Thursday, April 30, 2009

All in a Day

Yesterday I drove to farmer Jim's place to get some photos of newborn lambs in preparation for Good Shepherd Sunday (worship with us this Sunday!.) I got a bonus of "just out of the package" kittens. On my way back I stopped to take some shots of a sea of daffodils. In the evening we walked down to the lake and enjoyed the evidence of Spring, including a tree full of roosting swallows. The shoe just intrigued me, as human garbage that somehow made me think of pilgrimage. At Saturday's Creation Care event I mentioned Sally McFague's invitation for Christians to regard the world with a loving eye rather than an arrogant eye.
So, "all in a day" of paying attention to God's world.
Click on these photos for larger images.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Act of God

When I was sixteen I spent two weeks at Bark Lake, the Ontario leadership camp. While out on a bog walk lightning struck and a young person in the group behind us was zapped, probably indirectly. For a brief, terrifying time she was paralyzed but after an overnight stay in hospital she was back at the camp.

This year the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto will open with a film called Act of God, which is about people who have been struck by lightning. The film explores the metaphysical effects of surviving a lightning strike. Many individuals feel that their lives have been changed by being struck, and some feel that that they have been spared by God for other purposes.

What an interesting approach. Most of us hope that our lives actually mean something, that we are more than ants scurrying around the face of the planet for a brief time. The reports of the unfortunate people whose lives are snuffed out in a car accident or in a catastrophic "act of God" such as a tsunami or earthquake cause us to ask whether there is a loving God who "sees the little sparrow fall."

I cringe when someone suggests that a child who has died has been taken to be with the angels, or that God needs the person whose life has come to an end in heaven. I can't imagine God being that arbitrary. We all die and often our deaths don't appear to make much sense or to have a greater purpose.

Any thoughts on acts of God?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Family Feuds

A couple of months ago I preached on the verse from the Ten Commandments which warns us not to bear false witness against others. I suggested that there are a number of current applications of this commandment, including the parent wars which occur when couples break up. I made reference to an interview I heard with Ontario family court judge Harvey Brownstone, who has written a book on what he has seen and heard through the years.

Judge Brownstone is in demand again today because of a negotiated truce involving divorced parents and their three sons. The enmity between mother and father has been so toxic that the younger brothers have been removed from their care and it appears that the most mature interested party is still in his teens. The eldest of the three had applied for custody of his brothers, but at his eighteenth birthday party they came up with a mutual agreement.

The bible contains many stories of family feuds which have many negative consequences, including death. One of Jesus' "show-stopper" parables is of the prodigal son, but even there the older brother is not impressed by reconciliation. Three thousand years ago or today, family dynamics can tear us apart, as well as nurture us.

What do you think about the Ontario ruling? Do you feel that a relationship with God can make a positive difference when we are "at odds" with loved ones?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Joyful, Joyful

One of this blog's readers has enthusiatically encouraged our congregation to attend our annual Spring concert for all the years I have been here, setting the goal of filling the sanctuary. It took a while, but last night it happened with an appreciative audience of members and guests both downstairs and in the balcony.

Our fun-loving music director, Doug, seamlessly included music from both our choirs, soloists, our newer music group called Fish for Breakfast, and his son, Patrick, also an organist. Doug interjects jokes and humorous observations that delight the audience.

It's all enjoyable, but I really like the two choirs singing together. Last night there were 30 senior choir members and about 15 junior choir kids. There is a special energy when the two sing together, whether in worship or in concert. Choirs are something of an endangered species, with fewer people joining established choirs and many churches choosing other ways for musical leadership.

The children of several readers were at the front of the sanctuary last night, singing heartily and radiantly and it was wonderful to watch them and listen to them. I spoke to the two oldest girls, in that tween/teen age, complimenting them on their strong leadership for the younger children. In turn, the senior choir provides the solid base for some of the joint anthems. junior choir member was quite smug that she had learned the words for a shared piece while her senior choir dad had to use the music!

