Saturday, May 31, 2014

My Joe the Plumber Rant

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the 2008 US elections one of the more moronic episodes involved Joe the Plumber. John McCain hauled him out as an "every redneck" who would be affected by Barack Obama's massive threat of universal health care. It turned out that Joe wasn't a big McCain supporter but he got his ten minutes of fame.

Well, Joe didn't go away in the blogosphere. And he managed to be incredibly offensive this past week when he told the families mourning the senseless drive-by murders of their innocent young people that their grief did not trump his constitutional right to bear arms. Oh sure, he understood that they were sad, and he would be too if his kids were murdered. But his inalienable right to be a gun-toting insensitive moron is more important that their loss.

A lot of Americans are outraged by the heartlessness of Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, but maybe he is "everyman." After all, isn't this what US legislators and the people who elected them have decided? We know the drill by now. Someone comes out of nowhere to mow down the innocents at a school, or a movie theatre, or a political rally. Lots of hand-wringing and expressions of shock and grief take place, with everyone right up to the president involved. Then...nothing. Well, that's not true. After each appalling tragedy Americans go out and buy more weapons, often versions of the firearm used to perpetrate the atrocity. It is a dizzying denial of a national shame.

Where are the people of Christ when this happens? Why aren't the congregations of America, in their tens of thousands forming a united front to call for an end to this insanity. Instead we hear of Bring Your Gun to Church Sundays and pastors railing in favour of "open carry" laws.

Is there anything in this blog entry to suggest that I am outraged by all this? Why can't it change? Why don't Jesus' followers lead the way? Damn it people, take a stand! This is not what God wants for your nation!

Phew. I'm done. Thoughts?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Canadian Care for the Vulnerable

 Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he won't fund abortion services because it's an issue that is 'extremely divisive for Canadians and donors.'

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1: 27

Kudos to Prime Minister Harper and the federal conservative government. No, it's okay, you are reading David Mundy's Lion Lamb blog. I realize that I have taken a few shots at Mr. Harper's feds along the way, but I believe in credit where credit is due.

Our Canadian government is hosting an international conference on maternal and child health care and we should see this as a big deal; "Prime Minister Stephen Harper opened a three-day conference today dedicated to preventing newborns in developing nations and their mothers from needlessly dying, expressing hope that the project could "make a tremendous difference to human life around the world. By doing these things at very little cost, we are able to make a tremendous difference to the very building blocks of human life around the world in a way that will be truly transformative towards a much better planet."  CBC NEWS

We are putting our money where our sentiment is, with a $2.85 billion commitment nearing completion and an additional $3.5 billion pledged. This must be our largest international aid initiative and a worthy one in my view.

Now there have been criticisms of this initiative. Some feel that there isn't a sufficient level of accountability in all projects, the persistent problem of international aid. And others are frustrated that Harper and the government continues to shie away from funding abortion as an aspect of this work, claiming that this would be controversial and detrimental in some of the recipient nations and amongst Canadians. The critics are suspicious that the real reason is concern that it will alienate MPs and Conservative supporters here in Canada who are opposed to abortion. This may be true. The government doesn't seem to mind being divisive on other issues.

Still, as Christians who are called to respond to the needs of the vulnerable and marginalized we should applaud a worthy use of our tax dollars. God knows those opportunities for praise can seem few and far between at any level of government.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

The One That Got Away

I'm really pleased that this Sunday we will be formally welcoming new members into the life of Christ's community as expressed through Bridge St. United Church. There are six people joining by transfer and reaffirmation of faith. Three others have asked to join and can't be present this time. Two more want to become members and will prepare before joining.

I am also pleased with the one that got away. A few months ago a big, imposing guy began worshipping at Bridge St UC out of nowhere. He was here every week, so I met with him. It turned out that he had some major issues he was working through and decided to come to church. Why Bridge St? He had been married here, but hadn't attended worship anywhere during his lifetime. He just felt he should come and was surprised that he felt comfort and a positive start to his week. Even though he looks rock solid, he admitted that he was quaking as he came through the door for the first time. But people were welcoming and he decided he would come back.

He disappeared just after Easter, so I sent him an email yesterday. It turns out he has moved, but has sought out the United Church in his new community. It is a small congregation but he feels good there and plans to continue this new worship rhythm to his life.

Would I have liked him to connect here over the long term? Of course, but I'm glad that he felt positively enough about this congregation and his awakening to God that he found a church. This is as important as welcoming the folk as members on Sunday morning.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

None of the Above?

Pray for me. I'm about to talk about politics. Sort of.

It's about the jobs thing in the current provincial election. The leader of the Conservative Party, Tim Hudak, is promising a million new jobs if elected. This won't happen overnight, but it will unfold over the next few years. I like new jobs because there are lots of people in this province who are unemployed and making a living is a justice issue we should be concerned about as Christians. Folk should be able to find meaningful work with reasonable pay so they can support their households and pay taxes for the programs and projects which make our communities and province livable.

