Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Saga Continues

National Aboriginal Day was June 21st and it came and went without recognition in our worship and in this blog. Sometimes people ask me if I ever run out of things to blog about. Quite the opposite -- I often have a number of things floating around in my head and wish there were ten days in the week rather than seven. I didn't feel good about missing the opportunity to address First Nations issues because they continue to be so important.

As the world addresses H1N1 or Swine Flu, native reserves in this country are struggling and desperate for government support. Some remote reserves have been forced to evacuate significant numbers of people because there isn't adequate medical care. And some of the basics for hygiene, including masks and hand cleanser are totally absent. One report says that governments are reluctant to ship the hand cleanser to reserves because of the alcohol content. Native leaders have demanded meetings with government ministers, in light of what they describe as an impending atrocity.

Last year the Canadian government apologized to our First Nations and earlier this year the Pope acknowledged the responsibility of the Roman Catholic church in the residential school fiasco. Our United Church and others have apologized formally, and we have paid reparations and set up a healing fund.

But when will we respond to Native issues without the paternal system which has existed for so long? The United Church General Council meets in Kelowna, B.C. this August. It will be interesting to see what priority is given to these issues.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Remembering Farrah

For the past few days there has been no place to hide from the media frenzy over the death of pop star Michael Jackson. It's sad that the life of this immensely talented and profoundly weird man came to an end so suddenly and with so many questions about how he died.

The same day another media icon of another time succumbed to illness. Farrah Fawcett will be best known for a 1976 poster which adorned the bedroom walls of millions of young men, and one year on the TV drama, Charlie's Angels.

Fawcett did turn to more dramatic roles, including the made-for-TV movie, The Burning Room. Made in 1984, it drew attention to the hidden plight of abused women, as she acted out the controversial real-life story of a woman who killed the husband who had tortured her for more than a decade. It was courageous on her part to go from pin-up to battered woman on screen.

Apparently Fawcett continued her involvement with women's shelters through the years and left money in her will for their support.

Our congregation has an ongoing relationship with the local shelter called Bethesda House, in part because my wife, Ruth, is an outreach worker there. It has been encouraging to see how willing the St. Paul's congregation has been to provide support for this work in a variety of ways.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Miracle of Music

The goal is to hold our worship service outdoors today and to have a congregational picnic afterward. The weather forecast is iffy, but that is always the risk in worshipping a step closer to the Creator.

Several musicians will take part in leadership since it is tricky transporting our pipe organ. Worship wouldn't be the same without making a joyful noise.

This past week the papers on both sides of the Atlantic have included articles about ancient flutes discovered in Europe last year. German researchers have published a paper claiming these flutes are 35,000 years old. Think about this. Jesus lived 2,000 years ago and King David, the harp player, roughly 3,000 years ago. What we consider to be civilization gets sketchier as we move farther back in the annals of history. But thirty five millenia ago our human ancestors were expressing themselves through music.

As an art history graduate I have always felt the strong connection between artistic expression and spiritual experience. Music is a powerful way to offer praise to the deity and we are told that the night before his death Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before they left the table and walked into the night.

There are a number of musicians amongst this blog's readers, people who sing and play in their worship settings. You have told me that your musical expression is not an "extra," it is at the heart of your faith.

I'm interested to hear your responses, whether you are intentional church musicians or those who are more the "rank and file" hymn singers.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Scroll Down for Important Info!

Today is the first day of a six-month exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. You may know the story of the rather dramatic discovery of these scrolls by a shepherd boy in 1947. The lad tossed a rock into a cave in the rugged Judean hills and heard something break. It turned out to be an clay urn, one of many in this and surrounding caves. While the scrolls went underground, both figuratively and literally in some cases they eventually came to the attention of the archeological and biblical historical community and have proven to be a great find. There are about 900 scrolls in total.

Why are they so important? Some of the scrolls cast light on the apocalyptic sensibilities of Jewish believers in a period not long before Jesus lived in Palestine. Is that snoring I hear in the distance? It really is important! Even more signficant for most of us are the scrolls which are copies of biblical texts. Some of them represent the oldest original biblical manuscripts in existence. Before this find the oldest manuscripts scholars had to work with were about 1000 years old. The Dead Sea Scrolls are roughly 2000 t0 2200 years old. One of the fragments on display is of the story from Genesis of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar's wife. Brush up on your Hebrew.

I have been to Qumran, the desert location near the Dead Sea where the scrolls were discovered. I remember the blazing sun and the intense heat. I have also visited the museum in Jerusalem where many of them are housed. These are some of the oldest written documents on the planet and fascinating for that reason alone. The biblical connection gives them an added level of interest.

I hope you find time to go and see them.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Interfaith Paths to Peace

Remember the "guns in church" blog from a few days ago? The event will take place on Saturday but here is a follow-up from a U.S. paper.