It's hard to imagine joyful faith without praise, and praise finds expression in song. Thanks to Doug and Allanah (our choir leaders) the choirs, and everyone else who took part.
I should add that the proceeds from the concert are used to pay our fees for Interchurch Health Ministries, the organization for Parish Nurses.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Nor Any Drop to Drink

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink ;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Okay, your Saturday Jeopardy question is... where do these lines come from? Yes, you're all correct. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge. Well done. The poem speaks of the thirst which cannot be slaked because the water everywhere is salty, the water of the ocean.

What happens when the water we depend on, the supposed freshwater of our planet, is too dirty to drink? Not only is there an increasing number of humans using water in vast quantities, we use many of our waterways and lakes as storm sewers and waste dumps. This is colossally shortsighted, but what's new?

Check out the website for Mother Earth Water Walk. It describes the rather quixotic and deeply symbolic walks made by a group of aboriginal people around the Great Lakes of Canada. They carry a pail of water with them as they go, a reminder of the sacred quality of water, Of course they are also aware of the effects of contaminated water on those who live by it and depend upon it. Many native bands in Canada live alongside contaminated water and continue to deal with compromised health as a result. Since 2003 the group members have circumnavigated the Great Lakes and this year the goal is to walk the St. Lawrence River. Our daughter-in-law, Rebekah, has been diving in the St. Lawrence as part of her master's degree research, and she attests to the fact that it isn't in the greatest shape.

Jesus told a woman by a well, that he was living water, again a reminder of the sacred nature of water in virtually every religion.
We can't exist without it, so it probably a good idea to take care of it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

In Wisdom God Made Them All

I have been musing this week about the many blessings we have received in the natural world, the opportunities to experience the diversity of a planet that we cherish as God's creation. The variety has been stunning. We have snorkelled in the Caribbean and Costa Rica and seen fish of many shapes, sizes, and colours. Twice now I have travelled to New Mexico and on each occasion been taken by surprise by the stark beauty of the desert.

Our years in Northern Ontario allowed us to canoe and hike into country where we didn't see other humans for days but did come close to otters, bears, moose, peregrine falcons and eagles, to name just a few. In the Saguenay region of Quebec and at Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy we saw Beluga whales, and Right whales, as well as porpoises swimming beneath our kayaks.

Early the other morning, while it was still dark, I lay in bed thinking about an experience when our children were young. We were staying in one of those two-storey clapboard houses you see in the travel ads for Newfoundland, on a small chunk of north Atlantic rock called Change Islands, adjacent to Fogo Island. Friends from our earlier days living in Newfoundland loaned us the place for a week and we loved our time there. Neighbours told us that the mackerel were running in close to shore, so we climbed up the hill behind the house which gave us a magnificent view out to sea. We saw many small boats with local folk hauling in nets filled with fish. Around them were Humpback whales, presumably there for the same "feed." From high above, gannets were plunging into the water with amazing accuracy.

The scene was one of abundance and interdependence which was profoundly religious and spiritual for me. Take a moment and read Psalm 104 which speaks of the great variety of creation on land and in the air and in the sea. This Psalm reminds us humans co-exist with other creatures who are important because God made them.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Animals Make Us Human

Dr. Temple Grandin is a fascinating woman, diagnosed with autism early in life, yet able to overcome the limitations of that condition to earn a doctorate, teach at a university, and write a number of best-selling books. The lastest is Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals in which she considers our relationship as the human animal with other animals. She considers those creatures we describe as pets, or companion animals, the ones we eat (pigs, cows, chickens, etc.) and the animals of the wild. With her co-writer, Catherine Johnson, she offers her perspective on the minds of all these creatures, and I have found it quite interesting. I have assumed that there is no "rhyme nor reason" to what my cat does, but she argues that felines have behavioural patterns that explain a lot. Really.

The section of the book which intrigues me most has to do with the treatment of animals raised for food. I don't want to be a vegetarian, as two of my children are (for the most part) but I am uncomfortable with the ethics of treating animals the way totalitarian regimes treat people they want to eliminate.