I am concerned though that the only promise Mr. Hudak can guarantee to keep is reducing jobs. He tells us that he will eliminate 100,000 public service jobs and I have little doubt that he can and will do so if elected. But from what sectors will those jobs be taken? Healthcare employs a lot of people, and we barely seem to be keeping up with the demands of an aging population. As a pastor I encounter this regularly with those waiting for surgery and outpatient support and lots of other medical services. Education employs plenty of people too, but again, as a minister, I have pastorally supported lots of young teachers who can't find work. As older teachers retire, who will replace them if we convince younger candidates to forget it?

The way I figure it, no political party can actually create jobs, other than the public service. They can't force companies and businesses to locate here or to hire new employees. Governments can create the economic climate to stimulate growth, and that's what Mr. Hudak and the other leaders are promising. But I am concerned that maybe what we are being told about getting the math wrong is true. Maclean's is saying so, as are others who aren't connected to other parties.

My concern with any political party is that it will appeal to our baser instincts to "skim off the gravy," and cut my taxes to make the world --meaning my personal world-- a better place. Maybe there are public service jobs which shouldn't exist. And maybe there are government employees who are paid too much. God knows I don't like how much OPG bigwigs make.

Here's what I know. I want honest government. Well, that's one party down. I want parties who stick to their social values. That's another eliminated. And I want parties which will not promise my benefit at the expense of others.

Hmm. Maybe "none of the above" should be on the ballot.

Thoughts? Anyone else in a muddle approaching this election?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pope Francis in Israel

Mideast Pope

Pope Francis has finished his visit to the Middle East with a particular focus on Israel. It may come as something of a surprise that no pope travelled to Israel in nearly two thousand years until Paul VI did so, then John Paul II, and Benedict.

Francis managed a delicate balancing act during his three days in the Holy Land. He took in a number of significant Christian sites, as might be expected. He was attentive to Judaism as well, spending time at the Western Wall, visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and meeting with concentration camp survivors. He also made a nod to Zionism, as the first pope to visit the grave of Theodor Herzl, the movement's founder.

Francis also reaffirmed the Vatican's long-standing commitment to a Palestinian state, and he visited a refugee camp near Bethlehem. "I am with you" he told children in the camp. In an unscripted move he stopped at another wall, the separation barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories. He spoke with those for whom this wall has resulted in considerable hardship. Francis also offered to meet with the presidents of Israel and the West Bank at the Vatican.

All of these visits and contacts by the leader of the largest Christian denomination were significant and I do feel that he managed to convey balance in a region where it is so difficult not to take sides.

Were you aware of the visit by Pope Francis and the ways in which he responded to all perspectives? Can religious leaders play a part in resolving this complex situation?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Grief and Hope in the United Church of Canada

On Friday, the first day of Bay of Quinte Conference of the United Church of Canada, our moderator, the Rev. Gary Paterson, spoke during opening worship. He was eloquent, and offered a poem from memory about the thread running through our lives despite the times of grief and pain which threaten to overwhelm us. He invited the 400 or so participants of all ages to consider Christ as the thread which runs through our lives as individuals and our Christian communities. He was genuine and pastoral and Christian.

Later in the day the court discussed the Comprehensive Review which is well underway in our faltering denomination. Of course there are many signs of life in the United Church and Christ is still with us, but we know that we are aging and shrinking. The Review is a way to ponder how our denomination will look and carry out ministry in a changing time. We certainly aren't willing to give up, but we must be different.

As might be expected, the conversation was thoughtful and honest. Some felt that it was a mistake to begin the discussion with finances, because how we are going to pay for what we do can dominate and discourage. The conversations about mission came afterward and there wasn't sufficient time. Perhaps there is never enough time in the midst of change.

I was glad for Moderator Paterson's leadership and his message needs to be the touchstone for the United Church. This isn't about money, even though money is important. It is about Christ-with-us in every aspect of our life together.

What are your thoughts about the changing landscape of the United Church? Is there hope mixed with your grief? I was delighted to reconnect with the eight or nine young people from my former congregation, St. Paul's, and their presence gives me hope.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

War Against the Fruit Trees

Valkley before and after destruction of trees, from Daoud Nassar
                                               Valley before and after bull-dozing of fruit trees

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? Deuteronomy 20:19

Here I go again with the fruit tree verse from one of the Hebrew Scripture books called Deuteronomy.  It is the biblical injunction not to cut down trees during conflicts, trees which, after all,  haven't done anything to humans. I keep trotting it out as a sort of ecological proof text, but it makes such sense to me. Trees are healthy for us whether they are fruit-bearing or not, but so often the destruction of trees and forests is part of war, everything from spreading napalm on the jungles of Vietnam,  to retaliatory starvation of communities which have collaborated against invading forces by razing of fruit and nut orchards. 