Yesterday I wrote about Ken Pagano, the pastor of the New Bethel Church. He’s what some are calling the “pistol-packing pastor,” who has invited his parishioners to bring their weapons into the sanctuary, learn a bit about firearms safety, raffle off a gun and have a picnic.
Clergy from some other churches and peace activists are sponsoring an alternative event, called “Bring your peaceful heart, leave your gun at home,” and today I visited with the organizers.

The executive director of the Interfaith Paths to Peace, Terry Taylor, one of the organizers, told me that he and 18 co-sponsors planned this event because they were “deeply troubled by the idea of wearing weapons into sacred space.” He said they did not consider themselves “protesters,” per se, and did not want to be part of a demonstration at New Bethel. (Mr. Pagano told me he plans to set up a cordoned-off area for demonstrators outside his church.)

The co-sponsors include those from many faiths: Quakers, Episcopalians, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians and Tibetan Buddhists.

Good to know that people of faith are uniting for a meaningful response to what seems just plain crazy.

Salt of the Earth?

The Globe and Mail is running an enlighteninng and sobering series on the amount of salt we ingest in our North American diet. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/special-reports/hard-to-shake/how-canada-is-losing-the-war-on-salt/article1194422/You might think that our salt consumption would be decreasing, thanks to refrigeration for our food. When I began ministry in outport Newfoundland many of the illnesses experienced by parishioners were the result of two preservatives, salt and sugar. Now we use lowered temperatures to keep food from spoiling. Unfortunately our "fast" and convenience food diets are keeping our salt content high and our blood pressure up. Where do we find salt these days? Everywhere! We are addicted to the stuff at levels that are just plain bad for us. About five million Canadians have high blood pressure and little wonder -- we are the highest per capita consumers of salt of any country.

While I have been taking these articles to heart, it's strange that salt has become the enemy. In ancient times if you were "worth your salt" it was not only an indication that you were a good employee, it was an actual currency. To collect your salary was to be paid in salt.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus encouraged folk to believe that they could be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Too much salt may kill us, but we can't live without it, and Jesus wanted us to be spicy Christians rather than bland.

I'm not sure what metaphor we would use to replace this one, but as Christians we are meant to be the seasoning of our culture. In our pluralistic society we might want to add a little curry...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Strawberries, Shortcake, and Wedding Dresses

About sixty seniors gathered at St. Paul's yesterday for a strawberry social. Our pastoral care committee worked hard to bring this event together, but the strawberries and shortcake were just a small part of the effort. As a theme the committee gathered about twenty wedding dresses, dating from nearly one hundred years ago until 2008 and displayed them on the walls around the hall. It was quite a history lesson and a reminder of all the years of holy acrimony -- I mean matrimony -- represented in these dresses. A number of people came to the microphone to share stories of weddings and wedding dresses.

What a wonderful group this committee is, finding ways for seniors to connect. A number of those present are quite active and sure don't seem old. There are others who are less steady on their pins, or in wheelchairs, and who are still very alive inside despite the fact their bodies are letting them down. Our oldest member, who will be 103 in September (God willing,) managed to get out and while she couldn't hear a word she enjoyed herself. I teased her that the shortcake was as big as she is. It is important that people aren't isolated due to infirmity. I'm sure most of them feel as young inside as the day they married.

It seems to be the fashion these days to criticize organized religion and what churches offer to the community. There aren't many organizations that take the time to care for our elderly and our folk do so in Christ's name.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Healthy and Whole

Yesterday I came to work to discover that an older member was in the local hospital. I walked down to see him and in conversation we revisited his frustrating history of declining health in recent years. He has gone through what seems like countless doctors' appointments and tests. While his cancer surgery seven or eight years ago was a success, he continues to do battle against a number of medical issues. He commented that he has cost the healthcare system a fortune.

I came back to my study to find an email from Sojourners, a Christian magazine from the States which addresses important social issues. This one began:

Dear David

While our nation tries to decide whether and how to reform health care, 18,000 people in our country die each year unnecessarily because they lack affordable health coverage.¹

This is not acceptable.

Of course this was a form letter and the United States is not my country. It does seem to be a major injustice that the wealthiest nation on earth can't figure out a healthcare system that benefits everyone. It's not acceptable, as the email states. President Obama appears determined to bring reform to a broken healthcare system, but he is already taking lots of heat on this one.
Since I spend a fair amount of time with those who are ill in body and mind I know that our system is far from perfect. Yet I regularly see how universal healthcare benefits people and not just a fortunate few.

What are your thoughts about and experiences with the provision of healthcare in this country?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Trash Can Runneth Over

Wow, one day into a Toronto garbage strike and public trash containers are overflowing and parks have become impromptu dumps. The interviews with testy residents would give you the impression that the strike has been on for weeks in the sweltering heat rather than a day.

