Saturday, January 31, 2009

There's Probably a God continued

Today in the Globe and Mail newspaper there was a large ad from the United Church's Wondercafe picking up on the atheist/agnostic bus ads. Clever.

The Audacity of Hope

"So much for global warming!" We have been experiencing winter in a way that we can't remember since childhood, at least not here in Southern Ontario. We would do well to ditch the term "global warming" altogether because it is human-made climate change that we need to be addressing.

While we shiver in the cold people in Australia are literally dying of the heat. Temperatures have soared into the upper forties, celcius, and the drought has been so prolonged (several years) that it has earned the name The Big Dry. During one trip to Israel years ago the temperature hit 45 and I can tell you that this sort of heat can be as oppressive and dangerous as any cold snap. The Australian scientific community and the government have stated that this hot, dry weather is directly related to climate change. The signs pictured above are warnings about misuse of water in the H20 challenged country.

We have become so preoccupied with the faltering global economy that environmental issues have been pushed to the back burner (pun possibly intended.) I hope that faith communities of every stripe will continue to uphold care for Creation in the midst of the recession.

At a recent Bowmanville ministerial meeting nine congregations and Christian organizations, including the local Christian high school committed to a Jubilee: Creation Care event on April 25th. Despite the reality of very different theological perspectives we have agreed that the integrityof God's created order is a shared concern and an opportunity for shared effort.

Of course we need governments at every level to provide courageous leadership. You may have noticed that President Obama gave the green light for states to set tougher emission standards for automobiles, something the Bush administration refused to do. Perhaps we can have the "audacity of hope" for a healthier planet home.

Friday, January 30, 2009

There Probably is a God!

So, a proposed ad campaign on Toronto Transit Commission buses by atheists is receiving lots of media attention. The encouragemnent is to accept that there is probably no God, which means we can now go out and enjoy life. These ads actually began in Britain as a reaction to Christian ads on buses. There was a link to a website promising the fires of hell to those who didn't turn to Christ.

I have no problem with this freedom of expression, providing the ads are not hateful or deliberately misleading. These actually say that there probably isn't a God, which is more of an agnostic position than atheistic.

I have said before that my objection is to a society where any recognition of a deity in the "public square" is expunged. I listened to an Ontario postal worker yesterday who has been told that he can no longer greet his co-workers with "Lord, thank you for a beautiful day!" He has been saying this in French for years, following in the footsteps of a former postie who introduced the expression. He offered it cheerfully, no matter the weather, and his co-workers responded in kind. No more though, because one employee objected. The postal worker had never prosyletized or talked religion in the workplace but now he must keep his greeting to himself.
My faith actually helps me deal with worry and anxiety. My understanding of Christianity is not based on the threat of hell but the promise of abundant and eternal life.

I'm not getting much in the way of blog response these days, but are you okay with the bus ads? Should we have the freedom to express our faith discreetly?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Honouring Our Bodies

On Sunday I offered the third message in a series of six on Spiritual Practices, those "holy habits" that deepen and strengthen our Christian faith. Week three was on honouring our bodies, a subject which is largely avoided in the church, even though ours is an embodied faith in Christ.

Yesterday my latest Christian Century magazine arrived with an article Our Bodies, Our Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor. she makes the statement "I reject any religious definition of goodness that leaves the body behind." She also includes a hymn by the wonderful writer Brian Wren.

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and ageing, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh.
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Do we need to consider body as well as soul in our discussion of faith? What is your experience of how you were taught to regard your body?

The Poorest of the Poor

Yesterday's federal budget was old news by the time finance minister Jim Flaherty took the floor in the House of Commons, thanks to a series of designed leaks to let us in on the expenditures piece by piece. To no one's surprise, Canada is following the lead of countries around the world in spending its way out of recession. Our "made in Canada" stimulus package will require billions of borrowed dollars. I have yet to hear of precedents for this sort of "spend now, pay later" initiative that have actually effectively halted a recession, but maybe it will work.