In his book My Promised Land Ari Shavit writes about the prosperity planting fruit trees brought to enterprising Jewish immigrants, many of whom had never been farmers before. But both Jewish settlers and Palestinians have waged war against one another through the destruction of orchards. I blogged about this book and the excellent film The Lemon Tree, which has a high-ranking Israeli official ordering the destruction of a lemon grove owned by a Palestinian widow for security reasons.

Once again, there is a report of Israeli forces bull-dozing hundreds of fruit trees not long before harvest. Who knows what the justification might be, or claimed to be. The landowner posted on Facebook:

Today at 08.00, Israeli bulldozers came to the fertile valley of the farm where we planted fruit trees 10 years ago, and destroyed the terraces and all our trees there. More than 1500 apricot and apple trees as well as grape plants were smashed and destroyed.”

What a colossal mess the Middle East is. Such senselessness at every level. I can't speak for God, but I imagine she ain't happy.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Justin Trudeau's Soul

There have been several occasions as both member of parliament and leader of the Liberal Party of Canada when Justin Trudeau has stuck a foot in his photogenic mouth. He is in the midst of a controversy at the moment both as a politician and as a member of the Roman Catholic church. Trudeau declared that all potential candidates for the next federal election in his party must be "pro choice" when it comes to abortion. He discovered quickly that some of his own MPs do not share that outlook, nor do many voters who have traditionally supported the Liberal party. I certainly understand why Trudeau supports the freedom of reproductive choice, but if he revisits the Charter of Rights and Freedoms he will discover that one of them is "freedom of conscience and religion."

Actually, he was reminded of this by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Ottawa. Not to mention that his soul and his status within the church are in peril if he upholds this policy for the party. Some RC commentators have called for Trudeau's excommunication from the church if he doesn't relent.

First of all, the United Church will welcome Justin if he ends up looking for a church home.  I do find this fascinating though. I feel that Trudeau doesn't have the right to demand this from his candidates. At the same time, the RC stand on reproduction and abortion is not one I support, despite several areas of concern through the years.  Nor do I feel comfortable with the archbishop's suggestion that they hope for "conversion" on Trudeau's part. We choose Christ, or convert to Christ, not simply particular aspects of doctrine in any expression of the Christian church. The dogmatism on certain issues of Roman Catholicism such as birth control and abortion can be challenged biblically and theologically.

Ah well Mr. Trudeau, you'll learn. Maybe.

What do you think about all this? Or you bothering to give it much consideration at all?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Beautiful God Spaces

Can anyone tell me why Roman Catholics get modern architecture right when Protestants often don't come close? I have been in many beautifully designed churches, chapels, and living spaces created for congregations and monastic orders. I find them worshipful, unique, visually stunning. I'm hard pressed to think of similar examples of Protestant architecture, and forget about the United Church. We went through our cookie cutter phase of building during the Baby Boom sixties and haven't done much that is original since. Many evangelical churches are big, but I often feel that they are somewhere between a mall movie complex and a big box store. I wonder if many Protestants feel that beauty is a sin, an extravagance which is contrary to the austere ideals of the dour Calvinists who kick-started the Reformation.

Read this from the Globe and Mail piece on the building in East York:
The 90,000-square-foot project, which replaced a nursing home on the site, is designed with a broad program of green technologies and strategies, including geothermal heating and cooling, solar electricity and water-heating, and rainwater retention.

As the sisters were preparing to leave their larger property a few kilometres north, whose sale helped pay for their new residence, they worked with Shim-Sutcliffe architects to develop a set of principles that included “simplicity, beauty and wise use of materials and spaces,” and accommodations that would be “welcoming, accessible, ecologically sustainable, designed in harmony with nature, and with flexibility and potential for diverse use now and into the future.”
I'm sure that these sisters have lived simply through the years, so I'm glad that their later years will be in the midst of such a beautiful setting.
How do you feel about the creation of spaces like these. Are they God-honouring, or excessive? Is it okay to praise God by creating such sanctuaries and spaces or offensive when there is so much need in the world?




Exaggerating the Worship Habit

I actually chuckled out loud, and inside I exclaimed "I knew it!" when I saw the results of a significant poll on worship attendance in the United States. More Americans are moving into the atheist/agnostic/none categories of surveys recently, but on the whole they are still a much more religious lot than here in Canada. But this poll discovered that folk aren't always honest when it comes to their attendance at synagogue or church or mosque. A Huffington Post piece Americans Exaggerate How Much They Go To Religious Services, According To Study reported the results this way:

On the phone, 36 percent of Americans said they attending religious services weekly or more often, while only 31 percent said the same when answering the question online. Meanwhile, 30 percent of phone respondents said they seldom or never go to a weekly service. Online, that share jumped to 43 percent.

