Monday, November 30, 2009

Religious Freedom?

Reader Johnnie was candid in his response to Friday's blog, admitting that he has racially or religiously profiled someone in a way that probably wasn't deserved. He "fessed up" to something we have probably all done, the visceral response which overrides our intellectual convictions.

It's interesting that yesterday the citizens of Switzerland voted to ban minarets, the onion-shaped steeple on Muslim mosques. It is not retroactive, but there are only a handful of mosques in Switzerland anyway. It was assumed that this referundum would result in defeat of this racially tinged question. Instead about twenty percent more people voted in favour than predicted. A large majority of Swiss Muslims are Eastern European but there is a growing suspicion of Muslims in Europe, a backlash against aggressive statements and acts which stem from Islamist groups. In France the burka has been banned from schools and there is debate about banning it altogether.

I sometimes wonder how long it will be before someone challenges the public display of crosses on the exteriors of Christian buildings. And what about those offensive nativity scenes which sprout on church lawns at this time of the year?

What is your response to the ban in Switzerland? What are your thoughts about religious freedom and its limits?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Prayers for the Dead

What a horror the massacre in Mumbai was a year ago. Rampaging gunmen moved through several hotels, killing everyone in sight. A great evil in the name of religion.

I saw an interview with a Turkish couple who speak excellent English and are quite sophisticated in their ability to express themselves and ponder what unfolded in the midst of the chaos. The husband was herded into a stairwell with other guests by the gunmen and he pleaded with them for his life, telling them that he too was a Muslim. They asked him to recite a prayer and he began the prayer for the dead, the only one he knew by heart. The terrorists stopped him abruptly and told him to lie down. Then they massacred the rest of the captives. With emotion he recalled the shell casings raining down on him and being soaked in the blood of the others.

Later he was reunited with his wife and held in a room with three Indian women. The terrified women, including his wife, held hands for support. Then the gunmen came in, separated them from the three Indians, whom they then executed. The wife decided that despite the risk she must recite the prayer which had saved her husband's life over the three victims. They went to the bodies and did so together, wondering if this would be their death sentence, but the young men watched in silence before departing once more.

It was obvious that this brutality made no sense to them and was antithetical to their understanding of their faith. I wish Muslim leaders and the heads of Arab nations were more vocal in their opposition of violence, but I am convinced that the majority of Muslims decry harming others in God's name.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Prayer

I hope you don't mind that I've doubled up on blog entries a couple of times in this past week. Here is a Thanksgiving prayer from the venerable Book of Common Prayer sent out as part of an email devotional from a spiritual reflection ministry in the States.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Almighty God, we give you thanks
for this life and all its blessings,
for joys great and simple,
for gifts and powers more than we deserve,
for love at the heart of your purpose
and wisdom in all your works,
for light in the world brought once in Christ
and always shining through your Spirit.
Giving thanks to you we pray

for that light to dawn upon us daily
that we may always have grateful hearts,
and a will to love and to serve you
to the end of our days.
Hear our prayer and our praises,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.



Well, yesterday the president pardoned the turkey and hundreds of thousands of people were on the move toward other family members. Thanksgiving is a huge deal in the States and the most significant gathering time in the year, ahead of Christmas. It is an opportunity to give thanks for abundance, security, prosperity. Of course this year's Thanksgiving is different. Millions are out of work and a quarter of those fortunate to own a home know that the actual value of their property has sunk below its mortgaged value. Recently president Obama was in China, cultivating the relationship with the nation which has become its banker, along with a cluster of Arab nations.

The latest Atlantic Monthly magazine has an article suggesting that a big reason for the current recession in the US is Christianity. Man, we get blamed for everything these days.

I do understand the premise of the article. In the past few decades the "health and wealth" gospel has been a powerful and pervasive message from many American pulpits. It is essentially the message that prosperity and abundance find their way to true believers. The American Dream has been intertwined with God's blessing, and that blessing is lots of cash.

One of the pastors featured in the article, a guy who is an unrelenting preacher of this message also happened to be a mortgage loan officer for two institutions. So he was promising that God would bless his congregation and then loaning them the money to buy houses they couldn't really afford. Today many of the foreclosure hotspots in the country coincide with areas where this message is preached.

