Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Navigating the Journey to Wellness

An all-party committee of MPP's in Ontario held a news conference last week supporting a new, interdisciplinary, cohesive program for those dealing with mental health issues. They were supported by former figure skating star Elizabeth Manley who has successfully addressed anxiety and depression in her life. They feel that we are at a crisis point in this province and offered 23 key mental health recommendations in a document called Navigating the Journey to Wellness.

The main recommendation is the creation of an umbrella agency, Mental Health and Addictions Ontario, to design, manage, and coordinate the mental health and addictions system, and to ensure the consistent delivery of programs and services across Ontario.The Committee's other recommendations include:-
The consolidation of all mental health and addictions programs and services in the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care
-The availability of a core basket of services in all regions ofOntario
- Access to system "navigators" who can connect people with the appropriate treatment and community support services
- The provision of additional affordable and safe housing units
- Increased respite care to provide more support for families andcaregivers- The creation of a task force to examine Ontario's mental health legislation.

Mental health is a big challenge in congregations because it is a challenge in society as a whole. Seniors address depression in the face of diminished mobility and physical wellbeing. Teens and young adults experience the onset of schizophrenia and the effect of that disease on life goals. Family members struggle to know how to support loved ones who aren't open to support or diagnosis. Often privacy laws shut primary care givers out of receiving information that is vital to their loved one's health and their safety.

Sometimes the congregation as a whole must decide what compassion means when a member is in the throes of mental illness.We have a member whose bipolar illness has led to episodes of paranoia and delusions in the past. It's not hard to deal with the cheque on the offereing plate for a million dollars. But what about accusations against staff that are ungrounded and dangerous, or disruptions to worship? In this case we "stayed the course" with the person because we felt it was important to be compassionate in Christ's name. There has been a positive outcome because this individual accepted treatment.

What do you think about this all-party initiative? Have you dealt with mental illness in your sphere of family or friendships? Could we do more in the way of support groups ?(our pastoral care/parish nurse wants to start a group)

Monday, August 30, 2010

I Have a Dream

I held my fire in response to the rally held at the Lincoln Memorial Saturday. Glenn Beck the Fox News ultra conservative pundit and fearmonger extraordinaire organized the rally in Washington to give a big "shout out" to God. Beck is convinced that President Barack Obama hates white folk, and, lo and behold, it was white folk in the tens of thousands who gathered at the memorial for a prayer meeting/call to patriotism, which also featured a speech by Sarah Palin. On Saturday I wanted to entitle this blog "Dumb and Dumber" but that would have been uncharitable.

There is nothing wrong with an invitation for people to make God part of their lives, and freedom of expression in necessary in a democracy. What seems clear is that there is a constituency in the U.S. that is nostalgic for a day that never existed. A day when everyone prayed and loved Jesus, and only Jesus. A day when black people knew their place and didn't expect to be president.

A day when there weren't so many taxes and none of those "communist" notions about governments feeding the poor and making sure they had healthcare as well. Wait a minute, carng for the poor and the sick sounds like Jesus, but lets not worry about what Jesus actually said.

Saturday was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech, and while the location of that civil rights rally and Glenn Beck's rally were the same the dream is very different.

Did you pay attention to what happened Saturday? Any thoughts?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Smells Like Church

I was driving back from a meeting the other day and heard a CBC science piece on the business of smells. The science reporter had interviewed a researcher who comes up with the many and varied odours which are in the products we buy. He claims that developing a scent is a little like writing a piece of music. You have to begin with the concept and then do the things technically which will allow it to come into being. So, a scent such as Fresh Linen doesn't actually contain recently laundered sheets, but it needs to create that association in the brain. He hinted, too, that a cleaning product doesn't have to actually get things clean as long as it smells as though it will.

My twisted minister's brain connected this interesting piece with a number of emails from people seeking out the services of a church -- our St. Paul's church -- recently. Thanks to the internet and our website I get an increasing number of inquiries from people who begin "I'm not a member of your church, nor do I attend any church..." Some are rather blunt and even crass: "I want my kid done, how much does it cost?" Others are well worded and polite explorations of the possibility of a baptism or a wedding. I got one yesterday and had a pleasant exchange with a young woman whose first child was born recently. I tried my best to be polite, honest and inviting. And to let her know that a sacrament such as Christian baptism involves commitment. We'll see.

How do these connect? It struck me that many people today, most of them well-meaning and sincere-- want something that smells like church rather than the deeper connection of Christian community. Why go to the effort of hanging your spiritual laundry on the line when you can put a sheet in the dryer, or something to that effect.

