Friday, July 31, 2009

True Penitence

Stefanie Rengel was an active 14-year-old with a sunny personality who made friends easily. She was caring and generous with her time, helping out in her church Sunday School. She was brutally murdered two years ago at the instigation of a jealous girl in her school who has now been identified as Melissa Todorovic (pictured above.) She convinced her boyfriend to actually kill Stefanie but earlier this week she too was convicted of murder and was sentenced as an adult. Todorovic has shown no remorse through her assessment and trial, no recognition of committing a heinous crime against an innocent victim. Stefanie's younger brother Ian read a statement after the verdict:

We are relieved with the ruling for an adult sentence and we appreciate the difficult decision that Judge Nordheimer faced. Melissa Todorovic is a disturbed individual who needs all the help our system has to offer," he said, flanked by his parents. We pray that she benefits from all the services now available to her and can grow to heal and become a balanced and rational member of society.

It was really a gracious statement given the impact on the family but I wonder if there really are the services necessary for Todorovic to being the reform she so badly needs and in which she must actively participate.

On Sunday morning CBC radio did a piece on the penitentiary museum in Kingston. The curator pointed out that Canadian prisons of the 19th century were supposedly designed as places of penitence, of turning over a new leaf. Prisoners were encouraged to go about their days in silence to contemplate their wrongdoing and seek out a different life path. During my student internship at Kingston Pen, a maximum security facility, I never confused this prison with the monasteries I am wont to visit. It was a harsh and sometimes brutal place with little help for those who may have desired change.

Ultimately Ms. Todorovic will be required to deal with the evil in which she participated. Let's pray that the Rengel family's hope for rehabilitation is realized.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

21st Century Ark

It is common for even secular and scientific enterprises to use the image of Noah's Ark as a metaphor for saving species threatened with extinction. As I mentioned last week, the book of Genesis offers us the first of the covenant or promise stories found in scripture. Noah and his family build a ship to house species in twos and sevens to save them from rising flood waters. The story culminates with the rainbow promise.

It is fascinating to find that the identification of new species on "ark" Earth continues at a breath-taking pace, even as we are concerned about extinctions. A recent inventory of the oceans identified hundreds of previously unknown creatures. I read today that since the summary of mammals completed in 2005, with the number at 5400, another 400 have been discovered. I'm sure most of us have assumed that every creature that could be discovered has already been identified, especially as humans encroach on virtually every wild area. The saddle-backed Tamarind monkey pictured above was found in the Brazilian Amazon last year.

The positive side of this is an appreciation that we live on a marvellously diverse planet. The downside is that we bulldoze ahead in our expansion into various habitats without much understanding of the impact. It's estimated that we have actually identified a mere 15% of the world's species and many will topple over the brink of extinction without our knowing that they had existed in the first place.

I think the ark metaphor continues to be really helpful. And God help us if we continue to act as though we are the only species that matters.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

All in the Family

Last week I got a call from a concerned parishioner about a member who had recently moved into a nursing home. He has been a wonderful support to this person and after a visit was really unsettled by her physical and mental well-being. Would I go to see her? I did, and she told me that she was sure she was dying. I tried to console her and we concluded with prayer.

I passed on this information to my co-worker, Cathy, Sunday morning and on Monday she went to see the woman. Cathy was surprised to hear that Eileen was in hospital and in systemic organ failure. So, she called me and we both went to the hospital to provide support to the stunned family and to be with our very ill parishioner. How's that for a team effort? I went into the Critical Care Unit with her two young grandsons who were unsettled to see nana this way. But they were both tender and brave. I invited them to stay with me as I read a psalm and prayed.

Yesterday morning, first thing, I went to the hospital and met the family as they were leaving. Eileen had just died.

Eileen was what we often call a "character," a fun-loving woman who was enthusiastic about her church to the extent that she would drive more than a kilometre to church in her motorized wheelchair even in the dead of winter. I would tease her and she would kibbitz right back. She knew she should change her eating habits and quit smoking but, hey, what can you do? Eileen came to every church dinner possible and no one relished a meal more.

