Sunday, June 29, 2014

Flags & Crosses & Canada Day

Today we will be observing a Bridge St. UC tradition of celebrating Canada Day within worship. I'm always a little leery of waving the flag in a church service. Patriotism and religion are a bad mix, in my estimation, yet I am incredibly proud and grateful to be a Canadian.

Because the world will be acknowledging the beginning of the First World War this summer I have chosen to reflect on the role of chaplains in The Great War. Until WWI there wasn't really a defined chaplaincy service and the Canadian padres discovered how to minister to the troops under horrendous conditions. The role was fraught with danger. The chaplains were unarmed, yet they were constantly in harm's way. A shocking 179 British chaplains were killed and hundreds more from around the Empire were injured.

What was unsettling in my research is that virtually all the chaplains approached this global conflict as a Holy War, a Christian crusade. It didn't matter that the Germans were Christians as well. They were demonized and there was no question that this was a titanic battle between good and evil.

In addition, fallen soldiers were often portrayed as Christ figures. The painting above was widely circulated, and copies were hung in hundreds of churches.

Why do we choose to do this? I come back again to former US president Jimmy Carter's comment when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes war is a necessary evil, but it is always evil.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Not Paradise

The Simon Wiesenthal Center's Efraim Zuroff stands in front of a poster reading "Operation last chance - late but not too late" on 23 July 2013
I have just read the late Peter Matthiessen's  final novel called In Paradise. Set in 1996 a group of more than 100 people gather at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. For a week they pray and meditate in all sorts of weather on the selection platform for some of the half million Jews and others who died there. Some are Christians, some are Jews, some are Buddhists. There are Poles who are still in denial about what happened, and others, including a persecuted gypsy, who are antagonistic to the prayerful tone but need to be there.

The story takes us through the tensions that emerge, as well as the moments of grace. There is a moment of solidarity when participants wear pink triangles, but that has its awkwardness.  At one point they enter into a spontaneous dance which some find offensive and others see as holy. It is quite real --human nature, both generous and ugly. The participants struggle to comprehend the atrocities to which they supposedly bear witness in their meditation.

As I was reading the book came news that an 89-year-old man was arrested in Pennsylvania, charged as a guard at Auschwitz, responsible for the deaths of thousands. I vaguely grasp the horror of what happened in those camps and the necessity of prosecuting those who committed the crimes. I can also do the math. This guy was fourteen when the war began, and twenty when it ended. To what degree did he understand his crimes against humanity? He claims that he was never involved in killing anyone.

I'll be careful here, because this is such delicate ground. Somehow I was grateful to be reading the novel as I heard this news.

Any thoughts?

Visitors walk through the entrance gate of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Oswiecim, southern Poland 26 January 2005

Friday, June 27, 2014


June 26 is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture
I simply cannot fathom torturing another human being, and no the things I did to my kid brother decades ago don't really count. That's my take on it anyway!

Intentional inflicting psychological and physical pain on another is beyond my ken. Yet it happens every day, in countries all around the world, and we're told the incidences are on the rise.

Yesterday was the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. We know that torture takes place in Syria, where the regime tortures children as well as adults. We know that torture happens across Asia as a commonplace tool for police forces. We know that torture happens in the prisons of Egypt.

We also know that Canada allowed Maher Arar to be extradited to Syria on suspicion of terrorism where he was tortured for a year. We eventually apologized and paid him $10 million, but why did we allow this in the first place with near certainty about the outcome. The United States has tortured prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, calling it something else, and the abuses of Abu Ghraib inflamed hatred in the Middle East. We are democracies which claim a Judeo-Christian ethic, yet we condone torture for our ends. Many of us are followers of the Christ who was flogged, then died an intentionally slow death.

For all that I tend to sigh at the number of earnest days for various causes, it is important to be nudged out of my security and complacency. I hope I am never a torturer or the tortured, but I must look to the world around me.

A Prayer for Those Affected by Torture

God who is the source of all life, we pray for our sisters and brothers.
... for those affected by torture, whether physical or mental.
... for those who suffer brutal violence.
... for those who are mocked and humiliated and disempowered.
... for those who are shown no mercy.
... for those who are forced to exist in a state of perpetual terror, and who experience life-long trauma.
... for those whose precious humanity is taken away.
... for those who are not give the chance to live the gift of life, but instead fear for that life every moment.
Provide signs of your presence. Grant strength and courage and all that is needed for the living of these days. Guide the nations and peoples of the world to turn from policies and practices that violate one another. Move us to act in that cause. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

— Katie J. Anderson  Young Adult Intern
Racial Ethnic Young Women Together and National Network of Presbyterian College Women

Ketchup on my latest Groundling blog entry

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Drone Warfare

Technology journalist Tim Stenovec controls a Parrot Minidrone "Rolling Spider" during a demonstration in June in New York.

More and more we hear about the use of drones in warfare, referring to the "unpersoned" aircraft used to carry lethal force against enemies. At times these attacks go terribly wrong and result in the deaths of innocent non-combatants.