The thing is, there is nothing like the real deal, and my role is to encourage authenticity in a relationships with God, not create faux scents.

Please don't haul me away just yet. Thoughts?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Chinese Christians

There was an extensive article in the Toronto Star recently on the persecution of Christians in China. For a time it appeared that the Chinese government was becoming more tolerant of Christians after decades of persecution. More recently there has been growing harassment of believers and incarceration of priests and pastors. Why?

Part of the answer may come from the rapid growth of Christianity in China. Government estimates are that there are 20 million Christians in the country, a "drop in the bucket" of a population of 1.2 billion. There is a wildly optimistic estimate of 200 million. The challenge is that many Chinese Christians worship in unregistered house churches and lots don't want to publically declare their faith for fear of difficulties with authorities.

Philip Jenkins offers this in the latest Christian Century magazine:

Even viewed in these somewhat reduced terms, though, the Chinese number still inspires awe. Those 65 or 70 million Christians outnumber the total population of major nations like France, Britain or Italy. Put another way, China has almost as many Christians as it does members of the Communist Party. Moreover, the Christian figure represents a phenomenal growth from the 5 or so million who witnessed the communist takeover in 1949 and from the subsequent decades of massacre and persecution. If not quite a miracle, this is a profoundly impressive story.

Isn't it strange and sad that Christianity often flourishes in the midst of persecution, as it did in the first centuries, and often struggles in the midst of affluence. Who needs God or Jesus when they are comfortable? Or so we are inclined to think.

Any comments about this growth of the Chinese church? What about our culture?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Still God's Children

Before I went on vacation I had brief chats with family members of two of our folk who are in nursing homes as a result of Alzheimer's disease. In both cases I was surprised to be asked if I had been in to see their loved one. I had, but I wouldn't have thought either would remember. The elderly man was tied into his wheel chair to keep him from injuring himself. He smiled when I arrived, then proceeded to tell me with enthusiasm that he was flying a plane from one destination to another. The elderly woman was at the meal table when I found her and a caregiver was alongside, reminding her how to use her fork and hold her cup. She looked up at me vaguely with a wan smile.

I have to admit that I will myself to visit these dementia patients and others because there is so little opportunity for conversation and connection, or so I think. Yet two weeks after each of these visits they mentioned them to family. In the case of the man he volunteered it to his family member who assumed he was simply confused. These instances reminded me of the importance of this aspect of pastoral care, once again. Quite frankly, I have recurring memory loss on this one. They are God's children even if I don't sense their response or receive some "reward" in the visit.

A recent report says that scientists are closing in on tests that can ascertain the predisposition to Alzheimers earlier in life. It may allow drug treatment which would slow the development of the disease.

Honestly I don't think I would want to know, at least not until there was a cure. Maybe I'm wrong. Would you want to know that you might develop dementia, or would you prefer to be blissfully ignorant?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Not Alone

I think I have shared this image from Gary Crawford's series of illustrations for the United Church "new creed" once before. This one accompanies the affirmation "in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God."

As I make my way into what is likely the final third of life I find that I somehow trust this more, while being less certain about it at the same time. God is with me in the "valley of the shadow" and I feel that my own heavenly longings and humanity's sense of something more than this life are not accidents nor a creation born out of fear. But death is achingly real at times, and eternity is a deep mystery which I am less able to fathom now than at an earlier time when this life was so bright that heaven's streets were at least figuratively paved with gold.

This morning I saw an obit in the Globe and Mail for the former husband of a parishioner in Sudbury. I was never close to him to be honest, and I wasn't impressed when their marriage ended. But she was a person Ruth and I loved and when she died in a car accident a few years ago we were stunned. I was keenly aware of her death again today.He died too young as well, or so it feels.
Later in the morning I received word that the husband of one of our folk had succumbed to cancer. While he was not a churchgoer he was a gracious, intelligent man and likeable. I am saddened by his death--for him, and for his wonderfully supportive wife and adult children. Later in the afternoon I had to pause and let the powerful emotions of loss sift down in me.

How well do you deal with death? Does your faith make a difference?

We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Baobab Blast!

Yesterday morning I went to the back of our church hall to take a peek at the worship time for our Vacation Bible School. St. Paul's has been running a VBS for eons and in a way bucking the trend of childless United Churches. The past three years we have been collaborating with St. John's Anglican, another downtown congregation, and it has been a very worthwhile joint effort.