We are all dependent on someone else coming along and hauling away our "unwanteds." As North Americans we have an amazing ability to produce refuse and consider it almost a God-given right to have it whisked away to parts unknown. In recent years we have become better at sorting through our waste for the purpose of recycling but our diversion is still sketchy and it is disturbing to hear that a lot of supposed recyclables get shipped to countries such as India where environmental laws are more lax. What happens to the stuff? It gets burned.

Speaking of burning, we move relentlessly closer to the existence of an incinerator for our garbage here in Durham Region. It will cost the taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars to build and will still produce toxic ash which will have to be disposed of somewhere. A number of this blog's readers have attended public meetings to express concern, but the project moves forward.

What should we do as concerned citizens and Christians about waste disposal? While it may sound simplistic to say that we should produce much less garbage, that must be a goal. In Europe there have been concerted efforts to reduce the amount of packaging and producers and retailers are charged with the responsibility of disposal. I often buy milk at one of the drugstores and refuse the bag they offer, pointing out that the bags of milk are in a bag -- why would I need another?

Of course we might actually listen to Jesus and choose to live more simply in every aspect of our lives.

What are you doing to reduce waste? Composting? Carrying reusable shopping bags? Buying less stuff?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thank You Dads!

This is the cover for today's worship bulletin, a nice acknowledge of fathers on Fathers Day. Both Mothers Day and Fathers Day are inventions of the greeting card companies, but it is good to recognize them, even in passing.


"We wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us." (2 Thessalonians 3:9 NAB)

Every dad is the family role model, whether he wants the job or not.

-- Dennis Rainey

This is an interesting observation which was the online "thought for the day" I received on Friday. I think this is true, for good and for bad.

My wife, Ruth, works in a shelter for women and children leaving abusive relationships and there are many examples of horrendous fathers. But I see wonderful fathers and grandfathers every day. Last evening I spent time with a dad from the congregation who is raising three kids largely on his own, and who makes sure they get to many activities in church life. I also spoke with a grandfather who takes his grandchildren for walks in the parks and by the water. At St. Paul's we are fortunate to have some male Sunday School teachers, a rarity these days.

Thank you to all the fathers and grandfathers who are strong role models everyday, without fanfare.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Spiritual, Not Religious

The latest United Church Observer has several thought-provoking articles including ones on John Calvin, stem cell research and use, and the destruction of a church-run health clinic in Gaza by Israeli shell fire.

The cover article is entitled: I'm not religious. I'm spiritual. It looks at the growing trend in North America, even in the United States, away from organized religion. Still, many people describe themselves as spiritual, even though they wouldn't darken the door of a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or sweat lodge (how politically correct was that?) http://www.ucobserver.org/faith/2009/06/not_religious/

At its best I see general spirituality as a good thing. It indicates our yearning and recognition of something beyond the ordinary. I have met a fair number of people who are deeply spiritual but not attached to a faith tradition. At its worst the use of the term "spiritual" seems vague to the point of uselessness. As the article notes "the word 'spiritual' is applied to channelling, meditation, astrology, prayer, 12-steps programs, belief in extraterrestrials and how it feels to bite into a slice of cheesecake." I often have the impression that in our "what's next" society, spirituality is just the latest trend, with Oprah telling us what or who should send us into transcendence this week.

I suppose I've always assumed that to be in relationship with God, and others, is to be spiritual. I practice religion as a Christian for the purpose of worship and living in community with those with a common purpose. Religion can be rigid and exclusive, but it can also call us to faithfulness and be a corrective to "me-first" spirituality.

Our lovely neighbours across the street are living in a building which was once a church. It is appropriate because they hold gatherings for meditation, AA, and drumming. We get along very well and have some great "spiritual" conversations. I find it interesting that while they don't attend a church, it seems as though they are creating one, however informal.

How do you reconcile spirituality and religion, or do you try?
The guy on the Observer cover makes me think of a joke our daughter Emily told me: The hotdog vendor asks the Buddhist, "what will you have?" And the Buddhist answers, "Make me one, with everything!"

Friday, June 19, 2009

What's a Geologian?

What is a geologian? We have some idea about a theologian -- theou (God) and logos (word) add up to someone who speaks about, or reflects upon God. But a geologian? Thomas Berry was a theologian who was also deeply committed to living respectfully on and with this planet Earth. He wrote some key books on the subject and he coined the term geologian. Perhaps his best-known book is Dream of the Earth.

Berry died earlier this month at the venerable age of 94 having offered a voice for the Earth for decades before environmentalism or ecotheology became popular. Berry was a Passionist priest of the Roman Catholic church. He got himself into hot water with authorities and was looked upon with suspicion by conservative Protestants because he criticized what he viewed as an over-emphasis on personal salvation to the detriment of care and concern for all living beings.
He was an American who had a Canadian connection. He spent his summers in a Passionist centre on the shore of Lake Erie here in Ontario. I spent a week at this centre years ago. He also made a documentary with David Suzuki and cosmologist Brian Swimme. Berry reflected on his experience as an eleven-year-old which shaped a love for living things as subjects rather than objects:

“The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in a clear sky. … This early experience, it seems, has become normative for me throughout the entire range of my thinking. Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple … that pervasive. It applies in economics and political orientation as well as in education and religion.”

