Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Saint Oscar Romero

Protestants don't canonize individuals (make them into saints) the way the Roman Catholic church does. We are more than willing to uphold the contributions of exemplary persons but we believe that all of us are "saints" in terms of being called as faithful witnesses to Christ.

That said, if we were going to adopt a saint the murdered, and some might say martyred, archbishop Oscar Romero would be a prime candidate. The Roman Catholic church is moving toward the canonization of this important cleric. Romero rose through the ranks of the church in his homeland of El Salvador during the 1960"s and 70's. He was rewarded for being theologically and socially conservative in a time when many priests in Latin America were becoming radical on behalf of the poor and dispossessed.  Romero went through a conversion of sorts, becoming increasingly outspoken for those who were voiceless.

In 1980 he was assassinated in dramatic fashion as he was celebrating the mass. Romero was warned that his outspokenness could lead to an untimely end but he was not deterred."As a Christian," he once remarked, "I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people."

Did you see the movie Romero, released nearly 25 years ago now? Was his death a form of martyrdom? What about sainthood?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Jesus, the Original Hipster

The ad doesn't even mention him and all we see is lower legs and feet, the latter clad in Converse sneakers. Is Converse pleased that an ad shows its shoes as "Jesus boots?" The promo bit is called The Original Hipster and it is the Roman Catholic church's attempt to portray Jesus as counter-cultural. Hey he did have a beard, although I'm fairly sure he never wore a lumber jack shirt, listened to vinyl records or wore sneakers.

It seems that every culture in every time tries to get a fix on Jesus and he has been portrayed in every way imaginable, including with varying hues of skin. Why not? The gospels and the letters of the New Testament don't give us a clue as to Jesus' appearance. What is more important, perhaps, is the willingness of the Vatican to adopt different imagery and use different means of communication including social media. Now if they would change some of their social policies and doctrines...sorry, I couldn't resist.

What about Jesus as the original hipster? Worth a try? Are ads like this provocative or offensive or just not worth your attention.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Down on the Farm

A number of times through the years I have reported on life "down on the farm" owned by friends who are north of Sharbot Lake. It is a little bit of heaven in terms of location, with 200 acres of rolling hills which are a mixture of pasture and woods. The 2,000 feet of shoreline on the Mississippi River don't hurt when it comes to beauty and attracting wildlife.

Our friends are hurting this year, thanks to last summer's drought in much of Ontario. They can't turn out the sheep and cattle on the grass because there isn't any yet, the result of a slow Spring. But livestock have to eat, so it is hay -- expensive hay. Last year at this time one of those large round bales cost about twenty dollars. This year, and after a miserable 2012 crop, it is fifty dollars for the same bale, and even though our friends sold off a few cows the critters can go through one in twenty four hours. Lambs and calves gotta grow, and the bigger they get they more they eat. These animals won't to go to market for a while yet, so there is no income but plenty of outflow. And worry. Consumers aren't keen to have costs passed on to them, even when they enjoy the product.

During the couple of days we spent with these wonderful folk immediately after my last service we were aware of the toll all this takes on them. Who would stay in small farming in Ontario these days, and yet we all have to eat.

In Bay of Quinte Conference of the United Church scores of congregations are in rural areas which were once thriving farm communities. All that is changing, and its not hard to see why a younger generation just doesn't see farming as a viable option for gainful employment. Our friends have a keen younger couple who are considering buying their land for organic market gardening, so maybe there is hope. It would be a bittersweet end for Ellen and Bill.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Joe Tainted?

Eighteen cents an hour. It seems almost incomprehensible that a person might work for this pittance in the twenty first century, but this is the average wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh. I only learned this after another tragic incident in the country which exports over a billion dollars worth of manufactured clothing every year. A factory which had already been deemed unsafe collapsed with three thousand workers inside, killing more than three hundred.

We also heard that clothing from major brands, including Loblaw's Joe Fresh, were found in the rubble. I have a Joe Fresh hoodie, a gift from one of my daughters. I like it, and it was affordable for her as a gift, as was the clothing we have given to our adult kids. But we are increasingly aware that "affordable" clothing is often produced in conditions akin to slavery, with long working hours and unsafe conditions. How can I decry the slavery of another century and contribute to it in this one?

What is the solution for me as a Christian who thinks he has a commitment to justice? Surely we can develop a system of Fair Trade clothing the way we have the option of Fair Trade coffee and tea and other products. I listened to a Bangladeshi Canadian woman who asked that we not stop buying products from Bagladesh because it would result in great hardship. She suggested that we be willing to spend more for the products, which would still seem like a bargain. If an eight dollar tee-shirt was ten dollars, would that be the end of the world for most of us?

And maybe we could all get along with less. As we empty our closets of a lot of clothing we just don't wear anymore I am uncomfortable wth my level of consumption. How much of this did we buy because it was relatively inexpensive? We both notice that the duration of fashion trends gets shorter and shorter, and part of that is our North American access to off-shore produced goods. There is no point in blaming brands like Joe Fresh if we are driving the demand.

What are your thoughts about what has transpired in Bangladesh? Are you ethical until you get to the cash register? Do you think this incident will change your buying habits?