Despite Rev. Cathy's departure a strong team of leaders and planners from both congregations have put this year's VBS, called Baobab Blast, together. I know that the baobab is a species of tree but I must admit that's about the extent of my knowledge. On the first day there were about 60 leaders, helpers, and young participants on hand. I think this is really encouraging and we can pray that these children deepen in faith as a result of their time here.

Do you have memories of VBS from your younger days? I'm ancient enough to remember getting stars for attendance and rewards for memorizing scripture verses. Do some of you have children involved in recent VBSs? Actually several readers are part of this year's leadership team. Any comments or observations from you?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Green With Envy

At times I am surprised, delighted, inspired by Christians who take their faith in the God of Creation seriously enough to change their lifestyles significantly.

In New York City there is a group of Episcopalian nuns called the Community of the Holy Spirit which has decided to sell their convent housed in three brownstone buildings and start over on a vacant lot a few blocks away. They are building an ecologically friendly convent using recycled materials, solar panels, rain water recovery, and a roof garden. http://www.chssisters.org/new-green-convent They describe themselves in this way:

The Community of the Holy Spirit is a monastic community for women in the Episcopal Church, and a witness to the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. The Sisters' loving service extends to all of Creation, and we recognize Earth and all life as a primary revelation of the divine.

What an important witness to the community around them. As we discuss the changing church in our region it would be good if we could include the ecologically efficient use of our structures, most of which were designed and built for an era when these issues simply weren't considered. We speak of St. Paul's as a "light on the corner." How about a shining example of earth care?

Any thoughts on this?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Deliver Us From...

Most of us know how to finish the phrase above and realize that it is from the Lord's Prayer or the Our Father, as the Roman Catholics call it. Many of us repeat it regularly as a part of worship. In our congregation we have moved the Lord's Prayer earlier in the service so that the children will learn it as well. From the inclusion of this phrase about evil we can assume that Jesus believed in it, and was eventually subject to it when he was executed for the flimsiest of reasons.

Is evil, both the deliberate and unthinking decisions which bring harm to others a reality? We tend not to discuss evil much anymore. When we do so we are entering into the realm of morality and moral choices. Whose definition of evil do we adopt, in this age of pluralism?

I was interested to see that a Columbia University professor has created a Gradations of Evil scale with 22 "shades" along the scale. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129175964His application is to the crime of murder, but having a graded scale of evil is a challenging concept. Is character assassination evil, even though no one is physically harmed, and where would it fit on a scale? What about the Bernie Madoffs of this world who selfishly destroy the financial well-being of others? Is the Canadian soldier who shot a suffering Afghan insurgent guilty of an evil act because he took another life, or was he compassionate? How many grades are there for war, which always does harm?

Do you believe in evil? Is there a force of evil? What about gradations of evil? How is this to start your Monday morning?

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Yikes! We're dancing as fast as we can to keep up with the tomatoes ripening in our backyard and in our community garden plot. Our kitchen is a sea of orangey red globes of various varieties and sizes. Last night we also ate peppers and chard from our gardens. I guess that makes us locavores, which is virtuous, right?

There is a lot being written about local produce lately. A large grocery chain is on the local bandwagon these days, although can we call blueberries from the Maritimes local when consumed in Ontario? There is an article in the New York Times today pointing out how few energy calories are expended to move food across the US while driving to the grocery store burns tons of energy calories.http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/opinion/20budiansky.html?src=me&ref=general

It's all so complicated, isn't it? What I know is that I don't have to wash anything off my tomatoes to make them edible. And we like picking produce in our back yard. And we enjoy the stuff we pick up at local markets knowing that it supports those business people who live in our community and the young people they hire in the summer. The markets represented above are among those we frequent. This is all important , and I'm hoping that some of the area farmland that is being paved over might continue to be used for agriculture.

What Would Jesus Eat? Well he ate locally because that was what was available. I think we should too, whenever possible. I don't think God hates us because we eat California strawberries and Washington state cherries, but why not eat Ontario-grown? God bless our farmers!


Saturday, August 21, 2010


One of my favourite gospel passages is found only in John and is asteriked because scholars believe it is a later addition. It is wonderful storytelling, with Jesus casually but forcefully defending a woman who has been condemned to death by stoning for committing adultery. While he doodles in the sand he verbally challenges the self-righteousness of the those who are eager to exact punishment. When he is finished the angry mob has dispersed. Jesus courageously calls people to self-examination and compassion. The upper interpretation of this story is by Rembrandt and the lower by Max Beckmann, a twentieth century artist.