There is another "attack of the drones" underway, although less serious. It is the use of small drone aircraft, not unlike model planes. They are being used increasingly to carry cameras of the GoPro variety to take photos and videos in various locales, including national parks in the States. The result is that the parks have officially banned them, realizing that they are giant mechanized mosquitoes which defeat one of the purposes of "getting away from it all." For so many of us the relative solitude and silence of the wilderness are as important as the natural beauty. Here is a portion of a National Parks Service

Unmanned aircraft have already been prohibited at several national parks. These parks initiated bans after noise and nuisance complaints from park visitors, an incident in which park wildlife were harassed, and park visitor safety concerns.In April, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park gathered for a quiet sunset, which was interrupted by a loud unmanned aircraft flying back and forth and eventually crashing in the canyon. Later in the month, volunteers at Zion National Park witnessed an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.

This is a bit curious because the flyovers of the Grand Canyon by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft is incessant, although newer aircraft must meet noise reduction standards. I suppose every little bit matters.

There are many who are convinced that the noise of our society is having a profound psychological and spiritual effect on nearly all of us, without our knowing. Virtually every backyard task now has a machine to "aid" in its completion, and while we say we get used to it, it is proven that we don't. Our bodies stay in the alert "fight or flight" mode when we are assaulted by noise. I have mentioned before the excellent book One Square Inch of Silence author, Gordon Hempton, searches, largely in vain, for quiet places in America. Recently he has turned to Canada in his quixotic quest. He is concerned that silence may become "extinct" in the next decade.

I constantly crave silence and solitude. Increasingly I struggle with the noisiness of our human culture. I feel that I less able to hear and experience God in the midst of the racket.

Does anyone else share this feeling? Should churches be providing silence sanctuaries? (We have excellent spaces for this at Bridge St.UC)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Virtuous Cycle

I am slower to post this blog entry because I'm just back from a session of the Quinte Region Bike Summit. From what I could gather I was the lone clergy type, and most others were municipal employees from different communities, as well as enthusiasts from cycling organizations.

I was there because the keynote speaker was the former mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, Dave Cieslewicz. He was a clear and entertaining speaker who lived up to his blurb:

Dave will inspire you with the story of how Madison became one of the friendliest communities for cyclists in North America.  Through innovation and dedication, this city is a model for how winter communities can embrace bicycle friendly development to foster economic growth and improve health.

I was amazed to hear that in a city at least as wintry as our own the goal is to have bike paths and lanes cleared by 7:00 AM to encourage cycling during all seasons -- and it works. Madison closes some streets to car traffic at certain hours (except for residents of those streets) to facilitate commuting cyclists. Parking spots downtown have been turned into "bike corrals" which can accommodate eight bikes or more. He told us that he liked our Belleville Downtown but couldn't understand why we had turned over so much riverside space to car parking. I can't either!

I asked Dave whether faith communities were supportive of cycling initiatives in Madison and he mentioned that churches had endorsed closing downtown streets on Sunday mornings to make them bike-friendly. I asked about "Blessing of the Bikes" services and he admitted that he had just recently heard of them and liked the idea. Afterward a city staffer approached me about the plan to put a bike lane along Bridge St. It's interesting because we have precious few parking spots for Bridge St. UC now. I want to support cycling as a faithful way of living in our exhaust-clogged world. How do we balance that with getting access to our building during the week? We can figure it out.

That's the key. We can figure it out if we have the desire and commitment. Why can't Belleville become known for its bike friendliness.

Should this be a goal for the communities in which we live? Is this an issue congregations should take up? When was the last time you road your bicycle?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Temporary to Permanent?

Employment Minister Jason Kenney, left, and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander are seen in a reflection at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday, June 20, 2014 on reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you;
you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:
I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:34

The federal government has implemented new regulations and restrictions for the temporary foreign workers program across Canada. The program has allowed workers from other countries to enter Canada to do specific jobs and essentially without the prospect of staying should the job come to an end. Usually those jobs have been what we might call "low end" in terms of compensation and have often involved the sort of work which does not appeal to those who are Canadian citizens.

Over the past few months we have heard allegations of abuse of this system. Canadians who have wanted to work, or actually were employed by companies, felt snubbed or pushed out because the foreign workers were willing to accept sub-standard conditions or lower wages. Some of the workers have complained they were treated like indentured servants rather than employees who are supposedly protected by labour laws. When the feds shut down the program in some areas employers felt they had been left high and dry, and so did their foreign workers. In other words, the whole system was a mess. We now know that despite the government claiming that awareness of these problems is new to them, in fact complaints go back to 2006.

This is another example of the ongoing difficulties of temporary and seasonal workers in Canada. We don't do this well, and probably never have, under any government. Human and immigrant rights advocates, including those from religious groups, remind us that the healthiest system would allow for the possibility of workers becoming landed immigrants and eventually citizens. With the proverbial "sword of Damocles" dangling above their heads abuses, even by the relatively few, are possible.