Dr. Grandin has helped establish standards for the way food animals are raised and killed that have been adopted by a number of big corporations including MacDonalds restaurants. Michael Pollan addresses similar issues in his book The Ominvore's Dilemma, also excellent.

Over time I have come to realize that I can eat less meat, and no meat in some meals. I can also make the effort to consider whether the animals which end up on my plate have lived a reasonably life and had a merciful death. Since I claim that God has made all creatures, how can I pretend that they began life on a styrofoam tray? And hey, what if I have to meet them again in heaven?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fighting the Good Fight

The other day I went to fish a plastic bag out of the tangle of what has seemed like thousands stuffed into a section of the pantry closet. Except that I was a little frustrated in my task. There were a bunch of paper bags and a few heavier bags with handles from clothing stores, but the mass of plastic grocery bags is gone. Ruth has successfully converted herself and us to the reusable bags which now reside in the back of our station wagon.
I have noticed during the past three years that readers are both passionate and committed about earth-care, especially the measurable, doable steps. You feel that these things are part of your Christian witness. In blogs I have advocated for:

Rain barrels
Cycling and walking over driving
Using less disposable plastic
Finding local food sources and gardening
Replacing plastic grocery bags with reusable
Reducing the use of chemical household cleaners
Reducing the use of lawn and garden chemicals

You have been great in letting others know what you have been doing. Are you still "fighting the good fight" to use the apostle Paul's term? Please comment on changed habits and what is working for you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Isn't the Brain Green?

This past weekend the New York Times Magazine included an article entitled Why Isn't the Brain Green? It addresses the important question of why we don't make changes to preserve the wellbeing of our planet home, even when more and more information is sent our way which confirms that the 6.6 billions human beings on this planet are changing the climate and gobbling up its resources. While I consider myself fairly environmentally aware I still fly on planes, and drive a car and live in a big house (a manse mind you) that requires lots of fossil fuel to heat. While we are making lots of choices to be earth-friendly, I know full well that I could live a lot more simply if I wanted to.

That's what the article tries to get at. Maybe we just don't want to. Psychological experiments show that the majority of us will take ten dollars now rather than twenty dollars down the road. We are aren't big on delayed gratification or altruism. We get uneasy about the planet we are passing on to our kids and grandkids but in the back of our minds we may be thinking that they will figure out the problems with brave new technology, or that the climate change debunkers are actually right.

The article also asks whether we would be better off as a species to make decisions collectively and then expect individual compliance rather than the other way around. Many voices, including my own in this blog, encourage the individual acts which together will make a big difference. I won't change that tune, but there is something about the decision of the group which may invite the participation of Joe or Jill citizen. We usually assume that means government, but I would offer that the faith collectives -- in our case churches -- can create the climate (pun intended) for change.

Where are you in this? Oh yes, the images above are formed by members of a dance troupe. Cool.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Jubilee: Creation Care

This coming Saturday we will hold an event at St. Paul's called Jubilee: Creation Care which is a morning designed to consider the practical care of God's good Earth. Our son, Isaac, is the co-ordinator of the Green Church Project in Montreal and he is coming to speak about his experience in that role. We are offering seminars on finding locally produced food, taking care of our yards without pesticides, how to be a local activist, worshiping "green" and others. We even have a program for children. I am really pleased that our ministerial has pulled this together. I have worked with a great team of colleagues, including the principal of the Christian high school.

The only "fly in the ointment" (found locally of course) is that nearly all the registrants are from our congregation. Even though six other congregations are officially participating it is our folk who are registered. Maybe it is my long-term passion for "living with respect in Creation " (see the United Church New Creed) which has motivated me to promote this so vigorously. That, and an impressive desire on the part of many of our members to live their faith through responsible stewardship of resources. I have decided not to worry about it and to enjoy our morning together.

The term Jubilee is found in the book of Leviticus which calls for a regular sabbath for the land, a reminder that this is God's Earth and should not be abused.

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: 2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord.

3For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

6You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound labourers who live with you; 7for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Is The Truth Always Inconvenient?

We saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth when it was released in theatres and the Toronto audience clapped enthusiastically at the conclusion. Since then it became an international phenomenon and catapulted also-ran, former Vice Pres Al Gore to a Nobel Prize and singer Melissa Etheridge to a Grammy for her theme song.

There have been a variety of criticisms aimed at the film, some scientists claiming that the information shared is simplistic and others accusing it of being just plain wrong. It has been applauded elsewhere in the scientific community for reaching an audience that would have been put to sleep by the lectures of its critics.

I have offered before that Gore, who is open about his Christian faith, is a prophet for his time, and if you have read the prophetic books of the bible you have probably noticed that there are no footnotes. Sometimes you just throw what you believe as "God's truth" (interesting expression) out there and pray that some of it sticks. I have been aware that many conservative Christians, particularly in the US, who tried to discredit Gore initially have either shut up or come to the startling conclusion that this is God's world and the planet on which Jesus walked, so maybe we should take care of it.

What you rarely hear is that Gore's science has been wrong in the opposite direction. Rather than sounding a false note of alarm, we are regularly hearing that climate change is accelerating at a rate that is much faster than computer models first offered. Our window of opportunity for change may be much smaller than anticipated even five years ago.

On Wednesday of this week we will acknowledge Earth Day, so short of the Second Coming I will use the blog opportunities of this week to reflect on Eco-faith issues.

If you haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth or would like the chance to see it again, it will be broadcast on CBC television this evening, Sunday the 19th of April, at 10 PM. Here is a link

Friday, April 17, 2009

We've Got Talent

By now most of us have heard of Susan Boyle. Ms Boyle is a contestant on the talent search program called Britain's Got Talent. Like most hopefuls on these shows she was looking for her opportunity to shine, but she was an unlikely candidate, at least at first look. At age 47 she is twice as old as most auditioners and she is what we unkindly called a "Plain Jane" years ago. She admitted before she sang that not only has she never married, she has never been kissed. When she told the judges that she wants to be a professional singer, their cynical countenances and the smirks of audience members said it all.

Then she sang, beautifully, and with style and confidence, I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserable. There have now been 19 million views of her performance on Youtube!

The transformation of those present from critics to fans, complete with a standing ovation is wonderful. I must admit that when I first saw the film footage I got misty-eyed. Who doesn't want a disarming story of discovery to brighten up the day?

The gospels are full of stories of Jesus' recognition, respect for, and healing of those who are cast aside by their culture. His ability to regard all people as children of God is an essential part of the Christian message. So many of us, even those who present a respectable or attractive persona to the world, struggle with a sense of self-worth and inner health. Many stars with beauty and talent admit to deep insecurities or engage in self-destructive behaviour.
The "good news" is that in Christ we are loved and accepted, that we "win" the talent search.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Stone-throwers and Freedom

The Woman Taken in Adultery -- Rembrandt

One of my favourite New Testament stories is found only in John's gospel and is considered an "iffy" later addition by many scholars. In some versions of the bible it is in brackets to remind us that it is questionable. I refuse to vote it off the island. It is the story of the adulterous woman who is hauled into the public square to be stoned by a surly group of religious men. You probably know the one I mean: Jesus tells them that the one without sin can cast the first rock of judgement and they simply melt away. (John 8) Why wasn't the guy who was messing around the subject of condemnation? Of course, women were held to a different standard. Jesus was not a twenty-first century feminist, but there are plenty of stories in the gospels where he addresses women as persons of worth, loved by God.

Yesterday we saw the photos and film footage from Afghanistan where brave women marched in the streets to protest laws as backward and brutal as those from two thousand years ago when it comes to marriage. It's been noted that Afghani women are amongst the most vulnerable in the world in terms of the laws of the land. We have heard that women leaders, including teachers, continue to be gunned down by the Taliban.
Three or four hundred women marched and more than a thousand jeering, stone-throwing men were restrained by police. It is not only outrageous, but this is perpetrated in God's name.

