Friday, May 31, 2013

Men (& a couple of women) Behaving Badly

I'm not sure why I have been silent in this blog and on Twitter about the recent shameful behaviour of politicians at every level of government and across party lines. Perhaps it is because all of us have been inundated by media coverage of allegedly naughty Rob Ford and undoubtedly naughty Mike Duffy. We could toss some other senators into the mix, our Prime Minister, provincial Liberal politicians...the list goes on and on.

What strikes me is that there is a concerted effort to "out" the transgressions of these "alleged" leaders (where is the evidence they are leadership material/) but not much discussion of the morality of what may have transpired. To me this is more than violation of the rules of the senate or the house.  It's more than what constitutes fraud or laws on drug use. I want my government leaders to demonstrate integrity and that they have a moral compass which informs their personal and political lives. Is this too much to ask?

In both Bowmanville and Belleville I have resided in Conservative ridings, so I should be cautious in my comments, but I have to say that I am repeatedly underwhelmed by Prime Minister Harper's response to the unethical behaviour of cabinet ministers and party hacks he has appointed to the senate he promised to reform.

It's tempting to say that politics have always been this way, but I do expect more. I want leaders to govern, not just hold power. I want them to be people I can admire. Where is a Stanley Knowles, or a Bill Blaikie, both United Church ministers who entered politics and were admired across party lines?

Am I naïve folks? Should we expect our leaders to be ethical and admirable?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Banality of Evil


The other day I wrote about the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in Hungary and there were several thoughtful responses. All of us wonder how movements like this rear their ugly heads, and what motivates hatred.

Following that blog I read a review of a new film, a dramatization of the life of Hannah Arendt. I saw a trailer for this film Hannah Arendt and it immediately intrigued me. Arendt came to prominence writing a series of articles which became a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, which were about the trial of the infamous Nazi war criminal.

Arendt was struck by the bureaucratic blandness of Eichmann, captured in her phrase “the banality of evil.” The review in the New York Times offers "her description of Eichmann as a thoughtless, bloodless functionary rather than a monster led to accusations that she was defending him, just as her discussion of the role of Jewish leaders in the destruction of their communities provoked charges of victim blaming." With the passage of time most have come to see that Arendt as historian, journalist and philosopher was attempting to delve into the darker recesses of a terrible evil.

To complicate matters, Arendt was the lover of philosopher Martin Heidegger who was a member of the Nazi party and never repented of that involvement.

We see repeatedly that warped religion, false nationalism, and the lure of financial gain, can lead ordinary people into extraordinary wrongdoing. What a reminder that we should be deeply suspicious of any invitation to do harm in God's name, and that we need to "test the spirits," to ask whether our suppositions about others are motivated by love or hatred, as banal as either might seem.

I hope I have a chance to see this film although it is unlikely to come to "a theatre near you" or me.

Any further comments on the nature of evil and how we see it expressed?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bridge St. Foundation

Early yesterday evening I attended a meeting of the Bridge St. Foundation. It sounds formal, doesn't it, maybe even elitist? The Foundation has a lot of money invested and its purpose is to fund worthwhile projects and organizations locally, nationally, and internationally. The meeting was to approve the grants and I am a director --appointed by General Council no less! I was in a room with six or seven people who had carefully read applications and decided who would receive funding. I was impressed that they had done their homework, and worked carefully thorough the process of choosing worthy recipients. It's a challenge to respond to all requests in these days when interest rates are so low and income from investments is meager.

Amongst the groups receiving money in this half of the year are a health outreach program in Guatemala and an education program for impoverished women in Afghanistan. A suicide prevention helpline in Toronto is getting a grant, as is a refugee centre in downtown Montreal. Locally, a youth support program in Prince Edward County will receive funding to buy musical instruments. Another round of applications will be considered in the Fall.

The experience of reading through and approving these grants was uplifting, and a reminder that with all the negativity about organized religion this is a very worthwhile endeavour. Someone might look at the monies in trust at Bridge St. and conclude that this is an another example of wealth horded by the church. In fact more than five million dollars has been distributed by the Foundation through the forty years of its existence.  


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Horror of Anti-Semitism

Recently there has been a fair amount of media coverage of the rise of anti-Semitism, or anti-Judaism, in  Hungary. The European Union has strongly cautioned Hungarian leaders to address what is an openly anti-Semitic, right-wing party, and large rallies which express hatred toward Jews. Many of the participants are young, as the photos above and below show.

We might think of Germany and Poland as nations where the atrocities of the Second World War were perpetrated, but Hungary also sent much of its Jewish population to the concentration camps and death.

I saw an interview with two elderly Hungarian women who survived one of the camps as very young girls. In one case virtually all of the woman's family was wiped out. On her arm, almost lost in the folds of aging skin was the tattoo of her camp number. Both women expressed fear, no so much for themselves but for children and grandchildren as anti-Semitism is becoming more aggressive. Some Jews in Hungary wonder if they will be forced to leave the country for their safety.

