of the accumulated winter trash. Making sure we use the compost bucket or backyard composter. Asking ourselves how we will minimize our carbon footprint in the year ahead and "sealing the deal" with a prayer of thanksgiving and commitment.

A few weeks ago Earth Hour was a huge success in the GTA, with hundreds of thousands of households participating. We can choose to be Adams (literally earth person) and Eve's for not just an hour, but 24/7.

I would love to hear what you are going to do.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Name That Tune

Last night we went to sleep to the sound of spring peepers, those tiny but very vocal frogs whose early season chorus can quickly rise to the level of a din. This morning we woke up to a cacophany of sounds. There was the far-too-early crowing of a rooster, then the gobbling of wild turkeys, the abrasive calls of red-winged blackbirds, the braying of a donkey...the list could go on.

We were back visiting with our friends whose farm is on a bend of the Ontario Mississippi River which flows into the Ottawa. Spring has sprung with amazing speed in that area, It was shirt-sleeve weather even though there is plenty of snow in the bush and chunks of ice move lazily past the farm on the swollen river.We saw a turkey tom strutting around in a field like the one in the photograph.

Less than two months ago we were there for a few gorgeous winter days during which we skiied through the pastures and skated on the river. This weekend the -25 degree temperatures were traded for +25 and we ate on their deck last evening as though is was summer -- without the blackflies.

You may be tired of hearing me say that there is such evidence of God's grace in the natural world but it is true. We watched the sheep being sheared over the weekend and even these rather naked creatures bear testimony to a Good Shepherd who has created us all.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Blowin' in the Wind

There are some great tourism ads for Newfoundland and Labrador, including one which features a clothesline. I have written before about my wife Ruth falling in love with the clothesline while we lived in outport Newfoundland years ago. Monday was laundry day and all along the harbour the clothes were hung out in an orderly fashion.

Until recently this scene was illegal in many Ontario communities. Developers and municipal officials in these places had some goofy notion that underwear on a clothesline might offend the sensibilities of neighbours and lower property values.

As of today it is illegal to prohibit the use of clotheslines. Why the reversal of opinion? About six percent of electricity in this province is used by clothes dryers in our homes. Six percent!

Now the winds that blew over the waters of creation can legally dry your clothes. I bet you had no idea how biblically faithful the clothesline could be.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Accepting Responsibility for Change

Pope Benedict said mass before 46,000 Roman Catholic faithful in a Washington D.C. stadium today, which makes it a mass mass. This is the pontiff's first visit to the United States and may well be his last given his advanced age.

Benedict has addressed what must be the rawest wound for American Catholics, the sexual abuse scandal which has harmed so many and cost the church both credibility and billions of dollars. When he first arrived in the United States he spoke about being "deeply ashamed" of what happened in that miserable era of abuse by clergy, then denial. Today he addressed the subject again:

No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse, Yesterday, I spoke with the bishops about this. Today, I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt.

We should have no doubt about the pope's sincerity in these remarks and it is important that he has been so open and direct. I have to wonder what has changed in the structure of the church to ensure that this couldn't happen again.

Of course I am in a denomination which can be maddeningly democratic, to the point that not much gets done because of our earnest anti-authoritarian approach. But surely the hierarchical world of the Roman Catholic church, as well as its discomfort with the realities of human sexuality for its leaders, contributed to the creation of a system where abuse took place. Staring into the rear-view mirror isn't nearly as helpful as looking to the horizon to find a new way forward.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

As Comes the Breath of Spring

A former co-worker from my Northern Ontario days contacted me recently, wondering if Spring is still my favourite time of the year. I was touched that she remembered and replied that it is. I love that virtually day by day we can see the emerging signs of new life, if we choose.

The earlier switch to Daylight Savings this year have offered the opportunity to walk in the evening and we have taken advantage. On Sunday afternoon we made our way to Lake Ontario at Second Marsh and along the way we saw kingfishers and swallows and common terns for the first time this season. Blue herons were everywhere and aggressive Canada geese tried to honk us away from their nesting sites.

In town the rainbow trout are flinging their way upstream at the Goodyear dam and songbirds are everywhere. I have been checking the emerging buds on our serviceberry tree, looking forward to the lovely white blossoms. The garlic bulbs we planted in the garden last Fall are up and running.

One of my all-time favourite hymns begins

As comes the breath of Spring with light and mirth and song,
So does your Spirit bring new days brave, free and strong.
You come with thrill of life to chase hence winter's breath,
to hush to peace the strife of sin that ends in death.

The world declares "life is good and God the creator is great" without saying a word in any human language. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Minister Protection Program

My first 24 hours on leave turned out to be an interesting study in why clergy need to go into a form of the witness protection program. Part way through the morning there was a knock on the door and there stood a former parishioner I hadn't seen in a decade. During a tough time in his work life we talked a fair amount but we had lost touch through the years. He sought me out, unannounced, to apologize for his behaviour while under stress. Actually, he was always a sweet guy and his remorse was unneccessary from my perspective. But we spent a while together while he made his confession and we agreed to connect again.