While big-name Christian pastors such as Joel Osteen promote "health and wealth" so does someone like Oprah who endorsed the book The Secret.

Do you think that God blesses the faithful with material wellbeing? If not, how does God bless us/you?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Abortion Discussion Continued

A responder to yesterday's blog on abortion helpfully gave a link to the United Church statement on the subject. It is thoughtful and worth reading. Our silence is in the discussion at a congregational level, not in terms of an official position.

While I thanked this individual, I don't want this to be lost, so...

Just click to find your way there.

Good for the Soul

Two evenings ago there was a documentary on TV called The Science of the Soul. It explored the mysterious essence of being human which goes beyond the mechanics of our bodies and the synapses of our brains. This is what religious folk call the soul.

The doc makers spoke with scientists and physicians, who aren't inclined to use that term "soul" but are intrigued by that intangible and immeasurable essence. Where are we when we are under anaesthetic? Can we give any credence to "out of body" experiences? Why do the brains of people in supposed vegetative states respond to the same stimuli as those who are conscious? Is there some state between consciousness and unconsciousness which could be called the soul?

Some of the scientists are fascinated by this even though they don't believe in an afterlife or an eternal soul.

I have been at the bedsides of enough people who died to want to hear what these scientific types have to say. There is a sense in those moments of something, some life-force departing in death.

What do you think about this? Do you have a soul?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I'm Back!

I have a postscript to yesterday's blog about the children on Sunday. I have spoken to a couple of people since then and it prompted one more moment. A pregnant young mom spoke to me at the door after worship.I haven't seen her in quite a while and I wondered if she was a little sheepish and felt awkward about her extended absence, but we chatted. Her three year old was with her who looked up at me and said with great enthusiasm "I'm back!" My response was "I'm glad you are!" in a way I probably wouldn't with an adult. I looked to the mom and I think we both felt "enough said."

Right to Life?

I listened to a radio interview yesterday with a reporter for Slate Magazine who did a piece on abortion in China. Approximately 12 million abortions are performed every year in China, a staggering number really, roughly the population of Ontario. The reporter was intrigued because the number of abortions reflects a number of societal issues in China, including poor sex education in rural areas, persisting mores about premarital sex which lead to silence on the subject, and discouragement from having more than one child. Of course many of us might argue that a country of 1.3 billion people doesn't need more children, especially those who are unwanted.

It made me wonder about what our society and our faith communities do to discuss abortion in an open and honest way. Some churches, including the Roman Catholic church and a number of evangelical Christian denominations are emphatically against abortion under any circumstances. I was furious when I heard a few months ago that a doctor in South America had been excommunicated for performing an abortion on an nine-old-girl who had been raped by her step father. The doctor was convinced she would die if he didn't proceed. Where is the love of Christ in this?

On the other hand, our denomination says next to nothing on the subject. The official line is freedom of choice, but most UCC ministers avoid the subject like the plague. Some folk who have come to the United Church from other denominations have expressed puzzlement at our silence. Many years ago a woman came to me after having an abortion. She was filled with remorse and could hardly function. We walked through her pain over the months following, and in one discussion she wondered aloud if it would have helped to have heard something from the pulpit. Yet I just don't speak about the subject.

What are your thoughts? Obviously this is not just a religious issue. China has been staunchly atheistic for several generations now. Do we have a responsibility to discuss this openly and honestly? What about with our young people? Surely it is an ethical and moral issue and a very personal one as well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Children's Sunday

We didn't focus on Children's Sunday yesterday, although we acknowledged the theme at the children's time and in our prayers. While it is an opportunity to consider children who live in poverty and poor health in countries around the world, it also brings to mind the importance of our own children and young people.

Yesterday I had a number of impromptu or serendipitous children's moments which were meaningful to me. A boy showed up for choir practice at nine thirty having missed the notice that junior choir was cancelled. He rode his bike to be there at that early hour. We chatted about what grade seven is like.

A girl turned ten yesterday and before worship she sought me ought to let me know. She was squirming with delight at the importance of the occasion and it was an impossibly lovely moment.

Another little girl came to show me her outfit and braids, and did a pirouette so I would get the full view. I laughed out loud.

Still another surprised me with a hug as I was speaking with a choir member before the service. I didn't see her coming (I am rather tall) so it was a stealth hug.