Seeing these two women crying as they recalled the past and pondered an uncertain future touched me deeply. It put a human face on a situation which is far removed from us, although anti-Jewish sentiment is persistent around the world, including Canada. From time to time there is desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in this country.

Despite the way we have been characterized in the past year, the United Church has always supported the Jewish community in ways that many other Christian organizations have not. We need to continue to do so and to stay aware of the ugliness of hatred based on religious identity.

Have you heard about this situation in Hungary? What are your thoughts?


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Does the Holy Spirit Attend Conference?

CAM 2013

This weekend I have stayed in Belleville for worship rather than attend the Annual Meeting of Bay of Quinte Conference in Peterborough. It seemed appropriate to be the worship leader here when I am so new to the congregation. I have been following several attendees on Twitter, as well as the tweets from other Conferences across the country. Our son, Isaac, is a United Church minister in London, Conference, although the last few years he was in Montreal and Ottawa. I have served in five different conferences through the years. As a national church we have thirteen of these conferences, a vestige or a gift from our Methodist roots. Twelve conferences are geographical, and the thirteenth, All Native Circle, is made up of First Nations congregations found in several of those other conferences.

It seems that in this first year of what is called the Comprehensive Review there is a renewed dedication and even urgency to consider where our denomination is headed. The constant challenge is to balance the realities of a shrinking membership and the possibilities of a renewing Holy Spirit. One colleague wonders on Twitter if there isn't a need for a lot more prayer at the heart of this transition, in order for there to be transformation.
We can hope and pray that Christ has not left the building, so to speak, and that the thousands of Christians gathered across the nation will be inspired by what unfolds. I was glad to hear that in Bay of Quinte approximately a third of attendees are children, youth, and young adults.

Any comments about these annual events?  Thoughts and observations from those who took part in different locales?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Spirit of Love

A woman searches for belongings at a home in Moore, Oklahoma, on Wednesday, May 22, two days after it was destroyed by a tornado that ripped through the area. <a href=''>View more photos of the aftermath in the region</a> and another gallery of <a href=''>aerial shots of the damage</a>.

I'm sure it's safe to say that all of us were horrified to see the level of devastation after a tornado swept through the community of Moore, Oklahoma.  Twenty four people lost their lives and their families are in grief, Thousands more were left with nothing when their homes were reduced to rubble. We have to assume that many were suddenly without employment when their businesses and places of work were destroyed.

It's hard to find anything good in this, but the concerted efforts of churches is a positive note in a bleak situation. Congregations have put aside their differences to coordinate relief efforts. One pastor offered that they were choosing to be the "big C" church rather than a bunch of "little c" congregations.

We could argue that it shouldn't take a major calamity to get Christ's people together, and that it is a catastrophe that those who say that uphold the love of Christ do, at times, lay claim to that love to the exclusion of others. It is more important to celebrate a different spirit which may extend beyond this specific event.

Are you encouraged to hear about this collaborative relief effort? Why not every day?

Friday, May 24, 2013

An Inclusive Pope?

Pope Francis screenshot
I have been listening to and watching the newly-elected pope, Francis, with a fair amount of interest. He is the spiritual leader of a Christian institution which adheres to a hierarchical model excluding women from key roles of leadership. He holds the "party line" on Roman Catholic doctrine regarding birth control and abortion. Still, he has been refreshing in bringing new sensibilities to aspects of his role. He has made repeated comments about God's "preferential option for the poor" and he has challenged the false religion of financial gain at all cost. He has chosen to live in simple, even austere quarters rather than in papal splendour. All this is rooted in his work with the poor and marginalized as a priest, then bishop and cardinal, in South America.

This week he stirred things up by suggesting that God was impressed by good deeds, including those performed by atheists, and Christians should be as well. In a radio address he said:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” he said. “If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

In the past I have mused about the contrast between "orthodoxy and orthopraxy," the right believing and "right doing" of faith. As the years have gone by I am increasingly impressed by those who live out compassion, radical hospitality, generosity, self-giving love. While I continue to invite people into a transforming relationship with the living Christ, I have more appreciation for those who "walk the walk," regardless of background, than those who "talk the talk" but choose exclusion and suspicion.

For once I am willing to support the claim that the pope is infallible! Okay, I appreciate that he is opening dialogue.


Can we make a connection between Christian faith and species extinction. I invite you to read my Groundling blog today

Thursday, May 23, 2013


A few days ago my wife Ruth was chatting with a friend from the days when our children were growing up together. Amidst the conversation of a long-time friendship Leslie has kept Ruth informed about the "hatch, match and dispatch" of the congregation I served for eleven years in Sudbury. After the call she shared with me that an active member from those days had died last year at the "young" age of sixty seven. During my time he had been involved and vocal and on more than one occasion a thorn in my side -- or some other part of my anatomy. He was the chief lawyer for one of the mining giants in town and was accustomed to being heard and obeyed. His pronouncements in congregational meetings were well worded and totally misguided, I often felt.