St. Paul's was her second family. She will be missed by her Christian community, a group of people including parish nurse Beth Lettner, who provided support. We all received from her as well.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Gift of Grace

This past Sunday Rev. Cathy baptised a ten-year-old boy who had requested the sacrament. He comes to Canada from the States during the summer to spend time with his grandparents. Although he doesn't come from a worshipping family back home, he asks probing questions about faith and has chatted with Cathy. So his request was not surprising and we decided to comply before he returned home. This was an international gift of grace in Christ.

He obviously took what was happening very seriously and solemnly waited as Cathy doused him with water. Then they took a walk down the aisle to be greeted to the congregation. His solemn look gave way to a big smile and he waved to the people in each pew. It was a touching aspect of a very meaningful celebration. In typical St. Paul's fashion, members congratulated him after worship as we enjoyed lemonade on the lawn.

We remind those who request baptism, usually on behalf of their infant children, that they are making promises of commitment to raise their children in the Christian faith. Our young friend seems to realize that this sacrament is not a convention, but a step on the marvellous journey of faith.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Targetting Jesus

Most of us would immediately identify this image as a representation of Jesus, gold-leaf halo and all. What isn't as evident is the source of the dark spots which outline the features. The artist, Victor Mitic is a forty-year-old Toronto artist who takes his images to a rifle range and completes them by blasting away.

Mitic is not trying to be sacrilegious. In fact he is an Orthodox Christian who wants to subvert the negative use and notion of guns by wielding them as paintbrushes for creativity. Outrage has been expressed by some because of this work and other religious subjects.

I think these paintings are provocative in a positive way. So much religious art is maudlin and second-rate. Sometimes we need to be pushed out of conventional ways of thinking and feeling. Obviously Mitic is not attempting to be disrespectful but he wants us to wake up and consider who Jesus is for us.

What do you think? A challenging image or a candidate for the garbage can?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Gift of Bread

Although I will be preaching from Ephesians the next few Sunday the gospel lessons from John will be all about food (feeding of the five thousand) and variations on Jesus as the bread of life. This got me thinking about a bakery we visited on our way to and from the Gaspe Peninsula. In the town of Le Bic, population a mere three thousand, we found the Boulangerie Folles Farine. The bread there was extraordinary, everything from the "staff of life" regular loaves to the specialty items.

We were intrigued by one offering that it took two of the young women on staff to explain to unilingual anglophones. It contained apricots, hazelnuts, raisins and maple syrup. Divine. On our return trip we purchased croissants and a muffin with coconut, citrus and ginger. Did I mention divine? We thought it remarkable that a town a tenth the size of Bowmanville would have such a wonderful bakery.

Bread is everywhere in the bible and it is essential to one of our two sacraments in the Protestant church. As I have mentioned before, my wife Ruth had a small baking business for several years and delights to find a good bakery. She makes the communion bread for our congregation, as she has done for fifteen years or so.

There is a lovely bread poem by David Adam

Be gentle when you touch bread.
Let it not lie, uncared for,

So often bread is taken for granted.
There is such beauty in bread—
Beauty of surf and soil,
Beauty of patient toil.
Wind and rain have caressed it,
We have often blessed it.
Be gentle when you touch bread.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Jackson's Sabbath

I deliberately said nothing about Michael Jackson at the time of his death because there seemed to be far too much frenzied attention given to his troubled life. It's not well known that he grew up as a Jehovah's Witness and while this is a strange sect, it emphasizes strict sabbath-keeping.

Apparently when Michael was a child performer with the Jackson Five, he longed for time just to play. On the sabbath he was able to escape the pressures of performance. The elders in his Jehovah Witness church treated him like everyone else, even though he was already a star. "I still miss the sense of community that I felt there," As an adult Jackson said. "I miss the friends and the people who treated me like I was simply one of them. Simply human. Sharing a day with God."

One of the strengths of honouring the sabbath and keeping it holy is the pause from regular activity to be mindful of God. It is different from taking a vacation or what we call recreation. It is an opportunity to become grounded and in touch with a deeper spiritual reality which does not allow us to become little gods. As people continue to indulge in the cult of celebrity (Jackson will probably be the biggest selling pop artist of 2009) there is the reminder for all of us to be rooted in our Christian faith and to keep the sabbath.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

In conversation with a couple from St. Paul's a few days ago I discovered that we witnessed the same sky spectacle last Saturday.They were on their way to Cobourg while we were on the last leg home from our vacation. They got the head-on view of what I noticed in the rear-view mirror, a rare double rainbow. I took the exit off the 401 highway which would allow us an even better viewpoint, and I have the photos to prove it. We scurried about in the last vestiges of what had been an intense downpour, seeking the right shot. Unfortunately we could only get a chunk of the bigger skyscape.