Thursday, April 25, 2013


The new film dramatizing the life of Jackie Robinson, the first baseball player to break the colour barrier, is in a theatre near you. Rotten Tomatoes has is hovering around 80 percent, which isn't bad. Some critics complain that it is a hagiography, turning Robinson into a saint. This is ironic given that nothing is said about Robinson's strong Christian faith. Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was also a Christian and actually read to Robinson from the Sermon on the Mount when they first met as encouragement.

In these chapters of Matthew's gospel Jesus says "blessed are the peacemakers" and "blessed are you when you are reviled and persecuted" as well as inviting his listeners to turn the other cheek when struck. While in the film Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, tells Robinson that he is looking for a player who won't fight back, there is no mention of the teachings of Jesus. It's interesting that the writers and producers of the film decided to leave this essential underpinning for Robinson's determination to play the game without retaliation out of the retelling. They certainly wouldn't have omitted that he was a person of colour!

Do you know much about Jackie Robinson's story? After Robinson was signed he played minor league ball in Montreal as the first black player. What do you think about leaving his faith out of the movie?


ELA kept open Experimental Lakes Area

My last meeting of Lakeridge Presbytery back in March happened to be in the church where I grew up and the court offered a nice farewell. There were a few tedious moments though. As the co-chair of the Mission, Outreach and Advocacy Committee I asked that a letter, which I had written and the committee endorsed, would be forwarded to the federal government. The letter was a plea to the federal government to continue funding for a world-renowned research station in the wilds of Ontario. The Experimental Lakes area encompasses 58 lakes in the Kenora region and was established in 1968. Researchers come from around the world to take advantage of this real-world lab. The budget is a paltry two million dollars. It has been pointed out that far more money was spent celebrating the anniversary of the War of 1812, and on Economic Action Plan ads. In the letter I reminded our elected federal government that as Christians we consider water to be a practical necessity and a spiritual symbol. We don't take clean water for granted.

It is a pleasant surprise that the Ontario government has stepped up to create a partnership with Manitoba and the feds to keep the project going for another year. Well done.

The tedious part of presbytery? Our letter didn't fit the protocol of this body.  It should have come to the court a month earlier as a notice of motion, then presented for a vote after due consideration. The problem was that the federal government had begun dismantling the research centre, apparently counting on "out of sight, out of mind."  Fortunately the wisdom of the court was to proceed in sending the letter. Once again it is doubtful that a government minister was swayed by our letter, and it is the province taking the lead. Who knows, though, whether the many letters and emails and media coverage made a difference. I would like to think that being faithful is what matters in the end.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Church:The Happiest Place on Earth

Could church possibly be the happiest place on Earth? Writer Colby Cosh explores that notion in an article in a recent issue of Maclean's magazine. He uses a significant study out of Saskatchewan as his springboard for musing on the "organized" aspect of organized religion. Three psychiatrists looked at interviews with more than 12,000 people about the effects of religion on depression. It turns out that religion may be a positive influence on our mental health. And it could be that doing religion is as important as being religious. The getting together aspect is a contributor to mental health, or so it appears.

I can appreciate this from a personal standpoint. Even though I am a worship leader, the experience of being with others who sing and pray and laugh and cry together lifts my spirits. So many people feel that there is comfort in doing all these things and opening to Someone greater than themselves. One of our daughters only attends worship when she comes to spend time with us. She admits that she always feels better afterward and isn't sure why she doesn't go to church at home. She has favourite hymns and likes the feeling of connectedness within the service.

For me worship is about more, it is about God, but I can appreciate why some want to be involved even though they don't have a strong personal faith.

Some of you are church attenders and some aren't. What do you make of this? Do you think that doing religion and being religious are intertwined?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How to be a Friend

I have asked Ruth, my wife, that if I should die of some disease such as cancer I do not my obit to say "after a lengthy battle," or words to that effect. I don't like the notion of responding to illness as combat of some kind. The people I admire most who live with disease do just that --choose to live. Whether it is chronic or wasting, they rarely speak of a fight against an enemy. They choose to carry on because they love their families and friends and appreciate the goodness of life even when they are ill.

I just read a review of a book I want to get called How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who is Sick. It is a great title, and sounds as though it is full of thoughtful and practical advice. Lo and behold, the author, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, has found that many people with illness don't like militaristic language. They want to achieve inner peace, whether on their way to recovery or death. As a Christian minister I figure my role is to be a "non-anxious presence" with those who are ill, not a cheerleader. And while I have had many conversations about eternity and our resurrection hope, we usually focus more on living well and saying what needs to be said with loved ones and friends.

How are you when it comes to supporting those living with serious illness? Can you be that loving presence or do you feel awkward, or unnerved? Have you got better at supporting people over time? Do you pray for others?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Earth Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday in many churches and it is the custom to read passages such as the 23rd Psalm and verses from the gospel of John where Jesus refers to himself as both the good shepherd and the sheepgate. There is a beloved parable in Luke about a shepherd who leaves the ninety nine sheep in the fold to seek the one lost sheep, and there are a number of "sheepish" hymns and anthems.

Few of us know shepherds anymore, so the metaphor that worked so well in biblical times might be somewhat mystifying for modern sensibilities. At St. Paul's we had Farmer Jim for years and I made the mistake of getting him to bring a lamb one Good Shepherd Sunday for the Children's Time. What was I thinking? The kids totally ignored me. Jim is retired now, although he still keeps some sheep.