I could hardly get through the last hymn and the benediction because a baby who tends to mesmerize one side of the church was in the front row and fixing me with the sweetest smile. I just wanted to go down and take her in my arms, which I did before leaving the sanctuary.

And this morning I got an email message from a teen who liked the sermon!

I feel God's blessing through every one of these kids and so many more.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The American Dream

Yesterday Oprah Winfrey, one of the wealthiest and most influential women in the world, tearily announced that in eighteen months her daytime television program is kaput. Oprah could probably have gone on forever and ever amen and been adored by her fans but she has other fish to fry. Ms. Winfrey is often feted for her wealth: apparently she rakes in about 275 million dollars a year and has a net worth exceeding two billion. She is also generous, having given away an estimated 300 million. Remarkable for a person who began her life in abject poverty and was sexually abused. There are few people who better represent the so-called American Dream and its hard not to admire what she has accomplished.

I would suggest that her role as spiritual guru is far more impressive than her wealth, and I am not being facetious here. It's hard to imagine anyone else in popular culture who has done more to promote the doctrine, if I can call it that, of self-help and self-actualization. While the statistics point to the fundamental unhappiness of Americans when it comes to depression, she has upheld the notion that we can unlock the inner light of peace and serenity through our choices and actions. And even though Oprah has struggled to walk the walk when it comes to healthy living and weight loss, she is easy to forgive because she comes across as a real and earnest person on a very emotionally accessible level.

It shouldn't be surprising that some Christian groups see her as dangerous, promoting her own cult. One reader told me that she was surprised at the vehement denunciation of Oprah by a friend. Why would she be so angry? Well the reaction may be overblown, but the friend "gets it" that Oprah provides an alternate spiritual experience.

What do you think about Oprah? Do you feel she has changed your life? Is she a guilty pleasure? Do you read her book recommendations? Fess up!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Up Against the Wall

I was really moved watching the CBC documentary Up Against the Wall last night. Film-maker Eileen Thalenberg considers the dozen walls which have been erected since the Berlin Wall came down twenty years ago. She focuses on the three walls put up by democracies to keep people out, including the "Tortilla Wall" seven hundred miles long keeping illegal Mexican immigrants out of the United States. At four million dollars a mile, my math figures that this will cost upwards of three billion dollars. While it looks imposing it isn't make a dent in the flow of drugs and weapons between the two countries.

We watch a Methodist minister who goes regularly to an imposing set of bars along the border in what is called Friendship Park. He serves communion to families and friends who gather on either side of the bars to talk. The security wall will soon make even this communication impossible and the pastor is arrested during the protest. Other volunteers walk sections of the wall in desert areas leaving food and water for those who may be in distress.

Without being heavy-handed the documentary invites us to ask what divides us and whether security can be established by barriers.
Did anyone else see this?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Second Chance

The St. Paul's congregation has been a strong supporter of Bethesda House, the shelter for at-risk women and children, as part of its outreach work. Part of the connection is that Ruth, my wife has been employed by Bethesda House, for several years as the child and youth worker, and for the past three years as an outreach worker.

Two weeks ago the outreach staff returned to their building after a year and a half in "exile" at the shelter. Their building, which is also home for the Second Chance store supporting Bethesda House, was destroyed by fire, so the staff was crammed into temporary space. Now they are in a bright, and brand new working environment.

The outreach workers have contact with those who need support but may not need to be in the shelter. Ruth is a trained counsellor who meets with those who are going through the trauma of leaving abusive situations. Often she accompanies clients to court.

She also does preventative work, running programs for teen girls which help them to consider what healthy relationship look like, and with teen boys addressing anger issues. She speaks at churches, guiding groups, and other organizations. Recently she was at UOIT, Ontario University, making a presentation in one of the courses.

Ruth and Bethesda House are very grateful for the interest and practical support of congregations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The B-I-B-L-E

The B-I-B-L-E, O that's the book for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God,
the B-I-B-L-E!

I think that's the way the old Sunday School chorus goes. It's been a long time! Today the words seem rather simplistic and not all that reflective of our approach to scripture. Still there is a confidence that the bible matters to us as Christians.