In his late forties he suffered a serious heart attack and I went to visit him in the Critical Care Unit before major surgery. We talked, he admitted his fear about what was unfolding given he had a large and still young family, and then I reached out for his hand as we entered into prayer.

I discovered much later that this had meant the world to him. We talked about this before my departure, then on a return trip to be a guest speaker at St. Andrew's he was effusive in his thanks.I was aware that in early retirement he had taken on new responsibilities in congregational life with a very different outlook. It was odd, because that day in the hospital I had almost chosen not to offer to pray because of his usual blustery demeanour.  He seemed too independent to need God or have another guy hold his hand. I was so grateful that I acted as a pastor despite my reservations.

I was quite saddened to hear of his death, even though it happened more than a year earlier. He truly loved his family and his death would have been a tremendous loss. What a reminder for me that in my role I come in Christ's name, and that I am called to minister to those I don't always understand or like. My perceptions aren't always accurate, and all of us can and do change with time. We are called into Christian community with all our differences.

Have you experienced something similar in your congregation, either as a pastor or layperson? In life in general?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Philanthropy means "love of humanity" in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, and enhancing what it is to be human. The most conventional modern definition is "private initiatives, for public good, focusing on quality of life."

We all know who Steve Jobs was, co-founder of Apple, brilliant innovator and entrepreneur, and a very rich man. Apparently he wasn't a particularly generous person, even though his personal wealth exceeded eleven billion dollars. It is always intriguing to hear about the very wealthy and their philanthropic choices. Some, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg have signed the Giving Pledge, promising to eventually give away at least half of their wealth.

We now hear that Jobs' wife, Laurene Powell Jobs has been quietly but effectively stepped up her involvement in philanthropic causes. According to a New York Times piece:

She has tiptoed into the public sphere, pushing her agenda in education as well as global conservation, nutrition and immigration policy. Just last month, for example, she sat down for a rare television interview, discussing the immigration bill before Congress. She has also taken on new issues, like gun control.

These are all important causes, and she should be applauded for here involvement and generosity. That said, billions of dollars are given every year by ordinary folk who are balancing budgets and making decisions about the causes they support. Many studies have shown that people involved in faith communities are more generous than the general population, motivated by their relationship with God and the principles of generosity embedded in all major religions. They aren't just generous to their churches, synagogues, mosques, temples. They give to good causes in the broader community, both with time and money.

Jesus urged us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and exhibited a complete, wholistic model for philanthropy, defined above as love of humanity.

What do you think about the generosity or lack thereof of the rich? What about us average folk? I consider myself wealthy as a resident of this country with decent remuneration for my work.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Rainbow communion

rainbow communion bread

For many years Ruth, my wife, has made the bread for communion in congregations where I have served and she has been a member. It began when she had a modest baking business and it bothered her that "the body of Christ" was represented in miniscule cubes of Wonder Bread. The bread she makes is aromatic, substantial, whole grain bread, cut in pieces large enough to have the sensory sensation of taste. The communion coordinator here at Bridge St. was delighted when the subject was broached.

Why then was I little unsettled to hear about the "rainbow" bread at a communion service celebrating Minnesota becoming the twelfth US state to sanction same-gender marriage? The congregation is mostly young adults and takes an edgy, alternative approach to worship and life together.  It's pastor is Jay Bakker, son of  disgraced TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye -- remember them? He was disillusioned with religion for a time but has returned with this alt approach in a congregation called Revolution.

Once I got over the initial jolt I made my peace with their choice. I would much rather hear about a faith community of young adults using unusual symbols to express their Christian faith than listen to older adults bemoaning the disappearance of their own children and grandchildren from the church.

Don't worry, I won't try to persuade Ruth to get out the food colouring when she makes the bread for communion this week.

What do you think, or more importantly, what do you feel? Is this a sacrilege, or a bold and meaningful statement of inclusion in Christ? Would you be able to swallow this symbolically, literally and figuratively? There are teens and other young adults who read this blog. What are your opinions?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Lions 10, Christians No Score

You have at least a vague idea of what today's blog header refers to, don't you? In the ancient church Christians heroically stayed true to their faith, even though it meant being thrown to the wild beasts for sport. Christians would hide out in the catacombs of ancient Rome for worship to avoid persecution. Out of these stories grew the concept of "red martyrdom," bearing witness to Christ even though the consequence was a gruesome death. Christians were the first to use the Greek word martys to denote those killed for faith.

What if this just wasn't true, or at least not accurate in its severity? There is a new book called The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom by Candida Moss. In it she argues that the martyrs were few and far between, and that there was a greater tolerance of Christians by the Romans than we have been led to believe. Moss acknowledges widespread animosity toward Christians in the ancient world. But the Romans effectively punished disloyalty from any group, including but not exclusively Christians.  Moss figures that many of the stories were amplified, embellished, or just made up. It may be that Christians were persecuted in particular periods and locales, but not universally.