Of course even with the promise of billions in stimulus spending lots of people and groups are unhappy. Premier Danny Williams of Newfoundland doesn't like this budget, but he isn't a fan of anything the feds do. There are some big bucks for renewable energy, but environmentalists hoped for more.

A small voice representing the poorest of the poor was raised yesterday but it probably won't be heard. There are concerns about child poverty in this country, and that the recession will hit the children of low income and unemployed families the most. This group is not well represented and over and over again the interests of children suffer in hard times. There have been huge bail-outs for those who helped create this economic mess, but kids are neither seen nor heard.

The scriptures of both older and newer testaments in the bible call repeatedly for support for the poorest in our society, including children and vulnerable women. In a culture with a strongly Judeo-Christian ethic, it would be good if we paid attention to these exhortations.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Good and Just Cause?

I have mentioned before that Ruth and I have been on highway 401 or parallel to it twice as the cortege of funeral coaches and other vehicles made their way along the Highway of Heroes. On a couple more occasions we have seen the gathered crowds of supporters on highway overpasses. It is a moving tribute, but we end up feeling sick with sadness for these families in their grief. A great deal has been written lately about the growing strength and determination of the Taliban, the militant Islamicists. These fundamentalists are not going away, and they are ruthless.

At the same time we hear that a growing number of children are going to school in the desparately poor country of Afghanistan. Real schools with real education -- not just indoctrination. A significant percentage of these school children are girls, even though there have been vicious attacks upon them. A group of girls were attacked by some Taliban insurgents and doused with acid. Horrible. Yet they remain determined to get an education.

An editorial today in the Globe and Mail newspaper pointed out some of the hopeful signs and included some statistics about education:

Of the 5.7 million students enrolled last year, according to Afghan government data, 35 per cent are girls. About 800,000 of the total were new students, and 40 per cent of them are girls. The high schools graduated 69,000 students, of whom 25 per cent are girls. There are, thankfully, many other brave girls in Afghanistan.

What do you think: is it possible to be peacemakers in spirit yet engaged in an armed conflict? Do you feel that Canada's mission in Afghanistan is worthwhile? Do you think that the 2011 withdrawal date should be firm and fast? There aren't easy answers, yet these are Canadians men and women fighting for and dying for a cause.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Day for Justice

A few weeks ago I invited the congregation to sign a petition calling for the return of teen Omar Khadr from the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba to Canada. I let people know that while Khadr may be guilty of his alleged crime in Afghanistan, he was being held without trial by the U.S. government and that there was no recognition of his age (fifteen) at the time of the incident. The United Church and other Canadian churches have tried to be a voice of conscience in this case. Jesus was direct in telling his followers that if they are faithful they will support and visit the sick and the hungry and those in prison. There was a line after the service of those willing to sign the petition at St. Paul's.

While other nations, including Britain, had petitioned for the release of their nationals to stand trial at home, the Canadian government has been silent. There has been a general recognition elsewhere that Guantanamo Bay represents a serious violation of international human rights and has probably been a centre for torture. I watched a documentary in which the U.S. military lawyer representing Khadr raised concerns that his government was ignoring its own laws and international conventions by holding prisoners without trial.

The announcement yesterday that the Obama government will close Guantanamo Bay prison is an important step toward restoring America's reputation as a defender of human rights and freedoms, rather than being a violator. President Obama actually publicly signed this into law, as pictured above. I wish our government had demonstrated the courage over the past few years to challenge, diplomatically, what we view as contraventions of democracy.
So ends America week in my blog!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