Shortly I will head into the second study group of the week on the same subject, the bible. We have approximately a dozen people in each of the two groups. The evening session includes four men, and we have several people between the two who are in their thirties and forties. The day-time group includes some who have been attending bible study for thirty years or more. This is sort of a Bible 101, although as always I am impressed by the insight and intelligence of participants. Our four sessions are in the form of addressing questions:

Are we still the People of the Book?
Is the bible still a Good Book (is it true?)
Is the bible a dangerous book?
Is the bible a devotional book?

I have invited those involved to be open and frank with their own questions and I've been intrigued by where the discussions have gone.

I was in conversation with several of my colleagues yesterday who are exasperated at offering study groups to which people don't come. I feel fortunate that we have our two groups, and wonder how we can stimulate more involvement, especially from those who have preconceptions about what discussing the bible might entail.

Do you read the bible as part of a regular routine? Do you have the opportunity to converse with others about your questions? Is the bible a mystery or a comfort, or both?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Education

We went to see a film lately that doesn't have any big-name stars in central roles, no special effects, and nothing blows up. It does have marvellous acting and a rarity these days, a plot.

An Education is the story of a bright, pretty 16-year-old girl in sixties Britain who is swept off her feet by an older man. He is suave, attentive, and offers her a way out of the dreariness of her studies. Art auctions, concerts, and clubs introduce her to a delightful new world.

Since I don't want to spoil your opportunity to see this picture I'll stop there. Except to say that the chastened young woman eventually has a conversation with the school mistress and earnestly concedes that there is no shortcut to her goal of entering Oxford University.

Her comment made me think of an observation made recently by a Christian writer that the life of faith is not for spiritual sightseers. Discipleship requires maturity and an acceptance of discipline. Just about anything worth pursuing in life involves dedication and setting priorities. At times I think that message gets lost in what passes for present-day Christianity.

Unfortunately An Education is playing downtown in Toronto and not many other places. I would still recommend it highly.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fruit Tree Project

Over the years a fair number of people have told me that they don't give to this cause or that charity because they are either suspicious or dead certain that the money doesn't get to those who deserve it. I must admit that I am a bit dubious at times about their honesty. It can be convenient to withhold our generosity when it suits our purposes. Then again, it seems that we are often at a distance from those we would truly choose to support.

I read an interesting article recently in Maclean's magazine about some people in British Columbia who have found a way to directly benefit themselves and others. It began with a single mom on welfare noticing a cherry tree laden with ripe fruit which was obviously going to go unpicked. A knock on the door resulted in an invitation to pick away. In fact, the homeowner had other trees with unharvested fruit which she kindly offered. The grateful recipient invited a friend to share her good fortune and they, in turn, gave away what they couldn't use.

That was ten years ago and now the Fruit Tree Project has a network of volunteers who pick fruit from the trees of willing homeowners. The pickers keep a third for themselves, give a third away, and the other third goes to the donors. Often the homeowners are elderly and just can't keep up with the trees they planted years before. The project has grown and grown by word of mouth --generosity is catching. What a great story.

In Old Testament times the social welfare system included leaving a certain amount of the harvest to be gleaned by those who were destitute. This wasn't just a nice idea but a biblical mandate to justice. It's refreshing to hear of a good idea that has just got better and more effective.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Gentle November

Is it my imagination or is the army of people who were yikkin' and yakkin' about a crummy summer not so vocal about the amazing extension of balmy fall weather. We have already established together that we like the change of seasons, yet these days in "the teens" are a gift in many ways. Too bad people aren't more grateful although I suppose we are distracted by the 'flu.

There is still a great variety of waterfowl in our ponds and lakes and we have seen some unlikely hang-arounds in recent days such as a grasshopper and a monarch butterfly.

And in our own yard there are a few flowers, pictured above, which have decided it ain't over 'til it's over.

Thank God for gentle November days.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

So-So Samaritan

Two St. Paul's members underwent surgery this year to remove a cancerous kidney. Fortunately God provides each of us with two, so while this was serious stuff they have come through the surgery and the recovery remarkable well. Which is good, because I like them both very much, and did my best to be a pastor both before and after.

Today I heard an interview with two women in Washington state who met because one served coffee in a cafe and the other bought a coffee from her each day. They had minimal contact, but they chatted as the purchaser fished out her change to pay each morning. The barista noticed that her customer seemed uncustomarily "down" one day and asked what was happening. With a little nudging the customer admitted that both her kidneys were failing and she was going on dialysis.