Our long-time farm friends are retiring as well, preparing to sell their two hundred or so acre farm north of Sharbot Lake. It is a gorgeous spot with plenty of frontage on the Mississippi River, but beauty doesn't pay the bills or do the chores. As they age they look forward to a less demanding lifestyle, although they find it hard to imagine moving from their lovely land. a younger couple came to see the farm yesterday, appropriate given the liturgical day.

The coincidence of Good Shepherd Sunday and Earth Sunday may have been overlooked by many, but it is an opportunity to consider the earthiness of so many of Jesus' parables and the agrarian economy his listeners knew so well. The theme of Earth Day in 2013 is the important issue of climate change, but it is also important to remember that we all have to eat. Where would we be without those who produce our food, including those lamb chops?

Happy Earth Day. Remember all those good shepherds and other farmers as you follow the Good Shepherd.

Do you know any farmers? Do you buy food from those who produce it? Is it worthwhile to connect Good Shepherd Sunday and Earth Sunday?

Sunday, April 21, 2013


The two young men, brothers, may have come from a Chechen background, but they spent their formative years in America. The older generation of their family came to the US and Canada to escape ethnic and religious violence and had successfully established themselves and integrated into North American society. The older of the two men married a Christian woman and had a young child.

What happened? How did they become radicalized to the point that they could senselessly kill and maim innocent people?  Why is it often young people who end up adopting extreme religious and political ideals? And of course, it is the young we send off to war.

In light of all this I was thinking of how Jesus managed to convince young men to leave behind their secure lives to follow him. For three years the disciples traipsed after Jesus trying to absorb the nature of his radical message. Of course with Jesus it was the invitation into a peaceful way of being in relationship with God,  the promise of a new reign and a transformed hope based on love.

It may just be the nature of youth to be idealistic and ready for adventure. We see how it can go terribly, terribly wrong. We need to be committed to opening another pathway for our young people, rooted in the gospel. That same fervour will be the hope for us as a Christian community.

What are your musings about all this?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Sexiest Month

Okay, I'm going to admit that firing off blog entries in the midst of packing, arranging, and saying goodbyes is getting a tad more challenging. But here I am!

In an article published nearly a decade ago celebrated author Barbara Kingsolver refers to April as the sexiest month. There is a whole lot of action for critters great and small as they stake territory and procreate and give birth. The article is called A Fist in the Eye of God and it is beautifully written. http://www.organicconsumers.org/gefood/SmallWonders.cfm

Kingsolver begins by reflecting on watching a hummingbird build its gossamer nest:

If you had been standing with me at my kitchen sink to witness all this, you
would likely have breathed softly, as I did, "My God." The spectacular
perfection of that nest, that tiny tongue, that beak calibrated perfectly to
the length of the tubular red flowers from which she sucks nectar and takes
away pollen to commit the essential act of copulation for the plant that
feeds her - every piece of this thing and all of it, my God. You might be
expressing your reverence for the details of a world created in seven days,
4,004 years ago (according to some biblical calculations), by a divine being
approximately human in shape. Or you might be revering the details of a
world created by a billion years of natural selection acting utterly without
fail on every single life-form, one life at a time. For my money the latter
is the greatest show on earth, and a church service to end all. I have never
understood how anyone could have the slightest trouble blending religious
awe with a full comprehension of the workings of life's creation.

The article goes on to celebrate creation and the possibility of a Creator without Kingsolver claiming to be a Creationist. I'm with her, as many of you know. My faith is not dependent on a seven-day creation but I am still convinced that there is a Creator. Furthermore, I take seriously our creed's phrase "to live with respect in Creation."

I hope that we all have time to ponder creation in our busy days and connect the beauty around us with God, the Creator.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Day of Shame

 US President Barack Obama is accompanied by former lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords (L), vice president Joe Biden (R) and family members of Newtown school shooting victims as he speaks on gun control at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 17, 2013. Obama on Wednesday slammed what he called a "minority" in the US Senate for blocking legislation that would have expanded background checks on those seeking to buy guns. 

I don't wanrt to kick a nation when it's down, but since the president of the United States weighed in, so will I.  On Wednesday he decried the convoluted choice of the senate to negate strategic but limited changes to gun laws. The proposal was to do comprehensive background checks of gun buyers and limit magazine size to ten rounds --ten rounds! Apparently ninety percent of Americans supported the background checks and there was bipartisan support in the senate, even with those who are ardent gun owners. But the arcane rules of the senate meant that the proposals were defeated. President Obama described the outcome as a "day of shame" although those who should hang their heads in shame are defiant.

There is something terribly wrong with all this. Parents of the children massacred in Newtown stood with the president and once again spoke eloquently, refusing to be defeated. They should not be subjected to this. In a blog entry on what I considered evil and demonic I offered up the American obsession with guns and my mind hasn't changed at all. We know that many fundamentalist pastors preach on upholding the Second Amendment as though it is an addition to scripture. One of our folk attended a church where she saw a seminar on gun safety listed as one of the options for the week.