As we come to the Summer Solstice it seems appropriate to remember and reflect upon Thomas Berry's legacy. Any thoughts or comments?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Three's A Crowd

I am fascinated by the growing protests in Iran, a fairly repressive society. After the recent election people have taken to the streets, objecting to what they are convinced were rigged results. While the hundreds of thousands of protesters have moved about relatively peacefully, there have been deaths and beatings perpetrated by government forces. A Globe and Mail newspaper reporter was taken into custody and roughed up until the police realized who he was. For all the danger, there has been nothing like this in Iran since the revolution thirty years ago.

Crowds can be forces for positive change and destruction. Sunday night revellers took to the streets of Los Angeles, celebrating the NBA final victory by the Lakers. The celebration got out of hand and there were both vandalism and arrests.

Jesus doesn't strike me as a crowd guy, but he attracted large groups of people. In rural Galilee crowds followed him to hear his message, and remember the story of the miraculous picnic?

On Palm Sunday another crowd celebrated his donkey ride into Jerusalem which probably brought him to the attention of authorities. Crucifixions gathered the curious, as public executions always have.

Have you ever been involved in a large crowd? In Halifax we marched with thousands of others to protest the war in Iraq, but it was peaceful and almost festive. Have you every been scared in a crowd? Do you think public protests are effective?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Living With Criticism

I must tell my co-worker, Cathy about an article in the latest Christian Century magazine. http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=7156 Martin Copenhaver, the author of an article called Living With Criticism, tells of being approached by the chairperson of his board with an anonymous letter. The chairperson was obviously uncomfortable because it was a letter of criticism. What the letter-writer complained about was the way the pastor walked his dog (Cathy has a dog, Ruby.) The writer concluded by saying "I realize that it is a cop-out to remain anonymous. However, I feel that I have to live with this man in my own neighbourhood, and frankly I don't trust him." I don't trust him? As someone who has endured criticism through the years (every minister does) I found this hilarious. The author of the article made sure we were aware that he had taken his dog to obedience school and was conscientious about his/her treatment. But this really doesn't matter because the real point is that it would be hard to find other professions where comments are made about the length of a person's hair, what is worn to cut the lawn and, yes, how one walks the dog.

This said, I am grateful that I have been the recipient of very little direct criticism through the years and not a single nasty and anonymous letter. Some colleagues have been crushed by the weight of criticism, much of it undeserved. Some keep a file of the critical letters they have received along the way.It is a reason there are still attempts to form a union of United Church ministers. It has been more common for people to grouse in the background or decide that they should go elsewhere. A very small group of people of the thousands to whom I have ministered have been downright nasty, and some of that has been cause for dismay, but that is reality in this life.

Copenhaver suggests that pastors should be careful about being overly reactive to either strong criticism or effusive praise. Of course we all like affirmation and praise, but he points out, rightly, that we often receive praise we don't really deserve, simply for doing what we have been called to do.

Church people are, by and large, very kind and supportive and I am amazed at times at the goodness of folk even in the toughest times of their lives. A few months ago I got an email from a parishioner in my last congregation. She carefully wrote out how she felt a number of initiatives which happened while I was there were coming to fruition now. It was an exceptional act of grace on her part that bouyed me for days. I don't have a file with critical correspondence, but I have kept many of the notes of support I have received, including the sheaf of cards and letters written to me while on leave last year.

The article was a good reminder to express my gratitude to the people with whom I work and to refrain from criticism of others. Have I mentioned lately that I appreciate your reading this blog?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Piece Be With You

We know that Canadians are very much like our American neighbours in many respects. This blog has readers in the U.S. and one in Saskatchewan who is an American citizen. We also have significant differences, and I was reminded of this by an article in Christianity Today. It is entitled Piece Be With You, a play on words about carrying a "piece" or gun to church. http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2009/06/piece_be_with_y.html
There have been a number of shootings in American churches in recent months, including one involving a physician who performed abortions who was shot and killed while ushering in his congregation. How would we address that in an ushering workshop? One of my aunts attends a church in Texas where a gunman walked in and shot dead several parishioners. My aunt was in the building at the time.

The CT article notes that a number of churches now have armed guards and some even encourage parishioners to bring their weapons to church. One pastor has encouraged all of his congregants to bring their guns on the July 1st holiday weekend to exercise their right to bear arms. Blessed are the piecemakers! I wouldn't want to go to their church picnic.