It is a biblical principle that the vulnerable "alien" be treated with the same dignity and respect as those who are citizens. We need people in Canada who will do work which is often physically taxing or less appealing. People born here are often reluctant to take that work on. This employment provides opportunity for those who come from less prosperous backgrounds. Why should they be penalized or mistreated for doing work many of us don't want to do? Unions in BC feel that these workers should be allowed citizenship.

Have you followed this situation? Do you think laws need to be changed so that the "alien" workers we allow in have the possibility to become citizens?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Anti Homelessness & Our Response

May the Christ who walks on wounded feet, walk with you to the end of your road;
May the Christ who serves with wounded hands, teach you to serve each other;
May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart, help you to love each other;
When you go out, may you see the face of Jesus in everyone you meet,

and may everyone you meet see the face of Jesus in you. Amen.

There are a significant number of people living on the edge of financial desperation in Belleville, and a lot of them gravitate to the downtown where there are rooming houses and store-top apartments. There seems to be only one individual who could be defined as a "street person" and her name is Pam. She is often panhandling along Lower Front St. and sometimes at the Farmer's Market.

Pam tends to be of "no fixed address" staying with various people, often with unhappy results. She also "sleeps rough" to use the British phrase for those who don't have accommodation or won't avail themselves of what is available. That often happens because of mental health issues.

Pam was in the other day looking for assistance. She looked terrible, as messed up as I have seen her. She had sores on her face, and on her arms and legs. She tried to up-sell me on what I was prepared to give her because she was coming up to her birthday. I asked her age and she told me forty-one. On that day she looked much older. I'm not sure I brought the face of Jesus into focus as I looked at Pam.

I thought of Pam when I read of the uproar in London, Great Britain, about the installation of anti-homeless person spikes around a new upscale development. It is in an area being gentrified, so time to push out the riff raff by making the new buildings inhospitable for those sleeping on the street. Fortunately there was a public clamour of indignation, the mayor got involved, and they have been covered up, to be removed. The same happened in Montreal not long ago.

Here is the reality though. During the time of Mayor Boris Johnston the number of homeless in London has doubled, according to those involved in support and ministry to this disenfranchised portion of the population. In most communities the homeless and the marginalized are considered a problem, an inconvenience, and governments don't know what to do.

Hey, if I'm honest I wouldn't be keen on a homeless person sleeping on my doorstep. I do believe that a civil society which includes those who worship a God of compassion and a heart for the poor wants us to figure this out. Jesus might say that "the Pams will always be with us" but that wouldn't be license to ignore or to try to eliminate them from sight. We are meant to be individuals and a society with hearts of compassion. I know that a few bucks here and there is not the answer to Pam's needs. I'm not sure what would be.

Are any of you as unsure as I am? Does the notion of those spikes unsettle you? How do respond with more than guilt?

Homeless Jesus Sculpture Timothy Schmalz

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Aboriginal Sunday

        United Church Crest -- Four Colours of Medicine Wheel -- Mohawk phrase"all my relations."

There was no intention to have our service out-of-doors today in support of our Aboriginal Sunday, but I'm pleased the two coincide. Aboriginal Sunday is always on the weekend of the Summer Solstice. We are at the home and property of members Kay and Burle Summers, who are hospitality personified. They and we are north of Belleville and the back of their land to the west abuts the Moira River. The Moira is one of several waterways the Mississauga bands used to travel between their summer and winter communities. As with many First Nations, they had the sense to move away from large bodies of water during the coldest months and rivers were their highways. We have travelled a stretch of the Moira south from Highway 37 toward Belleville, and it is beautiful, with no human habitation. Paddlers can imagine a different time in that section.

Of course we don't live in the 18th or 19th centuries. In the 21st we are still trying to figure out to live in respectful coexistence with aboriginal peoples, and without stereotypes and paternalism. They are the First Nations, the original inhabitants who signed treaties in good faith with European nations. They were not the vanquished, but equal partners in most of those treaties, but that is not how Europeans acted.

Sadly, the missionaries bringing the gospel often acted as agents of the oppressors. The United Church and other denominations have confessed their complicity in the Residential Schools which in many cases practiced cultural genocide. If you think this is ancient history, the last United Church residential school closed in 1969. There are plenty of people around who were students in those schools.

In our worship this morning we will include some prayers written by First Nations persons, including former moderator Stan McKay. We will remind ourselves that our Christian faith can coexist and learn from Native spiritual expressions which honour the Creator. In a day when we are also realizing that we have subjugated the Earth to our peril, we can listen to those voices.

I should also share news of several events in the next week around a Travelling Toward Right Relations Canoe Trip :The aim of this journey is to understand and begin to move beyond the colonial relationships that have existed between Canada and First Nations.  Also, to engage communities in thinking about the importance of our local waters, possibly picking up the challenge of becoming a “Blue Community” (see for more info).                                                                               

I hope you are part of our service today! Thoughts?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Joyful Noise and Tin Ears

Make a joyful noise, all the earth!
Worship your God with gladness
Make a joyful noise all the earth!
Come to this place with a song

You may be well acquainted with this upbeat setting of Psalm 100 by Linnea Good which in the United Church hymn book. Is it both a powerful declaration of praise and the big lie. Over the years we have all been encouraged to "make a joyful noise" and not worry about our singing abilities. But let's be honest, no one wants to sit next to the person who is bleating away so far from the tune that they might as well be in another province. And music directors have their Christianity tested by the chorister who is a singing legend in his/her own mind.