"The existence of religious participation inflation demonstrates that church attendance remains a strong social norm in the U.S.,'" Robert P. Jones, co-author of the study and CEO of the institute, said in a statement. "The impact of these norms – what social scientists call ‘social desirability bias’ – is that respondents talking to live interviewers on the telephone are less willing to admit lower levels of participation in an activity deemed to be socially good. Respondents completing the survey privately online are less apt to feel this pressure."

I have found that lots of members don't want to admit the realities of their worship attendance, even when they are talking to their clergy. They make comments such as "I haven't been there as often as I would like lately" as though dark forces rather than other priorities have impeded their presence. Sometimes the comment is along the lines of "we need to get back into a more regular pattern" when I haven't seen them in church for a year or more. What would that pattern look like?

Don't get me wrong, I'm always glad to see folk, and our God is a hospitable God. Hurray! It's just that we do have an impressive propensity for self-deception, including the realities of involvement in our faith communities. At the same time, societal shifts can be insidious. I'm sure that some people who consider themselves regular attenders would be surprised to discover how often they miss worship.

Does it matter? Well worship is still the heart and lungs of Christian community and without that regular heartbeat we falter. Yes, going to church is a habit, but I think it is a healthy habit.

What do you think? Does it matter whether we're in our places of worship on a regular basis? Is this just a "sign of the times" to which we adjust? Does God care?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Building Shalom at Holy Blossom

Rabbi Yael Splansky has ‘done a lot to bring the congregation back together,’ one member says. (MARK BLINCH FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

There was what I thought was a fascinating article in the Saturday Globe and Mail newspaper about the new rabbi at Holy Blossom synagogue in Toronto. The article was lengthy, which usually doesn't happen in a major media source, and much more than another "isn't it swell you're here" piece, which is often the tone.

Holy Blossom is one of the largest and most influential synagogues in the country, with lots of "movers and shakers" in the congregation and 6,500 members. There were plenty of interesting elements to the article. The former rabbi has entered into a three-year sabbatical before retirement, which is a sweet golden handshake from a congregation. But it sounds as though this is the severance package after turmoil regarding his time at Holy Blossom, related to a more intellectual approach to his preaching and not recognizing societal shifts, including mixed-religion marriages.

The new rabbi is a woman, which is not unusual in the Reform branch of Judaism, but a first for Holy Blossom. Yael Splansky has been there for two years in an interim role and has now been appointed as senior rabbi. She has brought warmth in her personal style, done some healing with those who were angered by her predecessor's ouster, and is overseeing a multi-million dollar renovation to the building. She must have considerable leadership skills, not to mention that she is a mother of three at-home children.

What struck me is that the issues she is facing are similar in many ways to those of larger mainline Christian cogregations. Who are we and how do we respond to changing times? How do we help those who have a traditional template for worship and congregational life make the shift. And so often all this will be done by someone who must prove that gender is not an issue to those who assume that a "real" rabbi or pastor will be a man. Even the header, "a Toronto rabbi builds a big tent" incorporates a phrase that is used often in the United Church.

I wish Rabbi Splansky well, and it sure sounds as though she has the chops to do the job. And I wish Holy Blossom God's blessing and shalom as an ongoing Jewish presence in the city of Toronto and this country.

Did anyone else see the article? Did you find in interesting? How about the parallels?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Amish Inc.

Woman walking away from camera in Amish clothing in a large open field during the day

We were in Dairy Queen in Belleville last summer when two men, one in coveralls and the other with suspendered trousers, both with brimmed straw hats, came in for a cone. Some teens started sniggering and commenting among themselves about what they felt was odd dress. Like teen boys don't know anything about baggy pants. I knew right away that they were Mennonites or Amish --either that or right off a movie set. I had no idea that folk from these Anabaptist groups resided in this area. Shortly after this incident I was standing next to a similarly dressed young guy at a street corner and asked if he was Mennonite. He smiled and answered "Amish." Apparently there are a number of Amish farms in the Sterling area, about 45 minutes north of Belleville. I have since learned that there are Mennonites ever closer to town. And I always thought they were concentrated in Southwestern Ontario. I live and hopefully I learn.

These groups have their roots in bloody persecution around the time of Martin Luther. They believed and still believe in what is often called "believer baptism" rather than infant baptism. Today that is an individual faith choice. A few hundred years ago it could get you and your family killed. Many fled Europe for religious freedom. Somehow religious identity continued to include rather archaic dress codes for some, and eschewing modern conveniences such as cars, motorized farm equipment, even electricity and phones.

There is pressure on these communities, especially in American states such as Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Dutch are actually Deutsch, of German extraction. All things Amish are part of what is now a huge commercial enterprise, nearing two billion dollars a year. The Amish farm country is like a theme park for tourists, with groups from around the world visiting and actually stopping for planned visits to Amish homes and farms. Of course we have all seen the incongruous neon signs for Amish Furniture in places where no Amish foot has ever trod.

