Saturday, May 24, 2008

Basket of Prayers

There is basket on the table which has been filling with cards from folk in the congregation, colleagues and other friends. Along with emails and the occasional phonecall they have been a source of great encouragement and comfort through the past six weeks since I began my restorative leave.

This blog has also been an opportunity to stay in touch with people far and wide. It has also reminded me that while I am not serving in the pastorate at the moment I am still a Christian, reflecting on the world I live in.

I will be away for a week or so but I will certainly return. Thanks for your thoughts along the way and God bless you.

Friday, May 23, 2008


This weekend Toronto mosques, synagogues and churches will host visitors as part of the Open Doors program. Other years it has been secular buildings which have welcomed people in to enjoy the architecture. This is a first to employ sacred spaces as a part of this program.

What a great idea. When we were in Halifax a couple in the congregation were recent immigrants from Germany. They were surprised that in a community where people were so open and friendly most churches were locked up tight most of the time. The days of letting folk wander in off the street for prayer and contemplation have given way to concerns about security.

In Sudbury our downtown church was a high-rise building. While the sanctuary was locked during the week we had a beautiful chapel that was open to the public. There were often people who were unknown to me who were sitting in this tranquil space. Of course everything was secured to avoid theft. The communion table was made of polished nickel ore and weighed a thousand kilograms, so it wasn't going anywhere!

There is a biblical tradition of sanctuary that has all but disappeared. I'm not sure that there is an easy answer to reviving this concept, but the Open Doors weekend is a good start. I wonder if Bowmanville could come up with its own version.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dreams Taking Flight

I almost literally bumped into a member of the congregation in a gardening centre a few days ago. He told me with a chuckle that he was still recovering from a demanding and wonderful 24 hours during which he flew to Florida and back with a plane full of enthusiastic children. He had participated in the Dreams Take Flight program which takes kids from disadvantaged homes or who live with physical and mental disabilities to Disney World.

He described flying down as a surreal experience with the pilot participating in a goofy conga line with the children. Newspaper reports mention a pillow fight on one of the planes.

This is a "feel good" story in just about every direction. The children have an experience of a lifetime which probably couldn't happen any other way for the majority. And kudos to Air Canada for initiating this program.

I think great credit should go to the volunteers who were a part of the day. Our member is retired from teaching and could be forgiven for never wanting to be an enclosed space with children again. Sadly, I know retired teachers who take that approach. Instead he has embraced community service in a number of ways to fill many of his days.

I have borrowed the phrase "Golden Rule Christians" to describe the ethos of St. Paul's. We have an impressive number of people who take a "do unto others" approach to their Christian faith which connects their hearts with their hands and feet in the broader community. Bowmanville and the world would be an even better place with more like them.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Proud Parents

All right already! For those of you who requested a picture of the groom's parents, here it is.

The bride and groom returned to Canada from their unusual honeymoon in Switzerland. Several years ago Isaac worked for four months in a Swiss convent, where he was a gardener for the vegetarian nuns. They invited him back with his bride, Rebekah, to use a suite attached to one of their buildings. The happy couple hiked and travelled about in the nearby mountains from this base. And how many people could claim (or want to claim) that they spent their honeymoon in a convent! They had a great week.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Faith for Leadership

John McCain was on Saturday Night Live on the weekend, playing up the toe-to-toe fight between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Keep it up to the bitter end, he encouraged them. He was having a good time, and his pastor confirms that he has a good sense of humour.

Yes, McCain has a pastor and so does Clinton, and Obama is probably wishing he didn't. McCain's vanquished rival, Mike Huckabee, IS a pastor. The faith of political candidates is a big deal in the States, unlike pleasantly pagan Canada. I should be careful because Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a conservative Christian and the Green Party's Elizabeth May is a fairly liberal Christian. It's just that Canadian politicians realize that the public in this country doesn't want to hear about the personal faith of party leaders.

Why I wonder? The four American politicians I mention all feel that their relationship with the Christian God shapes who they are as individuals and leaders. I could take shots and ask how the Sermon on the Mount jibes with Ms. Clinton's willingness to smack down Iran and Mr. McCain's support of the war in Iraq, but neither of them claim to be Francis of Assisi. I read an article in the Christian Century on McCain's faith that you can find on the website for the magazine and it was helpful to know what makes him tick, spiritually. In both Obama's autobiographical books the glimpse of his faith helps form the picture of him as a person and possible world leader.