I listened to a repeat of an CBC Ideas program called Tone Deaf: The Ballad of Tin Ears earlier this week and it was really good. The person who did the piece can't sing on tune, even though he would really like to sing. The experts he consulted offered encouragement, commiseration, and lots of perspective based on experience and research. One pointed out that in another day people made their own music. They sang in choirs, and around the piano at home. They learned to play musical instruments without lots of lessons. Now we sing less but we're all critics. Reality shows offer unreal expectations of musical prowess. As a result we are less confident in our musical expression and don't get better because we don't do it. Practice makes competence, if not perfection.

I sing, but not with confidence despite all these years in the church. I do know a million hymns though and can hum and whistle the tunes with a fair degree of accuracy. I come from a musical family and my mother and brother are skilled. Ruth sings in our choir, all three of our kids came up through a choir system and son Isaac leads music in his congregation regularly.

What I know is that music and praise are good for my soul. Even when I'm reluctant to sing, making a joyful noise lifts me. Countless times the opening hymn in worship has recharged my ministry-weary soul and given me the strength for the hour ahead.

Does music matter to you? Why? Is the music of worship different? How? Don't just sit there reading, sing out!

Friday, June 20, 2014

The United Church & World Pride

Our administrator, Carol, asked if I wanted to include info and a link to the World Pride material supplied by the United Church of Canada in our Sunday morning bulletin.  I must be honest and say I wasn't sure, because I know what the perceptions of some are about Pride parades in Toronto and elsewhere. Sadly, the more extreme aspects of the parades tend to deepen some of the prejudices and stereotypes about those who identify as LGBTQ. I find that frustrating, and so do some of my gay and lesbian friends and colleagues. In a way the Pride Parade is a flash point, even in our changing and more inclusive culture.

But looking at the material from the United Church I see the opportunities for worship and conversation. Our eloquent moderator, Gary Paterson, will preach at Metropolitan United in Toronto on Sunday morning. For all the concerns about misperceptions, this is an opportunity for our denomination to name God's presence in these events and in the ongoing discussion of our society. So, into the bulletin it goes!


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Canada's Hidden Heroes

Based on 12,000 online submissions, Canadians selected former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, right, as the country's greatest hero. Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox, seen here meeting Trudeau on July 2, 1980, was chosen the country's Number 2 hero.

Gulp and double gulp. I remember the 100th anniversary celebrations for Canada well, with the excitement of Expo 67 and events across the country. There was that song by Bobby Gimby

(One little two little three Canadians)
We love thee
(Now we are twenty million)
(Four little five little six little Provinces)
Proud and free
(Now we are ten and the Territories sea to sea)
North south east west
There'll be happy times,
Church Bells will ring, ring, ring
It's the hundredth anniversary of
Ev'rybody sing together!
Church bells. How old school. Now we are approaching the 150th anniversary and the feds are getting ready. Apparently 12,000 Canadians chose the Top 10 Canadians in our history and came up with some familiar names. The list was topped by former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, followed by marathon-of-hope runner Terry Fox; NDP leader Tommy Douglas; former Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson; astronaut Chris Hadfield; environmental activist David Suzuki; NDP leader Jack Layton; first prime minister Sir. John A.MacDonald; hockey legend Wayne Gretzky; and Romeo Dallaire, the soldier and Liberal senator who recently announced his resignation.

Impressive and familiar, but what do you notice about this list? A bunch of guys, and all white, with the exception of Suzuki. No women, no people of colour, no one from our First Nations. I must admit I didn't see it at first. Do we really believe, nearly 150 years into the life of this nation, that not one single person from any of those groups deserves recognition as a greatest Canadian?

Nellie McClung activist

This Saturday is the Aboriginal Day of Prayer in Canada and Sunday many congregations, including ours, will have at least some First Nations focus. Maybe we should pray that our now 35 million residents have their eyes opened.


Stan McKay past UCC Moderator

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Vision of Humanity

Every year I get an email with the link to the latest version of the Global Peace Index. put together by the Institute for Economics and Peace. It's interesting that the title is Vision of Humanity. We want to believe that to be fully human is to live in some sort of authentic harmony with those of our species, other species, and with the systems of life which allow us to thrive on Planet Earth. Biblically this is known as shalom, God's vision of humanity, which is more than an absence of conflict and war. One source offers this definition:

The noun שלומ (shalom), often translated as “peace,” comes from the verb שלמ (Sh.L.M). The verb shalam means to "restore" in the sense of replacing or providing what is needed in order to make someone or something whole and complete. The noun שלומ (shalom) is one who has, or has been provided, what is needed to be whole and complete.

