Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Food Grains Bank

On Sunday our Ministry and Personnel committee put on a lunch following worship. It was good to have a bowl of chili on a rainy, miserable day and eighty other people thought so too. The proceeds of the free-will offering were split between our congregation and the excellent work done by the Canadian Food Grains Bank.

The Food Grains Bank was started roughly twenty five years ago to contribute surplus Canadian grain to places in the world where people are hungry. A simple and very effective project. What is amazing is that it is a Christian initiative and fifteen denominations and church agencies are involved. Churches getting along for a good cause! I know you can detect some sarcasm here, but it is a minor miracle that groups as diverse as Adventists, Pentecostals, Christian Reformers, Roman Catholics and a bunch of others are cooperating to do what Jesus told us to do -- feed the hungry. The website for the Foodgrains bank states that it is

... rooted in the belief that humankind is created in the image of God and that it is God’s desire that no person should go hungry. The availability of food and access to that food is fundamental to life itself. Food is required to sustain life, to provide the strength for work, and to share in the fellowship of one’s family and community.

Over the quarter century more than one million metric tons of grain has been distributed to hungry people around the world. While the Food Grains Bank began with farmers sharing their excess grain, it has grown to include anyone who want to contribute to the cause.

This project has been adopted by our Sunday School and the congregation as a whole during our 175th anniversary year as a way of looking outward and expressing our thanks. Great idea!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sin and Salvation

On Saturday we drove into Toronto to visit the redesigned and expanded Art Gallery of Ontario. While we were curious about the transformation under the architectural direction of Frank Gehry, we were there to see the exhibition of work by William Holman Hunt. Hunt was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement of the 19th century, a school of painting that doesn't really turn my crank. Still, with an exhibition entitled Sin and Salvation, how could I resist?

There were really two painting amongst the many to illustrate the "sin and salvation" theme. One is The Light of the World, a subject painted several times by Holman Hunt, and based on a metaphor found in the book of Revelation. The piece at the AGO is small, but I have seen one of the larger versions in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England. It show Jesus, the Christ, standing at a door in the gloom of night, with a lantern which illuminates the scene. The actual lantern Holman Hunt used for the painting is part of the AGO exhibit. The door is vine-covered and there is no handle on the exterior. It must be opened from the inside, to welcome Christ in.

The other painting is called The Awakening Conscience. In this work a young woman who is in a compromising position with a rakish young man appears to have a moment of revelation about her lifestyle. While she may look rather modest in her demeanour, her loosened hair and petticoat indicate someone involved in a clandestine affair. In the mirror behind the couple we see her looking to the outside world. These paintings were often exhibited as companions.

I'm not a fan of the sentimentalism of the Pre-Raphaelites but these notions of awakening faith and response to the light of Christ are intriguing. Fashions in painting change but there are some basic precepts of spiritual transformation which endure.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Despite a wet day, a gathering several hundred people strong took place outside the town hall this afternoon. I encouraged our folk to attend the rally is support of hospital services in Bowmanville and Clarington. Our community has a population of 30,000 and the municipality is more than 80,000. We may not be a major centre but we need a hospital that can provide adequate beds, an emergency room, and the services of specialists. There has been growing concern that the effectiveness of our hospital will be undermined by reduced medical services brought about by budget pressures.

Why would I attend a hospital rally and suggest others do so as well? There is a strong connection between care for the body and care for the soul. When people are not well, physically, it affects their spiritual well-being, and vice versa. When people are sick and hospitalized they are often scared and want the support of their faith community. It sure doesn't help when the hospital is half an hour from home, rather than in town. From my practical standpoint, I can be much more effective in providing pastoral care if I am minutes away from the hospital. And I appreciate the scale of the hospital here.

It's easy to forget that hospitals began as an extension of the hospitality (ring a bell?) of convents and monasteries. Monks and nuns were often the people with the greatest medical knowledge and it was a ministry of compassion. Read the Brother Cadfael mystery novels to get an entertaining picture of the role religious communities played in the medieval world. While hospitals today are usually state run, names such as Grace and Hotel Dieu are reminders of the work done by the Salvation Army and the Roman Catholic church to establish hospitals in days past. Our United Church ran hospitals in coastal British Columbia and Newfoundland for decades.

Any opinions on the subject of hospitals in smaller centres? Any testimonials about the value of those hospitals?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Your Earth Vote Counts

During elections we are urged to follow through on the privelege of voting in democratic elections and to make a difference with our vote. I hope that you will make a difference today for the sake of God's green Earth. Perhaps you can use the hour to talk with the people who are important to you about what changes you can bring about as concerned Christians. You won't be in the dark alone as people in 82 countries have committed themselves to Earth Hour.