What do you think? Should we ask our politicians to "come out of the closet" spiritually or are we satisfied with keeping what they believe behind closed doors?

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Truly Big Give

Oprah Winfrey is cancelling her show. Not THE show -- that would be the source of international wailing and gnashing of teeth. She has decided not to renew The Big Give, a so-called reality show in which contestants devised ways to be generous. The last and presumably most creative giver standing won a million dollars. I think this is the premise because I never saw the program and now I never will.

Still, I am glad it died a quick and natural death. Since when has true generosity entailed a big pay-off for the giver? It's certainly not what Jesus taught. In the Sermon on the Mount. He encouraged his listeners not to "trumpet" their alms-giving so that others will know what they have done. Give so your right hand doesn't know what your left hand is doing, Jesus says. No press conferences, no buildings named after you. Just give because it is the right and godly thing to do.

Now, Jesus does say that God will reward our secret giving. Surely that is the highest praise.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

God in Three Persons

This past week a single letter written by Albert Einstein sold at auction for just over $400,000. It is the highest amount ever realized for a piece of Einstein's correspondence -- even more than for the letter to a friend outlining the theory of relativity. What was it about? Einstein essentially says that he finds the bible childish and is dubious about a personal god. It's interesting though that Einstein continued to wrestle with the notion of a divine presence or energy throughout his lifetime. This is described well in an article in the New York Times:

Einstein consistently characterized the idea of a personal God who answers prayers as naive, and life after death as wishful thinking. But his continual references to God — as a metaphor for physical law; in his famous rebuke to quantum mechanics, “God doesn’t play dice”; and in lines like the endlessly repeated, “ Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” — has led some wishful thinkers to try to put him in the camp of some kind of believer or even, not long ago, to paint him as an advocate of intelligent design.

Trying to distinguish between a personal God and a more cosmic force, Einstein described himself as an “agnostic” and “not an atheist,” which he associated with the same intolerance as religious fanatics. “They are creatures who — in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium for the people’ — cannot bear the music of the spheres.”

The problem of God, he said, “is too vast for our limited minds.”

While I disagree with most of his conclusions I appreciate his recognition that God cannot be easily categorized or quantified. I do feel that God has chosen to be particular in the person of Jesus the Christ, and continues to be present in the world through the Holy Spirit. Hey, this is Trinity Sunday and I have mentioned God in Three Persons!

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Issues that Matter

Yesterday the supreme court of California decided that it was unconstitutional to ban gay marriage. California will now be the second state to allow gay marriage.

Of course this has been the law for several years now in Canada and so far there have been no reports of a general collapse of society as a result. I figure that the sign of a civil society is the ability to hold differing views for the benefit of a greater good. While our citizens are fairly evenly split on gay marriage I talk to many who were and sometimes still are opposed who concede that tolerance, if not acceptance, makes sense. There is legal protection and fundamental issues of fairness in same-sex marriage that are important, regardless of personal viewpoint.
When we had our discussion and vote at St. Paul's I didn't expect that everyone would agree, any more than we always agree in our household. The art of compromise, mutual respect, and a willingness to "agree to disagree" are essential to healthy families, congregations, communities, countries.

The question in the U.S. now is whether same-gender marriage will now become an election issue. This is fascinating because race is already an issue, and in some states laws existed which prohibited interracial marriage until relatively recently.

At the risk of anthropomorphizing the deity, don't you wonder if God is laughing or crying or a little of both?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

One Person at a Time

It is difficult to have anything but a horrified fascination with numbers of dead and injured and displaced. In Burma it is tens of thousands who have perished and millions homeless. In China the death toll rises toward twenty thousand with many more trapped in the rubble.

This morning I heard a report about a rescue and recovery worker who has been pulling bodies from the wreckage of a school. He heard a child calling for help and worked desparately to pull away the stone and timbers. Eventually the little girl was found, alive. He said that he worked without ceasing because he would have been haunted for the rest of his life by the sound of her voice.

I need to remember that this is not an impersonal tally, that every person who has died was known and loved and will now be grieved.