I was a bit surprised by this, and not everyone agrees with her thesis. As I ponder it, though, I realize that my Christian faith is not predicated on the persecution of Christians in another era. I am more concerned about the Christians who suffer for their faith today. I think of Iraqi Christians who were pushed out of their homeland into Syria in the past decade, only to suffer again in the terrible civil war which we hear about daily. But even in these circumstances it is a matter of solidarity rather than glorification.

I do trust that Stephen, Paul, and of course Jesus himself suffered and died for their faithfulness. I don't doubt that the Revelation of John was born out of persecution. I can also accept that martyrdom didn't shape the early church quite the way we might have imagined.

Have you ever pondered all this? Does it really matter to you?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Come Holy Spirit, Come!

Come, Holy Spirit Come
 Come as the wind, and cleanse us.
Come as the fire, and burn;
Come as water, and refresh.
Convict, convert, and consecrate
That we may be truly yours.

During my first couple of weeks at Bridge St. I have been almost (but not quite) overwhelmed by the volume of meetings related to the new governance model which was adopted on a trial basis earlier this year. We have agreed that I will need a while to get "up to speed" but I really like what I'm hearing and seeing.

This model anticipates that committees and teams do their work within their parameters and job descriptions without everything then funneling through the board, which in many systems acts as a "committee of the whole."

The Governance Board is not made up of representatives of other groups, but it given the task of setting the mission and vision for the congregation and informing others of what that will be. The minister is given a fair amount of responsibility, but also authority, and expected to provide practical spiritual leadership. Everyone at every level is accountable to reflect the mission, and the budget is struck to support that mission. At least this is how I see it so far!

I am very impressed by the individual, Ian,  who is coaching the congregation through this, and all those who are working their way through what is a significant departure from anything done here before. I have read about this Carver Model for years and it has intrigued me. I haven't heard of any congregation that has put it into practice.

I am hoping and praying that the Holy Spirit we celebrate today is swirling in our midst and we are doing more than babbling in foreign tongues. The Pentecost story tells us that chaos sparked courage, then clarity as the early church discovered its mission. Come Holy Spirit Come!


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Love Thy Stranger as Thyself

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.  Leviticus 19:34

What part of this don't we understand? Both the older and newer Testaments of our Christian bible give both direct instruction and offer stories about welcoming the stranger. But it often proves challenging for us. We live with our own forms of "stranger danger" phobia. What if the stranger has different values? What if the immigrants begin to take over and rob us of jobs? What if they prove to be violent? Even though we often celebrate our newcomer, immigrant forebearers, we aren't necessarily ready to give the benefit of the doubt to strangers in our midst.

The blog header today is a direct steal from a  recent New York Times article and a paraphrase of Jesus' "love your neighbour as yourself" directive. In the United States immigration reform is a huge issue at the moment and once again the political conservatives want to keep out the "furreners," or send them back, even though in states where draconian laws have been instituted it has resulted in unpicked crops and other economic woes.

The article points out that evangelical Christians have been changing their viewpoint on immigration which was often in lockstep with conservative political views. It is a combination of religious enlightenment and pragmatism. Many Latino immigrants are evangelical Christians, although lots of them try to distance themselves from conservative values. For them God isn't a Republican. To be fair, a growing number of Republican leaders have changed their views on immigration.

What are your thoughts about this? As Canadians are we also inclined to fear of the stranger? What do you think about the situation in the United States?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Grave Realities

A friend who is resourceful and clever with his hands told us recently that when he retires he plans to build his own casket and another for his wife. I know he can do so from the standpoint of craftsmanship and I applaud his willingness to use this opportunity to ponder his own mortality. I told him that he could probably start a business for those who want a simpler alternative. I like the look of the one in the photo.

His comments made me think of a story I read earlier this year of a 54-year-old man who was buried in the casket he made. He was unemployed and sick and didn't want to burden his elderly parents with the costs of his funeral. So he put together his own burial box.

Both our friend and the fellow in the story are and were Christians, so probably receive comfort from the resurrection promise. Everyone dies though, and even the prettiest casket can't mask that eventuality. If our friend does build his own I'll have to ask whether it is a meditative exercise, or whether he just chooses not to go too far down that road.

A number of years ago I went on retreat at a Benedictine monastery in New Brunswick and one of the elderly brothers had just died. One of the other monks built his simple casket and it sat at the front of the chapel for three days, all through the worship offices. It did make me think about death, but not in a morbid way. It was actually quite comforting in its simplicity.

Are you "creeped out" at the notion of someone building his or her own coffin? Are you reasonably reconciled to your own demise? Would you be okay with a home-made casket, or even prefer it?

It's Pentecost this Sunday. What about the Jewish roots and expression of this feast day?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Desmond Tutu and Forgiveness

You know me folks. I'm not big on the theme of forgiveness. Ha. I do keep harping on it, don't I? Of course the powerful symbol of the cross in our Christian faith representing Christ's forgiving, transforming love is central. As a pastor so many conversations with folk have come down to forgiveness experienced and not experienced, as well as extended and withheld.

Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu has just been awarded the Templeton Prize for 2013, the most significant award in the field of spirituality and religion. It is worth 1.7 million US dollars, which ain't chump change.
The prize is for Tutu's work through the decades in the area of practical forgiveness, in response to the evil of apartheid in South Africa. The announcement included these thoughts about Tutu:

His deep faith and commitment to prayer and worship provides the foundation for his message of love and forgiveness. He has created that message through extensive contemplation of such profound "Big Questions" as "Do we live in a moral universe?" and "What is humanity's duty to reflect and live God's purposes?"

What are your thoughts about Desmond Tutu? How is forgiveness going for you these days? Do you feel loved and forgiven in Christ?

If the insurance industry is paying attention to climate change, why don't governments? Click on this link to my Groundling blog

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Brave Angelina?

Most beautiful woman in the world. Sexiest woman on the planet. One half of the most glamorous couple on earth. Hyperbole? There is no doubt that Angelina Jolie made the transition from raw and bad young actress, to regal and elegant in the realm of beautiful people. After her announcement yesterday she has entered another small but significant group of women, those who have undergone double mastectomies.

Jolie's willingness to be forthright about this surgery is important in a culture where certain unrealistic expectations for physical beauty affect women of all ages. We have considered at other times in this blog the relentless pressure on girls and women to be desirable and to meet impossible standards for body size and shape. Breasts are certainly part of that image.

I'm not really sure what to offer from a Christian perspective and as a man. I read the gospel stories of Jesus' acceptance of women, including those who were objectified and ostracized. Some of them chose to step out of the shadows and stereotypes to be recognized as persons of worth.

Perhaps Brangelina will now stand for Brave Angelina. I certainly think it required considerable courage to "go public."

There are several readers who have tween and teen daughters. What was your reaction to this news? Will you speak with your daughters? Any other thoughts from men and women readers?

Don't forget my Groundling Blog!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cloudbursts of Grace

On Saturday evening we went to the screening of a film which I'm not sure I would encourage you to see. And yet is was well acted and thought-provoking. The movie was Cloudburst starring two academy award winners, Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker. These seasoned pros are both in virtually every scene and they seem to be relishing their roles as an aging lesbian couple, Dot and Stella. They have been together for more than thirty years and supported each other "in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorry," as the marriage vows say. Dot is the sweetie, blind and tricked into entering a nursing home by an adult granddaughter who is in denial about the nature of their relationship. Stella is foul-mouthed and fierce. She springs Dot from her nursing home incarceration in the dead of night and together they flee from Maine to Nova Scotia with the plan to marry. Along the way a young hitchhiker becomes an important part of their journey.

Why wouldn't I recommend Cloudburst? Well, too often the script meanders across the road and hits the gravel like an elderly driver with poor eyesight. At times it becomes a slapstick road flick which seems better suited as "made-for-TV" than the big screen. It is also too profane and ribald for my tastes. Too much Stella!

Why would I recommend it? Dukakis and Fricker are definitely worth watching. The scenery in Nova Scotia is gorgeous. More importantly, the story explores the nature of love and commitment. It asks us to consider what it means to be a faithful couple in all life brings, regardless of whether we are married or not. The actual cloudburst in which they revel reminds us of the grace we all need to sustain relationships. There are moments in this film which are quite touching, along with the humour.

Have you heard about Cloudburst? Are you now totally confused as to whether you might see it?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Burying Animosity

The family of dead Boston terrorist, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, faced the challenge of burying his body after it was released. His uncle, a man who decried the cowardly bombing and subsequent murder was given the task of finding a burial plot, but cemeteries were not willing for a number of reasons.

Eventually it was an informal interfaith group which found a small, isolated Muslim cemetery where Tsarnaev's body was interred. A Christian, Martha Mullen, told The Associated Press in a brief telephone interview that she offered to help after seeing news reports about towns and cemeteries refusing to allow burial. She said she is not the only person who helped with arrangements.“It was an interfaith effort,” she said. “Basically because Jesus says love your enemies.”

It's interesting that both hatred and love can follow us to the grave. I am impressed that a Christian decided to be guided by the principles of scripture, even in such emotionally fraught circumstances.

What do you think? Is it appropriate that people of faith helped bury who committed such heinous acts? Do you admire them?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Good and Faithful Servant

Last Fall I asked my 87-year-old mother to join me in a dialogue at the sermon time in worship. I wanted to engage her in conversation about the inception of the United Church Women group fifty years before. My mother, Margaret Mundy, was part of the Board of Women who brought together the Women's Auxiliary and the Women's Missionary Society to form the UCW.

I received two mild (very mild) scoldings. One was for revealing her age. The other was for asking her in the first place. The day before, and morning of the service she was a little fretful, feeling she was too old to be in front of a couple of hundred people. Of course she did splendidly, answering the questions I had given her with intelligence and aplomb. I was very proud of her and the congregation was wonderful in affirming what she had to offer.