At eleven at night there was a phonecall from the wife of a current parishioner, as least one who is a member. I haven't seen him in a while and she is not involved. Was he at our place she wondered, obviously worried about his whereabouts and well-being. I hadn't heard from him but I then lay awake pondering what might have happened to him. She signed off without a word.

This morning I went to the gym and someone who had been at a funeral I conducted recently bent my ear about the deceased as I edged toward the elliptical machine.

These were all good people who had there own agendas which became mine by virtue of the contact. It is next to impossible to say "the meter is off" and yet there need to be times when pastors are not pastors. Most people are considerate most of the time. It is the exceptions, often folk in crisis, who can make ministry overwhelming.

Perhaps the solution is in the photo above.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

God Restores My Soul

At the end of worship this Good Shepherd Sunday I made a difficult announcement to the St. Paul's congregation. I told them I am going on restorative leave, a medical leave opportunity provided through the benefits program of the United Church. After struggling through recent months with physical problems which, in turn, have affected my emotional and spiritual well-being I agreed to this leave. My physician, the conference personnel minister, and the ministry and personnel committee of the congregation have all been very supportive.

I am not the Good Shepherd, but I try to be a good sheepdog to my flock. I realize that I can't be as effective as I want to be without stepping away from pastoral responsibility for a time. We sang Psalm 23 with its promise that God will restore our souls, and that is what I will seek.

What does that mean for my blog? I'm not really sure. Please check in and see whether I'm reflecting on my restorative time. I can do so from home and probably will along the way.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Victimizing the Victim

My wife, Ruth, works for the local shelter for women and children at risk as an outreach worker. It means that every day she counsels women who are trying to figure out the next step in relationships which are emotionally and physically controlling and abusive. In many situations these women have been isolated from friends and family and convinced that they are nothing as human beings without their abusive partner. Often they leave, only to return to the relationship because the known seems better than the unknown, despite the cruelty. It can be discouraging to those who attempt to provide support.

This week a 19-year-old woman named Noelle Mowatt went to jail, not because she was convicted of a crime but because she refused to testify against a partner who was charged with abuse after she called police. Noelle is nine months pregnant and should not be incarcerated yet a judge has sent her to the jail in Milton, Ontario. She has little in the way of a support system, so she decided that she needed her abuser. From jail she says that she would never call the police for help again.

Ruth speaks to church groups, mostly women, whose members are often shocked to realize that abuse of women and children happens close at hand. Congregations are increasingly sensitive to these issues and provide practical support to shelters. All of society, including the judicial system need to "get" the complex issues of abuse.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Healing Circles

The first time we visited Stonehenge on Salisbury plain was 31 years ago. Back then there wasn't any restriction to wandering through the huge standing stones or to touching them. Now, of course, you can visit the site but not get too close.

Archeologists are hard at work at Stonehenge in a new effort to discover the earliest purpose of this remarkable achievement. They estimate that the earliest circle of bluestones dates back 4500 years and was replaced by the monolithic sarsen stones still evident today.

It has been assumed that Stonehenge was a religious site and now they wonder if originally a place of healing. Ancient people may have travelled distances to be in the healing circle.

Religion has always connected healing of body, mind and spirit with the rituals of worship. According to the gospels Jesus was a healer who touched people who were mentally and physically ill to restore them to health. Our understanding of health and medicine has become largely scientific yet there is still a powerful spiritual component for many.

We have a prayer group which prays regularly for those who are ill. Do we anticipate a restoration to health and wholeness? While we don't just "name it and claim it" we do trust in a God who desires our highest good. We form our own healing circle in Christ's name.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Bright Light of Justice

When the talk began about boycotting the Olympic games in Beijing because of the crack-down in Tibet I thought "how hypocritical." The Chinese approach to human rights has not changed in the years since the games were awarded, so why would we punish athletes who have geared their lives toward this event when it is politicians who turned a blind eye eight years ago who should take responsibility.

Perhaps the disruption of the Olympic torch relay will be the strongest statement possible during the next few weeks. The Chinese government hoped to raise the country's international credibility by hosting the Olympics. The disruption and actual extinguishing of the torch in France has already brought embarrassment and shame to China's doorstep.

When we look in scripture it is often symbolic acts on the part of the prophets which points out injustice. Those prophets didn't have any actual power to change events. They were often punished by the rulers of the day rather than welcomed. This Olympic torch relay will be the longest in the history of the games. The symbolic act of protest along the way may be more powerful than any alternative.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Health and Wholeness for All

Today the CBC Radio program, White Coat, Black Art did an excellent piece on medical care for the elderly. The host is Dr. Brian Goldman who does emergency room medicine. He explored whether the elderly get second-class medical treatment simply because they are old. Does a 39-year-old get priority over an eighty-nine-year-old for care? Should they? The elderly usually take more time to treat for a variety of reasons and in our overcrowded emergency rooms time is both precious and of the essence.

As a pastor the majority of the parishioners I see in hospital or in chronic care facilities are senior citizens. My impression is that they receive adequate to good care, depending on where they are. Some of them are treated with great compassion and kindness by staff and the reason they don't get what I would consider excellent care is because nurses and caregivers simply don't have time.