To calculate how peaceful a country is the GPI looks at 22 different indicators. Each of the different indicators is weighted according to importance and they can be broken down into three broad sections listed below with some examples:
Ongoing domestic and international conflict
  • Number of external and internal conflicts fought
  • Number of deaths from organised conflict
  • Level of organised conflict
Societal safety and security
  • Level of perceived criminality in society
  • Political terror scale
  • Number of homicides per 100,000 people
  • Number of internal security officers and police per 100,000 people
  • Nuclear and heavy weapons capability
  • Ease of access to small arms and light weapons
  • Volume of transfers of major conventional weapons as recipients (imports) per 100,000 people

Iceland ranks at number one on the list this year, followed by several European nations, while Canada is at number seven. The other two North American nations, the USA, and Mexico, rank at 101 and 138 respectively. Syria is 162 of 162 countries included.

What a reminder, first of all of the blessing which is ours as Canadians. For so many of us this is the accident of birth, and so it is truly unearned. It is also a call to accountability for the well-being of our planet home. We simply can't ignore those nations where peace seems impossible. We must urge our government to act wherever possibly to "wage peace" in our world, and as Christians we are called to "pray without ceasing."


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Chaos and Carnage

Sickening: Armed militant children - some no older than eight - watch the execution of a man in the latest shocking video to emerge from the ISIS insurgency in Iraq
The current situation in Iraq is frightening, a terrible scenario of armed and focused religious extremists intent on taking over the country, leaving carnage in their wake. The brutal and random murders of military personnel and civilians --including children -- is an unspeakable atrocity. The children of rebels are invited to watch executions. What a monstrous distortion of the will of God.

Now the United States and Great Britain, the countries which rushed to invasion of Iraq in 2003 appear bewildered about what to do to support the current regime, which may be ousted without international support. It is bizarre that the United States is entertaining collaboration with Iran, supposedly the latest version of Ronald Reagan's Evil
Empire, to respond to the insurgency. It's hard to keep up with who we are supposed to hate on any given day.

I will add a third "C" to chaos and carnage. It is Christian. Obviously all loss of life in Iraq is a tragedy, particularly those who are simply in the way of the insurgents. We need to be aware that since the allied invasion in 2003 the small Christian community has been under constant attack with churches bombed and leaders murdered. There were a million Christians in Iraq in 2003 and today about 450,000. Already we are hearing of Christian families fleeing their towns and villages and of executions.

In the past week, some 160 Christian families fled to Alqosh, near the autonomous Kurdish zone of northern Iraq.

We can pray for peace in this war-torn country and for the Christian community in particular. I wish our Canadian government would create more opportunities for those who are refugees because of religious persecution to emigrate.


There is a new Groundling blog entry, Please take a look

Sunday, June 15, 2014


I have heard from all three of my adult children on this Father's Day morning, and so I will head into worship on the empowering, uplifting breeze of their love. One of them will be at Bridge St. for the service today, so I am delighted. The other two must work, and one is doing what I am doing as a United Church minister. I remember each of their birth's vividly and the sense of elation each time in the relief that they came into the world healthy and whole. We chose not to know the gender in advance, so the anticipation and speculation were part of our excitement.

There is an certain irony that I have lingering misgivings about my parental role when they were young because I chose to be so busy doing God's work. In retrospect I'm quite sure God was trying to get my attention and assure me that parenthood was my highest vocation. Thank God for Ruth!

Fortunately Isaac, Jocelyn, and Emily exhibited the amazing grace, the extravagant love and the intimate friendship which Paul speaks about in one of our readings today. Often in scripture fathers bless their children. My children have bestowed a blessing on me today, and I feel blessed.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Give me the Simple Life...Maybe

Recently I watched, eyes very wide, as four yards of triple-mix soil was expertly dropped on my driveway. I had put together raised bed frames for a vegetable garden in our backyard and we needed soil to fill them. Four yards may not sound like much, but it is, and I wondered how my ancient wheelbarrow would respond to the task, not to mention my ancient back. My back held up, but around the twenty-fifth load the wheelbarrow packed it in.

Enter my friendly and helpful neighbour who brought over his equally aged wheelbarrow. Fortunately it was up to the task of transporting the next twenty loads. It makes sense to share what we have, doesn't it? Why do we all need the full complement of tools and toys we figure we must have to carry out work and play? Of course I bought a new wheelbarrow. Hey is was on sale and advertised as "landscaper grade."

I will put my landscaping career on hold long enough to mention an article in the latest United Church Observer called The Communitarians. It's about a countercultural community called Twin Oaks located on 185 hectares of land in Virginia. It's been there for decades and its residents --about 100 now-- have been car-sharing, using solar energy, producing their own food, since long before any of these movements were trendy. Actually, that may not be entirely true. The community was founded in 1967, the year I entered my teens. Back then there were a fair number of back-to-the-land hippy communes scattered across the continent. It seemed as though the majority were gone by the mid-seventies as the young and idealistic residents joined the Rat Race.