There have been two stories in the news lately about people condemned to death by stoning because of alleged extramarital affairs. A young couple was murdered in a public place by the Taliban in Afghanistan. And a woman in Iran was sentenced to this brutal form of capital punishment, only to have it changed to hanging because of international outrage and pressure. The woman has maintained that she is not guilty, but even if she was, the punishment is barbaric. It's hard to believe that stoning still exists, especially within a legal system.

To be fair, most Iranis have no stomach for this sort of brutality. The victim is buried in the earth up to her neck, then stoned to death in public. The average person in Iran has such an aversion to this cruel punishment that witnesses have to be paid to be in attendance.

We can only hope that the woman will have her death sentence commuted, and perhaps even be freed. Have you followed this story? What role to do think our government and others should take in these situations? The government of Iran isn't exactly sensitive to international pressure. Thank God we live in a more enlightened society.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Earth As Holy Ground

One of my seminary classmates, the Rev. Norm Esdon has started up a website which features both poetry and photographs, inviting us to consider the fullness of this grounded, "earthed" life which God has given us. I had a lively elderly parishioner years ago who wore a button saying Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal! I think Norm would agree, that whatever we believe about the life to come we are intended to savour and enjoy this life, and as we do so honour creation.

Norm was an ardent "Earth Honourer" long before it was popular and has expressed his faith through photos and poems for decades. He is posting couplets of a poem and a photograph twice a month.

Snoop around the website and share your thoughts.: http://www.earthasholyground.com/

Thursday, August 19, 2010

And Christ My Bark Will Use

A decade ago one of the most disagreeable parishioners I have ever known said something with which I could agree. She claimed that the hymn I Feel The Winds of God by Ralph Vaughn Williams was possibly the greatest hymn ever written, and if we narrowed the category to traditional English language hymns there would be little argument on my part. It offers the wonderful metaphor of setting out to sea as the courageous beginning of the spiritual journey.

I feel the winds of God today
Today my sail I lift
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray
And torn with many a rift
If hope but light the water's crest
And Christ my bark will use
I'll seek the seas at His behest
And brave another cruise.

I've pointed out before that before the cross was a Christian symbol, the small boat was.

While we were in Newfoundland we watched a race called To There And Back, which was a 16 kilometre contest from Fogo Island to Change Islands (where we were staying) and back again.Fifteen crews of two rowers raced in traditional boats called punts or rodneys which were once used for fishing. As you can see from our photos, some of the crews were females. It was fun to stand on a wharf and cheer the contestants on. The moored boat was shot while we were on Fogo.

Our friend, Lewis, remembered an oldtimer who would row with his son roughly 40 kilometres out to the fishing ground, work for a few days from an island camp, then row home with a load of fish. They would hoist a sail to catch a breeze but often they would use "armstrong" for the entire journey.

Do you like that symbol of the boat for Christianity? The combination of our initiative (rowing) and being enlivened by the Holy Spirit (the wind in the sail) appeal to me.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Compassion for Pakistanis

Last week I contacted the person at our United Church head office responsible for emergency relief efforts to get more information about assisting those affected by floods in Pakistan.http://www.united-church.ca/communications/news/response/pakistan-flooding-updates8 I realized that my own sense of urgency just wasn't there and wondered why. He thanked me for calling because hardly anyone had phoned, and we agreed that because the situation in Pakistan is so murky and complex, including connections to terrorism, that Westerners may not be responding. And Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim country.Of course the suffering children of Pakistan aren't terrorists.
On Sunday I invited folk to give through the United Church Emergency Relief Fund which works with partner churches and organizations in many countries.These concerns are borne out in an article in yesterday's Globe and Mail. It included these stats:
How far the fundraising for Pakistan is lagging
Pakistan floods (2010)

Total Funding as of Aug. 16/10 $229 million
Affected population 14 million
Funding per affected person $16

Haiti earthquake (2010) $3.3 billion
3 million

Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami (2004) $6.2-billion (U.S.)
5 million

A Canadian doctor working in the relief effort acknowledged that far more people died in the tsunami and the earthquake, but dead people don't need assistance.

Do you think your sense of compassion has been affected by Pakistan's shadier realities? Are you planning to respond with a financial contribution?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Self -Sufficiency

When we were in Newfoundland we spent time with friends from our first pastorate after ordination. All four of their teens were in our youth group and we have stayed in touch and visited several times through the decades. They treat us like family.