According to her family the young Canadian soldier who died in Afghanistan a couple of days ago was there because she believed in freedom for the women and children of that country. Let's pray that her sacrifice was not in vain, that change continues to happen, and equality can be achieved.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Mystery of Prayer

A little girl went missing last week in Woodstock, Ontario, apparently spirited away from school by an unidentified woman in a white winter coat. The police won't call it an abduction but given that the child is eight years old, how could anyone consider her disappearance "voluntary?"

There was a massive ground search, eventually called off my authorities when absolutely no evidence turned up. As the days progressed a vigil was organized that drew hundreds of people. Local churches included little Victoria in their prayers over the Easter weekend.

This sort of intercessory prayer is important, it seems to me, yet we seldom speak of what we hope will happen. Do we think that God's mind will be changed somehow by our prayers? Will the abductor "see the light" as a result of prayer?

Several years ago a retired United Church minister wrote an article in an Eastern Ontario newspaper offering his cynical view that this sort of prayer was misguided and that the outcome of such sad situations wasn't altered at all by approaching the Deity. It was a rather cruel and decidedly unpastoral opinion that didn't seem to benefit anyone. His outlook seemed arrogant and unfeeling.

I have come to realize through the years that intercessory prayer is a mystery without predictable outcomes. Insisting that God will answer prayers in a specific way can be just as cruel as suggesting that God has better things to do than listen to us. But I have also seen how prayer has comforted and given courage to both the afflicted and to those who are praying alike.

I have no easy way of measuring the efficacy of prayer, yet I don't really want to live in a world without it. We can all pray for Victoria's safe return.
Any opinions?

Monday, April 13, 2009


I must admit that when the hectic schedule of Holy Week and Easter comes to an end I shout "Hallelujah!" Five services in eight days is a challenge and fortunately I can share responsibility with Cathy, the choir, and a great supporting staff and lay workers.

Whenever possible I take time on Easter afternoon to go for a walk and the sunny skies made that possible again yesterday. I have managed a walk on each of the past three days and have noticed changes each time out. I saw my first kingfisher on Friday, the first swallows Saturday, and my first blue heron of the season on Sunday. Each new day announces a different aspect of Spring.

The yellow flowers in the photo above (no, they're not dandelions) are in a sheltered spot within metres of Lake Ontario. The red-winged blackbird was telling me in no uncertain terms to "get lost!" The trumpeter swan joins the introduced mute swans, a sign of a restored population. Daughter Emily was experimenting with close encounters of the chickadee kind.
It was good to sing our hallelujahs to celebrate the resurrection and good to hear the hallelujahs of the rebirth of the natural world.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Getting the Easter Story Straight

Reader Joe loaned me his copy of Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. A long title for a short book, don't you think. As mentioned before, Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day, on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, and both were world-changers.

I was fascinated to read about Abraham Lincoln's untimely death and that those present had such varying views of what was said by his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, or if he said anything at all as he fired the fatal shot. Lincoln did not die immediately and there is also uncertainty about the chain of events leading up to his last breath and what was said by those who surrounded his death bed.

I find this rather comforting as we come to the day of resurrection, which began with the discovery of an empty tomb. We will read from Mark's gospel today, even though my usual choice and by far the most popular is John. John tells of the encounter between the grief-stricken Mary Magdalene and the Risen Christ. Mark puts a different group at the tomb, at a different time, and doesn't offer that Jesus was seen at all. The story ends with them running away in fear -- hardly a great start.

I think we might be a little suspicious if all four gospels were in total agreement on what happened, which they aren't. It would seem too much like "getting the story straight" the way we sometimes figure is happening with co-accused at a trial, or the police for that matter.

The four gospels all agree that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had risen from the dead. The apostle Paul, who wrote his letters before the gospels, agreed with this. It's up to us to decide what we agree with as followers of Christ.

To offer my opinion, Christ is Risen!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Blessing of the Son/Sun

We have been blessed with sunny days here in Southern Ontario, from the beginning of Maundy Thursday, and through until Easter Monday, by the look of the forecast. I find it interesting that during this sacred time of Christ's passion and resurrection there was a religious observance in Orthodox Judaism related not to the cycles of the moon but to the sun.