I realize that the States is much more "Jesusy" than we are but I don't think his "blessed are the peacemakers" has much traction south of the border. I am dismayed.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Jesus the Homeless

Sculptor Timothy Schmalz has created a bronze sculpture called Jesus the Homeless outside Regis College, the Jesuit college at U of T.

And Jesus said to him, "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.  Matthew 8:20

There is a variation on this verse in a couple of gospels, a reminder that the Christ we follow probably had more in common with the homeless than those of us who are comfortably middle class. A unique sculpture brings this into the spotlight. Read this from the Toronto Star:   Jesus has been depicted in art as triumphant, gentle or suffering. Now, in a controversial new sculpture in downtown Toronto, he is shown as homeless — an outcast sleeping on a bench.
It takes a moment to see that the slight figure shrouded by a blanket, hauntingly similar to the real homeless who lie on grates and in doorways, is Jesus. It’s the gaping wounds in the feet that reveal the subject, whose face is draped and barely visible, as Jesus the Homeless. Despite message of the sculpture — Jesus identifying with the poorest among us — it was rejected by two prominent Catholic churches, St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
“Homeless Jesus had no home,” says the artist, Timothy Schmalz who specializes in religious sculpture. “How ironic.” Rectors of both cathedrals were enthusiastic about the bronze piece and showed Schmalz possible locations, but higher-ups in the New York and Toronto archdiocese turned it down, he says.
“It was very upsetting because the rectors liked it, but when it got to the administration, people thought it might be too controversial or vague,” he says. He was told “it was not an appropriate image.”
The Toronto archdiocese tried to help him find an alternative location, including St. Augustine’s Seminary in Scarborough. But Schmalz, who describes his work as a visual prayer, wanted to reach a wider, secular audience. “I wanted not only the converted to see it, but also the marginalized. I almost gave up trying to find a place.” Now the sculpture stands near Wellesley St. W., outside Regis College at the University of Toronto. It’s a Jesuit school of theology, where priests and lay people are trained, with an emphasis on social justice.

What is your reaction to this story? Can you relate to a homeless Jesus?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


United Church, Ompah, Ontario. Single hung windows to match the original in appearance.

When I was on leave five years ago I spent two months in the "pastor protection program" my term for the choice to go off to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere north of Sharbot Lake Ontario. Fortunately I could have remarkable quiet time and still be joined by my wife, Ruth, for three days every week.

I wasn't required to attend church but I did connect on Sundays with a tiny congregation served by a retired minister who was a thoughtful preacher. Ompah United Church was part of a two-point charge with Plevna and both were small. The sanctuary seated maybe forty uncomfortably (the pews were ancient instruments of torture.) There was a lovely view of the trees out a front window. This was the only photo I could find online, but you can see that window.

Ompah, which sounds like a Greek toast --Ompah! -- or perhaps the sound made by a tuba, was quite a contrast with the very active faith community of St. Paul's. One Sunday there were more than twenty people in worship and I could tell folk were elated. The day after their big roast beef dinner there were maybe ten. The older gang was too tired to come to church!

I was just back in the area with Ruth for a couple of days of R&R after our St. Paul's farewell. I received notice last week that both congregations have closed and that in May there will be a service of deconsecration for the building. Sad, but inevitable.

The strength of the United Church through the decades has been as much in rural communities as in urban centres -- maybe more. But the world has changed. We have become an urbanized and secular society and those churches which were once community hubs just can't sustain themselves.

Well done to the good and faithful servants in Ompah and many other congregations which are in their twilight moments.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Women at the Wall

A few days ago five women were arrested at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They are part of a small but persistent group who are upholding the right of women to worship at this holy place, wearing the prayer shawls which men have traditionally worn and reading scripture publicly, again a male preserve.

Just to remind you, this wall, made up of 2000-year-old limestone blocks is part of the retaining perimeter for what was the temple mount in Jesus' time. The temple was destroyed in 70 AD and the wall largely disappeared beneath two millenia of detritus. It has been excavated since the 1967 war and a plaza was built so that large groups can assemble. But it is orthodox Jewish men who lay claim to the wall as a place of worship with a small and separate area for women. The shawls are a statement about religious equality and freedom of expression in a nation where secular democracy and religious conservatism constantly butt heads.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. There is a proposal to create a mixed gender worship area just to the south of the wall, but I have the feeling that these women want equality rather than placation, and I understand why. This is one more example of the long, slow shift in societies and religions toward gender equality. A group of old men elected a pope in Rome recently while women quietly protested outside. Islamic women in many countries have begun to express themselves more freely, although not without cost. It will happen, but sadly conservative religion is often the most entrenched bastion of resistance.

Did you know about the women at the Western Wall? Do you just shake your head in annoyance that they have to do this for equality? Do you admire their resolve?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Lion Lamb Moves On

Caught you looking! Actually I'm glad you took a peek to see if my blog is still here. While it has been linked from the St. Paul's website Lion Lamb is "mine" (whatever that means in cyberworld) and I suppose will continue to be there until the end of the month. Yesterday was my last day of work at St. Paul's but I am employed by the congregation until the end of April. These next two weeks are vacation, or packation, or whatever we want to call it.