Julia and Lewis have spent the 47 years of their married life on several acres situated right by the sea. They have never had much money but they have lived a simple yet rich life in this beautiful location. They are very involved in their church, they have a strong circle of friends, and they have come as close to self-sufficiency as any people I have ever met. Lewis hunts (moose, rabbit) and he still fishes for cod even though he is retired. He used to be a lobster and salmon fisher. Together they grow vegetables in abundance, using mulched seaweed as fertilizer. They have more than 20 fruit trees, and all manner of berries. And they frequent the bogs and back country in search of other berries. The garden in the photo is perhaps a quarter of the total.

They have a root cellar, three big freezers, and a store room with hundreds of bottles of food they have put up. If something catastrophic happened in our world they would be fine for months.

I got them to pose in their potato patch a la Grant Wood's painting American Gothic. Rather than holding a pitchfork Lewis has the bone handled fork he has used to eat dinner for more than thirty years. Why the potato patch? Last year they grew more than 4000 pounds of spuds, selling them to friends and neighbours.

Does anyone else admire folk who have figured out how to be rich without much money?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Allah Akbar

On Friday I was driving back from the hospital in Oshawa along King St. in Courtice. I noticed a number of vehicles in the parking lot of a small church on the north side of the highway. I wondered what would be drawing that many people to a church on a Friday afternoon. Then I saw the sign for the Clarington Islamic Centre. Of course, they were there for Friday prayers and this is the holy period known as Ramadan. What was a church is now a place for Muslim worship.

I wondered how long this building had been an Islamic centre until I checked their website. http://www.islamiccentreofclarington.org/ It says that it opened this month and is located in "downtown Courtice." I have been looking for a downtown in Courtice for years!

This centre is a sign of changing times. I have no idea what church that had been, but it is gone from that site. Now the followers of Islam in Courtice, Bowmanville, Orono, and surrounding hamlets (that's what the website says) are gathering in this place.

When the Islamic school set up in the old POW camp outside Bowmanville I went to introduce myself, twice. I suggested to our ministerial that we write a letter of welcome to the community but that didn't go over all that well. I must admit that I didn't get the warmest welcome at the school either, but I had to make the overture. The school is long gone, but I won't be surprised if the centre survives.

How do you feel about its existence in Clarington? Live and let live, or keep a watchful eye? Should we reach out?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Not the Love Boat

Shortly after we moved to Halifax we visited Pier 21, the place where tens of thousands of immigrants to Canada landed from various countries in Europe and beyond. It had special importance for us because that is where my wife Ruth's mother arrived in Canada as a war bride.

As we explored the exhibits it was heart warming to see that church groups including the Salvation Army, the Roman Catholic church, and our United Church had been involved in welcoming newcomers. Of course the majority came in ships that were anticipated and entered Canadian waters legally, although not all.

Earlier this week a ship with nearly 500 Tamils from Sri Lanka was intercepted by Canadian authorities and they are now being processed in Vancouver. There is concern that some of them may be part of the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization, and others may be involved in human trafficking. All of them have "jumped the queue" in terms of immigration.

I'm not impressed by those who try to enter Canada outside the law, because so manynothers are attempting to follow proper channels and procedures. I don't want people coming here who are bringing political baggage which might lead to conflict in Canada or back in their homelands. At the same time I understand why desperate people would do anything to get into this wonderful country.

How have you felt about this arrival? Does the Christian call to hospitality extend to immigrants, even those who are here illegally?Are we not open enough to immigrants and refugees in Canada, or too liberal?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Churches Galore

While we were on vacation in Newfoundland Ruth and I each read a novel with a Newfoundland setting. Ruth enjoyed Michael Winter's The Big Why while I read Michael Crummey's latest, a historical novel Galore. These books were perfect as we sat on the "bridge" (the narrow deck on the Change Islands house.) Galore is well written, a page-turner and a bit bawdy, but what isn't these days?

Religion, both good and bad, plays prominently in this story, which stretches across several generations. Crummey does a fine job of showing how religion helped to shape community life in outports. It is fitting because this is still the case in Newfoundland, although the reality is that the province is becoming more like the rest of Canada with its disinterest in organized religion. And folk stubbornly hold on to old conventions and attachment to the buildings rather than the essence of faith in Christ.
On Change Islands, with only 300 people, there are four churches; Anglican, United, Salvation Army, and Pentecostal. The Anglican structure is the most beautiful of the four and seats several hundred. But attendance is anywhere from a dozen to twenty on a Sunday and the priest is responsible for a number of congregations. In fact none of the clergy for these congregations lives on Change Islands and its hard to imagine that this arrangement leads to effective ministry.