This is Christian Family Sunday and Mother's Day and I am grateful for the role model in Christian faith and living my mother offered to me and my brother. My father was ordained but my mother had her own ministry. She has always been a prayerful and practical Christian with a variety of gifts, including a solo voice in an earlier day. She has been generous in supporting a number of ministries and cares about what is happening in the United Church. She doesn't get out to worship much anymore, but she coordinates the services at her residence and sometimes plays for them as well.

You are a good and faithful servant Mom. Well done!

Any thoughts on your mothers today?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Nothing Left But the Grimace?

This Sunday the gospel reading from John contains the motto of the United Church of Canada, "that all may be one" included on our crest in Latin. Trust me. I wonder if that now means we will soon be down to one member.

There were two different and related news stories in this past week which included the United Church of Canada. One had to do with the last census and the reporting included the stats on religion. The number of people identifying themselves as Christians has declined, while other religions saw increases. The greatest growth is in the "nones" those who are content not to see them affiliated with any religion. While the UCC is still the largest Protestant denomination we declined by 30% between 2001 and 2011. Thirty percent in a decade!

The other tough news is that the decision was made this week by the UCC executive to cut fourteen national jobs and not fill fourteen other vacancies. If that doesn't sound like a lot, we are now down to 131 employees doing our national work. It is a skeleton crew of hard-working folk who have to be very discouraged by these cuts. In addition, $3 million will be cut from the budget which will affect many different ministry grants and our global partnerships. The United Church does a lot of worthwhile work at home and abroad. While in Bowmanville I served on the Spiritual Care Advisory Committee of the local hospital and the biggest contributor to the chaplaincy budget was our United Church Mission and Service Fund.

Are we becoming the Cheshire Cat Church of Canada, where all that is left is the grin, or maybe the grimace? We are certainly losing ground, and at what point do we no longer have the resources to be an effective national entity? One challenge is that we are a denomination where a great many people claim connection but rarely or never enter a church door, let along provide financial support. And fewer people seem to know or care about the exceptional work we do in Christ's name.

I hope that all this changes, and I will pray that it does, but this is sobering?

What are your impressions and comments on this news?

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Risks of Birth



We have overlaid the story of Jesus' birth with so much spiritual meaning and a generous dollop of sentimentality to such an extent that we might forget the minor miracle of his survival in such miserable surroundings. A stall for animals is not to be recommended as a birthing centre.  Infant and maternal mortality has been a scourge for centuries. Visit cemeteries in this country and look at graves from the turn of the last century to see how grimly true this is.

A report by the charity Save the Children points out that being born is still dangerous from the moment a child emerges into this life.  As you can see below, one million babies die on the first day of life every year. Needless to say Western countries are far safer than areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, although Canada ranks an unsettling twenty second on the list (Finland ranks first.) More troubling are the statistics for First Nations in Canada which are  sadly parallel with a number of developing countries.

My thought is that we can make the connection between issues of maternal and infant health and our Mother and Child story to motivate us toward practical compassion. The encouraging news is that infant mortality rates are dropping, and fewer mothers die in childbirth. A million first-day deaths certainly proves that the need for better care still exists.

Your thoughts and musings?

Surviving the First Day: State of the World’s Mothers 2013

This year’s State of the World’s Mothers report shows which countries are succeeding – and which are failing – in saving the lives of mothers and their newborn babies. The key take away? More than 1 million babies die on the first day of life – making the birth day the most dangerous day for babies in nearly every country, rich and poor alike.

6.9 million 




3 million

That’s how many children under 5 die each year... a decrease of over 40% since 12 million died in 1990.
From 543,000 maternal deaths in 1990 to 287,000 in 2011, that’s a decline of almost 50%.
In 2011, 3 million babies died in their first month of life. This is 43 percent of all deaths of children under age 5 worldwide. Three-quarters of those newborns died in the first week of their lives, and one-third did not survive their first day of life.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Not Myself Today

I am a little later with today's blog because I set aside the one scheduled to point out that this is the beginning of a mental health awareness initiative called Not Myself Today. On CBC radio I heard interviews with an accomplished, athletic teen who has been dealing with depression and a veteran of the Second World War who has lived with post-traumatic stress for more than seventy years. Listening to this man who is now over ninety tearfully explaining the pain he has experienced was very moving.

These interviews put a human face to the simple reality that mental health issues affect individuals of all ages and circumstances. Even those with deep faith can be overwhelmed by stress or anxiety or depression. Not long ago I blogged about the suicide death of 27-year-old Matthew Warren, son of megachurch pastor Rick Warren. I am convinced that Matthew had the support of a loving family which was cognizant of his mental health issues and did everything possible to provide support, including the best medical help. Sadly, it wasn't sufficient because of the depth of his mental illness.

I invite you to say a prayer today for those you know who struggle with mental health issues. Perhaps you might call the friend who deals with depression personally, or is supporting a partner or child living with bipolar illness or schizophrenia. You might resolve to be consciously kind to the person in your congregation who can seem, well, "off" at times because of their illness. Let's follow the example of Christ who so often seemed to be aware that psychological, spiritual, and physical health were all aspects of a whole person.