I continue to find great solace and strength in my relationship with a God who came to be with humanity in a person, Jesus, who responded to individuals in a compassionate and loving manner. The message is that Christ searches for us until we are found. Somehow I can translate that into my response to what may seem like a tragedy beyond my comprehension.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Life Abundant

These images were taken during walks these past couple of days. The goslings and buds and the turtle don't need explanation. The fish are carp, swarming together in the reeds at Second Marsh. Carp aren't my favorite fish by a stretch, but they were quite beautiful in their hundreds.Click on the photo to get a screen-size image. I also saw a pied-billed grebe and a green heron and a moorhen. There were northern orioles and goldfinches and a bittern. Life, life and more life in the water and on the land and in the air.
Psalm 104 declares:
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both great and small.
This abundance is all around us for the seeing. Now for the bugs!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Wedding Celebration

Ike, Becky, her folks, panhandler

Despite our desire to make sure that the wedding and reception came up to family standards (parents feel peer pressure!) Rebekah and Isaac were resolute about keeping things simple and affordable, whatever help we offered. They were also comfortable with everything taking place in the building where they worship.

This meant inviting guests into a more colourful --okay, seedy-- neighbourhood of Montreal. The church, Eglise St. Jean, is actually adjoined to a strip club. There are many street people in the area, including the guy in a wheelchair who was panhandling by the door as guests made their way into the church. The reception was held in the church basement and we couldn't get in to set up until the morning of the wedding because the program for folk on life's margins runs five days a week. There were signs at the washrooms with instructions about the disposal of syringes.

Everyone was polite about the day, whatever they might have been thinking. I am keeping in mind that Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding feast. We know that ancient weddings were events of inclusion which were about joy, not images of perfection. At one point during the reception I looked out to see guests in animated conversation punctuated by laughter which was not impeded by our setting.

Something tells me that Isaac and Rebekah will never regret their choice and we did experience joy.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Trillium Delight

We were going to stay prone for the day after our weekend of frantic activity. But by mid-morning we were off for our annual trillium walk at Long Sault, the conservation area north of Bowmanville on the Oak Ridges Moraine. It is the best place to see them that we have ever found and it is only a few kilometres away.

This is one of our photos. It's amazing how the sight of this carpet of wild flowers lifted us from lethargy.

Wedding Celebration

Rebekah, Isaac & siblings (click for larger image)

It was twenty six years ago next month that I sped through the night from our outport home in Newfoundland toward the hospital in Gander. My wife Ruth was already there, about to give birth to our first-born child. I had been sent home only hours before because she was supposedly in false labour. That incorrect diagnosis meant that I had to hurry back seventy five kilometres in order to witness our son, Isaac, come into the world. I remember that night vividly with its mixture of elation and trepidation as I realized that I was a father.

On Saturday those memories came back as Isaac was married to the beautiful Rebekah in Montreal. Although Ruth and I escorted Isaac down the aisle I immediately moved to the role of presider for the service. There were three clergy involved, including his French-speaking pastor and the principal of the McGill theological college. The service was conducted in both official languages because many of their friends are Francophones and Ike and Becky are bilingual.

There were three readers and Isaac's grandmother read a portion of the biblical story of the meeting of Isaac and Rebekah. Three musicians took part at various times, offering a variety of styles of music. Everyone was splendid in what they offered, although one of the ministers was a little unprofessional when the emotion of the moment overcame him and his attempts to hold back the tears failed miserably. Guess who.

The service on a lovely Spring day was a wonderful celebration of commitment and God's presence in the company of family and friends. The couple beamed at each other during the ceremony. At the conclusion the violinist and two guitarists played jigs and reels which quickly had the congregation clapping and tapping.

For me it was a moment of happiness which rivalled Isaac's birth.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

God's Hands are our Hands

The images and information out of Burma these days are heart-wrenching. More than twenty thousand dead, forty thousand missing, and roughly a million displaced. Relief workers say that the impact of the rain on human skin was so forceful that there are marks which look like burns. So much human suffering on a scale that we would be ill-equipped to address in our much more affluent and open society. After the tsunami in south-east Asia a few years ago some claimed it was God's wrath (such a prehistoric mindset) and others asked whether God was present at all. While it is hard to comprehend why this has happened, God will be active through those who respond with compassion during the weeks ahead.