One of the Twin Oaks residents is a Canadian who grew up in the United Church. Valerie Resnick moved there in her early twenties and has stayed for more than two decades now. She is a spokesperson for the community. Her take on their life together is that "in many ways we are a seamless extension of the United Church's call for living in a more economically and socially just relationship to the rest of the world around us, and being responsible stewards of Creation."

I like all of that, although my cynical thought is that it does sound remarkably United Church in that there is no mention of Jesus. And the Twin Oaks community is quite a mixture of various Christian backgrounds, other religions, pagan and what we once called New Age.

The article is thought-provoking and worthwhile. Do we need to find alternatives to our "my stuff, is my stuff, and I want more" mindsets? Is communal living more consistent with the gospel than what most of us Christians choose to do?

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Fifth Step

Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs

Last week our administrator Carol said that a fellow she didn't recognize had been in, wondered if I was familiar with the Fifth Step, and could he meet with me? She was a bit puzzled until I explained that he was referring to one of the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous which is essentially a form of confession for past sins. He was insistent that it needed to be the male minister, so I joked that he must have really messed up and women were involved. I was correct actually. We did meet and he laid out his story of a life misspent in many respects, beginning in his teens when alcohol made a shy, insecure boy feel like a confident man -- for a while.

While he had always worked through the years, he had been a deadbeat husband and father in many respects. The lousy husband schtick he had managed twice, a fact he wasn't proud of at all. Fortunately his two adult sons have been forgiving beyond what he deserves.

I have done this before and have been surprised at the raw honesty of the people --always guys-- who have poured out their stories. With few exceptions, the only other period of my life when people have been as honest about their failings was when I worked as a chaplain intern at Kingston Penitentiary. Maybe "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..." (thank you Janice, thank you Kris), and we can throw honesty in with freedom. When we are scraping around near the bottom telling the truth for a change can be liberating, as this fellow admitted to me. He is three months sober, going to meetings, attempting to make amends with those he has wronged. It's a start, but this isn't an easy road. It seemed that we made a good connection but I have no idea if I will see him again. He might feel more at home at his AA meeting than in church.

I sometimes wonder if this is part of what is ailing mainline churches. We are too nice, wary of admitting we are sinners, even though Jesus supposed came for the sinners. We love leaning into Amazing Grace, although the "wretch" who is lost and found is probably somebody else, not us!

I need regular reminders that I am forgiven and loved in Christ, and while my sins may not be show-stoppers, they are real.

Do you know much about 12 Steps Groups? Are you more "I'm Okay, You're Okay" than "Amazing Grace?"

Remember that my Groundling blog is only a click away!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Clear as Mud

What is today's provincial election all about? Well, I've been watching the TV ads and it is as clear as mud...slinging. It was a relief when the Cone of Silence descended on advertising so we no longer have to watch the three main parties wale away at one another with ever-increasing vehemence and vitriol. To add to it all, the OPP got in on the attacks, leading to speculation that they were breaking the law by doing so. These ads, as you well know, had nothing to do with party stands on issues -- God forbid! It was a combination of fear-mongering, yelling shame, and criticizing bad math.

I kept waiting for something, anything, to be said about poverty in this province and the effects of underemployment and unemployment. I know we have been promised a million jobs, but so many people are of an age and skill set that they won't be marching cheerfully into workplaces any time soon. How do we help lift those who have limited education and social resources out of the downward spiral of poverty?

I find the CBC News Ontario Votes site helpful, but poverty isn't on their list of issues. The environment is, but you won't find anything there particularly encouraging. In fact, one party's environmental platform could be termed anti-environmental.

As a Christian who wants justice issues to be at least acknowledged, this election has been massively underwhelming. Shame on the parties for scrambling around in the mud like badly behaved kids. I expected more.

Well, off to vote! How about you?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

World Cup and Injustice

The World Cup of Football, or soccer, as the minority of fans calls it, will begin with it's first match tomorrow. Hundreds of thousands of soccer tourists are gathering in cities across Brazil to watch the planet's most popular game, and millions more will watch from virtually every country. Perhaps they shouldn't, even though this is being touted as a coup for a country which until recently has been viewed as part of the developing world.

We know that tens of thousands of poor Brazilians have been displaced from their favelas, the shanty towns they called home to make way for venues or to simply have the poverty swept from sight. Many workers have died during the construction of the various stadia, and critics are convinced that the debt for these white elephants will hamper the economy for years to come. One stadium is in the jungle city of Manaus and may be used only occasionally after the tournament. Public protests are often shut down by police.