Let us know how it goes!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Silence Like Scouring Sand

This morning on the radio I heard frustrated residents of a downtown Toronto neighbourhood speaking about the pollution that is driving them crazy. Forget the "usual suspects" of air pollution or nasty stuff bubbling up from the ground. It is the noise from a nearby construction site. GO Transit is putting in new rail line and massive pile drivers are pounding foundation material into the ground. The impact is so great that buildings shake, and the local residents are subjected to loud noise all day long. One person was contemplating moving because this will continue for 16 months!

Studies show that the rising background din of our urban and suburban worlds does have a psychological and physiological impact on us. I would offer my anecdotal support of this. When I was on restorative leave last summer I spent two months on a remote farm where the "noise" was the sound of birds, the wind in the trees, and the nightime rumble of a waterfall more than a kilometre away. A car passing by on the road was an occasion. I knew then and still know that this blessed quiet was part of my healing.

Orion magazine published an article last Fall called Silence Like Scouring Sand. http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/3627/ It was about a project to find a place in the United States where there are no human sounds. A National Parks Service worker has gone deep into Olympic National Park, searching for a spot where no human sounds are heard for fifteen minutes. I know some of you think this is bizarre, but to me it is a dream job. We walk around here a lot, and we are keenly aware of the constant noise which pushes in on solitude.

At the beginning of Lent we heard about Jesus going into the wilderness for forty days to get ready for the challenges of his mission, and the gospels tell us that he would go into the hills for prayer and spiritual replenishment.

Do you think noise is a form of pollution? Are you comfortable with silence? What do you do to get your "fix" of quiet?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Thank God for Children

The last two weeks have been very demanding with one activity after another, day in and day out. In the midst of it all was the funeral last week for a beloved member. I seemed to drag through the days following.

Then there are children who manage to brighten my days without much effort. One of our delightful little ones was in the office visiting his grandmother earlier this week when I walked in the door. He gave me a smile, then pointed urgently into my study. Obviously that is where I lived, and I should return to my lair!

Two days ago I came in to the sound of a little girl asking "where's David?" "I'm here!" I announced. "It's my birthday!" she told me with great enthusiasm. Three years ago she was a gift of joy to her adoptive parents and she never ceases to amaze me. I laugh nearly every time she comes by (she goes to the nursery school) because of something she says. Not long ago she was leaving and her mother suggested she say goodbye and maybe blow me a kiss. She didn't think so and left without a word. I had returned to my study when the door swung open and she deigned to say goodbye, then blew the kiss with the flourish of a dramatic sweep of her arm.

Last but not least. On Sunday Rev. Cathy talked to the kids about a visit to St. Vincent's kitchen, a meal program where volunteers must wear hair nets (she put one on.) At the end Cathy invited participation at the kitchen by adults and one little girl needed to know, in all earnestness, if it was necessary for her Dad to wear a hair net since he is bald. Great question. I could hardly stop laughing, although I didn't let her see my amusement.

Joy often takes us by surprise and we are so fortunate in this congregation to have the presence of children who embody joy, without even trying. They lift my spirits. Thank God for children.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Earth Hour is Coming!

Last year I encouraged people in the St. Paul's congregation to observe Earth Hour, a simple task of turning off the electricity in homes for the hour between 8:30 and 9:30 PM on a Saturday in March. Many followed through on the challenge, some more thoroughly than others. We shut off all our lights and computer. Others shut down everything in the house for an hour.

We played a game by candlelight while others sat and talked. Those of us who play musical instruments could get in some practice.I discovered afterward that the public schools had done a great job of promoting Earth Hour.
The next morning in worship we turned off the lights, sang from hymnbooks rather than projection, and our organist played the piano instead. It all symbolic really, but an important reminder that we can choose to live more lightly on the planet, even for an hour. We will do so again this year.

Will you participate this coming Saturday, March 28th? http://wwf.ca/earthhour/ You can win a trip to see polar bears in the Arctic if you sign on for Earth Hour online.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Responsibilty for our Actions

Stephanie Rengel

I took a look online at noon today to see what the sentence will be for the young woman who was convicted last week of murdering Stephanie Rengel. So far nothing is in the newspapers. For those outside Ontario, the teenager was found guilty of first degree in Rengel's death. She never had a relationship with fourteen year old Stephanie, nor any confrontation with her, but an unwarranted jealousy and hatred developed which led her to convince her boyfriend to stab her "rival" to death.

It seems to me that the conviction was just, although this is still a tragedy for everyone involved. Stephanie was a bright, motivated young woman who was the victim of a bizarre hatred she didn't know existed. The young woman, known only as M.T. because of the publication ban for a minor, as well as her boyfriend, effectively ruined their lives and those of three other families.