Because this blog is actually personal it will travel with me, and I hope you will continue to read. I have readers from previous congregations and some folk from Bridge St. have been reading and commenting for a while, which is great. About the commenting, please keep it up! Yes, some blogs will be specific to Bridge St. as some are related particularly to the life of St. Paul's at the moment. But many, really the majority, are not really related to one congregation or place.

I enjoy your comments and observations immensely and I hope these blogs (more than 2,000 now, with over 200,000 page views) have been helpful for you in thinking about your life faith-fully. I may be a bit sporadic in the next while but I will return with enthusiasm to both Lion Lamb and my neglected Groundling.

Christ be with you!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Thank You!

"Are you awake?" asked Ruth. "oh ya" was my reply. This groggy exchange occurred just after five this morning. Knowing that this was our final worship experience at St. Paul's, the "last hurrah" as I have tagged everything created for this day had us awake far earlier that we would have wished.

We already made our way through an emotion-filled event yesterday. Despite the miserable weather the hall at Trinity church was filled to overflowing and we had fun together. The whole afternoon was so well planned and executed. There was the serious stuff and the silly stuff and for us it was a wonderful combination of both. 

There were lovely and thoughtful gifts of two paintings showing scenes from within Killarney Provincial Park, an area which was "holy ground" for us during our Sudbury days. Then there was the gift of the rolltop desk in the manse. There are only a few items in the manse which belong to the congregation, and just one which has caught our fancy -- and now it is ours! Ultimately the most precious gift was the presence of so many people, including those who came to town for the party, and a big contingent of colleagues from other congregations.

Today. I am here before eight this morning, dashing off this blog entry, heading soon for the sanctuary to do the "pre-game warm-up" I have done for the past ten years at St. Paul's. I will preach my message to the empty pews of the church, then wait for the true church, all of you, to arrive.

Lots of music today, maybe a few tears. I will try not to blubber, but I'm not promising anything. And I hear Christ will be with us, once again.

Thank you!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Beyond Stereotypes and Suspicions

I am saddened, frustrated, sometimes angered by periodic reports of Islamist extremists who seem to be anti-West, anti-women, anti-science, anti-artistic expression. Let's be honest, they are thugs who masquerade as devout Muslims. They recruit those without hope, or those who mistake violent zealotry for religious passion. Two young Canadians were caught up in a terrorist attack recently and died in the attempt.

Then there are the reminders that the majority of Muslims in our midst are peaceable and hardworking and express their faith in entirely acceptable forms of devotion by any standards. I have said before that I admire a religion whose practitioners pause several times a day for prayer.

I am also aware that along the way Islam was blown off course from its leadership in science and the arts. In another time Muslims led the way in medicine and other disciplines. The arts flowered with encouragement rather than suspicion.

As of September of 2012 there is a new wing at the Louvre in Paris devoted to Islamic art. http://www.louvre.fr/en/departments/islamic-art The Louvre has long been one of the world's great art museums but has climbed to the top of the list because of this centre to display Islamic art.

Boasting 14,000 objects and admirably complemented by 3,500 works from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs — many of which are being exhibited for the first time — the department's collection reflects the wealth and breadth of artistic creation from Islamic lands.The history of the collections reflects both history in the broadest sense and the history of artistic taste.
At the very least this department challenges our stereotypes. It also invites us into a rich world of expression which was encouraged by a religion other than Christianity.
Une visite guidée des arts de l'Islam

Friday, April 12, 2013

Knitting and Worship

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. Ps. 139:13

One of the many fine pastoral care initiatives at St. Paul's is the Prayer Shawl Ministry. My wife, Ruth, was a part of getting it rolling (a little wool humour there) but it is really a collaborative effort. The gang meets occasionally, knits religiously, and the shawls have gone hither and yon to those going through challenging circumstances. The recipients have been young and old and in between. They always receive a written prayer along with the prayer-blessed shawl.

Someone wrote an online opinion piece recently asking if it would be okay for knitters to do their darningest (sorry) during worship. Many knitters can almost go on automatic pilot as they work, and claim they can listen intently as they create. So why not in church?

It had never occurred to me, but I generally work on the premise that folk can wear what they want, and bring what they want ( a cuppa java perhaps) to worship as long as they don't distract others. Maybe there could be a knitters pew. As long as it was clack-free and there was no whispering about patterns or swearing over missed stitches, I really wouldn't care. It would be nice to think that worship was a place where we prayed with words and the shawls were a benediction carried into the community.

What do you think? Is it okay for us to stretch the traditional boundaries of what happens in worship? Would you be distracted, or offended, or delighted to be near a knitter in church?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Gun Sanity

Did any of you watch the Sixty Minutes segment Sunday night featuring the interview with a group of the Newtown massacre parents and loved ones?  You really have to take a look at it, and if it doesn't touch you to the core then...well, it will! http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50144358n

These people are still suffering four months later but they are articulate and passionate about changes to gun control. It was unsettling that they are asking for so little though. They might be hollering in outrage for a ban on automatic weapons. Instead they have asked for universal background checks and limits on magazine size. These are modest expectations given their profound loss, and the realization that more than 3,000 Americans have died by shooting since the massacre four months ago.  But the U.S. Congress refuses to act, even as the number of gun deaths continues to rise.