God of the Desert Places

My week of continuing education was with a spiritual director at Ghost Ranch, the Presbyterian conference and retreat centre in New Mexico. A generous endowment years ago affords the clergy at St. Paul's opportunities to participate in events which require money for travel. The fourteen hours of travel by "trains, planes, and automobiles" leave me exclaiming "never again!" but perhaps lengthy travel days are like childbirth. If you didn't forget some of it you would never go through it again.
Not only have I appreciated Ghost Ranch programs on two separate occasions, I am smitten by the desert landscape. This facility sprawls over several thousands acres of high desert (6500 ft.), on a former cattle ranch given to the Presbyterian church in the 1950's. Ghost Ranch has become increasingly popular as a movie set, including the first part of the most recent Indiana Jones film and 3:10 to Yuma starring Russell Crowe.
This time I stayed at Casa del Sol, the retreat house two miles from the main campus. It is a simple adobe building renovated to house a few guests.
As you can see, it is winter in northern New Mexico, although we enjoyed eight sunny days. The view of the extinct volcano called Padernal is from the living room window. Despite a whopping cold I managed a couple of hikes in spare time, including up Box Canyon. The icicles are at least ten metres high, to give you some perspective. The view from Chimney Rock is to pine and juniper trees on the plateau below. And there were cactus here and there peeking out from the snow. A click on the photos will give you a larger image.
I love it when I can talk and learn about God, as well as experience God in the natural world. Hey, God has a tradition of interesting work in deserts.
I am grateful for the Schammerhorn Fund which makes this possible.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Good Speech President Obama

I joined the countless millions around the world who watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama. As someone who speaks to a group of people every week I was in awe of Obama's oratory skills. To address such a massive crowd in such a confident and personal way, presenting a sombre message and still including a stirring note of hope is nothing short of genius.

I was struck by the many references to God during the proceedings, even though President Obama was careful to acknowledge those of different faiths, as well as those who practice no religion. There were scriptural references and allusions, words from hymns, and specific addresses to the Deity. The quartet of musicians offered a sublime arrangement of the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts. The great throng was even invited to join in the Hebrew word "amen" and did so with gusto. I love this great country of ours, but at times I weary of the political correctness which has made a religion of expunging all references to faith from the public square.

One of my favourite moments came shortly after Obama addressed the rapt crowd and people from around the world. Did you notice his older daughter lean over and say three words: "good speech Dad?" How heartwarming and delightful.

What are your thoughts about the inauguration? Were there aspects you found meaningful or hopeful?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Miracle Worker?

Well, I'm back from a continuing education week in the United States. I was the only Canadian and I had plenty of chats over meals about the state of the U.S. economy, universal health care, the war in I-rack, and today's inauguration. Sunday evening I talked with two women who remember well the civil rights movement of the 1960's. One of them said that she can hardly believe that this historic day has come. She was obviously emotional and admitted that she cried the night Obama was elected and probably would today as well.

A couple of times I commented that I didn't think "miracle worker" could be listed on President Obama's resume, and folk conceded that he has inherited a colossal mess which won't be easily addressed in these first weeks and months. But there is great hope in America and in the photo above you see people waiting in the cold of Washington overnight for today's inauguration.

My time away reminded me of the the bonds we have with our American neighbours in so many ways. We can all pray for what can be a great nation again, one which can do great good in our world with the right leadership. Let's pray as well for the safety of Barack Obama and his family.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Shalom Now

I keep waiting for the nation of Israel to exercise restraint and some degree of humanity during its incursion into Gaza. Day by day the death toll mounts with more than 800 dead Palestinians, about a third of them children. The infrastructure of this tiny, crowded area, home to a million and a half people, has been destroyed by relentless bombing. Before the Israeli army moved in 750,000 Gazans depended on food from the United Nations. This crisis has heightened the numbers and need.

From my teens I have been a supporter of the state of Israel and I have visited with groups on four occasions. Each time I am reminded of the importance of this area to the three great monotheistic religions and of the message of peace which Jesus taught and exemplified.

Something has gone terribly wrong in the "eye for eye" approach of both Palestinian extremists and the Israeli government. At the beginning of Israel's assault -- a justified response to Hamas rockets -- a poll showed that roughly 80% of Israelis agreed with the action but only about a third believed that it would make a difference. So what is this other than brutal retaliation?