Early on Wednesday morning Jews in countries around the world, including Canada, said a special blessing honouring God the Creator of all things, including the sun. This is one of rarest of Jewish religous observances because it happens only every twenty eight years. These devout Jews emphasize that they are not worshipping the sun but rather paying homage to the Creator.The Birchat Hachama says "Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe who makes the works of Creation."

A group of several hundred Jews gathered this past Wednesday for this sun prayer, on the flat top of the ancient mountain fortress called Masada in the Judean desert of Israel. It's thought that this is the first time in 2000 years that the prayer has been offered in this location. I have climbed up to the ruins of Masada (the cablecar makes it much easier!) where there is a spectacular view to the east and the Dead Sea. I'm sure this prayer experience was truly awe-inspiring.

This weekend when Christians are honouring the Son, the light of the world, we can give thanks to the creator of the sun which illuminates our planet.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Beneath the Cross of Jesus

This morning we were awakened to the sound of nails being pounded into wood. A neighbour was getting a project underway, but it was a reminder of the solemnity of the day.

We worshiped at St. Paul's with excellent music and the involvement in leadership by ten of our children and young people. It was good to have these kids and other children from the congregation as part of our Good Friday commemoration.

After lunch we went for a walk along the shore of Lake Ontario and the cross in the photo above was a piece of driftwood washed onto the beach.

I read in the paper that today is the third biggest worship occasion in Canadian mosques. As surprising as that may be, the long weekend and the Friday holiday makes it possible for many Islamic families to gather. Jesus is recognized as a prophet in Islam, so many Imams take this opportunity to speak about his importance to their religion. I had never heard this before. A real reminder of our multi-cultural society.
See how Good Friday has been recognized around the world.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Gift of Life and Love

In the provocative and excellent film Jesus of Montreal the young actor playing Jesus in a passion play suffers a head injury in a tragi-comic melee which involves the police. Although he is rushed to the hospital (appropriately a Jewish hospital) he succumbs to his injury and dies. His friends, also in the play, must decide whether his healthy organs will be removed and transplanted into needy recipients. We see his heart being removed and carried away to give life to someone else. Of course there are echoes of Christ's sacrificial love for others. The "sacred heart of Jesus" beats on in someone else.

With all the media attention around a two-month-hold infant named Kaylee, whose heart might have been transplanted into another very sick child except for her unexpected tenacity, you would think someone would make a connection with this holiest of Christian weeks, but I haven't seen or heard anything.

This is the second big transplant story in a matter of weeks. The actor Natasha Richardson suffered what proved to be a fatal injury on a ski slope near Montreal and her organs were used to give life to others. It is an emotional decision for families, but an important one. I was surprised to hear this morning that Canada has the lowest per capita rate of organ donation amongst developed nations. The doctor sharing this information expressed his own surprise given the generosity of Canadians in general.

This transplant specialist mentioned that not only should we sign our donor cards, we need to tell our families of our decision because it is so difficult to decide in the midst of emotional turmoil. After Richardson's death we reminded our adult children of our wishes, although I think the warranty has expired on most of our parts!

What about you, dear readers? Have you signed donor cards and made your wishes known?
Since writing this morning I listened to a CBC radio phone-in where those who been affected by organ transplantation told their stories. It was quite moving. One man was a kidney recipient from a living donor he didn't know before his need was made known -- through Craigslist! Snow tires, a Play Station sure, but a kidney? I suppose it never hurts to try.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Two Great Religion Traditions Interwined

Was anyone else up early today and notice that the moon is almost but not quite full? Tomorrow is the full moon, the first after the Spring equinox. This means two things from a religious perspective. It sets the date for Easter 2009, which is always the first Sunday after the first full moon following the equinox. It also means that tomorrow is the beginning of Passover, or Pesach, in the Jewish religion. For observant Jews a day begins with sunset on the previous evening, so tonight Jewish households will celebrate Passover with its celebration of deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

We know that Jesus and his followers were celebrating Passover the night before his crucifixion and that when he took the unleavened bread and wine and spoke of them as his broken body and shed blood he was offering an extraordinary new perspective on a great tradition. His brokeness would be God's promise of deliverance in a unique way.