Today there will be a prayer vigil in Washington with the hope that the nation's leaders will wake up:

To make sure Congress hears our voice, Sojourners is joining with PICO Network to host an interfaith prayer vigil in Washington, DC, this Thursday, April 11th at 11:30 a.m.
We’ll join hands in prayer on the National Mall surrounded by more than 3,200 wooden crosses and other religious symbols to commemorate those who have died since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. All last week, Sojourners staff and volunteers have been building crosses and preparing for Thursday’s witness.

I sure hope someone will be listening.

Did any of you see the interview? What are your thoughts about guns in America, and this country?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


I'm not big on saying goodbye, but I have been doing a lot of it lately. I have been intentionally visiting folk, some who are elderly and can't get out to church, some who have serious illness and admit that they figured I would bury them. Leave-taking involves an emotional toll and I realize that a lot of people are not great at sorting through their emotions. As a couple Ruth and I are practiced at this, although practice does not make perfect. In fact, this is our most-difficult departure from a congregation. Part of this is the lovely group of people I have served. Part of it is our stage of life. Perhaps we have grown less resilient with age, and we also see the finish line in terms of ministry. Still, we are aware that eventually ministers move on.

At St. Paul's I have noticed some "burrowers," essentially hiding away from the reality that we are heading on to a different challenge. They have just disappeared from view and admitted to others they find this very stressful.

There are also a few "barkers,"  the people who are inexplicably angry that I would up and leave after "only" ten years. One person observed that St. Paul's ministers don't go on to other congregations. Of the past three lead ministers, totalling fifty-plus years of service, one took on a conference position while the other two retired. She also admitted that they have no problem poaching a new minister from other congregations, but it is offensive that I would commit pastoral adultery with another church. It's a bit much, but I get it. And I hasten to add that this was not the perspective of the individual who shared this with me!

Fortunately the majority have been "blessers," processing what is unfolding. They are coming to the realization that this is happening, and offering support and encouragement to both of us. After all, Ruth has a career as well, and she has made sacrifices and taken her leave a number of times because of the work I do and my sense of call.

I hope that this weekend we can all focus on the blessing, rather than the burrowing and the barking. God knows we need it for a healthy goodbye.

How are you with farewells? Do you have leave-aphobia? Where do you find yourself as you say goodbye? Will you be a blesser? Please!

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Innies and Outies

There was an interesting article in the business section of the Globe and Mail newspaper yesterday about the care and feeding of introverted employees. The column Monday Morning Manager used the headline Are You an Introvert? That's an asset.

At the risk of being simplistic, extroverts gain their energy from exterior sources, and often come across immediately as outgoing. Introverts get their drive from within, and are sometimes labelled shy or stand-offish initially.

The article suggests that because introverts are thoughtful and measured in the way they respond to tasks they can be very important team members, if given the leeway to reflect, perhaps write responses rather than toss ideas into a group discussion, and are given time to "recharge" apart from the interactive demands of the job.

I get this because according to several assessments through the Myers-Briggs personality indicator I am an introvert. So are the majority of ministers -- far more than the average in our society. In makes sense when you consider this. We have an inner life which has led to a "call" from God into ministry. Our parishioners hope that we will be thoughtful in what we have to say on Sunday mornings. We might use a venue like a blog to express ourselves!

Of course, we are involved in an extroverted profession where we are expected to engage with people constantly. Parishioners may think that we should have the chance to do our inner work of study, prayer, and reflecting. They may not realize the constant "outie" expectations of the job. Social media has made this even more pronounced.

I find that if I don't have time for my inner life I become frustrated, and even overwhelmed.  I need to be in conversation with God and to develop the bigger picture of ministry within my congregation. I also figure that if I'm not doing this, who is? I know I am a good visitor and listen well. I also know that an afternoon of visiting can drain me as I attempt to be attentive and spiritually supportive. And the evening meeting is just ahead.

This is important for St. Paul's to ponder as it chooses a new minister, and for Bridge St. as it invites me into leadership. Through the years I have learned to be comfortable in my extroverted mode, but I will always be an introvert at heart.

Do you know whether you are an "innie" or an "outie?" Are you okay in your own skin? Do you see how it is important to be aware of this with your pastor?

Monday, April 08, 2013


Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California is an unlikely force to be reckoned with. He looks like the nice guy down the block who always invites you to his neighbourhood barbecue. In fact, he started a congregation thirty years ago which now has upwards of 20,000 people in worship at a variety of services. He wrote The Purpose Driven Life which has sold millions of copies. After Hurricane Katrina he started the drive to pay the salaries of pastors who had lost their churches in the devastation. He has been very involved in addressing AIDS in Africa. While I don't adhere to some aspects of his conservative theology, I do admire him. Hey, I follow him on Twitter.

I am also praying for Rick Warren and his wife Kay in the loss of their youngest child, 27-year-old Matthew. Matthew has experienced a life-long battle with depression and suicidal thoughts and finally succumbed. In a letter to his vast congregations Warren offered:

Over the years, Matthew Warren had been treated by America's best doctors, had received counseling and medication and been the recipient of numerous prayers from others. I'll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said 'Dad, I know I'm going to heaven. Why can't I just die and end this pain?

You who watched Matthew grow up knew he was an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man," Warren wrote. "He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He'd then make a bee-line to that person to engage and encourage them.