I have been encouraged by the Jews in this country and even in Israel who realize that this sort of aggressive "tit for tat" will lead to greater hatred, deeper enmity. The group called Peace Now demonstrated in Tel Aviv yesterday.They are willing to speak out, even though it is not popular. Again, I invite you to pray for the peace of this region.


I will be away on continuing education during this week, so I won't be musing online. I'll talk with you soon. Shalom.

Friday, January 09, 2009

God's Presence in Tough Times

Last evening federal finance minister Jim Flaherty faced upset constituents during a townhall meeting in Whitby. They told their stories of job loss and concern for the future of their children.
Canada shed 34,000 jobs in December, a grim statistic, although the United States lost more than half a million jobs, a far higher per capita loss. President-elect Barack Obama is warning of a catastrophic outcome unless all parties work toward a new economic plan.

Great Britain is also experiencing wide-spread plant closures and what they call "redundancy," their version of "lay-offs." The Church of England published prayers this past week specific to the experience of job loss. Again, it is an attempt to publicly display compassion in the midst of difficult times. Here is one example:

Thank you, Heavenly Father, that in the middle of the sadness, the anger, the uncertainty, the pain, I can talk to you.
Hear me as I cry out in confusion, help me to think clearly, and calm my soul.
As life carries on, may I know your presence with me each and every day.
And as I look to the future, help me to look for fresh opportunities, for new directions.
Guide me by your Spirit, and show me your path, through Jesus, the way, the truth and the life.

Are you affected by the economic downturn? Is your faith of comfort in difficult times?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Back to the Movies

I better catch up on the movies. Last week we also saw Milk, which tells the story of Harvey Milk's activism and election in San Francisco during the 1970's. Milk was a resident of the Castro district, the gay village in San Fran. After several failed attempts he was elected as a city supervisor, the first openly gay man to be voted in to a significant public office in the United States.

Milk also opposed legislation which would have made it illegal to be a teacher and homosexual in California. Religious leaders and personalities such as Anita Bryant led a relentless campaign to ban gays from teaching and other public offices, but in the end they were defeated. President Jimmy Carter, a committed Christian, opposed the legislation.

Watching this story made me think of how often people tell me that they believe in rights for gays and lesbians, but... They usually go on to tell me which rights they don't want extended to homosexuals. It also reminded me of how much societal attitudes have changed and the degree to which I have been pushed to address my own prejudices and stereotypes through my lifetime. This has obviously been one of the most controversial areas the church has addressed in the past forty years, and it still leads to tension and division.

This is a well made and well acted film and Sean Penn is brilliant, once again. Would you be comfortable watchng a film such as Milk? Have your attitudes and perceptions changed over time?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

From Sea to Sea to Sea

The United Church of Canada is a national denomination with congregations from sea to sea to sea. There has been a trend in recent years for our individual church families to be more insular and less concerned about the work of the greater church. Perhaps the pressure of survival in a much less church-oriented society has accentuated this trend.

I have received two press releases from the offices of our General Council (head office) in recent days which remind me of the importance of the wider church. One is a statement calling for a cease fire in the Gaza Strip. The message from our moderator does not take sides but offers this reminder:"The teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are rooted in love, peace, and justice.I invite all religious leaders to join hearts to witness to those roots through prayer and action for peace. As faith leaders, let us demonstrate that religion is a force for life, not death, in the world."

The other was an open letter to the grieving citizens of Sparwood, British Columbia , where eight men perished last week in an avalanche.

Dear Friends, words alone cannot heal the profound grief you must be feeling. However, know that across the country many are holding you in love. Hearts are reaching out to you in this great shock and sadness you are living. Many Canadians are whispering to God the name of a town, Sparwood, and the names of the people who live there.

Please accept my sincere personal sympathies. With each news story I am holding you in prayer. And on behalf of The United Church of Canada please accept the deepest sympathies of our members.