Not only is there a theological aspect to this tragedy, there are political and environmental implications as well. The oppressive military junta has been slow to admit that the cyclone took such a heavy toll and reluctant to let other nations provide aid. We're also told that the steady deforestation of the mangrove swamps of Burma has removed the natural barrier which mitigates the effect of these powerful storms.

In the end this is about bringing relief to those who are afflicted. Organizations such as the Red Cross, Unicef, and World Vision are all taking donations. The United Church always finds a way to direct special gifts to where it is needed most. And of course we can always pray.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Real Men Wear Prayer Shawls

I was out this morning and returned to a bag containing two prayer shawls. One was, shall we say, normal in size. The other was man-size. Big man size. Both were beautiful and the gift of a colleague in ministry and her daughters. I was touched for a number of reasons. Ruth has been instrumental in getting an effective prayer shawl ministry going at St. Paul's and now she is the recipient during a tough time in her life. It hadn't occurred to me that I might "shawl up" as a guy, but as I wrapped it around my shoulders I felt comforted. What a thoughtful demonstration of support.

A while ago I mentioned my appreciation of the cards and emails and other expressions of kindness. I figured that they might continue for a week or two, but again this morning cards arrived for both of us and they were so helpful. I am certainly not tiring of these gestures of kindness.

I also saw a member of the congregation while in the drugstore today and decided to go over and say hello. I didn't know what to expect because she lives with Alzheimer's. She recognized me immediately and took my hand as she told me that I was missed.

Where would we be without Christian community? Where would I be?

I'll take a photo of the shawls and post it.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Praying for the Future

When I grew up in the village of Brooklin a job at General Motors in Oshawa was coveted. It was tempting to forego college or university because a high-paying and secure position at an early age was waiting just down the road.

The world changes and demand for products of any kind shifts and people who figure they have a "sure thing" find themselves searching for answers. I'm sure that most of the United Churches in this area have a number of parishioners who either worked are in the employ of GM or the many feeder plants for the industry. For the second time in a year I am writing about significant lay-offs which will affect the entire auto industry in this area.

What did these workers do wrong? Nothing, if we look at the productivity and efficiency of the manufacturing plants. We know that the down-turn in the economy and the desire for more fuel-efficient vehicles has affected sales. But the employees in the plants have no control over these factors.

Again we are reminded that meaningful employment with fair compensation is no longer a certainty in our society. That reality doesn't help the thousands of households which will be affected by these lay-offs. We can keep these workers and their families in our prayers after the media attention moves elsewhere.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Bethesda House

There has been an outpouring of concern for the work of Bethesda House and the staff in the wake of this week's fire. Many people wonder about donating clothing and household goods to replenish the stock which was destroyed Tuesday. Eventually that will be wonderful, but at the moment there is no place to store these items.

Those of you who have asked about cash donations can send them to:

Bethesda House
P O Box 82
L1C 3K8

The annual silent auction is coming up and new items can be donated through administrator Wendy Staal 905 623 6045.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


How would you define a miracle? The expression "it's a miracle!" gets bandied about in both religious and secular circles --even furniture store ads-- but what does it mean? When we speak of miracles we are usually referring to something out of the ordinary, beyond what we would consider the fundamental laws of physics and biology. As Christians we might say that God is able to intervene in those established patterns to bring about an unexpected outcome. There are many examples of the miracles performed by Jesus in the gospels. We could argue that the resurrection itself is a miracle.

I have been thinking about all this since the collapse of a church floor in British Columbia last weekend. About a thousand young people were in the church for a Christian rock concert. It's likely that youthful exuberance brought the house down. Fortunately no one died is this serious mishap. Or miraculously no one died, if we use the word that the pastor employed to describe the outcome.

Here's the thing. Why would God intervene to save young Christian rock enthusiasts in B.C. but not Christian children have been orphaned by AIDS in Africa? Why are some soldiers spared in battle and others aren't, even though parents of all concern pray for safety?

As a pastor I pray for those afflicted by disease and I have even prayed for miracles, but I have no idea why some prayers appear to be answered and others seem to go unheeded. The other day my dear wife's workplace was destroyed by fire, even thought the work she and others does is vital for the well-being of vulnerable people. It hasn't occurred to us that this was a sign of God's displeasure.

I'm not criticizing the comments of the B.C. pastor, only wondering still, after all these years, how we take the term miracle seriously. I would appreciate your thoughts and observations.