Monday, March 31, 2014

Power Couple

On the first Sunday of Lent the gospel story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness led me to speak about the temptations of power. I thought it was a sound and topical message, but I might have changed up the way I began if I had begun watching a television series a little earlier.
We were encouraged to watch the Netflix series House of Cards which is about the machinations of the ambitious congressman Frank Underwood and his wife Claire, aka Mr. and Mrs. Satan.. As a pair they are amoral and power-hungry and just plain scary. Their relationship comes across as a "deal with the devil." While it is fun watching at one level, it is also a chilling parable about power for power's sake. Frank (Kevin Spacey) has no qualms at all about lying and manipulating and more, and Claire (Robin Wright) isn't much better.

President Obama admits that he watches the series, but assures us that Washington is much more boring than what is portrayed here. That's a relief, but ambitious power is heady stuff in every sphere, including religion. On a far too regular basis we witness religious leaders who lose sight of the basic tenets of their various faiths for their own gain.

Have you been watching House of Cards? Have you been caught in situations where power has been abused? Can following Jesus' example of prayer and scripture to establish a moral and ethical compass make a difference?

Sunday, March 30, 2014


Recently the aging rock star Bono was interviewed about his belief in God. When it was broadcast about 340,000 people watched, which is not a bad congregation. He willingly moves to his Christian faith, which is unapologetically Trinitarian. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Obviously Bono is not your typical orthodox Christian. He doesn't look "churchy" and his vocabulary can be decidedly "unchurchy." It's obvious though that Christ is central in his faith, that he sees Jesus as God, and that prayer is important in his life. I would address some of the questions he is asked differently, but I connect with him on those three tenets.

I find it interesting that our culture is becoming less concerned about the conventions of religious life which tend to be remnants of a particular post-war approach to Christian expression. But there is an openness to those who may be unconventional but "generously orthodox." Nadia Bolz Weber the author of Pastrix is another example. You may recall me musing about this tattoo-covered Lutheran pastor in the States who is getting lots of attention these days.

Any thoughts about this edgier yet orthodox expression of Christian faith? Is it disturbing or encouraging to you that they're out there? Is it okay to "colour outside the lines" of the conventions, or are they part of the package of faith?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Blindness, Truth, and Reconciliation

The gospel passages for most of the season of Lent this year are from John. They are meaningful stories, long, sometimes confusing encounters between Jesus and seekers. Tomorrow the story of a blind man whose sight is restored with "Jesus spit," which apparently is like "mother spit" only higher octane.

The question of course is always where to go homiletically, which is the fancy way of saying "in the sermon." Do we take hold of the metaphor and remind ourselves that everyone has impaired spiritual vision to some degree. We hear of those who are "legally blind," which means they may have limited sight, but not enough to operate a vehicle or function visually in ways that others may deem normal. Often those whose vision is failing don't want to admit that they are now impaired.

And who wants to be declared "spiritually blind," even though we don't have sufficient sight or insight.

It happens that Canada is into the final four-day event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining the spiritual and cultural genocide of First Nations peoples through the Residential School system. For decades the state and a number of Christian denominations did their best/worst to expunge Native culture from the lives of children taken from their communities and raised in these schools.

The federal government has apologized and so have denominations, with the United Church of Canada leading the way. The TRC has reminded us that the trauma and the multi-generational impact is far from over. I shudder when I read online comments following reports on everything from the TRC to calls for a commission into the hundreds of missing aboriginal women, to resistance by First Nations to pipelines crossing their land. Racism is alive and well in this country, with people readily stating that native peoples should somehow be grateful for systemic subjugation, to just "get over it" and to meekly accept whatever the dominant culture tosses their way.

Is this not blindness which needs to be healed? We need some serious "Jesus spit" in this country, from my perspective. The red cedar box seen above has accepted the testimonies of those who were harmed and other statements from groups and individuals. They are an invitation to open our eyes.

Have you followed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Do you know that the United Church has been there all along the way? Are you aware of our attempts at restitution and reconciliation? Is this important?

From left to right, Annie Aleequq, Minnie Freeman and Debbie Gordon-Ruben waiting to get into the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada event in Edmonton.