The first covenant story in scripture is of the bow in the sky which would be a sign that God would never inundate the Earth again. It is an important part of the pre-historical portion of the book of Genesis with Noah and his family ensuring humanity's future and and that of the other creatures of the planet.

Rainbows are often spectacular, hopeful images in the heavens, portents not only of the end of the storm but of new possibilities. I was interested to discover that the song Over the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz movie was almost cut. It has since been voted the greatest movie song ever.

Did you see those rainbows last Saturday? Any other good ones this summer?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Help for Neighbour in Need

Back in June I wrote about the ecumenical service involving a number of Bowmanville congregations and Christian schools. It was a positive event in which hundreds of local Christians bore witness simply by coming together for worship.

There are other ways we work ecumenically in our community. I received this letter of thanks from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Roman Catholic outreach ministry while I was on vacation. It is the follow-up for a request to assist a local family going through difficult times. Thanks to our excellent treasurer, Cindy, the appeal was made one day and they had a cheque the next. The letter had the heading Help for Neighbour in Need.

Many thanks for your response to our appeal for this family and your contribution of $300. The husband is on short term disability and the wife was laid off from her job. They have four children. With your help we have been able to catch up on their utility bills. All utilities would have been turned off on early in July. We visited them in their home and feel that they may be able to continue there thanks to the joint efforts of the Christian community in the area. Several churches made contributions to help this neighbour in need...

This letter was such a good reminder that being a Good Samaritan is not the exclusive role of any one congregation and that we are stronger when we work together. Readers will know that St. Paul's supports the Salvation Army Food Bank as well, and we believe in their effective ministry. We have experienced a growing number of requests for assistance in these tough times and thanks to contributions to our benevolent fund we have been able to respond.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sea Wolves

Last week while we were camping in Forillon National Park I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of wolves howling in the distance, or so I thought. I nudged Ruth awake and she agreed that we were listening to a pack of wolves before drifting back into sleep. Then it occurred to me in my nocturnal grogginess that "in the distance" was water. These weren't wolves but seals.

Sure enough, the next morning we were paddling along the shore in our kayaks and as we approached a point we could hear the same howling. On the other side we found a colony of grey seals making an almighty racket. We stayed a respectful distance from the rocks where they were parked, but a bunch of them lurched into the water and swam toward us. It was as though we were strangers driving into a yard where a pack of dogs comes running out to meet us. Are they friendly or unfriendly? We know from previous encounters that seals are curious creatures, but we weren't sure if they could also be aggressive and territorial.

Fortunately we were fine, although they quickly surrounded us. It is a little disconcerting because when seals surface they breathe out in a loud, percussive manner. Suddenly we would hear a blast from a few metres behind us or beside us. A large male swam close and lifted itself up out of the water to get a better look at us. They followed for a little while before swimming away.

There is something exhilarating about being connected to other creatures in this way. It takes us away from the hubris, the false pride through which we assume we are the centre of the universe. It is a reminder that God brought all living things into being and that it is the diversity of this planet that is essential to its wonder.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Communion, Out of this World

Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of the first moon walk and the famous words "one small step for man, one giant step for mankind."I watched this event with my family and partway through the historic live broadcast we adjusted the image, realizing that we had assumed that it was so fuzzy because it was coming from 250,00 miles away. I was interested to read in the Washington Post that the pilot of the lunar module, Buzz Aldrin, was given the elements for communion by his Presbyterian pastor, and he celebrated the sacrament in space to commemorate the historic landing on the moon. He was forbidden by NASA to mention his religious observance at the time, but he wrote about it a year later.

"In the radio blackout," Aldrin wrote in Guideposts magazine in 1970, "I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, 'I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.'

"I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements."

One small sip for man, one giant leap of faith for mankind.

The small chalice Aldrin used for the wine went back to Webster Church. Each year on the Sunday closest to July 20, the congregation celebrates Lunar Communion. "Communion can be celebrated anywhere," senior pastor Mark Cooper said Sunday. "Even cramped up in a lunar module on the moon."
Out of this world.