The barista knew that her patron had children her age and that they shared other things in common. She decided, hey, I have two kidneys so maybe I can share one. She found out the other woman's blood type and other pertinent information and in the end she did give her a kidney.

Wow. I thought about this. As I say, I have a lot of time for both the people who lost a kidney this year (I'm not just saying this because one is a regular reader) but if either of them had been in total kidney failure, would I jump up and offer one of mine?

I know the parable of Jesus about the Good Samaritan, but maybe I'm just a So-So Samaritan. Would I give a kidney to one of my kids or my wife? Yup. A parishioner/friend? Perhaps, although I'm no hero... A virtual stranger? Please don't ask. The story raises some interesting questions about sacrificial love and compassion.

How about you? Who is kidney-worthy in your life? Do you see yourself as altruistic?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Canadian Diversity and Equality

I wonder if those of us who are not immigrants can get a copy of the newly released immigrants' study guide? Immigration minister Jason Kenney introduced it yesterday and explained the areas of discussion which were either beefed up or included for the first time.

The area of special interest to me was around women's rights. Apparently there is a strong emphasis on equality and the reminder that religious practices from other traditions which might treat women as second class citizens or as chattel will not be tolerated. There have been a number of disturbing incidents in recent years in which women have been threatened or murdered as a supposed matter of honour.

While the men who perpetrated these crimes were of other religious traditions, there have been a number of spokespersons from these religions who point out that violence toward women is a distortion of these traditions. Obviously a few lines in a study guide will not automatically change perceptions, but it is important that our government state clearly what we may take for granted.

I was really concerned a couple of years ago when there was talk in Ontario of recognizing Sharia law, the Muslim form of law. It appeared that in the name of diversity and tolerance we might sanction intolerance toward women of a particular religious background.


Thursday, November 12, 2009


Halifax veteran

We decided to start and end bible study early yesterday to allow participants to attend the Remembrance Day service at the cenotaph in downtown Bowmanville. It was a beautiful morning, uncharacteristic for November, and there was a big crowd. The legion chaplain read verses of scripture and prayed, while the chairperson of the local ministerial represented us. It's interesting that this is one of the few public occasions when religion and specifically the Christian religion is included. There seems to be a sense of the deep solemnity of the occasion which transcends concerns about correctness, political or otherwise.

The crowds at Remembrance Day services are on the rise, even as the veterans of the First World War for which this occasion was instituted disappear. In Britain the service at Westminster Abbey included not a single WW1 veteran for the first time. During the last year the few remaining vets went to their reward. Of course both Britain and Canada have soldiers who are at war, today, and are dying in Afghanistan. More than thirty Canadians have died since Remembrance Day last year, a grim reminder that this is not just a historical event but a present reality.

Did you do anything to mark Remembrance Day? Should we continue this commemoration now that the veterans of the War to End All Wars are gone?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Our Call of Duty

The faithful were lined up at midnight two night's ago to be among the first to purchase and play the latest version of the video game, Call of Duty. To term it a game is probably an insult to its creators and wouldn't help those whose experience is from a past where the graphics in games was rather crude and not very interactive. The current games are really an invitation into a virtual reality with stunningly real visual images and a host of options for the players.
Many gamers didn't bother to line up because they pre-ordered the game. In fact nearly two million fans pre-ordered, which to me is mind-boggling. As the photo and name suggests, Call of Duty is a war game -- a blood-soaked, violent, gore fest. A Toronto Star article dared to ask about the impact of these games:

To retailers suffering through the recession, it's an early Christmas gift, a product that may get consumers in North America and Europe to open their wallets.

To detractors, it represents everything that is wrong with the billion-dollar video gaming industry: blood-soaked images of warfare that they say pose a risk to the mental health of children and even some adults who may not be able to tear themselves away.
The release comes at an awkward time, just days after 13 people were killed and 29 wounded in a mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. An army psychiatrist is suspected as the gunman.

There are churches which have games nights where some of these violent and often misogynist games are played to attract young people. So much for "blessed are the peacemakers."