I was emailed an interesting article about the effects of this invasion and appropriation of Amish life. Even the most segregated faith communities are subject to the pressures of the prevailing culture.

Do you admire the chosen simplicity of the Amish/Mennonites, or are they just odd? Have you gone on one of those Amish country tours? Members of my family have and really enjoyed them. Do you think Harrison Ford in the movie Witness was an accurate portrayal of Amish life? Kidding!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Diagnosis: Dementia

There are two elderly men in this congregation, whose combined age is roughly 180, who go every day to visit their wives at a nursing home. They go together because one still drives and they sit with their true loves who both have dementia. The one couple recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. She is still quite responsive, but often confused. The other "bride" doesn't register much, but he is there faithfully and cheerfully. Their dedication makes me quite emotional each time I visit. These guys are my heroes.

Actually, I could name dozens, perhaps scores of family members who conscientiously and lovingly support loved ones who have drifted into different gradations of the shadows of dementia. To say that I am in awe of them is not an exaggeration. In many cases their faithfulness is not known by others, except perhaps for the institutional staff members or friends who are close to the situations. So often I have the sense that I have walked onto holy ground when I am in the presence of the afflicted individuals and their supporters. I use the word afflicted advisedly. I see dementia as a miserable affliction.

This week CBC radio's The Current did a series on dementia called Diagnosis: Dementia,   and while each segment sounded worthwhile, I wasn't able to listen to any of them in the morning because of early work starts, Thank God for podcasts.

I am so glad that this national forum was used to give listeners both the big picture of dementia and individual snapshots of intimacy and heroicism. The Current invited responses from listeners to describe their circumstances and I caught some of the phone-in descriptions of living with dementia in families last night and found them quite moving.  I wished I could let The Current know how significant ministry and pastoral care to those with dementia has become in many congregations.

I appreciate that I have invited your thoughts on this subject often, but feel free to offer any further comments.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Charles Catto, Force of Nature

Charles Catto

Two readers, Anne and Laura, kindly let me know that the Rev. Charles Catto died last Friday, a month after he had gone into hospital for heart surgery. We were all part of Lakeridge (Oshawa ) Presbytery before my departure for Belleville and Kente Presbytery.

Charles was still attending presbytery on a regular basis, and still "stirring the pot." He was a member of the Mission, Outreach, and Advocacy committee I co-chaired, and he always made sure we knew what issues were important to him. The Cattos are family friends with Charles being a colleague of my minister father while lovely Barbara a good friend of my mother. I have written before that one of my first memories of presbytery as a teen was Charles standing up and making a motion that the court write the Canadian government demanding a pardon for Louis Riel. I sensed the tension in the room, with lots of eye-rolling -- here goes Charles again. Except that Riel was eventually pardoned and Charles was just ahead of his time.

Charles was ordained in 1954 but for most of 50 years his passion has been providing housing and safe water on First Nations Reserves. Back then it was Operation Beaver while we are now more aware of Frontiers Foundation. 

Thousands of homes have been built through the years, many of them still habitable, unlike a lot of those constructed by various levels of government. Charles charmed and chewed on politicians to get support and he regularly marched on Parliament Hill. In latter years the organization brought Native men and women into apprenticeships as builders so that they would benefit their communities with the skills for construction.

Charles could be something of a contradiction. He was passionate about justice for marginalized Aboriginal people but spoke often and loudly in opposition to the United Church stand on gays and lesbians. He fulminated about an article in the United Church Observer by a minister who wore his clerical collar for a month. What a waste of space! Yet he wore his fringed buckskin jacket all the time, sort of like a clerical shirt. He didn't take kindly to not getting his own way and didn't like following due process... unless it worked to his favour! Hey, that's how he managed to accomplish so much.

In other words, he was imperfect, as we all are. It's hard though to imagine anyone with greater passion and practical concern for First Nations, long before it was a popular United Church cause. He received the Order of Canada for his efforts, and he deserved it more than many others, in my estimation. He drove me crazy and yet I wanted folk to respect him at the same time. When my aged Dad became belligerent and tough to be around Charles visited him in the nursing home and they had a great visit. He was surprisingly tender about it all.

Charles truly wanted to be faithful to Christ, and the message of responding to "the least of these." It's important that we say "thank you."

Did you know Charles, or about him?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

God of Thrones...the Series

Game of Thrones℠: The Exhibition

After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.”
Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was[like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns[of gold on their heads. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices.[Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.
Before the throne there was[  a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back.
                                                                                                      Revelation 4

I was at Bridge St United Church just after 8:00 yesterday morning when my phone began to buzz with a series of texts. All five Mundys have the same brand of smart phone and have a "group think" text address along with the individual addresses.

The talk of the morning was  daughter Jocelyn's photos of the Game of Thrones exhibit opening today at the Bell Light Box home for the Toronto International Film Festival. She had a sneak preview and let us see the throne. As a graphic designer for TIFF she created images for the exhibit incorporating that throne. Her siblings were suitably impressed, even if her parents were trying to drum up some enthusiasm. It turns out the exhibit is sold out, so what do we know.