This sad story is a reminder that crimes of passion are not restricted to adults. It also calls into question the power of sexual jealousies and the tendency of our culture to sexualize relationships far too early.

There is also the issue of forgiveness and rehabilitation. At this pointe M.T. has shown no remorse for her actions, a chilling indication of psychopathology. What if she eventually realizes the enormity of her crime and expresses contrition and a desire to change her ways? Should a teen be sentenced to twenty five years before eligibility for parole? When I worked as a chaplain intern at Kingston Penitentiary there were teenagers who had been convicted of murder. I wasn't sure that they should be treated in the same way as adults who had committed similar crimes, or that society would be well served by locking kids away until they were in their forties.

Let's say it is a given that this is a horrendous crime and that the two murderers deserved to be punished. Do you think they should be sentenced differently than adults?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Gardening Apprentices

"Who does gardening dressed like that?" was the question posed by my wife Ruth this weekend.

It was in response to the film footage of Michelle Obama, the US president's wife, as she stuck a spade in the sod of the White House lawn. She is creating a vegetable garden as an encouragement for Americans to grow their own greens and eat healthily. The Obama's certainly don't need to plants spuds and beans to get by. And Michelle won't be wearing that outfit in the garden for long if she really plans to dig in earnest.

Why not though? During the Great Depression many people survived by using available backyard space for vegetables and the Victory Gardens of WWII were strongly encouraged. Somehow we have got away from growing our own food, unless you happen to be from a Portuguese or Italian background. Older immigrants from those two countries have an amazing ability to make gardens flourish. A silver lining of the economic downturn may be that we wake up to the importance of urban/suburban gardening instead of depending on products shipped to us from other countries.

There is something truly spiritual about rooting around in the dirt and the nudge to acknowledge this may be another important byproduct of our current mess. In his lovely little book The Fragrance of God Vigen Guroian, who is from the Orthodox tradition, reflects of the meaning of gardening. He says that where spirit and earth mix, God and humans meet. We are apprentices of the Master Gardener. Good thoughts.

I know that a number of readers have flower gardens. Any plans to grow veggies this year?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Where Would We Be Without Them?

The other day I walked partway back to the church from the local hospital with a guy who is a member of the congregation. A relatively recently retired professional, he is still spry and energetic and has time on his hands. I met him at the hospital as he visited one of our elderly members whom I had stopped in to see. He has taken a practical interest in her wellbeing and helps her out regularly. As fate would have it, I had just visited an octogenerian who lives in her own home who had commented on the kindness of this same fellow and his wife. She too is retired and helps with the local drop-in for those mental health issues. He also works around the church with a couple of other retirees, painting and repairing.

Folk like this tend to be the "unsung heroes" of congregations. St. Paul's is fortunate to have many of them who contribute in a host of different ways to make our church family and our community better places. They still enjoy retirement, travelling and spending time with grandchildren.

At the other end of life's journey, during March Break several of our young people went with Rev. Cathy to St. Vincent's Kitchen in Oshawa to serve meals. I'm told that they loved the experience and felt that by helping out they were making a difference.

Young and not-so-young, they have simply chosen to live out their Christian faith by giving back where they can. Where would we be without them?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Different Stimulus Package

We were suitably outraged this past week by reports of huge "retention bonuses" paid to execs at AIG in the States, as well as Nortel. Why would a company want to retain leaders who ran the business into the ground, as is the case with AIG, and how can they use taxpayers money?

Closer to home and closer to our own life experience, the middle class continues to be battered by lay-offs and many more worry about job security. What will governments do to stimulate the economy and save jobs?

What if you are amongst the working poor or on social assistance? It would have been easy to miss a far less spectacular news story this past week related to an announcement by the premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty.The Child Benefit will increase from $600 to $1100 a year, or nearly double the current level. The increase will be on a sliding scale, with the biggest increases going to the households with the lowest incomes. An extra $500 a year per child might not seem like a lot to some of us, but to those living on the margins this will make a huge difference. My wife, Ruth, works with many income moms and knows this announcement will be of huge significance to her clients.

There is a strong biblical principle of caring for the disadvantaged in our midst, of providing for those who may not be able to provide even the basic necessities for themselves. Not only is this voiced by the prophets of the Old Testament, it is clearly stated in some of the letters of the New Testament.

It might be worthwhile to write the premier an email of commendation for this decision. It is not what we may think of when it comes to a "stimulus package" but it is such a good decision in these tough economic times.

When I fired up my blogger account today I was surprised to see that this is my six hundredth blog entry. Given that I wasn't sure if I could keep this up for a week when I started, I have certainly run on at the mouth. Thank you for reading!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Some of us looks like em...