Still, Jesus was a Jew observing this important ritual with other Jews. The apostle Paul was a Jew whose passionate letters do not ignore his Jewish heritage. It's hard to understand why Christians through the ages developed a suspicion and even hatred for Jews, to the point that they were persecuted and killed.

There are a number of parents of younger children who are blog readers. Take a moment this evening to explain Passover. And tomorrow evening you might attend our Maundy Thursday service, which is not a seder meal, but draws on the tradition of the Last Supper. The link below is helpful in explaining the questions asked of children during the Seder.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Thanks for the Memories

Andre Fenton explores spatial memory in rats and mice

The best performance I have seen by Canadian actor Jim Carrey was one in which he wasn't his usual zany, over-the-top self. He starred in the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with Kate Winslet, who was also excellent. They are a couple who fall in love and then out again. They live in a present moment during which science has developed the ability to scrub away unpleasant memories, including recollections of relationships gone sour. Carrey's character has the procedure done, but fights back into memory because he wants the recollection of love, however painful it might be.

There was a New York Times article this weekend about the development of a drug that can erase certain memories- truth is stranger than fiction. The benefits? Erasing that part of the memory which triggers addiction is one example. Or we might be able to expunge a chronic fear. It's still a long way from a pharmacy near you, but who knows, one day it may be on your drug plan.

I find this fascinating because so many people on the spiritual quest are shaped by memory. There are people who remember the faith of their childhood, for good or bad, and seek to make their peace with that religious experience in adulthood. There are others who are angry about the pain of the past and wonder whether God can heal the wounds. Forgiveness, a central theme of Christianity and of this season is connected to what we do with our memories.

If you could take a drug to wipe out certain memories, would you do it? Do you think drugs could replace the religious emphasis on forgiveness at some point?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Teens Lose Faith in Droves

The latest edition of MacLean's magazine has a cover article called OMG! What Happened to Teenagers? It is a wide-ranging look at teen trends in Canada near the end of this first decade of a new millenium. According to extensive polls they are drinking less, smoking less, and having less sex. Since these are often major areas of concern for parents, the rushing sound we are hearing may be a collective sigh of relief.

The section which grabbed me was entitled Teens Lose Faith in Droves. The number of teenagers identifying themselves as Christian has dropped by nearly 50% since 1984, and Protestants have fared even worse. This number has plummeted from 35% of the Canadian teen population to 13% during the same period. I am glad the United Church numbers weren't included because I have no doubt they would have been even bleaker. The report does say that there are now more Muslim teens in Canada than Anglican, United, and Baptist combined. About a third of Canadian teens are now in the category of "no faith at all."

I often wonder how it is that we continue to pour money into the maintenance of aging and often redundant church buildings, yet devote so little in the way of financial resources in youth ministry. We made the decision to call a minister of youth development two years ago, but it has been a challenge to convince the very households for which we are providing this ministry to support it financially. It's fine to show up asking for baptism, but what about the promises to raise these children as Christians?

My own experience working with teens is that they ask profound questions of faith on their journey to personal and spiritual maturity. They are complex, sometimes confused, and marvellous human beings. We need to develop a renewed conviction that a personal Christian experience and Christian values make a difference in the lives of our young people.
Where are you in all this?

Sunday, April 05, 2009


When we were living in Northern Ontario we would regularly visit Killarney Provincial Park, about an hour's drive from Sudbury. We could go there during the day for a winter ski (sometimes deep into the spring as well!) and in three seasons we could quickly paddle into the network of beautiful lakes. It was a way of nurturing our spirits and fostering our love for the intricate web of creation.

We were excited when peregrine falcons were re-introduced to the park and as we paddled down George Lake we would search the cliffs for evidence that they were getting established. One day I was attending a meeting at the United Church head office in deepest, darkest Toronto and noticed people gathered around a television monitor. It turned out that peregrines were nesting on a ledge on the highrise building in which the United Church general council resided and I got much better views of peregrines there than we ever did in Killarney.