Should denominations be more forthright and even ruthless about closing failing congregations? Should it be their decision, or should the overseeing bodies (presbyteries and conferences in the UCC) "do the deed" for the greater good? Should we just get past denominationalism?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Not Fun and Games

This week the Ontario government has announced that it is prepared to enter into the murky world of online gambling. Please note that I wrote gambling, not "gaming." In recent years, as governments have made a deal with the devil by generating revenue from gambling, they have conveniently changed the name. Gaming connotes fun. Gambling reminds us that there are ethical problems associated with this enterprise that governments should be resisting rather than supporting.

Yesterday I listened to a counsellor for those dealing with gambling addictions who expressed deep concern about government sanctioned wagering from the privacy and secrecy of one's home. She feels that many of her clients would be unable to resist this new temptation.

The United Church of Canada has spoken out against legalized gambling for decades and its official policy strongly discourages even buying lottery tickets, raffles and draws. When our kids were young we wouldn't let them sell tickets for school functions and would make a contribution to the cause instead. While this may sound extreme on our part, I have dealt with the families torn apart by the effects of addictive gambling and it is as severe as an substance abuse.

What is your feeling about this week's announcement? What is your personal outlook on gambling in general? Have you bought your lottery tickets for this week yet!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Well, we are back after a wonderful two weeks on vacation in the province of Newfoundland. I had access to a computer and the internet but once, so it was good to return and see your responses, here and there, while I was away. I'm delighted that there are several new commenters who have offered thoughtful responses. It was good to read my blogs, since I had only limited recollection of the subject matter. It was like reading someone else's blog!

The photos above are of the house we spent four days in while at the northern tip of Change Islands, adjacent to Fogo Island. It is owned by friends who graciously loaned it to us. The one small community on Change Islands is about 300 people and is accessible by ferry. As you can see the house is a very traditional place outside and inside as well. The interior door frames are five feet ten inches in height and I am six four. When I forgot this discrepency I said things that are best not repeated. The cove was our "front yard" and the islands leading off to Ireland were the "back yard," just a brief climb over the hill.
Despite the melon smacks, we loved the solitude and the stillness. Of course during the day there is activity in the cove and the small boats you see were coming and going as people headed out to fish for cod. A neighbour kindly gave us a "feed" just after he had cleaned the fish and it was a delicious supper.

The lack of urban noise, the incredible quiet of the evenings and early morning, and the dark night sky were all gifts from God, from our perspective. Strange that an absence can be a positive presence which restores the soul. I will probably inflict a few more musings from our time away during the week ahead. Any experiences of stillness during your summer?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Did that header get your attention? A couple of years ago one of the members of our ministerial proposed that we band together to offer an information and discussion event on the important subject of pornography. I thought it was an interesting idea and supported his proposal. In the end it was shelved. One of the reasons given was the sense that people wouldn't participate because others might figure that they had a porn problem!

Our society has a porn problem, our dirty big secret. Imagine this: there are more than 370 million porn sites on the internet, a mind-boggling number. This means that untold millions peruse pornography on the net, people who would never visit a strip club, or engage in illicit sexual activity with another human being. I have mentioned before that studies show that this is a growing problem with clergy and I have spoken with a couple of colleagues who have struggled with this temptation to the point of addiction.http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=3629

A new book called Pornland, written by professor of sociology Gail Dines looks at how porn desensitized people to violent and exploitive sexuality and undermines a healthy approach to sexuality. I haven't read the book, but here is a Newsweek review http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/we-read-it/2010/07/16/pornland-how-porn-has-hijacked-our-sexuality.html

We may be uncomfortable addressing this subject but it sure isn't going away. To my mind this is one of the more important moral and ethical challenges of our time. And its likely that someone you know is caught up in this addiction. I have spoken about this once from the St. Paul's pulpit, but it sure doesn't get much attention in our denomination.

I'll invite your comments and opinions, but you too may be worried about what others might conclude!

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Fickle Finger of Fate

Galileo's Finger

We have probably all heard of how the scientist and astronomer Galileo was tried and eventually excommunicated for saying that the earth orbitted the sun rather than the other way around. It is a more complex story than is usually told, but it wasn't until 1992 that the church relented, more than 350 years after the fact. Hey, these things take time.