Welcome to the first day of Spring 2009? As the birds return and hardier flowers take a cautious peek out of the earth we can be grateful for the change of seasons and the world God has created. Hold on -- am I allowed to affirm my belief in a creator God in a public forum? Will people think less of me for speaking of the Creator if I don't say something about evolution at the same time?

Recently Gary Goodyear, the federal government's Minister of State for Science and Technology declined to discuss his Christian convictions in the face of accusations that they might influence his decisions as a science minister. Goodyear felt that his beliefs were irrelevant to the way he did his job. Since then he has said that he believes in evolution, as though that assertion ever had anything to do with government cuts to science funding.

In recent years I have noticed an increasing ignorance and even antagonism directed toward religious people when it comes to issues of science. The assumption seems to be that if you believe in God you will not believe in evolution or take other scientific issues seriously. Granted, there will always be religious fundamentalists who assert that God literally created the world in seven days, but there are countless examples of scientists who are believers, as well as those who believe in a creator and a complex and envolving natural order. John Polkinhorne was a leading physicst who became an Anglican priest and continues to lecture and write on issues of faith and science. Francis Collins, the scientist who was instrumental in deciphering the genetic code is a Christian.

Today in the Globe and Mail newspaper there is an article in which Dr. Denis Lamoureux is interviewed. He hold doctorates in evolutionary biology and theology. I heard Lamoureux a few years ago in Halifax. The writer also speaks with Rev. Ambury Stuart who is a United Church minister and a climate change scientist. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090320.wxlscience20/BNStory/lifeMain/

During my first pastorate in outport Newfoundland we got into a spirited discussion at a bible study about creation and evolution. One participant was sure we couldn't be descended from apes. An older woman named Pearl offered "All I knows is dat some of us looks like 'em, and some of us don't!"

Have you made your peace between faith and science? Can you reconcile belief in a creator God and evolution?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Right Choices for Conservation

We have been blessed with sightings of whales on many occasions during the years. We have lived in Atlantic Canada for two periods of time and returned for visits often. Among the cetaceans we have seen are humpback, fin, minke, beluga, and pilot whales. A few years ago we camped on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy where we added another to our list -- the North Atlantic right whale. We were on a whale-watching outing where we followed (at a safe distance) a momma and her calf. These whales are rather boring because they swim around slowly, and without the gymnastics of humpbacks or the cuteness of belugas. They were considered the "right" whales for hunting because they were easy to track down and floated when harpooned. As a result they became an endangered species, with only 300 or so still alive.

The good news is that conservation efforts appear to be working. The Canadian and US governments have agreed on restricted areas and speed limits in the Bay of Fundy so these massive mammals won't be hit by ships, an ongoing problem. Some scientists figure the number of right whales should be adjusted up toward four hundred. It's not exactly time to dance in the streets, but it is movement in the correct (right?) direction.

One of my favourite psalms is 104, which creates a picture of creation where creatures exist because God wants them here, not because they are useful for humans. It speaks of Leviathan cavorting in the seas, and theologians speculate that this is a reference to whales. Even though right whales are a little short when it comes to cavorting, they are God's creation and deserve to exist.

Have any of you had close encounters of the whale kind?

With Hope of Resurrection

More than 200 people gathered at St. Paul's yesterday for the funeral of a long-time and beloved member. Doris was the woman in the critical care unit I blogged about last week. Sadly, we watched her slip away and yesterday was the opportunity for people to pay their respects in a service of worship.

Doris did a remarkable amount of good without fanfare. She was involved in many community organizations and cared deeply about a number of social issues. She loved the beauty of the natural world and actively cared for the environment.

It was so important that people came to support her family and honour her memory. A former minister and friend made the effort to be at the service. Our parish nurse and Christian development minister took part. Although this was a weekday, fifteen choir members came and did the important work of leading congregational singing and offeried a lovely anthem. Her bible study buddies were there, and people representing many facets of her life. Several members of her family offered fitting and moving tributes to their loved one.

None of us really wanted to be confronted by death, but there was an opportunity to celebrate a life lived well and to commend her to God's care and keeping. It was simply right that this service happened, even though Doris would have wondered at the fuss.

Because it was St. Patrick's Day we concluded the service with the hymn We Shall Go Out With Hope of Resurrection. I think we did.

As I looked out at the congregation I was struck by the importance of this worship event taking place in a church rather than a funeral chapel. We were remembering a person of faith, strongly rooted in this congregation. Any thoughts on the value and meaning of a church funeral?

Monday, March 16, 2009

St. Paddy's Day Commitment

St. Patrick Drives The Snakes Out of Ireland

The forecast for this day will take us into double-digit temperatures, a lovely way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. A hundred people gathered at St. Paul's church Saturday evening for a St. Patrick's dinner and entertainment. The gang included children and seniors and everyone in between. It was meant to be a fun evening, although we began with worship.