Friday, March 28, 2014


My eyebrows went up when I saw the February decree by the Archbishop of the Ottawa diocese which prohibits eulogies at funerals. The RC ecclesiastical leaders can just make those decisions in ways we Protestants can't. No more eulogies because I said so. Actually, there is a rationale for this decision. Archbishop Prendergast told the faithful that eulogies are not part of the Roman Catholic liturgy which is designed to pray for the deceased rather than praise them.

This seems draconian to me, and yet...if you speak with a lot of clergy and funeral directors they will express a degree of dismay at the recent trend toward more and lengthier tributes at funerals and memorials. If one is good, four is better, seems to be the rationale. I can't tell you how many times family have assured me that the speakers will be brief, only to have them commandeer half an hour to forty minutes of what is still a worship service. God and faith are certainly not mentioned in the majority of cases and increasingly individuals feel free to make inappropriate comments about the deceased, thinking that what they are saying is humorous.  The worst for me if the "open mike" concept where anyone can speak without preparation or forethought.

I should say that I have listened to many tributes and eulogies which have touched me deeply, and the folk who have taken on that role have offered reflections which were absolutely the right words in the midst of loss. Because of this experience I would never want to prohibit speakers. I just believe in moderation in all things, not to mention a sense of the occasion.

I know I have written on this subject before, but it is this recent decree which got me thinking about the subject again. Should clergy as worship leaders at funerals have the right to restrict the number of eulogists? How do we establish guidelines in an increasingly secular society? Should more families have the courage to "go commando" without involving clergy?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Grounded Faith

What it this location of these honkin' big trees, you might wonder. A mere 15 minute drive north of Belleville, along the banks of the Moira River, is a local gem, the Frink Centre. It is obviously equipped for school groups to learn about the natural world and these days the yellow buses are lined along the road, waiting for the kids who have experienced the sugar bush. But it is easy to get away from the happy mayhem and enjoy a walk in near solitude on one of many trails. We were there earlier this week and our "spring" world is still sufficiently frozen for us to walk through the swamp which is visible but not accessible on foot during other seasons. This clump of trees was particularly impressive, so wife Ruth posed.

It would be fair to say that we have enjoyed upwards of a thousand walks and climbs and paddles through our forty years together -- forty, there's a biblical number. A day with even a few minutes outdoors is a better day for both of us, even when many of them have been cold, or rainy, or buggy. Actually, those conditions are preferable to torridly hot.

We both find that we are spiritually grounded when we are in the created world. Both of us enjoy urban settings. A recent trip to New York City was marvelous because of the museums and galleries and vistas. Yet we chose to walk through Central Park every chance we got.

I'm convinced that becoming attuned to the sounds of everything and nothing in a natural setting is literally good for the soul. It is God's intention for us, even though the planet's human population is becoming increasingly urban and intensified. We are created as Groundlings, as adamah, or creatures of the soil, according to Genesis. We can exist without this earth connection, but we less of what God intends us to be.

I find that whenever I pay attention to trees, streams, flowers, critters, even in the daily "citified" routine, my spirit lifts. It sounds a little like "hippy talk" but I figure that even more it is "faith talk."

Are you rolling your eyes, even as you read? Is this sentiment a luxury of the affluent? Or does time in the garden or the woods reorient your spirit?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Minister of Music

On Sunday morning I announced to the Bridge St. United Church congregation that our music director, Terry Head, is now our minister of music. This wasn't just a decision of the congregation because we like Terry and appreciate his leadership. We felt strongly enough about his education, which includes a masters in sacred music, and his commitment to music as an integral expression of worship to seek this designation through Kente Presbytery.

The process took eight months or more because this congregational designated ministry is relatively new within the United Church. Presbytery had to find out how this was supposed to happen, but at the March meeting it was approved and the announcement was made. I was pleased that the response of the congregation on Sunday was immediate and enthusiastic.

I have been fortunate through the years to work with some excellent church musicians and some that were...less so. I have served several multiple-staff congregations and they are often more able to give financial priority to music leadership in a way that smaller congregations just can't afford. And often larger downtown churches have the larger pipe organs. However, we are a fading denomination and often the discussion around squeezed budgets is the "luxury" of spending money on music.