It got me thinking about regal imagery and monarchs and thrones. In more liberal churches we earnestly wonder and fret about using this sort of biblical imagery because it might turn people off. Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday isn't so popular, and I can't imagine praying with a reference to the Lamb upon the Throne. Meanwhile a wildly popular book and television series is all over this stuff and folk love it.

Will I change my worship language to cash in on the trend? Will I offer a "God of Thrones" sermon series based on the book of  Revelation? Nah, but it does cause me to pause.

What do you think about all this? Does God of Thrones appeal to you? Are you glad we have largely pitched the hierarchical language? Are we too PC in the United Church?


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Still Waters

Yesterday Ruth had a dental appointment at 10:30 but we decided we could work in a paddle before this always popular event. We drove north of Belleville to a spot only 15 minutes away by vehicle and put in our canoe for the first paddle of the season.

The Moira River is still high and fast but probably a metre and a half lower than at flood peak. The photo below is by Joe Culp, but it looks a lot like the section we paddled yesterday, although his image is from the Fall.

We worked up against the current, away from highway 37, into the chorus of birdsong. There were lots of midges, but that means squadrons of swallows feeding on them. We passed a couple of glades of trilliums which simply made my heart glad. The pale green of emerging leaves is a colour specific to Spring in Canada and was so encouraging.

We saw a blue heron tucked into grasses along the shore and finally it took to squawking flight, unable to trust our approach any longer. A little further on a muskrat groomed itself on a tussock of vegetation in the middle of the river. The rapids which were a couple of kilometres north of our put-in point roared rather than rippled, and were almost unrecognizable compared to midsummer.

The Moira River-2

We savoured all of this, a Sabbath for me because Sunday morning is simply not a time when I can rest and worship. I spoke on Good Shepherd Sunday of the importance of "the flock" and the experience of joining together as Christ's people for many reasons. I'm convinced that this is true, but I love time outside, in the equivalent of green pastures and still waters which restore my soul.

Bye the way, our early start had us back in Belleville before 10:00.

Any thoughts and comments about your experience of worshipful ventures into creation?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Thanks to Mothers!

I was here at Bridge St United Church at 8:00 this morning in a "pre-game warm-up" practice which stretches back over the decades. It's always meant I left for whatever church I was serving early, even when our children were small. Ruth, my wife, would remind me from time to time that she was a single mom on Sunday mornings and that it was a challenge. Too often she arrived at worship feeling harried and admitted that the most tranquil moment of her week was when the children headed out for Sunday School. Calm and the company of adults for most of an hour!

My own mother was the one who explained to me as a child why we put money in the church envelopes each week to support Christ's work. She was the junior choir leader and somehow lived through having two sons under her tutelage. She was much more willing to explore the grey areas of faith in conversation than my father, even though he was the ordained minister.

Both Ruth and my mother have provided leadership in congregations in various ways, and both have an exemplary Christian faith. Ruth was the one who taught me to pray out loud when we began dating, and she has been a tremendous support in ministry through these 34 years since ordination.

My thanks and love to these two strong, resourceful, faithful mothers on this Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Farley Mowat, the Anti-Icon

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Canadian author Farley Mowat was born in Belleville, the community where we now reside. I don't think he spent much time here, as his family moved on to Richmond Hill, then to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I do recall reading in at least one of his books about developing a love for the natural world on the outskirts of Saskatoon. I think I read Owls in the Family to one of our children, although I may have read it as an adult because I was interested in his passion for nature. It struck me that once again someone who cared deeply for the Earth was shaped by childhood experiences.

It was always hard to know what to make of Mowat. He was so polemical, doing a lot of literary frothing at the mouth about the causes which were important to him. He admitted that he didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story, which opened him up to criticism and dismissal by some. Ruth and I decided we liked his wife Claire's book about life in outport Newfoundland more than Farley's bleak A Whale for the Killing.  That said, I have probably read half a dozen books by Mowat and he was an internationally read author, selling 17 million translated into more than fifty languages.

I appreciated Mowat because he was sounding the alarm on our treatment of the complex ecosystems of land and sea in this country long before it was popular. He was actually kept out of the States for his "communist" leanings. He was friends and a kindred spirit with Elizabeth May long before she became the leader of the Green Party, both of them having connections with Cape Breton.

I have the feeling that he was an atheist and figured that he has now moved on to the status of worm food, no doubt giving them indigestion. Yet I'm sure his passion and fiery outspokenness about environmental issues contributed to my Christian conviction that "the earth is God's and the fullness thereof" so we need to treat it with much greater respect.

Have you read any of Farley Mowat's books? Do you see him as a Canadian icon (he hated being called an icon!) or a bit of a crank?