I spoke briefly about the love of the Celtic saints for the natural world, the created world. Many of those saints lived as hermits, away from the monasteries and convents. There are many legends of the cooperation between these holy men and women and the animals that inhabited the woods and the lakes.

I mentioned the tradition that an otter would bring St. Kevin salmon on a regular basis and even dove into the lake where he lived to retrieve his prayer book after it slipped out of the saint's hand! True? Obviously not, but the legends speak to a Christian tradition which honours creation rather than abusing it. This Celtic Christianity can still be a model for a world which has become much more complicated but still needs to be imbued with a spiritual respect for the balance of our ecological systems.

Our United Church creed includes the words "to live with respect in Creation" and St. Patrick's day can be one occasion when we renew the commitment.

Book of Negroes Revisited

Last week the novel The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill won CBC radio's Canada Reads competition. Five advocates "made the case" for their picks and one was chosen as the winner. You can check out the other winners on the CBC website. While I didn't follow the competition, I approve the choice on the basis of my enjoyment of the novel.

It is a gripping story of an African woman named Aminata, who is captured in Mali, transported in slavery to the the American south, eventually makes her way to Nova Scotia, and...well, I can't spoil the ending. While some critics claim this journey of a slave woman is improbable, there were in fact many whose lives involved years of movement across the Atlantic and even back again.

I read The Book of Negroes two summers ago in Nova Scotia. I purchased it before hearing the positive reviews and with little idea of its story. You may recall from an earlier blog that I realized as I read that I was situated in the area where the Nova Scotia portion of the story took place. We were just outside Port Mouton, mentioned in the book. My brother and I found Birchtown, the black community near Shelburne which is also important to the story. You will see photos above of our visit to the Birchtown museum site. The wooden structure is an example of the hovels people lived in. Click on the sign photo to read some of the history of Birchtown.

The Canada Reads win reminded me of the importance of Christianity both in the perpetuation of slavery and in aiding slaves to become educated and to move toward freedom.

Have you read this novel? Are you planning to read it?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Eternal Father Strong to Save

We were saddened to hear of the crash of an oil-rig helicopter off the coast of Newfoundland, resulting in seventeen deaths. Sixteen of those who died were from the outport village of Bay Bulls, population 1200.

It took us back to my first pastoral charge which was in Newfoundland. I had five preaching points in five outports which meant for a busy life. Still we loved the rugged beauty of our area and during our time there our son Isaac was born and we became parents of a Labrador retriever named Pradie, which is the Newfie word for potato. We lived in a manse which looked out to the ocean.

A couple of men in our area worked in the newly developed oil industry which held great promise for the province. On Valentine's Day 1982 a fierce winter storm struck the province. The power went off and we were snowed in. The wind was so wild that it was a constant moan, and we couldn't see out the following morning because even our picture window was coated with a thick layer of snow.

Then the news came that one of the massive oil rigs called the Ocean Ranger had sunk and eighty four people, including fifty six Newfoundlanders died. No one from our communities was lost but it hit people hard. I was gently but firmly told that the next Sunday we must sing the hymn Eternal Father Strong to Save, and we did.

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea.

Friday, March 13, 2009

You Are The Light of the World

Two days again I was concerned when I discovered that one of our members had been moved from a ward room in the hospital to critical care. It was the right place for her to be, but it indicated her health was further compromised. Our conversation was brief because she was weak, but she squeezed my hand after our prayer.

Yesterday I returned to the glassed-in cubicle which is a critical care room and found her amidst the lines and monitors which give her sustenance and track her vital signs. A nurse worked quietly and efficiently while I was there, but respected my presence. Our friend spoke my name at the beginning and said "amen" after prayer at the end, but couldn't muster speech the rest of the time. I read to her from psalm 139 which offers assurance that God has known us since we were in the womb. Then the Beatitudes with the series of blessings and Jesus' powerful reminder that we are the light of the world. I assured her that she had been light for many people, myself included.

I walked out of the unit to speak with her son who was by her bedside when I arrived, as he was the day before. He told me that he watched as the monitors "picked up the pace" while I read to her and prayed. She seemed so still to me, but something was stirring inside.

As I walked back to my car I had a moment when the tears welled up and I just had to stop for a moment. I suppose I should be relieved that I am still moved emotionally by the suffering of others. I have been doing this for a long time but I hope I never stop feeling.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I'm Sorry, So Sorry

Remember this "hurtin" song, I'm Sorry, by Brenda Lee? Okay, some of you may be too young, but the theme was apologizing.

You tell me mistakes
Are part of being young
But that don't right
The wrong that's been done

I'm sorry
So sorry
So sorry
Please accept my apology...