Which brings me around to the purpose of this blog. Right now you can watch eagles on their nests in British Columbia, thanks to the same technology. Apparently people from all around the world are watching with fascination, aware that eagle chicks may hatch any time now. The photo above is a captured image of one nest taken in the past couple of days. The people who are following this event cheerfully describe themselves as eagle-holics.
There seems to be something in us that is touched by the cycles of life. We could say that it is just biological curiosity but I think it is a delight in the world God has brought into being.

Have you experienced close encounters with the natural world, virtual or actual, that have been memorable?

Friday, April 03, 2009

What's a Trillion Bucks?

I'm old enough to still be impressed when the discussion involves a million dollars (actually, a thousand still catches my attention.) So when the talk turns to a billion I have trouble fathoming what that represents. And a trillion? Isn't that $1,000,000,000,000?

A trillion dollars was being discussed at the just concluded G-20 conference in London, Great Britain. In these chaotic financial times the twenty nations represented pledged a trillion-dollar package for economic stimulus in nations of the world which are even harder hit than the wealthier countries represented in London.

Since this is a recent announcement it's hard to know what this pledge means. Still, this is extremely important news because the citizens of many of the developing and truly have-not countries are challenged to find the minimum number of calories to sustain themselves each day. Extreme poverty leads to malnutrition and starvation and diseases which dramatically reduce the life expectancy. This isn't about comfort level. It is about survival.

Christian denominations and other religions continue to call for this sort of response to global poverty, and we can only hope and pray that the talk in London leads to action. Wealthier nations are notoriously adept at making promises that aren't kept, but the leadership of the United States and willingness of other nations to follow suit is encouraging.

Now if we can just get the Prime Minister to play well with others and show up for the class picture!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Furnace of Transformation

Jesus Praying in Gethsemane

Last week a number of you responded to my blog entry on silence. Silence and solitude are not the same thing, but they are companions. A piece on solitude showed up yesterday in Sound Bites, the daily reflection I receive via email. As I come into the hectic schedule of Holy Week and Easter this is a good reminder and it may be helpful for you as well.


Solitude. Jesus engaged in it frequently. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus went to the wilderness for an extended period of fasting and prayer. He also went into solitude when He heard of the death of John the Baptist, when He was going to choose His disciples, after He had been involved in healing a leper, and after His followers had engaged in ministry. This pattern continued into the final days of His life, when again He withdrew into the solitude of the garden of Gethsemane to pray. He ended His ministry, as He began it, with the practice of solitude.

Jesus taught His followers to do the same. And as He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place," He says to us still. Wise followers of Christ's way have always understood the necessity and benefit of solitude. It is, to quote an old phrase, the "furnace of transformation."

-- John Ortberg in The Life You've Always Wanted

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Equality in Afghanistan

One of the enduring strengths of the United Church is its commitment to equality for women and men in every aspect of our life together. While this has been an evolving commitment since 1925, we have led the way in inviting women into roles of leadership, both as laypeople and in ordered ministry. With this there has been a strong support of justice and fairness for women in Canadian society. I believe we have led the way in many respects.

It was disturbing to read in this morning's Globe and Mail newspaper that the Afghan government is proposing legislation that would condone sexual assault within marriage, as well as other repressive laws which would make women second class citizens by Western standards. Hilary Clinton of the United States has admonished President Karzai of Afghanistan for these laws and other governments, including ours, have expressed concern.

It makes me wonder what the military mission in Afghanistan is accomplishing. Many of us were ambivalent about the invasion of Iraq but were grateful that it brought an end to the Taliban regime which treated women as chattel. How can we prop up a government which has a similar outlook? I have no doubt about the bravery and commitment of Canadian soldiers, but every time I see a procession of funeral vehicles on the 401 highway carrying a fallen soldier toward Toronto I hope and pray that the sacrifice was worth it.

Any thoughts?