Friday, May 09, 2014

Hunger Awareness & the Community of Faith

Mental Health Awareness Week. Check. Monarch Butterfly Week. Check. Hunger Awareness Week. That's today.

Last week a couple of students from Loyalist College spoke with me for a journalism project in which they're going "outside the box" of interviewing only candidates prior to the municipal election in the Fall. They are asking leaders in the community about the issues they consider important for the city of Belleville and in my case they were aware of the Inn from the Cold and Thank God its Friday meal ministries of the Bridge St. congregation.

I told them that I am convinced that any healthy community must be healthy for all its citizens, including those who are often invisible because they are low income or jobless. I spoke about the broader picture of food security, or insecurity as the case may be. There are lots of people in this community who make choices between paying rent or utility bills and buying food, maybe not every week, but often. There is no cushion of money for difficult times and for so many of these folk they are constantly behind, perpetually in debt. Healthy food is often out of reach.  Meal programs and food banks become part of the equation of survival, but who can flourish this way?

The six weeks of Inn from the Cold wrapped up at the end of February, but TGIF continues all through the year at Bridge St. Today up to 90 meals will be distributed to those who come seeking them, and there is no means test and no judgment. I'm so glad that this congregation has been involved in this way for a long time, but we would all agree these meal ministries only address a portion of the challenge.

Have you been part of a meal program through your church or some other organization? Are they enough? Should food security for all be a campaign issue in municipal and provincial elections?

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The Monarch Miracle

Monarch butterfly

Well, yesterday I wrote about Mental Health Awareness Week. Today, Monarch Butterfly Week!

I have seen two excellent documentaries on Monarch butterflies in the past few months, one on the CBC's Nature of Things and the other on PBS.

I would say that both have been spiritual experiences for me, even though the docs had no intention of being religious. I was struck by the extraordinary, even miraculous journey of these creatures, the longest migration of any insect. As you are probably aware, Monarchs travel from Mexico to Canada every Spring, and return every Autumn. At least the species does. It takes three generations to move north in stages, then one to return. Scientists have only known this for 40 years or so, and it was a Canadian who was instrumental in the discovery of where Monarchs go, high in the mountains of Mexico.

Sadly, Monarch butterflies are disappearing. The loss of forest habitat is one reason. Climate change is likely another factor. Another is the lack of food in the form of milkweed along their route and in Canada. It has been largely eliminated as an undesirable weed, but these butterflies can't live without it. Now we are being encouraged to plant milkweed around our homes in an attempt to revive a species in alarming decline.

I blogged about Barbara Kingsolver's cautionary novel, Flight Pattern, which involves a rural American family visited by a great flock of Monarchs. The local evangelical pastor seems to understand that the presence of the butterflies should be regarded with reverence.

The villagers in the area of Mexico where the Monarchs roost for the winter do celebrate their return which coincides with the Days of the Dead, our Halloween/All Saints/ All Souls:

Each year during the Days of the Dead, local people honor the spirits through festive events focused on the butterfly migration. Historically, this holiday time is one of remembering and rejoicing for the deceased, whose earthly bodies are exchanged for spirits ready to move to the next realm, unencumbered by worldly woes as they transition ultimately to heaven. The gossamer-winged butterflies are thus the perfect manifestation of such liberated souls.

I wonder if it would help if we reinvested a sense of the holy in the cycles of creatures such as the Monarch butterflies? I love the science, and I am also grateful to God the Creator for the complexity of our world. What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Mental Health and the Christian Community

Mental Health  Awareness Week. Hunger Awareness Week. Monarch Butterfly Week. Take your pick from May 5th to 12th this year! Rather than choose one of them I would rather muse about all three, and I'll start with mental health.

If you have been reading this blog for a while you know that I keep coming  back to this subject. It's because it is so important in a society which still doesn't know how to respond to those who live with mental illness. It can be anything from chronic depression or anxiety which isn't all that evident to others, to illnesses such as bipolar and schizophrenia which can take over a person's psyche. While mental illness is not simply a matter of the will and often runs in families, there are still a lot of people who fail to understand this, and can be disturbingly critical and unkind. I wish I could say that congregations are sanctuaries from this lack of comprehension and support, but they aren't always, because they are made up of so many different people.

I do feel that over the course of 30+ years of ministry we have come to a much better awareness of mental health issues, both in society and in the church. Folk who in years past would be afraid to speak of what they were experiencing either personally or in their families have become much more willing and able to name their realities and invite support.

We still have a way to go. We need those in law enforcement to recognize mental health issues more readily. Not long ago I wrote about two pairs of police officers here in Belleville who responded to situations at the church with impressive patience and kindness, so I am encouraged. We need governments to make sure that funding and infrastructure for mental health care is on a level with physical health care. We need to train clergy and laypersons in how to respond with patience and compassion and without fear. I worked with a parish nurse in my last pastoral situation who was exemplary in her practical and loving response to those who were dealing with mental illness. Fear is such a huge factor in responding to those with mental health challenges, and Jesus did say that love casts out fear.