You may have seen yesterday that Ontario has joined other provinces in passing a law that allows people to apologize without risk of lawsuits. Read this from the Toronto Star:

Ontario became the latest province yesterday to adopt an apology law that will allow people to say they're sorry without fear of having it turned against them in court.
Under the new rules, apologies can't be used as an admission of fault or liability and won't affect someone's insurance coverage – a move critics warn may do victims more harm than good.
Fewer people apologize because they're afraid it could come back to haunt them if they are sued, Attorney General Chris Bentley said after the bill passed final reading.
British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have similar apology laws, and 35 U.S. states have some form of apology legislation.

I am on the Bowmanville hospital Pastoral Services Advisory Board and realize that the issue of accepting responsibilty for making mistakes is a major issue for medical professionals. Physicians in Ontario hospitals are now legally compelled to admit mistakes even when there are no negative medical consequences, but there is concern about the possibility of litigation. This law would help to address this.

Lent is a season when saying sorry is a major theme. The psalm for Ash Wednesday is always psalm 51, which is King David's admission of guilt and plea for forgiveness. We "talk the talk" of confession and forgiveness in the Christian community. The assumption is that our "sorrys" must be sincere and heartfelt.

What do you think about this law? Will it just let the guilty "off the hook?"How do we measure the level of sincerity in apologies?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Stitch In Time

There is an old saying that "a stitch in time saves nine." It is one of those wise saws that hardly surfaces any more. Our younger daughter, in her early twenties, asked me for examples of tradtional sayings recently and I trotted this one out. It took a bit of explaining about the notion of caring for something so it lasts. What a concept in our disposable world.

I have noticed lately that while we are inundated with news of layoffs and downsizing there are stories of businesses that are thriving. These are the car repair shops, and the tailors, and shoe repair stores. They have so much business they can't keep up. Rather than tossing out our stuff, we are choosing to mend and fix it.

This isn't much solace to an ailing car industry or other businesses which sell new items but does it say something about a correction in our society? Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer prize-winning author thinks it may be the silver lining to our dark economic cloud. Our economy has been driven by "more" despite the toll it takes on the environment and the inequities it creates in the global picture of wealth.
We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...
We can’t do this anymore.
Jesus encouraged simplicity and contentment in a society where people had little to start with. He saw the addiction to acquiring more and more as a spiritual issue. It's a tough one, because meaningful work is also a spiritual issue, but it is worth pondering.

Has the economic downturn encouraged simplicity in your household? Is this a spiritual concern?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Clergy Barbie?

Monday was actually International Women's Day, although many events were held on Sunday because, of course, nothing else happens on Sunday mornings.

The same day there were birthday parties for a 50-year-old female without a wrinkle in sight and still sporting a beguiling figure. What an irony that IWD and Barbie's 50th anniversary would coincide. Barbie has changed through the decades, including a thicker waistline, but she has staying power. She generates about 3.6 billion dollars in annual sales, which means that every three seconds a Barbie is sold somewhere in the world.

This isn't bad for something (someone?) lots of people love to hate. She has long been the target of feminists who point to her impossible figure as a source of a lousy body image for many girls. Both our daughters had a closet full of Barbies and I think their feminist mother did a good job of reminding them that this was fantasy, not the female role model.

Barbie has been a secret vice for girls in some cultures. There is an article in the Sunday New York Times by a woman who grew up in Iran, where Barbie was officially banned, but sought by many. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/09/opinion/09khakpour-barbie.html?scp=2&sq=Barbie&st=cse An artist's version of the Islamic Revolution Barbie is pictured above.

There has been an Astronaut Barbie, Biker Barbie, Mountie Barbie, even a military Barbie. (click on second image for a timeline.) Maybe we need a Clergy Barbie, complete with clerical collar to open up a whole new world of possibilities. I'm sure this suggestion will be welcomed warmly by the women in ministry who read this blog and those of you with female clergy!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Prayer Shawl Follow-up

When I went to the bedside of the woman who died last night her daughter and two grand-daughters were there. The daughter was with her mother at the moment of her death and had been keeping vigil for a while. She was wrapped in a shawl which was made by a St. Paul's knitter for her mother. Daughter pointed that out to me, one more reminder of the value of this ministry.

The Final Journey

My morning routine includes opening the front door to pick up my newspaper and then reading it while I listen to CBC radio. I am a media multi-tasker! The morning radio host is Andy Barrie, an enthusiastic, intelligent well-informed interviewer and "quarterback" of the show.

He sounded a little rusty and heavier in spirit this morning on his first day back after several months absence. That absence was cloaked in secrecy until we were told that his wife, Mary, had succumbed to cancer. Barrie made the choice to support her at home during the waning days of her life. I admire his priorities. As skilled as he is as a radio host, his wife needed him.