To Canadians this probably seems, well, nuts. Fortunately it does to a lot of Americans as well. One commenter on the article offers:

Perhaps, the real question is do we trust in God or guns? If we cannot trust God to secure our times and places of worship, then what can God do? The early church did not arm defenders to protect worshipers, rather they became martyrs. God is able to protect and defend his people, and at times he also calls us to become witnesses with our lives. Stephen would be an example that comes quickly to mind.

This does raise a bigger question of faith and security. We probably don't support gun-totin' marshalls at church, but what about police patrolling our streets? Or our soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan?

What do you think Jesus' words "blessed are the peacemakers" mean in our context?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Up, Up, and Away

We went to see the animated film Up over the weekend and we were glad we did, even though it was not shown in 3-D in Bowmanville. The Pixar animation is wonderful but it was not like some animated films with lots of action and not much plot.

Actually it is a suspenseful adventure story in some respects, but there are stories beneath the story. One is about the realities of aging and how quickly life passes by without necessarily getting to what we thought were our goals. One reviewer mentions a segment of the film that had moved him to tears. It is only a few minutes long and shows a couple moving from youth to old age. Honestly, it was hard to imagine an animated film having that effect until I was in the theatre. Bring your hankies! The old guy named Carl in the film is a delightful curmudgeon voiced by Ed Asner.

Up also reminds us that the adventure of life is simply in the living. If we think we need to travel to an exotic place for true adventure we might miss the pleasure of the day to day.

I suppose the film is about love and loyalty in all circumstances, which is a strongly Christian theme.

Have any of you seen Up?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Cost of Faith in China

As I sit at my study desk I count a dozen bibles in a number of different translations and paraphrases. There are several more at home, including a pocket bible and New Testament I use when visiting. Through the years I have given away a number of bibles when people have expressed interest in God, Jesus, faith in general. It isn't surprising that ministers share the Good News through scripture.

I noticed yesterday that a Chinese pastor was jailed for three years for the heinous crime of handing out bibles. According to the report in the Toronto Star, Shi Weihan (photo above) is a model Chinese citizen and a kind-hearted man with a sense of social responsibility. He donated funds to send poor kids to school, raised money for those suffering from congenital heart disease, and when the Sichuan earthquake hit, worked tirelessly for the emergency relief effort.

Unfortunately he is the pastor of a house church, a smaller and independent congregation which isn't sanctioned by the government. So he has been sentenced to prison and fined $25,000, leaving a distraught wife and two young daughters.

Not long ago I commented on the 20th anniversary of Tiannamen Square and the reality that while some things have changed, there are still many violations of human rights in China. Christians only have the freedom of religion doled out by a watchful government. This unfair imprisonment brings home the injustices that still exist for people of faith.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Not a Guy Thing?

Earlier this year just over one hundred women gathered at St. Paul's for a women's breakfast. The wife of a former minister spoke and a good time was had by all. Of course men eat breakfast, and today about sixty of them came together for an excellent meal prepared by Chef Geoff. Men do eat breakfast, regularly, they just don't eat with other guys the way women get together for meals. Why is that? Why are there more women's book clubs and discussion groups and bible studies and dinner parties? To say it just isn't a guy thing isn't very helpful, but that was the best I could come up with in conversation with my wife. It's odd really, because St. Paul's men are about as amiable a bunch as you're going to find in a church.

Remember the TV show Home Improvement starring Tim Allen? He turned a funny stand-up comedy routine into a successful sitcom built around a toy-obsessed, pleasantly emotionally immature klutz. Tim raises three boys with his wife, although he often appears to be the fourth kid. He was the stereotypical male and men loved the show.

Men often seem more comfortable on their own or in conversation over sports or other "guy" activities and we are generally less comfortable with emotional and spiritual stuff. So we got together today and it was good, but our speaker, Rob Faulds, is a sportscaster rather than a preacher's spouse. I should say that Rob was very entertaining, and the men asked questions afterward with enthusiasm. The barbershop singers brought a smile to everyone's face, and the food was scrumptious. A great idea from the 175th Anniversary committee.

With sixty men in the room there may be hope for us yet, although I hear that several wives bought their husbands' tickets and shooed them out the door this morning.
I would invite responses, but they might all be from women!

Friday, June 12, 2009

One in Your Hand

On Sunday members from nine Bowmanville congregations and three of the Christian schools will gather in Rotary Park, normally known for its summer concerts, for a service of worship. This seems like a rather mundane statement of fact, but it is quite an extraordinary event -- Christians getting along with one another! Often it is a challenge to get congregations of the same denomination to cooperate. It is impressive to have an ecumenical event bringing together those who have different theological outlooks for a service of worship. While scripture proclaims "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, we are exasperating in our enthusiastic theological hair-splitting. Last year Bowmanville celebrated its 150th anniversary and included an ecumenical worship service. Folk were so impressed that we decided to do it again and this year we are using the theme of unity, One in Your Hand.