If you are dealing with mental health issues, God be with you today and everyday. You are loved in Christ and you are a person of profound worth.


Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Facts on Muslims in North America

Recently two men who are Muslims were arrested, one in Toronto, another in Quebec. They are charged with plotting attacks on passenger trains, serious acts of terror. Praise Allah that it was a Muslim imam, or holy person, who gave information to the authorities which led to the arrests. I am relieved because I am reasonably convinced that the majority of the followers of Islam in this country and the United States are peace-loving practitioners of their religion. I find it scary that some become bent on destruction despite growing up in moderate, law-abiding families, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

This has been borne out by the respected Pew Research Centre on Religion. comprehensive world-wide study found that the majority of Muslims are opposed to religious extremism, although in some countries such as Afghanistan and Egypt it is more widely accepted. The majority of Muslims believe in religious freedom as well -- more than 90% around the world. The percentages in a number of areas are far higher in North America and Europe, which supports the premises found in Doug Saunders book The Myth of the Muslim Tide that Muslim immigrants quickly take on the values of the countries they make home. More than half of Muslims in the US accept that there are multiple paths to God.

While I don't feel I need to be an apologist Islam I do think it is important for all of us to deal with the facts, not suspicions and stereotypes. Yesterday I quoted Wendell Berry in a tweet "Categorical condemnation is the lowest form of hatred." Brilliant.

Do these statistics surprise you? Assure you? Leave you unconvinced?

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

More Proof of Heaven?

Some of you may recall an earlier blog about a couple of books written by physicians about their experiences of an afterlife. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say a parallel life, because in both instances the writers entered heaven and then returned. For them it was a foretaste of eternity and convinced the two skeptical scientific types that heaven is real. Of course the stories which are the foundation of these books are what are often called Near Death Experiences or NDEs. There are no books from the beyond, only from those who claim to have literally lived to tell the tale.

The literature on heaven is real enough that Canada's Maclean's magazine just offered a cover article on the plethora of related books. I found it a worthwhile look at the phenomenon -that's really what it is-- and the various approaches of these books. The author of the piece points out that when Elizabeth Kubler Ross studied NDEs people tended to report experiences that were fairly consistent with their religious upbringing. Protestants didn't have visions of the Virgin Mary, for example.

As I said before, I am rather conflicted by all this attention to heaven. I am a resurrection promise guy, after all, but I'm not sure what to make of all this. Is this a symptom of our more secular time that folk find other ways of expressing hope in eternity? Apparently more than half of Canadians still believe in heaven, but there are a lot who don't. And only a third of us give much credence to hell.

Have you read any of these heaven and NDE books? Are you curious? Is heaven still part of your understanding of life and death and life beyond death?

Monday, May 06, 2013

Humble Rosa's Place of Honour

I have always appreciated the story of Rosa Parks who refused to move to the back of bus in Montgomery, Alabama during the dark days of segregation. It was an act of defiance, but such a simply one, a Holy No, if you will.

Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement but she sounds as though she was a faithful church lady in the American Methodist Episcopal Church. She was a church stewardess, helping with communion and baptism in her congregation. She was also a deaconess, the highest position for a laywoman in the denomination. Parks died in 2005 at age 92.

In February a statue of Parks was unveiled in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington. This full-sized statue was commissioned by Congress -- the first since 1873. It was unveiled by a prestigious gang, including the first African American president of the United States, Barack Obama. There were also folk from the AME, which was only fitting. The denomination was founded by someone who was born a slave. Faith was so important to Parks who once commented that "God was everything to me." In church she would write sermon notes on the bulletin and some of these documents still exist.

What are your observations about Rosa Parks and the dedication of this statue?

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Language of Social Media

We were at a very pleasant family gathering last weekend and I had the opportunity to chat with two nephews. Nathan is a computer programmer and not surprisingly we got on to the subject of how businesses and organizations use websites and phone apps to communicate with actual and potential customers. He is learning the art of diplomacy, of convincing clients that their great ideas may not be so wonderful as communication tools. Lots of businesses want to throw every possible detail of their enterprise on to the entry page rather than giving a clear informational path through links. It's worse with apps, where the temptation is to try to use the tiny screen of a phone to convey all the information of a computer screen size website.

Churches are notorious for having confusing and stale-dated websites, although they are becoming more savvy with time. It hadn't occurred to me that we need to be ready for the most recent frontier, the smartphone app.

I also chatted with Michael who is well on his way in the process to become a United Church minister. He has read this blog over time and is aware that I am on Twitter. I asked if there is a social media course at seminary and he chuckled saying "nothing that useful." I suspect that this is the same at each of the United Church seminaries, yet we live in an era when most younger people go to the internet first to read the news, and to search out practical information including where a local church might be. Many young families have told me that they found my previous church, St. Paul's, through an internet search and looked to see what was available for their children and themselves. Some ventured into my blogs and my posted sermons to become better informed about our theological outlook. I hope the same will happen at Bridge Street.