Monday, July 20, 2009

What I Did With My Summer Vacation

It was nice to return from our two week vacation to find several responses to my "farewell" blog.
All were appreciated but Nancy's "bonnes vacances" was particularly appropriate given that our time away was in the province of Quebec.

We spent our first days in Montreal with our son Isaac and his wife Rebekah, taking in several jazz festival concerts. Then we left this wonderful city for the extraordinary beauty of the Gaspe peninsula. I hadn't been there since childhood and Ruth had never visited.

It is becoming more of a challenge to convince our mid-50's bodies to spend time living out-of-doors but the two parks we visited , Le Bic (provincial) and Forillon (national) made it worth the effort. As you know from this blog I am keenly aware of the degradation of our planet, but camping in these parks was spiritually uplifting and gave us hope. Although this has been a cold, wet summer in Quebec the rain seemed to arrive when we were driving or sleeping and the daytime gave us opportunity to explore.

We are ocean junkies and try to return to saltwater at least once a year. There is something about the rich, diverse life of the ocean which draws us back again and again. We hauled our kayaks with us and got out on the water several times. We saw whales and seals and birds in abundance.

As the photos above suggest (click for larger images), we also spent a lot of time on beaches, snooping amidst the flotsam and jetsam and clambering over rocks. For us this is always a reminder of the Creator and an opportunity for praise and thanksgiving. Okay, and a little grumbling about sleeping in a tent.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Beauty Disappears, Bite by Bite

The town of Bowmanville is not far from Lake Ontario but our waterfront has not been developed for public use, except in tiny pockets. Some readers will remember when Waverly Rd. extended south from the 401 highway to the lake, whereas now it is blocked off because of a deal struck with the St. Mary's Cement company.

In our first years here we were scofflaws, lifting our bicycles over the St. Mary's gate and past the No Trespassing sign. Who says clergy can't be wild and reckless? Okay, pretty tame stuff. We would ride down the old paved road to the water and find our way back on to the public thoroughfare. Yesterday we made the same ride but discovered that the abandoned section of Waverly is now gone, chewed up by the vast limestone pit which fuels the cement plant. The paved road has disappeared, although there is a vehicle trail around the excavation.

Just to the east of the pit there is a marsh which is home to many creatures. We have noticed that the osprey nests are now empty -- scared away by the noise and dust? But no less than six blue herons flew up as we rode by an area immediately adjacent to the "big dig" and in addition we saw swans and ducks. I wonder if the deer and hawks we have seen on other occasions are gone as well?

There is so much pressure on the balance of the natural world, what Christians regard as God's creation. It seems sad to me that this change happens to creatures who can offer no voice for their own protection.

A week ago we were in the marsh of the Port of Darlington with our kayaks and met two young people in a canoe who work for the Conservation Authority. They were taking water samples and told us that of the eighteen areas they test along Lake Ontario, none has very good water quality. "Too urban" the young woman said, matter-of-factly.

Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone? (thanks to Joni.)


My blog entries will be sporadic for the next couple of weeks because of vacation. Here's hoping for weather decent enough to put our kayaks in the St. Lawrence up in the Gaspe region. Pray for our French!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Come to the Church in the Wildwood

What can I write about on this important holiday in the United States, a day when homes will be festooned with American flags and funnel cakes will be eating by the millions?

How about the president and his family looking for a church? It seems that the Obama family has experienced problems finding a church home because of the gawkers. They tried to attend one congregation in Washington but people got wind of it and lined up for three hours before worship. Many members couldn't get in because of president Obama's fans and some attenders couldn't resist snapping photos on their cell phones as they walked forward for communion. Tacky.

So the secret service has been busy checking out worship services for the Commander-in-Chief (wouldn't you love to be part of that briefing) and they have decided that a smaller congregation near the Camp David retreat in Maryland fits the bill. The Evergreen Chapel is only a couple of decades old and about 50 to 70 faithful worship on Sundays, many of them Camp David staffers. As you can see in the photo above, the Bush families worshipped there as well, proof that God loves everyone.