This is incredibly sad, as every suicide is. This sort of depression can affect anyone, from any background, and despite the deepest faith grounding. Matthew had spent an enjoyable day with his parents and went home to take his own life. Somehow he could not find the purpose and hope for his life in the midst of illness. There is no rhyme nor reason for what grips those who suffer from severe suicidal thoughts.

I invite you to pray for the Warrens as well. Do you have any observations or comments about all this?

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Faith Voices United Against the Casino

Faith Leaders gather at City Hall on Thursday to release an interfaith statement opposing casino expansion within the GTA. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

I sent off a quick email to former Oshawa Presbytery colleague Christopher White congratulating him on his leadership with a group of faith leaders who publicly and collectively spoke out against a proposed casino for Toronto. Christopher was joined by by other United Church ministers, including two former moderators. With them were representatives from all the major religious traditions. He was quoted in the Toronto Star:

“We are standing here representing 250 faith leaders from synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, all across the Greater Toronto Area,” said Rev. Christopher White, who helped organize the event. “This is the first time that you have seen this amount of commitment, co-operation on an issue that concerns all of us.”

The concern they are expressing is that gambling is a social and even moral ill, not a social benefit as it is cleverly portrayed. This isn't just some knee-jerk "gambling is bad" reaction. Faith groups are aware of the statistics on problem gambling and the pastoral fall-out of lives and families destroyed by gambling as an addiction. I have attempted to support folk who have gone through horrendous circumstances due to problem gambling, including lost homes and  jobs, as well as family break-ups

Toronto mayor Rob Ford, known for his sage and measured outlook, did not take the faith leaders seriously. He insists that most Torontonians want the casino and the supposed 10,000 high paying jobs. We should all question his perspective and the wild claims for both job creation and revenue.

What are your thoughts about the casino in particular and the effects of gambling in general?

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Mission and Service in Christ's Name

The other day a colleague mentioned that a guest speaker while she was absent from the pulpit one Sunday took it upon herself to tell the congregation that they shouldn't be supporting outreach projects away from the community, but instead stay close to home. To the credit of my colleague's congregation, when she returned a number of them expressed concern at this message.

There is a fair amount of this "charity begins at home" stuff that I must say amazes me in a day when we benefit from a global economy and expect that we have news from around the world. With knowledge comes responsibility, it seems to me, and we have an obligation and privilege to enter into compassionate partnerships with those in often distant places on our planet.

Recently our United Church moderator Gary Patterson signed letters to congregations across the country for their contributions for mission and outreach. He blogged about it, and good-humouredly admitted that it was no small task to scrawl his signature at the bottom of all the certificates. He knew that when he signed one for a Grace United as Grace Patterson he might be losing it!

The Mission and Service fund gives us the opportunity to enter into those meaningful partnerships with church groups around the world.  We believe our M&S dollars are better spent working with local church agencies than parachuting into other countries.

This doesn't mean "either/or" though. St. Paul's has strong outreach to a number of local outreach agencies and ministries, including The Gathering Place community meal.

All round, well done in your generosity and compassion! Thoughts or comments?

Friday, April 05, 2013

National Caregivers Day

Earlier this week I made a final visit before my departure from St. Paul's to a lovely elderly woman who is living with cancer. At times in the past few months we wondered if she was not long for this world, and she decided to stop chemotherapy. She has rebounded remarkably though, and while she can't be cured, she has quality of life right now.

Her children and a daughter-in-law are very attentive. A daughter has taken several months of leave from her demanding job to be a caregiver, although her mother's respite from the worst of the illness means that she will return to work at the beginning of May. I asked whether she is taking advantage of the Compassionate Care Benefit Program and she is. Still, she says the system is not all that easy to navigate and she works in the healthcare system.

Today is National Caregivers Day and while this year the focus is support for those with Alzheimers disease I hope we say a prayer for all those are in the rather thankless role of providing support for loved ones. We have an elderly man in the congregation whose life is essentially devoted to the care of his wife, who has dementia, and he does so without fanfare. We have a number of members who are "sandwiched" between their family responsibilities and care for elderly parents. More often than not these are women in the lead roles and the burden is heavy. Seldom do they complain, but I see the toll the responsibility takes.

I would appreciate hearing comments about caregiving, especially from those who are on the frontlines. God bless all of you are living out your Christian compassion in this way.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Holy Humour

A couple of my colleagues mentioned earlier this week that they would be working on the Holy Humour theme this Sunday. The first Sunday after Easter has been named Holy Humour Sunday by someone, somewhere and a growing number of congregations are picking up on the idea. It's interesting because there was a not-too-distant day when church was a place to be unrelentingly serious and humour was to be squelched at all costs. Yesterday I was pondering this when an email "thought of the day" rolled in with this:

As Christians, we are people of the resurrection, therefore we are people who love to laugh, who believe that laughter is a wonderfully life-giving, defiant act full of the grace of God. Easter is that which enables us to keep going, even in our moral failures, even when being a servant of the Word is difficult. Those who have kept at the Christian ministry longer than I will confirm the essential virtue of humor… The ability to laugh at life's incongruities, to take God seriously but not ourselves, to embrace the strangeness of [other] people instead of strangling them to death with our bare hands -- this is great grace…

Humor is the grace to put our problems in perspective,… to be reminded that Jesus really did need to save us, seeing as we have so little means to save ourselves. Humor is just a glimpse, on a human scale, of the way God looks upon us from God's unfathomable grace. By the resurrection, the gospel is enabled to be comedy and not tragedy.