The church of Christ in its various expressions has been condemning the injustice of Brazil hosting the cup. The Roman Catholic bishops have issued a statement cleverly mimicking the red card issued for violations on the field. Others denominations are working together to call attention to the dangers of sexual exploitation by tourists during the tournament:

A network of Brazilian churches and nonprofit groups has joined forces to form Bola na Rede or “Back of the Net” in English, a nationwide campaign alerting tourists to the dangers facing the country’s children. “Over the last three years, we’ve been preparing churches in the 12 cities, encouraging them to mobilize their congregations so they actively do something in the days leading up to and during the World Cup,” said Ronald Neptune, the national coordinator of Bola na Rede and a missionary with the United World Mission in Sao Paulo, referring to the 12 host cities.
“As Christians, we can’t just clap our hands and praise the Lord, we have to work to make a difference to the lives of the young people at risk,” he said. “We can be the eyes and ears on the streets and the motivating force that gets people out leafleting and speaking to tourists about how they can be vigilant to help protect our children.” On May 18, over 97,000 Christians took to the streets in Brazil’s host cities in a nationwide day of marches. Outside the World Cup stadium in Itaquerao, Sao Paulo, where the opening match between Brazil and Croatia kicks off on June 12, churchgoers gathered to protest peacefully with banners and posters. They then knelt in prayer for victims of sex abuse on the grass outside the stadium.  Were you aware of the concerns about Brazil hosting the World Cup?  Did you know that churches were amongst the leaders for the protests? Will this affect whether you follow the tournament?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Abnormal & Loving It

Today marks the 89th anniversary of the United Church of Canada, a venerable denomination that has offered so much to this country since its inception in 1925. However, at 89 we are showing definite signs of age, moving into the category of "old old." Following Pentecost Sunday when we read and sang about the young having their visions and the old dreaming dreams we are attempting to find a new way as Christ's people.

In the latest United Church Observer Rev. Chris White responded to a question about church closures in recent years. He spoke with the head statistician for the United Church (how many do we have?!) who informed him that the decline has averaged 50 to 70 over the past decade, a statistic we hear often these days as "one a week." What surprised me is that on average the United Church has experienced a steady decline since the 1930's. In 1930 the United Church had just over 7,600 preaching places and the number now hovers around 3,000. During that time the Canadian population has more than tripled.

In the first decade of the 21st century attendance in the United Church declined by 37% and in that same time span we lost 350 rural preaching places, 174 in towns and cities, and 21 in the burbs. Yikes.

As I read all this it strikes me that here at Bridge St. UC we are "normal" in the decline we have experienced. The stats fit our reality as a downtown congregation in a society that is less churchy all the time.

What I pray is that we find the ways to be "abnormal" in our witness and mission, to discover other ways for effective United Church ministry despite the trends. I am convinced that we must allow Christ to be at the centre or core of our vision. That can be worth celebrating on our 89th birthday.


Monday, June 09, 2014

Summer Wedding or Step Toward Peace?

Differences aside: Presidents Peres and Abbas joked and hugged at the ceremony, which included a group handshake as a gesture of peace

There is an old chestnut about an American diplomat working in the Middle East suggesting to Arab and Israeli leaders that they try to resolve their differences like good Christians.

Well, a Christian leader, Pope Francis brought two Middle Eastern leaders together for the purpose of talking and praying peace. I like this description of the event from The Mail Online:

The Pope waded into the Middle East peace process last night, uniting the leaders of Israel and Palestine through the power of prayer during a tranquil sunset summit in the gardens of the Vatican.Political and religious differences were put to one side last night as Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas joked and hugged at Francis' Vatican residence before attending an al fresco invocation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim worship.
In a meeting that better resembled an outdoor summer wedding than a diplomatic parley, the three men passed along a receiving line as guests mingled on the lawn to the serene harmonies of a string ensemble.
Now, Peres in not the Prime Minister of Israel. It is Premier Netanyahu who has the real power and is a hardliner. Abbas doesn't necessary have the ear or the loyalty of  the extreme Palestinian groups. But it is an effort worth noting.
What do you think? Was this a "why bother?" moment, or just more blah, blah when it comes to Middle East peace?

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Bible Study has Begun

This past Wednesday morning I stopped in the 8 AM bible study group, and we laughed -- several times. The previous three Wednesdays that group forewent its usual early start to take part in the larger study of Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott. During that study we laughed often. When I was at St. Paul's UC in Bowmanville I conducted a Wednesday morning lectionary-based study for ten years and we laughed just about every week. The moral of this story? Study on Wednesdays and humour will ensue? Not really. It's just that I saw an apparently old saying recently: "no more laughter, no more fun, Bible Study has begun" and thought, "how sad!" It then occurred to me that faith study is really so much better with some humour involved.

Through the years I have been impressed by the spiritual depth and honesty of study group participants, from teens to nonagenarians. So many have been wise Christians and I always feel that I learn, even as I am the teacher. The St. Paul's group was unique in that several members were part of the group through an entire decade, although at least two went back more than thirty years. Because of what we shared we literally cried together in our losses, including the deaths of members or their loved ones. Somehow, though, laughter kept bubbling to the surface and we had fun together. Only a year into my ministry at Bridge St. UC the majority of study participants have decided that resistance is futile and made their peace with my warped sense of humour. The joy and fun of being together is as important as some of the reflective conversation. I have to think that Jesus and his disciples yucked it up a bit, even as they were trying to figure our their teacher's upside-down view of God and the world.