Our Rev. Cathy has been instrumental in the planning and Doug Dewell, our choir director, has been coordinating the choirs for the music. The fact that the local newspaper blithely printed last year's ad for the service (have they heard of proof-reading?) does not dampen the importance of this worship service. A couple of weeks ago the Latter Day Saints congregation in town contacted us and asked if it is alright that they attend. Of course everyone is welcome to worship, and we said so. The real test of our inclusivity will be next year, should these Mormons offer to be involved in leadership.

We do hope this year's service will be a successful Christian witness in our community. Do you support this initiative?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Earth to Earth...

Earlier this week I had a conversation with a number of my colleagues about the growing reality of "unchurched" folk in our society. Although there is an increasing percentage of "religious nones" (a pollster term) many still want to avail themselves of the services of organized religion. It means that people who have no connection with churches seek weddings and funerals which require the involvement of clergy. Our discussion revealed that we are weary of these requests, in part because many, although certainly not all, don't want much religion in the ceremonies and services they are requesting of religious professionals. All of us admitted that we are doing less of these "generic" services, aware that while some may think it is outreach, we often get the sense we are one of many items on a checklist.

That said, I have found myself responding to three situations in the past couple of weeks. A dedicated member asked if I would conduct a memorial service for his father. While the dad was not religious, he is, and felt he needed the solace of a service of worship. So I presided.

Last week a colleague on the other side of Toronto phoned asking if I would go to Bowmanville cemetery for a commital. He had done the funeral but the few minutes in the cemetery would require four or five hours of travel time. So I stood at the graveside.

Today I will conduct a funeral service for a man in his twenties who died in his sleep. He was a healthy, hard-working guy, and now he is gone. The funeral home phoned yesterday to say that the scheduled minister would not be doing the service. Would I fill in? With less than twenty fours notice I said "yes" because we will be in Rotary Park this Sunday with other congregations, which changes my preparation time. I met with the stunned family, loving people who are searching for answers which will probably never be found.

Not one of the deceased was a member of St. Paul's but there were connections with a member, a colleague, and a funeral home I work with on a regular basis. This probably won't happen again for a long time, but here we are.
The hard reality is that we can't be chaplains to the world. What are your thoughts about clergy involvement in the "match and dispatch" of those who are long removed from the faith community?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

These Little Pigs Will Go To Market

On the weekend we visited good friends near Sharbot Lake, Ontario. Their farm is a lovely refuge, a combination of fields and forest and water. It is a working farm, so we are always interested to find out what and who is new in the barn.

This time around there were lambs, including a couple that need to be bottle-fed. The four young pigs were terrified of unfamiliar humans but eventually posed for a photo. The calf was born only hours before we arrived. We walked back in the pasture and found the mom, named Emma, who also gave birth to a calf from two years ago named Ugly Gus. I'm reluctant to mention that a portion of Gus is now in our freezer. Emma was out in the sun with the other cows, but had tucked the yet unnamed calf in the long grass beneath a tree. She didn't move until her mother anxiously checked out what we were doing to her baby. Bye the way, this little girl will have a name beginning with "I," so feel free to make suggestions.

We also had a reminder of new life in the wild world. We went out on the river in our kayaks and Ruth noticed a deer standing by the shore. I moved closer, and closer, and closer still, wondering why the deer didn't dart away. Then I saw why. A wobbly-legged fawn was beside her, barely able to stand.

These newborn creatures create in me a sense of delight and wonder, which directs me toward the Creator. I'm sure no seven-day literalist and I made my peace with evolution years ago. I am also aware that our friends are not raising animals as pets and that the fawn may one day be taken down by a hunter's bullet. But an hours-old human baby, or calf, or fawn speak to me of the intricacy of life that finds its way back to God.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Body, Mind, and Spirit

One of our elderly members was fretting earlier last week because she has to go to the doctor next week. She is concerned that she won't be able to understands what she is being told about a significant shift in her health. She wondered if I would contact Beth, our parish nurse, to speak with her.

I did contact Beth, and she responded, and they have made arrangements to go together for the appointment. Our member stopped in to thank me, but of course the thanks go to Beth, for her timely response.

There are probably hundreds of St. Paul's members who could tell their stories of gratitude for Beth's assistance through the years. She is the only parish nurse this congregation has known, and has been a wonderful ambassador for the ministry of parish nursing. She is both a practical and spiritual person, and has responded to the concerns of body, mind and spirit for folk of all ages.

Our Health Cabinet, the support group for our parish nursing program, has been revived recently and many people have stepped forward to participate. An excellent ministry with an excellent parish nurse.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Speak Always the Truth

When US President Barack Obama was running for his country's highest office there was a concerted campaign of misinformation about him being a Muslim. I wonder if it will ramp up again now that he is making the audacious choice to try to get along with a quarter of the world's population which follows the Islamic religion.

During a visit to Egypt last week he addressed the mistrust that exists between the Muslim world and the nations of the West, and called for the healing of that rift. He stated that failing to do so gave victory to extremists.