So now we know more about the worshipping travails and habits of the American president than we do about the Canadian prime minister or any of his cabinet. Thanks to Joe D. for sending me the article about this. There are more differences between our two countries than three days on the July calendar.

Friday, July 03, 2009

How Many Chances?

You might remember the story of hockey player Dany Heatley who broke into the league with the Atlanta Thrashers. One night he was driving at high speed and careened off the road. His passenger, another player, was killed in the accident. Heatley was injured and convicted of reckless driving. It was remarkable that the family of the other player forgave him out of their Christian convictions. Their forgiveness was a powerful reminder that our faith in Christ gives us a second chance, and we can extend it to others.

Heatley is at the centre of another, lesser, controversy at the moment. He has petulantly and publicly demanded a trade by his current team, the Ottawa Senators. Atlanta granted his wish to go elsewhere and start over. Heatley doesn't like the new Senator coach and wants out. The team made a trade, but he refused to go, a condition of his contract.

So, how many chances do we get? Jesus said forgive seventy times seven, but isn't this guy a big self-absorbed baby? It's a reminder that when we choose to forgive there are no guarantees of happy endings. It may mean that the recipient of grace will undergo a character change, but it ain't written in the contract. Who do you think forgiveness benefits most, the receiver or the bestower?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

More Scrolls

A "head's up" about the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. I went on Tuesday as a scouting mission for a planned outing in the Fall for St. Paul's. First of all, it is very good --quite educational -- and worthwhile. When I arrived shortly before noon the line-up was out the door, along Bloor St., and around the corner on Avenue Rd. It would be smart to book tickets online if you plan to attend during the summer. I envied those who walked past those of us in line and straight into the exhibit.

Water of Life

We added a second rain barrel this year, using a container that we picked up for a few bucks. Of course there has been plenty of rain in these parts and we haven't really needed the barrels that much, even though they are filled to overflowing.

We are fortunate in Ontario (could we say blessed) because this year's crops in large parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta have already been written off due to a lack of rain. We can easily forget that the abundance of water for agriculture and other purposes is a luxury rather than a "given" for many people in the world.

There was an article in the New York Times recently about new legislation to allow individuals to collect their own rainwater. Believe it or not, it has been illegal to have a rain barrel or anything which will collect water without a permit. Colorado is an arid state and water rights are guarded carefully, and bought and sold. Until this new law people would collect water secretively and stores that sold the equipment to do so worked on a "don't ask, don't tell" premise, as though they were selling drug paraphenalia! The photo above is of someone who until recently had his secret stash of rainwater.

When I stayed at the convent of the Sisters of Walburga a couple of years ago, situated in the Colorado Rockies, I walked past a stream each day on my way to the chapel. It wasn't much different in size from Bowmanville Creek but there was a regulated water pipe running from a small dam for the purpose of irrigation. The sisters had legal right to a certain volume of water from this creek, and nothing more.

The bible often celebrates rain as a gift from God, and drought is associated with God's displeasure. We might consider the latter to be superstitious but these texts remind us that clean, usable water should never be taken for granted.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Place Worth Living

A couple of nights ago Global television ran a piece on an elderly woman whom we might describe as Japanese-Canadian, although she pointed out that she was born and raised in this country. That didn't stop the Canadian government from removing her and her family from British Columbia during the Second World War and interning her in a camp in the Rocky Mountains. There were thousands like her who lost their homes and their livelihoods because the enemy looked like them. The news item noted that racism toward Canadians of Japanese origin was strong before the war began, in part because they were successful fishermen and entrepeneurs. It's the way it works, isn't it? We don't like immigrants if they are lazy or too industrious. We get annoyed because they won't get jobs or take away jobs from "real" Canadians.

Today is Canada Day and I am mindful that my mother and Ruth's late mother were both immigrants. Of course they were immediately accepted because they had the right colour skin and spoke the right language. It was a big challenge to make the adjustment to a new country, but discrimination wasn't part of the equation.

What impressed me greatly about the woman featured on Global was her conviction that despite the injustices, this is the best country in the world. Come to think of it though, this was where she was born, so she has lived and breathed Canada, for bad and good.

I hope that today we thank God for the peace and prosperity of this beautiful land. And that we give thanks for all the immigrants who have brought their ingenuity and hard work and generosity of spirit to make Canada a place worth living.