I especially want to offer condolences to family members and close friends who will feel this loss most poignantly for months and years to come. Long after this story has faded from the news, they will be finding their way in the "valley of shadows".

The sudden loss of eight men - family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers - in any community is devastating. Like you, I live in a small resource town, and know that everyone is personally and profoundly touched when tragedy strikes.

Small towns, though, also have ways of gathering close and caring for one another. With each tear shared, each hug exchanged, each time neighbours visit or bring food to those who are grieving, may you know a spirit of great love and healing at work in you and in your community. I am praying that in these days of weeping and nights of sleeplessness you will experience God tangibly with you.

It is New Year's Eve. The year ahead will be a difficult one for many in Sparwood. I trust that in these long days of darkness, light will stand against the night, like the candles some of you put in the snow outside your church. May there be many kind souls among you who stand as lights of hope, defying the darkness.

Blessings and Peace be with you,

David Giuliano, Moderator
The United Church of Canada

I'm glad that we are part of a national church with leaders willing and able to express our deepest thoughts and prayers.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Star Struck

This is the Day of Epiphany, the Christian celebration of the Magi arriving from the east in Bethlehem, where they found the young Jesus. Matthew is the only gospel to share this story of the wise astrologers/astronomers who followed a "star" on their quest. The reason I put the word star in parentheses is because there has been a great deal of scholarly and scientific speculation over what that heavenly body actually was.
I heard and saw a couple of the Vatican's astronomers discussing this on television recently. Did you know that the Roman Catholic church has two astronomical observatories, one at Castel Gandalfo in Italy (photo above) and another in the mountains of Arizona? Jesuit priests undergo the necessary scientific training to be astronomers and run the sophisticated telescopes at these locations. I think this is a cool gig for clergy!

Because of the whole Galileo debacle, we tend to think of the Roman Catholic church from that era as anti-science. It was not the case then, at least not totally, and certainly isn't now There is a renaissance cathedral in Bologna, Italy with perforations in the roof which allow for a stream of sunlight from which astronomical calculations can be made on a meridian line on the floor. (also above.)

The Jesuit priests/astronomers reminded the T.V. interviewer that the gospel of Matthew is not a scientific treatise, and offered their ideas on what the Magis' star might have been.

I love the night sky, although I don't know much about it. Nor does our southern Ontario light pollution allow good viewing. While we have seen spectacular exhibits of the Northern Lights and the Perseid meteor shower while living in Northern Ontario and Newfoundland, the clearest night sky ever was during a stay in the desert of New Mexico.

What about your experience? Some of you live north of the GTA and in rural Saskatchewan. Are you star-struck?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Elijah and the Ravens

In January our Sunday School will spend time learning about the prophet Elijah, one of the major figures of the Old Testament. According to 1st Kings Elijah was a Godly man who fiercely opposed the corruption of the monarch Ahab. On a couple of occasions Elijah fled for his life into the wilderness where he was ministered to by angels and ravens. Ravens? It sounds like the curious stuff of ancient legends that ravens would bring bread and meat twice a day for the prophet's sustenance.

Still, if there were any birds for God to enlist, ravens would be a good choice. The members of this avian family include ravens, crows, jays -- all highly intelligent and clever creatures. They thrive on every continent on the planet with the exception of Antarctica. When we lived in Newfoundland a Gander photographer would tour the back roads of the province on his motorcycle, his pet crow perched on his shoulder. Researchers figure that ravens and crows are at least as intelligent as dogs and seem to have a sense of humour.

I like the idea that the children of our congregation will learn a little known story of the bond between winged creatures and a human being. Didn't Jesus ask us to consider the flowers of the field and the birds of the air?

Friday, January 02, 2009

Ugly Gus, Beginning to End

It is confession time. A day, a mere twenty four hours after writing about the heart-warming story of a group of people who saved two stranded horses I am going to pick up the cute calf you see in the photo. To be honest, I will put about a quarter of him in my station wagon, wrapped in butcher's paper and drive home.