Part of my work, as with most clergy, is joining those who provide palliative care to the dying. We attempt to provide a "non-anxious presence" in Christ's name, whether it is the homes of the terminally ill, or in hospitals, or nursing homes. It is one of the privileges of the profession, even though it can be emotionally demanding and just plain sad.

Yesterday I went to the hospital after church to see someone taken overnight to the emergency department. As I was leaving the hospital after my visit I met family members of another member, a woman in her nineties in failing health. Back I went to emerg for a conversation, a hand-hold, a prayer. Later in the day I got the phonecall that she had died, and I returned to be with the family gathered around her bed. More conversation, hugs, another prayer.

Not everyone can take months off work to support a dying loved one, but we can attempt to provide loving support to those who make that last mysterious journey from this life to the next.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Bless Us In Our Common Search

Sarah and Abraham Marc Chagall

Today the covenant passage from the Older Testament was the story of the promise made to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 17. Both Abram and Sarai are renamed as a sign of this new beginning. Sarah isn't named nearly as often in scripture as Abraham but she is an important biblical woman.

This is International Women's Day and women of every shape, size, and colour are being celebrated. Some suggest that the bible has been used to subjugate women, and at times this has been true. But there are also the stories of heroic women in scripture, those who overcome stereotypes and discrimination to know God and lead others to God. A favourite passage from the New Testament is Jesus' conversation with a woman at a well, his lengthiest conversation with anyone in the gospels. The Samaritan woman is an outsider because of ethnic association and sexual conduct and gender yet Jesus responds to her as a person of worth.

We sang a hymn from the More Voices book this morning called Hope of Abraham and Sarah and the first verse is a great one for this day.

Hope of Abraham and Sarah, friend of Hagar, God of Ruth,
you desire that every people, worship you in spirit, truth.
Meet us in our sacred places, mosque and synagogue and church.
Show us paths of understanding, bless us in our common search.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Kepler and Seasickness

Today the Kepler space craft, a telescope and camera mounted explorer, was successfully launched from the United States. It will go in search of what has been dubbed the "Goldilocks Zone," a region of space that might be able to sustain human life because it is neither too hot, nor too cold. As always this is an expensive project with a price tag of $600 million dollars.

I am always curious about the human endeavour to explore space, but an article in the newspaper on another subject was "cause for pause." It was actually a review of a new book called SeaSick which addresses the way the worlds oceans are being affected by climate change and pollution. I felt a little ill when I read that scientists are trying to figure out how to save 15% of the Great Barrier Reef, which they see as positive because the way in looks now 95% of the reef will die.

It occurred to me that God has already created the Goldilocks Zone on this planet and we are making a mess of it. Why on earth, or heavens above, would we go off looking for other inhabitable environments when we have done so poorly with the blue jewel which is Earth? Besides, if it costs $600 million to get the Kepler into space, what would it cost to send a handful of humans out there?

How far would this money go toward supporting climate change research or rehabilitation for damaged environments?

Just asking.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Is Spring Getting Closer?

We will probably get a blast of Winter yet, but today we were able to go for a walk after work and do so in daylight, as well as a temperature of 15C on the plus side. We also saw the first Red-winged Blackbirds of 2009. There must be a Spring out there somewhere. Thank God!

Love and Marriage

We are a few weeks away from our thirty third wedding anniversary which makes us...old! We were engaged in our teens and married shortly out of them, a choice we are relieved our children have not made. Yet for all the ups and downs of married life through the years we have continued to love each other and derive great comfort and pleasure in the company of the other.

Yesterday the Toronto Star wrote up a British poll which tried to get at the "recipe for a good marriage. I quote directly: "You need to say "I love you" daily, share two hobbies, and have sex three times a week. And that's not all. You're supposed to communicate – phone, text or email – three times a day during work hours, enjoy two romantic meals a month and exchange four kisses and three cuddles daily."

Hey, no pressure here. As idealistic as this sounds, my conversations with folk whose marriages are "going south" often show that these expressions of affection, both verbal and physical have waned. There are the feeble excuses that after years together they shouldn't have to actually say "I love you" or that life is too busy for cuddles or sex. Shared interests, communication, and affection all make a lot of sense. They are a lot better than indifference or resentment.

Lots of people still choose to get married in churches, and we like to say marriage is God's intention for commited couples, so encouraging and supporting good marriages seems to be part of our job description.

What do you think of the recommendations? Shared values, including a shared faith commitment seems important to me. I can hardly wait for your answers.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Wrapped in Prayer

This evening I was at a meeting in one part of the church while my wife Ruth was at another elsewhere in the building. Still another meeting was happening in between us. Busy place.