Have you been part of study groups? Has there been an element of fun, and laughter? Are those elements important?

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Holy Spirit at Work

As Pentecost Sunday approaches my mind turns to the chaotic events of what we call the birthday of the church as represented in art. There are so many wonderful depictions of the wind and fire of Pentecost, but immediately I recall artwork at St. Andrew's United Church, Sudbury created by Jordi Bonet, a Frenchman who became a French Canadian. Bonet was a painter and ceramicist and sculptor with an impressive body of work for someone who died at the age of 47.

I served the St. Andrew's congregation as lead minister for eleven years which meant I entered the front doors of the modern building and the sanctuary doors hundreds of times. I loved the symbol above the entrance as well as the six cast aluminum images for both the interior and exterior of  the three doors for our place of worship. There was another door in St. Andrew's Place designed by Bonet, which led into the Peace Chapel.

I have used the invocation, or at least a variation, of the central exit door on many occasions through the years:

Come, Holy Spirit Come
Come as the wind, and cleanse.
Come as the fire, and burn;
Come as light and reveal.
Convict, convert, and consecrate
Until we are wholly thine.

For me it is a stirring call for the people of Christ to position ourselves to catch the wind or breath of the Holy Spirit, not to assume we invent the work of the church. Thank God for church leaders with the vision to include art in places of worship!

What are your impressions of these doors? Do you pray for the life-changing presence of the Holy Spirit in your congregation? What would the Spirit's activity look like?

Thursday, June 05, 2014

New Heart for a Third Way


Recently I tweeted the link to a letter from a Southern Baptist pastor, Danny Cortez,  who gradually came to a new way of understanding homosexuality. As a conservative Baptist leader he adhered to the denominational doctrine that homosexuality is a sin, but through the years many gays and lesbians in his congregation came out to him in pastoral moments.

Then he was driving with his fifteen-year-old son and they listened to a song, Same Love, by the artists Macklemore and Ryan Lewis which supports same-gender marriage.  The son was surprised that his dad liked the song, given its message, but the pastor shared his changed outlook. Then the son told him "Dad, I'm gay." When they stopped father and son embraced and dad pledged his love to his son.

The result was that Pastor Cortez told his New Heart church elders, then the congregation about his change of heart. The congregation decided to retain him as pastor and to choose to be a "third way" community, agreeing to disagree in some cases, and to emphasize grace. While some members have left, the rest are attempting to journey together as the people of Christ. The congregation which is continuing will be called New Harmony.

The Southern Baptist Convention response was swift and unequivocal. There is no "third way" their president, Albert Mohler, insisted. I suppose this is the "my way or the highway" approach.

I think that there is a third way, and we have been living it in the United Church for the past 25 years or more. There is not uniformity in our denomination on the acceptance of LGBT members and leaders. Over the years some have left, at times in anger, and at times saddened. In retrospect I wish we had been more pastoral as a denomination, and that the United Church had done a better job of equipping its clergy to respond to the "white water" our changing stances created. Many have stayed despite differences of outlook and theology, in the desire to keep Christ at the centre despite those differences.

God bless Pastor Cortez, his son & family, the New Heart congregation. God give us all Christ's grace to see and hear one another in the spirit of love. I hope we can all find a third way.

What are your thoughts about this?

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Struggle in China Continues

I experience  my version of the Theory of Relativity on a regular basis these days. When I read or hear of the anniversary of certain events I am sure that they took place much earlier. Others couldn't possibly be that long ago. The anniversary of the protests in  Beijing's Tiananmen Square is an example. Is it really twenty-five years ago that the growing demonstrations demanding certain freedoms culminated in the massacre of civilians in the square and elsewhere in the city? Hundreds of thousands assembled in the square, although many of us remember best the iconic photo of "tank man" the lone protestor in front of the powerful display of military might. While official estimates are between 200 and 300, it likely that 800 or more died. Here is a list of what the protestors sought:

   1. Affirm as correct Hu Yaobang's (movement leader) views on democracy and freedom;
   2. Admit that the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalization had been wrong;
3. Publish information on the income of state leaders and their family members:
4. End the ban on privately run newspapers and stop press censorship;
5.Increase funding for education and raise intellectuals' pay;
6. End restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing;
7.Provide objective coverage of students in official media.

In other words, basic human rights.

What is sad and disturbing is that a quarter of a century later, not much has changed. In the rest of the world we have become addicted to inexpensive consumer goods from China, but the Chinese people still struggle to be heard or to be able to express opinions without fear of reprisal. And while the number of Christians has grown -- estimates are that there are now more Christians in China than the Canadian population -- there is still regular persecution of those who don't play by the rules of the government.

We can take this anniversary as a strong nudge to continue to hold the Chinese people and Chinese Christians in our prayers. It's hard to believe that any world government will stand up to the Chinese abuses of human rights, but we can always hope.

Do you remember Tiananmen Square? Did you assume that this was the beginning of positive change? Would it make any sense for our government to be more vocal about human rights in China?