As a spiritual care provider I face the same issues. There is only so much of me to spread around to the various areas of ministry and older folk are not usually "squeaky wheels." Often younger adults who are reasonably healthy expect immediate response from their minister when they feel they are in crisis, whereas seniors are not demanding, for the most part. They grew up in another era with a different mindset.

I think most of us want our elders to be treated with respect in the medical system and in their communities of faith. In the church we can all ask what we can do to be loving and supportive to those who are often neither seen nor heard yet have laid the foundation of faith for others.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Signs for Celebration

This afternoon we were walking past a shop with cut flowers out front and I stopped Ruth to point out the bees which were visiting the blooms. Driving along the highway we saw turkey vultures circling over a field. Spring!

Yesterday evening we went walking with another couple at Second Marsh and saw half a dozen blue herons standing on muskrat mounds. There was still ice on the marsh but it is receding at the shore. It that margin of icy water a family of beavers was cruising about after a winter of hibernation. Spring!

Redwing blackbirds. Cardinals. Robins. All signs that the season which began on the calendar two weeks ago has actually arrived.

We noticed that the Toronto television stations were marking the receding snow by pointing out the garbage tossed by humans along the streets. What a lousy focus in such a hopeful season.

We are fortunate to experience all four seasons as a gift from God, and this is my favourite.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Sincere Apologies

Member of Parliament Tom Lukiwski was on the hot-seat yesterday because of a 17-year-old video tape showing him making deeply offensive, homophobic comments about gays and lesbians. Although Lukiwski has apologized and admitted that he was ashamed of what he said, opposition politicians are calling for his resignation from a key government position. A couple of comments have emerged since the release of the tape saying that while this happened nearly two decades ago, attitudes and character don't change.

This is simply untrue. The Lukiwski comments are nasty, but unfortunately many people made similar assertions about gays and lesbians during that era. Gay jokes were rife, even when racist and sexist humour was becoming off limits . A lot has happened in the past 15 to 20 years to change public perception about this kind of prejudice. Many of us, including those of us in Christian churches, have realized how deeply seated our negative stereotypes were and come to different conclusions. Even those who still have deep convictions about the morality of homosexuality have changed the way they speak and, hopefully, the way they think.

Our Christian faith is based on a conviction that our relationship with Christ can and will change us. Old prejudices and hatreds can give way to tolerance and acceptance. If Lukiwski's apology is sincere -- and it seems to be -- surely we can accept it and move on.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Teach Your Children Well

It's heartwarming when we discover that children have learned to take initiatve, organize themselves, pulled together the tools for a task and set out to do it. Most of the time it warms the cockles of the heart.

It can also be rather chilling to find out that kids have done all of the above for sinister purposes. A group of Grade three students in the States -- Grade three!-- decided to punish a teacher they didn't like and put together a tool kit for the job that included duct tape, handcuffs and a knife. Some of the nine children involved in the plot were assigned to cover windows, others to clean up after the attack. God knows what might have happened if another student hadn't tipped off authorities. These conspirators were eight and nine and ten years old.

We often wonder what our children are actually taking in when they come to church on Sundays and for other activities during the week. Are they learning the way of Jesus, which is the way of compassion and self-giving love? We talk about it, but how much gets absorbed along the way.
Christian educators suggest that much of faith is caught rather than taught, so the "lessons learned" at church may have to do more with the model overheard and overseen by observant children.

We can't know for sure what our children are taking in but its worth the effort when we consider the alternatives.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Valley of the Shadow

During our bible study group this morning our administrator poked her head in the door and asked me to get to the hospital, pronto, because one of our folk was dying. I made an apologetic exit and got to the hospital room moments after the dear old soul died. I had grabbed a bible on the way out the door, so we gathered around the hospital bed while I read the twenty third psalm and then prayed.

There we were listening to this psalm of comfort once again. We were in the valley of the shadow of death yet God was there to comfort us. Tears were shed yet we were resurrection people.

The second Sunday of April is Good Shepherd Sunday and I have started musing about this shepherd psalm which is one of the readings for the day. Little did I know that its importance would be so close to home today.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Hope for Zimbabwe

Last Fall our parish nurse told the congregation she was going to spend time with a group of other nurses in the African nation of Zimbabwe. It was an exciting prospect and I wrote a letter of recommendation that was full of praise for this lovely person of faith. Congregation members began knitting specific items of clothing for the babies they would work with there. The nurses obtained visas and innoculations and were poised to go. Then the trip was postponed. While the hospital they were to work in is still going strong, the women were advised that the conditions were simply too unstable for them to come.

Zimbabwe has just completed an election and the citizens of that nation and the international community are waiting for the results. There is concern over electoral fraud and the tyrannical ruler, Robert Mugabe, may not go willingly if he is defeated. During his long tenure the country has fallen into economic ruin with inflation running at over a thousand percent. Opposition leaders fear for their lives.

This election may mark the end of Mugabe's iron grip and the return of hope for the nation. Please pray for their future.