-- William Willimon

I like these thoughts, even though I will stick with the story of Thomas and his uncertainty about the resurrection this week. Actually, as I drove past Trinity United, our neighbour, I saw a humour sermon title on the sign.

It seems to me that every week is Holy Humour week at St. Paul's in that our folk are quick to laugh and playful in outlook. We aren't yukkin' it up all the time, but we are able to express joy through laughter and laugh at ourselves. I'm hoping that it isn't irreverent and dishonouring God -- just fun. The playfulness of adults sends a message to our children that we are all children of the Christ who surely had a sense of humour, and I think that is good. Folk at St. Paul's loved it when Cuyler Black, the cartoonist, came as our anniversary speaker

What do you think? Are you uncomfortable with the shift, or relieved? Does God have a sense humour?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013


Gordie Howe signs autographs on his 85th birthday for fans prior to the Detroit-Chicago game on Sunday.

On Easter Sunday the Chicago Blackhawks shellacked the Red Wings in Detroit, spoiling the 85th birthday party for the greatest Wing ever, Gordie Howe. It's not difficult to argue that Howe was one of the two or three greatest players to lace up the skates in the National Hockey League and it was nice that he was honoured in this way.

Sadly, Howe is suffering from dementia and this may be the last time he is able to take part in this sort of celebration. Before the game he signed autographs and one of his sons conceded that while signing events have kept his dad's mind active, they are now more confusing for him that helpful. With so many living with dementia and Alzheimer's, there is the slow disappearance from public life and family activity until the word comes that the individual has died. Life with dementia is just unfair even for those who once experienced greatness in their fields of endeavour.

As I pack up my books to move on from St. Paul's I notice that I have several on the subject of dementia, more that I realized. Hmm. This is a significant reality in pastoral care and as I have written before we have some wonderful volunteer visitors who gently support both those with dementia and their families. This is a more pronounced challenge in mainline churches because we have a significant number of older people compared to some of the start-up congregations. We get stretched across three and even four generations in our ministry, and the temptation is to let our elderly members with dementia fade away.

I am confident that St. Paul's will sustain it's meaningful ministry to those of our Christian family who live with dementia.


Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Our House...

Our house is a very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy
'Cause of you
And Our

I'll light the fire
And you place the flowers in the jar
That you bought today.

So sang Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Canada's Neil Young many moons (43 years!) ago. It was an idyllic and honestly unrealistic ode to the home and all its comforts. Graham Nash wrote the song when he was living with another Canadian, Joni Mitchell, and it was a very contented time in his life.

This week we hope to conclude the deal to buy a home in Belleville, our first in a while, since we have been living in a manse for the past decade. No, the home in the photo above is not the one we chose! The house we've found doesn't meet all of our criteria. It is larger than we need, and two-storey rather than one. But there are other important factors, both interior and exterior.

Inside we want enough room for family to gather, even though only two of us will be living there full-time. Check. We want plenty of light in the rooms where we will live most. Check.

Outside is just as important for us. Our desire is to be in a neighbourhood with trees and to have enough room for both vegetable and flower gardens. Check. I want our home to be close enough to my work to either walk or cycle. Check.  There is also a bus stop a couple of minutes away.

It is a priority to have ready access to green space and proximity to water. Check. Oh yes, we want to be live in an area that is relatively quiet, because noise pollution is a big deal to us.

We realized as we searched that some of these hopes and expectations are strongly connected to the convictions of our faith. Living with a lighter "footprint" in terms of fossil fuels, trying to maintain physical activity despite sedentary work, growing things, enjoying the natural world -- these are values which we connect with who we are as Christians.

We do trust that if this is meant to be it will unfold in the next few days.

So are we just picky! Do you have values that are important to bring to bear in the place you live? Do you connect the place you reside and your faith?

Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter Tweets

For some reason cute little chicks and bunnies have become the public face of Easter in our secular society. Well, on Easter Sunday a whole lot of tweeting went on in church, and it wasn't baby chickens. I refrained during the early worship service but I fired off a bunch of tweets before and after to let the world know that our young people were leading and that the men of the congregation were serving up breakfast. It does amaze me that more than a hundred people come to church for 8:00 AM and close to 150 enjoy the pancakes and sausages between services.

It was visitor Tracey who tweeted during the later service and I have to concede she was a good listener. A couple of her tweets were about my invitation to the communion table, even for those who might be a little "rusty" when it came to what was about to unfold. We did our best to be welcoming and open and we celebrated the resurrection of Christ with enthusiasm.

Will we tweet "live" from now on? I really don't think we will make it a habit, but maybe it would keep everyone on their toes!

Thanks to everyone who participated in the two Easter services, and to our dedicated choir who sang at four services from Thursday evening to Sunday morning.

Speaking of tweets, I see that my soon-to-be church family at Bridge St. had wonderful worship on Good Friday and Easter morning.

I am in that strange world of goodbye and hello.