Obama quoted the Koran several times in his Egyptian speech, including the words "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth." The president also pointed out that seven million Muslims are citizens of the United States, an important reminder in an age of suspicion.

The response to the speech was a standing ovation, a hopeful sign. Not everyone was impressed. Young Muslims were watching closely and "twitterers" rolled their eyes at the Koran quotes and his mispronunciation of hijab (hajeeb was what the pres said.) Of course, the real test is repaired relationships demonstrated through practcial action. Just the same, you have to start somewhere and saying the right words does matter.

Do you think that a healthy relationship with the Muslim world can be created? Do you think it is necessary for the US to lead the way?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Trinity and the Shack

Our lectionary-based bible study met Wednesday morning and the subject was the Trinity, because the scripture passages were for today, Trinity Sunday. Where to begin with such a daunting theological concept? Once again I was impressed by the insight of this gang. Twelve of the fifteen regulars were on hand and probably two thirds offered opinions and experiences. We considered the traditional Father, Son, and Holy Spirit formulation and then looked at some alternatives.

I brought along a copy of the multimillion selling novel The Shack by Paul Young. I must admit that I purchased mine because parishioners have been reading it, but I am suspicious of "squishy" theology wrapped in novels, so it has sat on my side table since January. I must admit that it isn't as bad as I thought it was going to be, although great lit it ain't. The writing is clunky but I wasn't holding my nose while I read.

It does present an encounter between the central character and the Trinity in, you guessed it, a remote shack. Except that God is a big African American woman named Papa (no, I don't get the name thing either.) The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman named Sarayu, and Jesus is a Middle Eastern handyman. Hey, this seems to be working for a lot of people, most of whom probably puzzle over what the Trinity should mean to them as Christians. I'm sure not an enthusiastic supporter of The Shack, but I won't be a critic either.

Do you feel comfortable with the concept of the Trinity? Have you read The Shack.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Black Flies, Sleep Depravation, and Jesus

Last evening a group of seventeen "tweens" from St. Paul's made their way to the country home of Rev. Cathy and her husband John. They are hosting the group for roughly twenty four hours as a camping trip/sleepover (do they ever actually sleep?) This is the second time in two weeks that I have written about Cathy's work because I believe she and John deserve considerable credit for the work they are doing with our young people. Youth are an endangered species in many mainline congregations and while Cathy's work is not always readily visible, from my perspective it is hugely important. I have been on many a youth weekend as a leader and know how demanding the organization and execution can be.

Earlier this week I came upon a pastor on one of the religious television stations from an evangelical background. He gave a very thoughtful and illuminating presentation on the state of youth work in evangelical churches. He offered a statistic which surprised me because we often think that these denominations do a much better job at keeping their kids. His graphic showed that only about 10% of evangelical teens continue with a meaningful faith into their twenties. He suggested that the secular society we live in does not nurture faith and he was mildly critical of the entertainment model for youth work which grabs teens now but doesn't sustain them.

At St. Paul's we are working diligently and sometimes desperately to pay for what we hope is a balanced picture of ministry. As an insider I am constantly aware of the good things that are happening, but I'm not sure everyone gets what we are committed to accomplish.

Any thoughts?

Friday, June 05, 2009

The End of An Empire?

Do any of you recall the remarkable scene in the movie Network where an industrialist named Jensen, played by Ned Beatty, rails against the crazy network anchor, Howard Beale, played by the incomparable Peter Finch? http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechnetwork4.html

The two of them are alone in a corporate board room and Jensen schools Beale in the "real world," and anoints him as his evangelist. Near the end he becomes quiet and says"

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality -- one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

I thought of this arrogant speech two days ago when the chairperson of General Motors humbly announced that the corporation was entering into bankruptcy protection in the U.S. and accepting that the governments of the United States and Canada would take a controlling interest in their North American operations. How the mighty have fallen.

We have been talking alot about "empire" in the Christian church of late, aware that political empires rise and fall, seem all-powerful for a time and then are exposed in their frailty. Jensen told Beale that corporations are now the true empires of the world, and of course we realize they too can crumble. Sadly, every empire must have subjects, and they often suffer when hubris leads to destruction.

What do you think of the decline of the empire called GM?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Twenty Years Later

I'm sure that most of you recognize this iconic photo which was taken on June 5th, 1989, twenty years ago tomorrow. On this day two decades ago a public protest began in Beijing which was a bold affront to the repressive regime in China. The young man in the photo defiantly stood in front of a line of tanks rolling through Tiannamen Square to crush the rebellion. The government at the time put the death toll at 200 to 300 but human rights groups claim that the number should be in the thousands. A Chinese ex-pat was interviewed on the radio this morning and he reminded us that while the young man who stood up to the tanks was a hero, so was the tank driver who chose not to run him down.