I have mentioned before that since I am a member of the Over Fifty Club, which includes 80+% of United Church clergy, I have benefitted greatly from my adult children and younger congregational members to nudge me into the technological options for sharing the Good News and general stuff. I would have been daunted otherwise, but I'm glad they were there. I realize there is so much more I could learn.

What are your thoughts? Should the institutions which train our United Church clergy include courses on the use of social media as an outreach tool? The UCC gives grants to clergy to learn another language for ministry. Should the same happen to learn the "language" of blogs and Twitter and Facebook?

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Exploring the Heavens



  1The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
3There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
4yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
 Ps. 19

Commander Chris Hadfield in my hero, or at least one of them. This Canadian who is currently commanding the International Space Station has probably done more to help the peoples of planet Earth understand the workings of space travel than any other astronaut. His willingness to interact with earthlings, including school kids, along with his tweets and photos are truly remarkable. Somehow he does all this in the midst of the scientific work he must do daily and the regimen of keeping fit in space. I have retweeted many of those breathtaking photos and enjoy his rather poetic "take" on what he sees. Apparently others do as well, given that he has over 700,000 Twitter followers.

It is quite sobering to realize that this brave, resourceful man is in many respects a child splashing in the shallows of space. Relative to the vast expanses beyond him he has hardly left home. I do not in any way intend to be disparaging, because I can't imagine the courage and resolve it takes to do what Chris Hadfield is doing. It's just that he is pointing out how finite we are in the greater scheme of things. We may scurry about as though we are important but his exploits point out how limited our existence is.

Which is okay, don't you think? Through the years of canoe tripping I often looked upward at the night sky and was exhilarated by my "speckyness." I still felt loved by the God who knows me by name. And the remarkable reality of my existence in a vast universe somehow did and does deepen my faith.

My thanks to Commander Hadfield for what he is accomplishing. Sure he is a little delusional as a Leafs fan, but many of us are. What are your thoughts about his mission? Are you comfortable with being a speck in the grand scheme of things?

Friday, May 03, 2013

On the Threshold

Deathbed Singers Threshold Choirs

When my wife Ruth's father lay dying in a hospital bed the better part of twenty years ago his grown children kept vigil. Max was a retired minister who had a powerful singing voice in his prime. As he slipped away his kids, all Christians active in their faith communities, sang hymns at his bedside. It was comfort for him and for them.

There was a day when most people died at home rather than in an institution and it was not uncommon for friends and loved ones to offer the solace of the music of faith. Today many leave this life in rather sterile environments and music is rarely part of the experience.

I was intrigued to see that there is a growing movement of what are called Threshold Choirs in the United States, essentially choirs for the end of life. These choirs commit ten to thirty songs to memory and sing them to the dying as requested. Some are oldy goldies such as Take Me Out to the Ballgame (not Take Me Out of the Ballgame!) Others are sacred songs. These choirs rehearse regularly and are given training:

 Always face the person in the chair. Sense their breath, the rising and falling of the lungs, the blood's flush on the cheeks. Watch the loosening and tightening of the muscles, the movement of the eyelids, how the hair on their arms straightens up. Don't stand out. Speak softly. Blend in with the voices.

It would be easy to joke about this -- "oh no, not the choir! I must be a goner!"-- but I see the potential. Often folk I visit in nursing homes and other facilities are listening to music. Many of them have sung in choirs. And I can't help wondering if church choir members would be willing to do this on occasion as a form of ministry.

What do you think of this idea? Have you ever provided music for a dying loved one? Do you think you would find comfort in music when your time comes?

Please check out the return of my Groundling blog. There is a remarkable video within it.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

A Couple of Wild Turkeys

We crammed our vehicle full of the stuff of day-to-day living on Tuesday and left Bowmanville for Belleville early in the afternoon. By the evening --our 37th wedding anniversary-- we were unpacked enough to feel okay about heading out for supper. We felt more exhausted than celebratory, but we will live to tell the tale. For the next two months we will live in a nice little two bedroom apartment until we can take possession of our new home.

On our drive to Belleville we were stunned when a wild turkey flew across the highway directly in front of our vehicle. We were so close to striking it that we could hear the wing tips brush the car roof. We later pondered the mess a bird weighing up to eighteen pounds might have made to our vehicle and possibly to us.

We are certainly feeling more like a couple of wild turkeys than, say, gentle doves these days. Off we have flown to start a new adventure and it all seems a bit crazy. We have left behind a wonderful congregation and entered into another we trust and pray will be equally wonderful. Everyone here has been welcoming. The Holy Spirit whose urging we will celebrate on Pentecost in two weeks will guide us and lead us. Please pray that we don't smack into any windshields as we take flight.


Oh yes. You may need to find this Lion Lamb blog on a search engine and bookmark it from there since I am no longer accessible through the St. Paul's website.