In her gathering Ruth chaired a group of ten women armed with knitting needles. They brought the prayer shawls they had completed and others "in progress." They also brought shawls which were the product of women in the congregation who may not attend the meetings but want to contribute. During the meeting some of these were designated for individuals who need support in body, mind, and spirit right now. Others will be matched with recipients as needs arise.Each one will be offered along with a written prayer, but the shawl itself is a tangible prayer, warm and encompassing.

The St. Paul's prayer shawl ministry has continued to be important in this congregation and this evening one of the members of the group was given one because there have been demanding health issues in her family. It was the one hundredth shawl presented, a meaningful milestone.

Last year I told readers that Ruth and I each received a beautiful shawl from a colleague, and this gift lifted our spirits during a difficult time in our lives. Prayer takes many different forms and this one makes a difference. Thank God for the women who take the time to lovingly knit each shawl and present it with love.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Planting Promises

Weddings are such promising events, a celebration not only of the present but of the future. We heard this morning that Indonesia is now requiring proof that a couple has planted ten trees before they will be issued a marriage license. This environmental initiative certainly looks to the future and is a wonderful program. Indonesia has huge forested areas but rampant cutting has reduced forests by about forty percent in the last fifty years.

There are many references to trees in scripture and they are often signs of both spiritual renewal and praise for the Creator. There is a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Genesis, and the tree of life in the city of Revelation. Every February the Jewish religion has a festival of trees which is called Tu Bishvat.

We were out for a walk on Sunday afternoon and with the cold winter wind we could hear the clatter of bare branches against one another. I can hardly wait until those branches are covered with leaves again and offer a different song in the breeze.

Oh yes, when divorcing Indonesians have to plant one tree!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Religion and Ethics

Yesterday newspaper headlines and reports on television and radio hailed a Canadian scientific breakthrough. It appears that it is possible to develop stem cells from skin cells, which can open the door to treatment of a number of debilitating diseases. We should be proud of Dr. Andras Nagy and his team from Mt Sinai hospital in Toronto.

The value of stem cells has been known for a while, but there has been an ethical road block. A principal source of these cells is human embryos, and various religious groups and ethicists have sounded the alarm about the development of embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells. The Roman Catholic church has been particularly vocal and has listed stem cell harvesting as one of the new Seven Deadly Sins. Obviously this recent scientific development would offer an option to the more contentious source of stem cells.

You may not lie awake at night fretting over these ethical issues, but it is a good thing someone is, or at least gives it a lot of thought during the day. Not long ago the United Church Observer did an article on bioethics and named several of Canada's foremost thinkers in this area. One was in my last congregation and another in the congregation before that. The person in Halifax was a mother of two small children and I didn't realize until my last year that the reason she wasn't in church from time to time was because she was invited to speak and attend conferences all over North America.

Shortly before I left Halifax we had coffee and she encouraged me to consider pursuing studies in this area because she felt that society was developing the technological skills far faster than our ability to ponder the moral and ethical issues. It seemed to be a daunting challenge, and I haven't taken it any further, but I think of her concern every time one of these issues emerges.

Faith isn't just "me and Jesus," even when the "biggies" seem overwhelming.

Monday, March 02, 2009

An Environmentalist I Am

Today is the birthday of the late Theodr Geisler, better known as Dr. Seuss. I don't need to tell you that Geisler/Seuss was the author of many wildly popular children's books, including the seasonal classic, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. My favourite, though, is The Lorax, a book expressing concern for the environment which was ahead of its time. Written in 1971, Geisler used The Lorax to point out the senselessness of voracious consumption of the world's natural resources.

I have used The Lorax more often with groups of adults than with children, although I have loaned my copy to parents to read to their kids. When I am asked to lead seminars on faith and the environment I often start with this book, which is a clever comment on the foolish ways of human beings.

Do you know The Lorax? Do you have another Dr. Seuss favourite?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Kiss

This morning I began a series of Lenten sermons on the covenants or promises of the bible. The Older Testament readings for the next few weeks will remind us of promises made with Noah (Rainbow), Abraham and Sarah (Many Nations,) Moses (Ten Commandments) and Jeremiah (New Covenant of the Heart.)

In today's message I emphasized the promises we make by "marrying" a couple at the front of the church, taking them through the vows of a wedding ceremony. At the end I invited the couple who were "voluntold" to participate that they could kiss one another, which they did with a lingering smack!

I thought about this exhibition of affection in church. Sure we see couples kiss during real wedding ceremonies, but when have you ever seen a couple kiss in church at any other time? I don't think I have. A few weeks ago during another series I spoke about the importance of honouring the bodies God has given us, and the physical expression of our bodily nature. It was not my intention to follow up on the theme with what happened today, but it was a lovely, promising moment, sealed with a kiss. Some folk may have felt a little uneasy, but no one scolded me afterward.

The painting above is by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt and is called .The Kiss. It was painted in 1898.