Twenty years later there have been significant changes in China with the country taking on the role of manufacturer for the world. The Chinese government holds hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign debt. China has purchased tens of thousands of hectares of prime farmland in African nations to produce food for its massive population. The country has sent men into space and are poised to become a car exporter.

What about human rights? Life is better for the average citizen, without doubt. Still, the government regularly shuts down Youtube and what it views as subversive websites and blogs. Activists continue to be jailed on charges that are more pretense to silence negative opinion than anything else. There are major scandals such as the collapse of schools during last year's earthquake because of corrupt builders and inspectors that quickly get swept under the carpet. When the Olympics took place in Beijing last year reporters were not given the freedom they were promised. There are insightful articles in the Globe and Mail today as well as http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8069781.stm

There is greater religious freedom in China today that twenty years ago but as I have written before, Christians and Christian churches must register with the government or risk severe sanction.

While new human rights laws have been introduced to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of Tiannamen Square, we need to keep our eyes and ears open to what it happening in China. Not surprisingly, what happened twenty years ago is not recorded in Chinese history books and a younger generation isn't taught about the uprising.

Do you think there is much point to governments and faith communities registering concern over human rights in a country that is now so powerful?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Our Daily Bread...and Toner

I have spent a fair amount of time with Benedictine monks and nuns over the years, so I pay attention to articles about them. I noticed one in the New York Times yesterday which was about the Lasermonks of Wisconsin. The brothers have a multi-million dollar business selling laser toner and cartrideges.

Before you express shock and dismay at this crassly commercial enterprise you should know that monasteries and convents are responsible for being financially viable -- no money, no pray.

Many of them have become quite adept at balancing traditional Benedictine values, including periods of prayer seven times a day, and making a living in the real world.

The Cistercians (a branch of the Benedictines) in eastern New Brunswick have a state-of-the-art chicken operation. The Sisters of Walburga in Colorado were given a cattle ranch in the mountains and learned how to wrangle cows. Other Cistercians in the Hockley Valley of Ontario made Christmas cakes. While retreatants were eating lima beans we could smell the cakes baking. The brothers invited me to visit their "kitchen" which was a high-tech, stainless steel lab where everyone wore white coveralls and hairnets. The guest brother admitted that the little monk stamped on the package resulted in them selling like the proverbial hotcakes.

My favourite is the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico. I drove a nerve-wracking twenty five kilometre dirt road to get to these monks (it felt like 2500) and found them tucked away in a valley of stunning beauty. They are "off the grid" but design websites for a living thanks to a huge bank of solar panels to power their computers and the satellite phone which connects them to the outside world.

I think St. Benedict would be proud of their ingenuity. Does this spoil your image of the monastic life or does it make sense that they have discovered modern ways of making a living?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Crude Religion

Which country has the most oil reserves after Saudi Arabia? Is it Kuwait, or Iraq, or perhaps Venezuela? Most Canadians would be surprised to hear that it is our own country. Much of that can be found in the oilsands of Alberta. The extraction of that oil is also one of the reasons that Canada is a dubious world leader in another category, the emission of greenhouse gases.

Last week a delegation from eight of Canada's Christian denominations travelled to Alberta to study the impact of oilsand extraction. It is a hugely destructive, environmentally unfriendly process which has affected waterways and torn up the landscape. While the oil companies have got better in the way they go about their business, the development of the region has progressed at such a torrid pace that the long-term impact isn't known.

During the tour, leaders representing the Anglican, Christian Reformed, Lutheran, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Quaker, Roman Catholic and United churches strived to get a balanced look at the oilsands.

I was impressed that this tour, several days in duration, was actually reported in a major newspaper. Unless we're doing something really stupid, churches don't get much press these days.
Do you think churches should be rooting around in the oilsands? Should we stick to the business of saving souls, or is caring for the environment actually God's work? My own opinion is that it is hard to do soul care if we don't care for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil which grows our daily bread.

Monday, June 01, 2009

How Do You Spell Indifference?

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is a wonder to me. Here are children in the age of text-messaging pseudo-words spelling the most difficult stuff imaginable. I mess around with words for a living and more often than not I don't have a clue as to how to spell the tough words they are assigned.

This year the winning word for 13-year-old Kavya Shivashankar, from Olathe, Kansas was Laodicean, which, as you're dying to know, means indifference in matters of religion or politics.

My eyebrows went up when I heard this because Laodicea is actually a biblical place name. It is one of the seven cities of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) named in the mysterious book of Revelation, at the end of the New Testament. In chapter three we find the seventh and final letter to these churches:

14 ‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
15 ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot.

16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

This is an indictment of indifferent faith which is complacent and self-satisfied. The passage goes on to accuse the Laodiceans of being materially wealthy and spiritually poverty-stricken. As weird and confusing as the Revelation of John can be, there are some passages that are strikingly current. Interesting that this word somehow made it into the spelling bee.

I can feel a Left Behind novel in the making!