I so appreciate Terry's attention to liturgical flow and tone, and connecting anthems with worship themes. He moves from our rather cantankerous but impressive Casavant organ, to the grand piano, to the keyboard with aplomb. He is a benign taskmaster with the choir and the members appreciate that he makes them break a sweat musically yet does so with grace and patience.

Congratulations again Terry.

Any thoughts about the importance of music to your worship experience? Could you imagine worship without music? Do you want to add your congrats to Terry?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Will of God?

Did you hear about the massive land slide in the United States. A huge area of mud and ice slide down a mountainside inundating the valley below. Your answer is probably yes -- if we follow the news at all we are aware of the slide in Washington State which has swept away many homes and resulted in the deaths of at least fourteen people with scores unaccounted for.

But I'm talking about the slide that took place in February in Alaska, which could be one of the largest ever recorded. You didn't hear about that one? There's a reason. Even though it was on a huge scale it was in a remote and uninhabited area, at least not home to humans. A pilot was able to grab some film footage of the avalanche and slide, but otherwise it was an act of nature that didn't garner much attention. These things happen on a dynamic and changing planet and we don't become all that interested unless humanity is affected.

Neither are we inclined to ask questions such as "why did God allow this to happen?" unless people die. After virtually every major disaster someone asks me why God allowed the innocent to suffer and perish, or if there can be a compassionate deity at all.  I certainly understand why people are shaken and I have my own moments. I get really angry when fundamentalists of any religious persuasion insist that these events are evidence of God's wrath and punishment: "oh, would you look at the time, I better smite thousands of innocent folk for some obscure reason..." Of course it's usually because these victims haven't believed in a certain way.

I pray for those who are affected by natural disasters and I think we all can and should. I just don't think they are Acts of God. Am I puzzled and perplexed that some suffer while others don't? Do I wonder why one car is engulfed in the mud of the slide and the one behind in narrowly averts disaster? I sure am puzzled and I sure do wonder. But I don't think that God intends this. It is the way of the planet, not the will of God.

How do deal with this? Do you find yourself questioning the presence of a benign God more or less as the years go by?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Well Water

I remember as a kid going to the farms of a couple of family friends where they had an outside hand pump which extended down into a well. It was an almost miraculous experience for my brother and me to heave our childish weight against the squealing handle, pumping up and down until water began gushing out onto the ground. We grew up without having to think about the source of our water, which was only the turn of a tap away. Imagine that we could use our youthful enthusiasm to summon water up out of the earth! Okay, entertainment was different back then.

Humans figures out millennia ago that it was possible to ensure a reasonably constant source of water by digging down far enough to reach the water table which wasn't visible at the surface. Little wonder then that wells often became the places of sacred encounters and mystical experiences. In the Celtic  tradition of Ireland there are many springs and wells dedicated to St. Brigid, who may be the Christianized version of the Druidic goddess Brigid. There are actually tours of the wells of Ireland for those so inclined.

I really like Lent 3's story of Jesus' encounter with a woman at a well, the gospel reading for today. It's unfortunate that the woman isn't given a name, but this is the longest conversation Jesus has with any person in the gospels, so it is significant. I appreciated the confusion on her part over whether this apparent simpleton just doesn't understand what a well is for. When she awakens to the possibility that Jesus is promising abundant life in the metaphor of living water her life is transformed. She goes from being a person with a "rejected heart," to use John Shea's term, to an accepted heart where love and hope are renewed.

Yesterday was United Nations International Water Day (yup, another of those days) which was an opportunity to consider the preciousness of H2O. Today can be Universal Living Water Day, which is the gift of Christ.

Are you on a well? Do you have memories of wells from your past, good or bad? Do you like the Christian imagery of the well, and Christ as Living Water?