What is our "call of duty?" Should churches speak out against these games? Just mind our own business? Do you wonder whether they do incite people to violence? Do we understand this Rembrance Day that war is real and people die?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Test the Clergy

I have mentioned the variety of emails I receive, everything from the mundane to the deeply meaningful. Some are quirky and others are intriguing.

Today I got one from the CBC program, Test the Nation. If you have seen the program you know that it is a entertaining IQ test presented to on-air teams. Of course those of us watching at home get to answer the questions as well. The teams this time will include Politicians, Twins, Atheists, Believers, Contact Sports Athletes, and Nerds. The believers in this instance will be clergy, and we would be expected to wear our "professional attire." I would love to know what they assume the clergy "uniform" would be: a clerical collar, or gown? If you watch some of the pastors on TV you might assume that we wear expensive white suits, or Hawaian shirts.

Are we allowed to cross areas of expertise? Many United Church ministers have been politicians. Surely some of us have a twin. And there are definitely a fair number of nerds.

Is it befitting the dignity of clergy to participate in a program such as this? Sounds like fun to me. It would be worth it just to meet Wendy Mesley.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Wall That Divide are Broken Down

Today there will be celebrations of the historic events which led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago. The wall was erected over a period of time, beginning in the early 1960's. It not only divided a city it separated families and helped to maintain one of the most oppressive communist states -- East Germany. The dreaded Stasi secret police watched the movement of citizens and children were encouraged to inform on parents.

As East German officials were encouraging the celebration of forty years as a state in the late 1980's, the Protestant church was instrumental in another form of demonstration. Crowds of people, the majority of whom were young, took to the streets chanting "Freedom, freedom." There were many brave church leaders who supported these protests and clergy preached sermons calling for change while Stasi officers sat in their congregations. The wall would not have come down without this groundswell of resistance which managed to remain peaceful.

It seems to be very popular these days to portray Christian churches as dark allies of the status quo but there are many examples of courageous choices for justice and true gospel living. Do you know the truly United Church hymn by Walter Farquharson and Ron Klusmeier called Walls that Divide?

Though ancient walls may still stand proud
and racial strife be fact
though boundaries may be lines of hate
proclaim God's saving act!

Wall that divide are broken down
Christ is our unity!
Chains that enslave are thrown aside
Christ is our liberty!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Thank God for Healthcare

In the early 1960's a former Baptist minister turned social activist, and eventually premier of Saskatchewan introduced a universal healthcare program to his province. We now give Tommy Douglas the distinction of a visionary, but it was a hard-fought battle to bring the program to fruition. Those opposed used scare tactics and misinformation to dissuade the public. Physicians were against it because of their fears of loss of income. Douglas was a visionary who was motivated by his gospel convictions about care for the poor.

Nearly fifty years later the United States has voted for a government healthcare program by a narrow margin. As you will know, this has been a "tough go" for President Obama and his Democratic government. He has been accused of being both a fascist and a communist -- no small feat! The fearmongering would be laughable if it hadn't been so hateful and destructive. Many people who were strongly opposed admitted that they really didn't understand thier own health coverage, and forty six million Americans had no health insurance. Members of his own party broke ranks and expressed their opposition. For all this, the bill has passed, albeit with concessions.

I should mention that while some conservative Christian groups have opposed the Obama plan because of their fears about support for abortion, many denominations and organizations have been strong advocates.
As a minister I am constantly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of our system as I offer pastoral support to our folk. I remain convinced that while it is flawed it beats the alternative. Thank God the United States is stepping in the right direction.

What are your thoughts about our system? Do you figure this will work in the States?

Saturday, November 07, 2009


When Jesus visited a place called Caesarea Philippi with his disciples they ended up in an intense conversation about his identity: "who do you say I am?" Jesus wanted to know. The gospels don't tell us that this was a beautiful, mountainous area or that they may have stopped for water at a shrine to another god, the god Pan. While Pan is often portrayed as rather sweet and faun-like, in mythology he was powerful and scary. His traditional image with horns and a tail and cloven hooves was taken over by the church in medieval times as the representation of Satan.

Pan was the god of ominous sounds of the night in wild and mountainous areas. So we have the word "panic" in our English vocabulary to describe the emotional and physiological response to groundless fears. And there are other words such as pandemonium, loud and disorienting sounds and activity. How about pandemic?