Now a curious Roman Catholic practice is on prominent display in the city of Florence’s history of science museum, recently renovated and renamed to honor Galileo. Modern-day supporters of the famous heretic are exhibiting newly recovered bits of his body — three fingers and a gnarly molar sliced from his corpse nearly a century after he died — as if they were the relics of an actual saint. The bones were taken from his skeleton in a Masonic rite in the 18th century, then the rest was put in a tomb in a church. Does this sound like something from a Dan Brown novel. The director of the musuem says “He’s a secular saint, and relics are an important symbol of his fight for freedom of thought.”

We humans are strange creatures, aren't we? The lasting legacy of Galileo is not a few fragile bones in a museum, and ultimately what threatened the religious establishment has been a gift to the world.
What is your reaction to this story?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Settlement or "Free Agent'?

The United Church entered into a major discernment process during the past few months and decided to make a significant change for newly minted ministers. For most of our 80-year history we have "settled and transferred" clergy to their first pastoral charge. These Newbies are seny by the denomination to congregations that might not otherwise be served. the system worked reasonably well for decades but in the last twenty years ordinands and commissionands found ways to circumvent the system, sometimes for good reasons and other times not.

The recent presbytery by presbytery vote resulted in the change to allow individuals to negotiate where they will go rather than be assigned. I have mixed feelings as many clergy do. There are considerable benefits in the system as it has existed. More isolated congregations get a minister. Newcomers to ministry often have an experience in a part of the country they didn't know previously. I was sent to Newfoundland thirty years ago and we are back there now, visiting long-time friends. Our son was born there. Reader Deb bravely agreed to go to Saskatchewan three years ago, where her family is flourishing. She is president-elect of the conference, a wonderful opportunity. I encouraged Deb to be open to settlement, and we should all be proud of what she has done and is doing.

Still, I voted in favour of the change because of the abuses and end-runs, as well as changing realities. I have talked at length with my Newfie-born son who will be ordained next year. He is open and willing to serve the church in a rural area. He also wants his wife to be able to pursue her career and feels that together they can find a way to fulfill both goals and be faithful to his call. Because they are both bilingual, they may end up serving in a French-speaking community.

As in most of life, there is no perfect system, no ideal answer. Did you know about the former system? Would you prefer that it had stayed the same? Do the changes make sense to you?

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Mad Mel

I have enjoyed a number of Mel Gibson movies through the years, including some of the rather mindless action flicks. But long-time readers may remember that I expressed my queasiness over his adoption by the conservative Christian community as the poster boy for Christ's suffering love through his film The Passion of the Christ. I think I described The Passion as Braveheart with a halo, with a disturbing emphasis on excruciating and incredible violence inflicted upon Jesus by Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. The crucifixion of Jesus is a pivotal part of our story of redemption, but that film glorified violence and I didn't appreciate it at all.

I have to wonder how the star-struck religious leaders who invited St. Mel (Mad Mel?) to their gatherings feel now. Over the past couple of years there have been a series of incidences which seem to reveal an angry, abusive, and racist narcissist. The Passion was unbalanced and ultimately destructive in my opinion, and if allegations are accurate, so is he.

It might be helpful if Mel went into some kind of Christian rehab, where he was required to study and absorb the Sermon on the Mount, as well as other passages where Jesus demonstrates compassion, healing, and respect for women.

Hey, we can all remember that he is just an actor, not an official religious leader. What has your reponse been to the latest allegations against him? Should we care?

Friday, August 06, 2010

My Brother's Keeper

From time to time I comment on the early chapters of Genesis and suggest that while some of these stories were never intended to be read as factual, they are true. More conservative Christians might criticise this idea as double-speak, but the creation stories and Noah's ark are powerful descriptions of the human condition even though they are pre-history. So is the story of Cain and Abel, which describes filial jealousy and the inner emotional and spiritual forces which stir us to resentment, hatred and even violence within families.

I thought of this passage in Genesis after a British man went on a terrible killing spree in June. In the end twelve people were dead, most of them total strangers to the shooter. But it began with the death of his twin brother. The killer seemed reasonably normal to the people who knew him, although he had become increasingly despondent and bitter because his brother prospered while he struggled for survival. Feeling that he had been unfairly treated by his parents' will, he lashed out in this deadly fashion.

A recent issue of Psychology Today is about sibling relationships and includes the observation "children only seem to share the same family environment. In reality, they inhabit radically different microenvironments." It seems to me that the story of Cain and Abel says the same thing.