I took this photo of the calf about a year and a half ago, while visiting our good friends who own a small farm north of Kingston. I watched as he was born on a cool May afternoon while the rest of the herd stood nearby, curious about the newcomer. It was obvious from the outset that he had a face only a mother could love and our friends named him Ugly Gus. Watching his birth was still a wee miracle.

I saw Gus on a couple of occasions after that and his markings were so unusual that it wasn't hard to pick him out of rest of the calves who hung out together, One day I watched him run around the hay feeder in a way that I might describe as coltish, if he weren't a calf.

Alas, Ugly Gus was born into this world to grace someone's dinner plate and it turns out that someone is me, along with members of our family. My older daughter is a vegetarian and shocked that I could eat a creature I saw take its first breaths. My wife and younger daughter just don't want to see the "family album" of photographs I took that day.

I actually feel that Gus had a good life, as cow's lives go. He lived on the farm to the end, never spending time in a feedlot, the cow version of a concentration camp. He grazed in fields and ran around with his pals, unaware of his fate. It has been suggested that if we are going to raise creatures for food they should be granted a reasonably good life and a merciful death. As a Christian I don't want creatures to suffer, even the ones I consume. Our friends make every effort to ship their cows and sheep to the local abbatoir on the day they are to be killed, so they don't have to spend extended time in an atmosphere of terror.

So, am I simply justifying my choice to eat meat? Daughter One would say yes. Are there vegetarians amongst our readers? Do the rest of you give much thought to where the meat on your table comes from? It would be good to hear your opinions.

Compassion for All Creatures

There has been so much heartache and so many bad news stories during the past couple of weeks that it is hard not be dragged down in spirit.

At the same time there are always messages of hope and generosity in the midst of sadness. The one I really appreciated came out of a British Columbia region beset by unemployment. A young man on a snowmobile discovered two frostbitten, starving horses trapped in the back-country. The first thought was to put them out of their misery but the man's family decided to try to save the horses.

In no time they recruited a group who worked for days to dig a path through snow two metres deep in order to walk the horses to freedom. Even though they were working in temperatures as low as -40 celcius they dug a trail over two kilometres in length. Some of the workers didn't get a Christmas tree up because they were so preoccupied with freeing the horses. After a week of diligent effort they were able to get them out to begin their recovery.

Our nativity scenes usually include animals gathered around the infant Jesus, even though they aren't mentioned in the gospels. There is something about the bond between humans and other creatures that encourages us to place them alongside the Christ-child.

I'm glad to hear that good people honoured this in such a generous and practical way.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Self Control for 2009!

Welcome to a New Year! It is a sunny -18 celcius here in Southern Ontario, or about zero fahrenheit for our American friends. I appreciate that this is sunbathing and barbecue weather for readers in Saskatchewan and Alberta, but it feels cold for us wimps in the Banana Belt.

Have you made any resolutions for 2009? If you need help in your resolve, go to church. I know this seems like a fairly self-serving suggestion but according to a piece in the New York Times a recent study has found that going to church or synagogue or mosque on a regular basis strengthens the qualities of discipline and self-control in other aspects of life. No, I am not making this up!

The scientist who directed the study is not much of a churchgoer himself, but in reviewing eight decades of research and doing his own studies he has found that those who worship regularly absorb and reinforce the positive values of their religion. They are more likely to wear seatbelts, go to the dentist and take vitamins, Did I mention that I'm not making this up?

It even makes a difference if people are churchgoers rather than being spiritual in their outlook.
I quote:

In one personality study, strongly religious people were compared with people who subscribed to more general spiritual notions, like the idea that their lives were “directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being” or that they felt “a spiritual connection to other people.” The religious people scored relatively high in conscientiousness and self-control, whereas the spiritual people tended to score relatively low.

All I can say is, I hope I see you in church soon. Here is a link to the article