As we travel further into the 'flu season we are constantly being made aware of sensible precautions to ensure our health, including vaccinations, and mundane practices such as washing hands repeatedly. There is no doubt that this is a pandemic. At the same time we are nudged toward panic by unrelenting news coverage and appeals to our deepest fears and anxieties. Not surprisingly we are now into the "blame game," pointing fingers at governments slow to respond and queue jumpers who are too quick in getting their shots.
"Cause for pause" that Jesus, who so often encouraged people to live beyond fear, may have asked his followers to figure out who he was at a spot dedicated to the god of panic. I won't lie; I do think about the wellbeing of my adult children, especially my higher risk daughters, and the implications of a full-out pandemic. At the same time I don't want to be an idolater, worshipping a false god of fear.

How are you doing as you move through all this? Do you feel more or less secure than a week ago when I raised this subject? Does prayer help to fend off the god of panic?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Many Heavens, One Earth

This week a couple of the royals have been touring Canada and today will be opening the Royal -- Winter Fair that is -- in that hub of agriculture, downtown Toronto. Don't get me wrong, I think the Royal is wonderful.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch -- Windsor Castle -- Prince Philip was hosting a significant conference of religious leaders who are concerned about the fate of the planet. Representatives from nine religions gathered in anticipation of December's U.N. conference on Climate Change. This event called Many Heavens, One Earth is part of a larger initiative, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, which encourages followers of various faiths to "live with respect in Creation" to use a phrase from our United Church statement of faith.

The General Secretary of the United Nations was one of the speakers and he noted that the religions of the world can have a huge role in educating their constituents about practical care for their planet home.

It's encouraging to hear that religious leaders, with all their differences, can come together for the common purpose in caring for creation. We may disagree on heaven, but we share this earth.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

This Little Pig Went to Market...

Yesterday the CBC radio program, The Current, spent a considerable amount of time pondering the family farm. The host wandered around with a farmer and author, Thomas Pawlick who is convinced that there is a deliberate plan on the part of agribusiness and governments to phase out small farm operations. The title of his book The War in the Country reflects his convictions.While I don't know about conspiracies, it is indisputable that small farmers are an endangered species in North America with the "go big or go home" attitude to agricultural production.

As many readers know, we have friends who more than a decade ago gave up semi-urban life and the relative security of an established business to buy a farm. It was an act of faith, literally, because they were prayerful about making this shift in their mid-fifties. It was a return to his roots but a shared commitment. It has still been a constant challenge as they eke out a living on a beautiful but not all that productive piece of land north of Kingston, Ontario.

All the photos above are from various visits to their place. We buy our beef from them and it is as close to organic as you can get without the certification. This year we bought pork at above supermarket prices because of their commitment to raising animals ethically. It tastes better too. We also buy honey and some lamb and eggs when we visit. We realize how closely they count their pennies, and he has continued to do work as an electrician to keep generating cash. It is the life of the small Canadian farmer.

Sometimes it hits me that while the people of ancient Israel were involved in an agrarian society and Jesus told lots of parables that involved crops and critters we don't often "connect the dots" between faith and farming.

I know I have asked you this before, but to me this is an ongoing question. Do you think about the source of your food? Should we be concerned as Christians about the fate of the small farmer in this country?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Our Christian Traditions

I used to be the family pumpkin carver when our children were young. In recent years Ruth has taken over and chosen a more whimsical and edible approach to pumpkin art. In fact we realized on Sunday morning that the squirrels were munching on some of the facial features of this year's edition.

Did you hear that this year the Roman Catholic church in Spain declared Hallowe'en to be anti- Christian and dangerous?

A statement from the Episcopal Conference, and its Director of Liturgy, Joan MarĂ­a Canals, released a week before this year’s Halloween, warned of the risk that ‘pagan and imported’ customs could see other ‘deeply rooted and beneficial’ Christian customs disappear.They say the Catholic fiesta held in Spain on November 1 for All Saints is fine, because ‘it celebrates life, and not death’.The Church goes on to blame Hollywood and the parents who favour their children dressing up as witches, vampires and ghosts, playing with elements of death.

It's interesting because there is a tendency to secularize religious festivals, Christmas and Easter included. I brace myself for the onslaught of commercialism every Christmas and watch the erosion of the basic message of the birth of Christ.