I'm going to assume that none of you is armed and dangerous. But you must have your own observations about sibling relationships. Care to share?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

No Consensus on Census

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

There has been a big kerfuffle over impendiing changes to the census in Canada and with good cause. The detailed or "long form" census gathers valuable information for virtually every sector in our society, including religious organizations. Bet you didn't think that churches used this info. Read this portion of a press release from the United Church:

"We see this as a step backward at a time when Canadians need access to
reliable census information to help build a more equitable and just
society," says the Rev. Bruce Gregersen, General Council Officer, Programs.

He adds that because the long-form census also contains questions related to
religion, it would be a great loss to faith communities and to the country
in understanding the multiplicity and richness of the spiritual makeup of

Gregersen says like other non-profit organizations and charities, the United
Church benefits from the wealth of data that is collected and analyzed by
Statistics Canada.

He explains that many local United Church congregations, particularly those
facing significant demographic change, use census information to help
identify community needs within the neighbourhoods they serve.

"Knowing who your neighbours are is an important part of adapting
congregational outreach programs and advocacy initiatives that are integral to the church's mission..."

If was good enough for the gospel of Luke and the birth of Jesus... What are your thoughts or concerns about the census changes?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Doggone Religious

On the same day a member of the congregation sent me this photo of a boy and a dog praying there was a news item about an Anglican priest who served communion to a dog. A newcomer was in church with his dog and both came forward at the time of the eucharist. The priest spontaneously shared the sacrament with the dog, and soon the poop hit the fan.

An angry member quit the church and contacted the bishop. The bishop has mildly admonished the priest and issued a statement saying that this is not Anglican practice. The priest is too embarassed to respond publicly. This will be one of those "what was I thinking" moments which will make it to her memoirs but is causing her grief in the moment.

I would never serve a critter communion, but I do bless companion animals at the Feast of St. Francis in October. I'm open to the possibility that animals have eternal souls as God's creation, and animals are some of the best people I know. My cat made me write this last part.

What are your feelings on the spiritual life of animals other than humans? Are we getting silly about the importance of our pets, or enlightened?

Monday, August 02, 2010

A Heroic Christian Steps Back

Have you heard that former archbishop Desmond Tutu will be withdrawing from public life after his birthday in October? What a shirker. I mean, the guy will only be 79! Tutu has been a remarkable champion of justice and human rights in South Africa for decades. When Nelson Mandela was in prison he was the strong voice opposing apartheid and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 -- could if really be that long ago? He chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was an attempt to move beyond the hatred of many years.

I recall Tutu going courageously into Soweto where individuals considered traitors and informers were being "necklaced" burned to death in car tires. He saved many lives.

In my opinion Tutu is one of true heroes of our era. He is a Christian in every sense, a remarkable man. After his retirement as a bishop he started his own peace foundation. http://www.tutufoundation-usa.org/

He may be out of the public eye, but he won't be forgotten. What are your impressions of Desmond Tutu?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Leap of Faith

Somewhere today in Ontario someone will fling themselves from a cliff into the waters below.
They may be scared silly, but they will brag about their leap later. The paragraphs below came my way through a daily online "thought for the day" called Soundbites. It made sense to me, and while Kierkegaard lived in the 19th century it speaks strongly to the challenge of the 21st century.

The idea of a leap of faith (a term often associated with Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who was not just a brilliant mind but also a Scandinavian) has frequently been misunderstood. It does not mean choosing to believe an impossible thing for no good reason. Sometimes people talk about it as if it is the "leap" in which you ignore evidence, give up on reason, and embrace fantasy. But leap was Kierkegaard's term for a genuinely free action. Any freely chosen commitment is a leap, such as the choice to marry or to bear children. The move from innocence to sin is also a leap.

The leap of faith is a "leap" because it involves making a total commitment. It can be made for good reasons -- reasons we have carefully considered. But it is nevertheless a leap, because we have to commit in spite of our fears and doubts, for there is no other way to soar, no other way to fly.

Certain fundamental decisions in life require 100 percent commitment -- passionate engagement. Kierkegaard spoke of faith as a "passion." Certain decisions require intense commitment -- for example, to live by certain values, to get married, to raise a child (there are no guarantees that the child won't break your heart), to have a friend, to follow God. And some decisions, generally the most important ones, require total commitment but do not give any guarantees. --
John Ortberg in Faith & Doubt

Have you taken a leap (or leaps) of faith that have been life-changing and faith changing?