I will keep writing and raising the issues along the way, because Christ's abundant life is meant for everyone.


Tuesday, May 06, 2014


Boko Haram wants Nigerian children to attend Islamic schools. BBC file photo

Yesterday someone asked a question in a tweet which had been on my mind: how is it that a coalition of nations is willing to spend tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to find a missing plane with over two hundred aboard, but we can't figure out how to free a similar number of kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria? Okay, I have expanded on the sentiment of the 140 characters of the tweet, but you understand.

Many have asked whether the slow response of both reporting and international concern is because they are dark-skinned, and reside in an African nation. Surely these factors are part of the ineffective reaction. These children have been snatched from safety by a terrorist group, Boko Haram. This is the Islamist group that attacked innocent people in a shopping mall a few months ago. They are cowards of the worst kind, pathetically using religion as justification. The leader says that Western education is sinful and that he will sell the girls as slaves. Actually, while the majority of the girls are Christian, some are Muslim. Hate is not rational.

One of the differences between the two situations is that Nigeria is a sovereign nation, and it doesn't help that the first lady has made bizarre claims that the whole situation has been fabricated. But surely more can be done.

Is anyone else appalled by what is happening here, both in terms of the abductions and the response?

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Death Penalty

A couple of weeks ago we solemnly acknowledged the crucifixion of Jesus on what Christians call Good Friday. It is good, not because Jesus was tortured and died, but because of our conviction that this was a moment of cosmic significance which reconciled humanity to God, even as God had identified with humanity in Jesus, the Christ.

We could easily forget that Jesus' death was a state-sanctioned public execution. He could have been summarily put to death by the Roman procurator, Pilate, but crucifixion was a slow and agonizing death in a public place. It discouraged sedition, Jesus' alleged crime, and even thievery, the conviction of the two alongside Jesus.

Nearly forty years ago Canada decided not to execute criminals anymore, no matter how heinous their crimes. The last execution in this country was actually in 1962, but the penalty still existed until its abolition in 1976. Despite all the concerns and protests that this would result in a jump in the murder rate, the opposite has been the case. People don't kill other people with thought for the penalty.

The United States is one of the last developed countries which allows capital punishment and some states still do execute criminals on a regular basis. But there is a growing awareness of how barbaric it is to kill as retribution and punishment. There is no simple or humans way of executing individuals and recently there have been cases of those receiving lethal injections who suffered as they died. Those who watched a recent botched execution in Oklahoma conceded that the death throes of the inmate were gruesome, but it hasn't changed the resolve of some to continue with capital punishment.

Oklahoma Rep. Mike Christian, a Republican lawmaker who pushed to have state Supreme Court justices impeached for briefly halting Tuesday's execution, was unsparing. "I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don't care if it's by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine or being fed to the lions."

There is a certain irony that a man named Christian is content to have the convicted fed to the lions.

I have always been opposed to the death penalty, even though some deserve to die for their crimes. We should be outraged by the crimes of violence some commit. But my chaplaincy internship at Kingston Penitentiary during seminary actually deepened my opposition to the death penalty, and I met a lot of people who had done terrible things. I just figure that killing brutalizes the killer, even when it is the state which does the killing.

You may disagree. What are your thoughts?

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Gone Fishing

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Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. —John 21:4–6
It can seem nigh on impossible to find a week to be away which doesn't involve missing events that are important. I didn't attend the 90th birthday gathering for a lovely Bridge St. UC member because I was on vacation after Easter, nor was I at Kente Presbytery. Normally I wouldn't shed a tear over missing presbytery, but the court discussed proposals for change in the life of our denomination which have developed out of what is called the Comprehensive Review. There has been a fair amount of expressed concern that the review has focused more on structure than substance, that the United Church of Canada will do the proverbial shuffling of the deck chairs of organization to save money and address the deficit of human capital, while missing the importance of focusing our mission as a denomination. If we don't know who we are following or why, does it matter what our structure is. The document called Fishing on the Other Side does invite us to think and act differently as a denomination.

The three questions posed in the PowerPoint slide above came from our United Church moderator, the Rev. Gary Paterson and they seem like essential "fishing" questions for any Christian community. We have to discern how we share the Good News of the Risen Christ, and what it means to do authentically and bravely. We haven't done a particularly good job of inviting our own children into the life of faith for at least two generations now, and we are well behind in finding effective ways of sharing the gospel "out there." As a result we are an aging, shrinking, "empty net" denomination, for the most part.

The good news in the midst of this is that congregations which have addressed the moderator's questions along the way, and done so with enthusiasm and creativity and prayer, are the ones which defy the trends of our denomination. They do exist, and while they have their struggles in an increasingly secular society they are living a Gospel message which is inclusive, and justice-oriented and Christ-centred.

Comments or observations?