Wayne Forte

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Love Conquers Hate

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21

Fred Phelps is dead and some people --lots of people-- would say good riddance. I have to admit that the world is now a better place without him, or at least that is my first reaction. You may not know his name but you will have heard of his church, the Westboro Church of Hate. The congregation calls it the Westboro Baptist Church but it seems almost demonically committed to promoting hatred. The congregation is largely a family affair, several generations of Phelps progeny, all raised to hate gays. There has been a ripple effect through the years as this fire has required more or more fuel. They began by picketing the funerals of homosexuals with incredibly offensive signs, and then it spread to those killed while serving their country, as well as the family members of politicians. In their warped minds all of these deaths were God's judgment on America for becoming more inclusive and compassionate.

Phelps was once a lawyer and took on civil rights cases in the sixties. He was dogged in his fights and won more often than not. Then he was disbarred, became a pastor and turned to the gospel of hatred. He was kicked out of the church last year, and the rumour is that he began to soften his stance and was excommunicated by his own flesh and blood. Teach your children well...

A number of the clan have escaped the clutches of this cult through the years and one son is now an advocate of LGBTQ rights. Speaking of which, a number of LGBTQers have written saying that they do not derive satisfaction from Phelps' death, nor do they want people to boycott his funeral. They believe in love and acceptance, not hatred, so why stoop to the Westboro congregation's tactics.

They are undeniably correct in this outlook, and Christians need only look to cheek-turning Jesus or the apostle Paul to realize that what they are saying is true. Would God consign Phelps to the hell he wanted for those he hated? Last time I checked, God didn't give any of us that role, including Phelps.

What are your thoughts about Fred Phelps? Do you hope he is roasting evenly over an open fire? Would God forgive this community of haters? Does it surprise you to hear that some of the folk he hated most want to follow a different path?

Friday, March 21, 2014

In Praise of Trees



When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them? Deuteronomy 20

Yesterday I commented that the United Nations has declared a special day for virtually every cause, and sure enough, we moved from happiness yesterday to trees today. This works for me because I love trees. While we were living in a manse in Bowmanville we planted a number of trees even though we knew it wasn't our property. It was just the hopeful thing to do. We loved two long-timers, old and very large cedar trees which shaded the backyard. There was also an ancient catalpa tree (seen above) which bloomed late in June with white flowers which cascaded down like snow.

 In the first months in our new home in Belleville we planted a lilac, a cherry, a catalpa, and a serviceberry cluster. These are all flowering trees and we look forward to seeing what happens this spring following a harsh winter -- if spring ever arrives in some expression other than a day on the calendar. We would love to find an American chestnut as well, but they are being slowly reintroduced after nearly being wiped out by disease, so it may be a while before they are available through nurseries.

After the ice storm in late December we watched anxiously to see if the two clumps of birch in our yard would crumble under the weight, but they appear to have made it. The thicket of old-fashioned honeysuckle bushes across a large section of the fence line have harboured birds all winter, even though the tempting berries were consumed long ago.

There is something about the presence of trees which is healing. Actually hospital design now incorporates a view of trees because they are felt to hasten the recovery process.

So it is not surprising that there are trees at the beginning of our scriptures and at the conclusion, with plenty more in between. I like that trees are in a garden in Genesis and a city in Revelation.

Are there other tree-lovers out there? Are trees holy and healing in your view? Have you planted trees through the years?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Everybody Happy?

Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
  Psalm 1

Happy Spring! What Spring you might ask on this rather dreary day with plenty of snow still covering the ground in this neck of the woods. Why would a day like this make us happy? Well, as I lay in bed this morning convincing myself that my cold isn't as bad as it feels I heard robins singing in the bare branches of the tree outside our window. That did lift my spirits.

This first day of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere is also the United Nations International Day of Happiness. The UN seems to have a day for everything, but it is good to consider happiness from time to time. The singer Pharrell Williams has been recruited to be a spokesperson because of his song Happy, which is really...happy.

I used to think happiness wasn't really a biblical concept. The focus is really on joy and shalom, an abiding peace. But happiness is mentioned in scripture fairly often, most notably as the first word of the psalms. As you might imagine, biblical happiness is not winning the lottery or becoming famous. It is sending down roots into the way of God, which is not dependent on fame or fortune.

I like too that the nation of Bhutan has developed a Gross Happiness Index with 9 Domains to measure wellbeing.

Are you happy today? What impedes your happiness? Are you happier when you are aware of God in your life and the blessings of day to day?