That said, All Saint's, Christmas, and Easter were all "borrowed" from pagan traditions originally. Some religious groups don't acknowledge Christmas or Easter for that reason. We probably have to accept that our attempts to honour significant moments in our life in faith will always be imperfect.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

War Lingers

Running errands yesterday I caught a portion of a CBC piece on France. At the time I tuned in, the narrator was addressing the nation at war. Specifically, he was talking about the First World War and the massive battles fought on French soil. I was surprised to hear that, even still, 400 tons of munitions are retrieved each year from the fields where those battles were waged. Farmers drag them up with ploughs and bomb experts are called in to defuse the still lethal shells and grenades. Although WW1 came to an official end just over ninety years ago, it continues to be deadly because more than 600 of these munitions experts have been killed since fighting ceased. They die as the result of a war supposedly long over, the way their counterparts die today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I suppose we are all more aware of the effects of war as we come closer to Remembrance Day, especially since Canadian soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan. On Saturday one of our daughters was driving with a friend to Kingston and passed the vehicles carrying our latest fallen soldier and his family to Toronto. She texted her mother that it was very moving for her.

We will also acknowledge the fallen of many wars in worship this Sunday. As you know, I feel that it is important to express our gratitude without glorifying war. One of our two remaining mobile WW2 veterans will carry the wreath, along with a child. It is always a sobering few minutes in the service.

Monday, November 02, 2009

All Saints Sunset

Nancy commented on last night's gorgeous sunset in today's blog. Well, we have a very similar view. My wife, Ruth, sent me out with the camera to get some photos which simply can't do justice to the sweep of the sky. It was hard to get a shot without wires and posts.

Autumn Beauty

Last evening was a little bleak thanks to Daylight Saving Time. I have long been dubious about the arbitrary schedule giving us an extra hour of daylight in the morning with the trade-off of an earlier sunset. I do love the change of seasons though, one of the pleasures of being Canadians. I don't know whether you consider the four seasons to be gifts from God, but I do. We tried to work in some Autumn walks while we could and here are some photos from our saunters in various locations.
Bigger images are better, so click on the photos.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

What Do They Do, Anyway?

Do you ever wonder what a minister does in the course of a week? The "six days of the week invisible, one day of the week incomprehensible" quip doesn't sit well with clergy, but how does anyone really know what is happening?

I was thinking about this past week, which felt like a holiday because I had no evening commitments. Of course there was worship last Sunday and hours of preparation for this week's service. I was at the Oshawa hospital once to see someone who underwent surgery, and Bowmanville hospital twice because of follow-up with people who are quite ill.

I attended a weekly meeting with colleagues to look at the lectionary scripture passages. Then there was bible study prep and the morning study itself. I'm also getting ready for an evening study beginning next week and writing a message for an evening covenanting service for a colleague mid-November.

I spent time with a member who is going through a sad break-up, and an afternoon visiting at Wilmot Creek, the nearby seniors' community. I got together with a couple putting the final touches on their wedding ceremony a week down the road.

Everyday I respond to emails, some of them mundane, but often involving pastoral situations. And there is the ton of "stuff," adminastrivia, which is the reality of most jobs. We had a staff meeting earlier in the week as well, a necessary part of communication. I also had individual conversations with virtually every staff member about their particular areas of responsibility.

Can't forget the twenty minutes or so each day to write my blog!

I try to work in time for reading journals and books of theology, strategic planning, and spiritual growth. I go over the prayer list, as well as including others who either request prayer or just need prayer.

When I came back from restorative leave last year I found it took weeks, maybe months, to get back into the pace of ministry, which is often thrown off balance by the emergencies and unexpected losses and the serendipitous moments. Not long ago I was returning to the church after a hospital visit. I decided to stop for "just a minute" at the bank to pick up some cash. The person at the ATM in front of me was the daughter of an elderly member who is having a tough time. We spent half an hour outside the bank, discussing his situation.

At least boredom is not a problem, and I actually love the variety that ministry provides. The key, always, is to be open to God's leading and to set priorities which open individuals and the faith community to the presence of Christ. Anthony Robinson encourages clergy to help congregations develop virtuous cycles rather than vicious cycles, and that is always the challenge.