Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ida and Identity

The Quinte Film Alternative screenings at the Empire theatre in Belleville are lifesavers, saving us from the dumb, dumber and dumbest multi-plex dreck that we have to endure. Okay, a little harsh, but close to the truth. Just take a look at what's on offer right now.

Recently we saw Ida, a Polish film set in the bleak, communist 1960's. A young nun, named Anna is about to take her vows but the superior wants her to find her family. She is told that while she is an orphan there is an aunt. It turns out that her mother's sister is a fallen-from-politburo-grace judge who uses booze and one-night-stands to deal with her pain. After a rocky start they set out to discover dark aspects of Anna's past. It turns out that her real name is Ida, and she is Jewish by birth.

I'll be fair and not reveal how the story unfolds, other than to say that along with searching for her heritage Anna/Ida explores the previously forbidden world of sensual pleasures before deciding whether to return to the convent.

We liked this film. The cinematography is superb, the mood captures the dreary days of Eastern European communist countries, and we are given a spare but worthwhile glimpse of what it means to find one's identity, in all its expressions.

I know that a couple of readers have seen this film, because they were there the night we were. Have others seen it as well?

Art, architecture, a novel and a movie. Lion Lamb arts week ends!

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Antidote of the Aga Khan Museum

We have watched with horror at ISIS or ISIL maraudes through Iraq and Syria, killing indiscriminately. This terrorist organization beheads many of its victims, a particularly barbaric form of execution, although in the end murder is murder. The members of ISIS, including radicalized young people from Western countries, does all this in the name of Allah.

So, as we know, this means all Muslims are violent terrorists. Muslims are thugs opposed to scientific discovery and artistic endeavour. Of course these are absurd, illogical conclusions, but unfortunately drawn by many. They dismiss every person who is a Muslim and every accomplishment of Islamic religion and culture.

I thought about the stereotypes as we walked through the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto last Saturday. I wrote about the museum before, and that the leader of the Ismaili sect of Islam, the Aga Khan, had chosen Toronto as the site for this impressive tribute to Islamic art because of the tolerant and diverse society in Canada and the city. But this was our first visit since it opened in September.

We were very impressed by the art in its various forms extending back in history for twelve centuries. The main floor focusses on the past, and includes explanatory graphics and descriptions of the background of Islamic culture. There is exquisite detail in the carpets and pottery and in manuscripts, including very old illuminated Qurans. The carpet pictured above is massive, yet contains thousands of finely wrought images. On the upper floor there was a worthwhile exhibit of contemporary work by Muslim artists. The docents were friendly, helpful and obviously proud of their heritage.

In a way this museum is a partial antidote for the horrors emerging from the Middle East and the threat of terror everywhere. We can't allow this distortion of Islam on the part of fundamentalists to become our perception of the religion as a whole.
So, do we need a "class trip" to the museum and the prayer centre next door? Is it reassuring to hear a different story about Islam than those which dominate the news these days?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Quest for Genius

This has been a jam-packed week, but I will take a few minutes to continue my "arts week" theme. One of the really valuable aspects of going to art galleries for specific visits is that other shows in the same venue are often just as thought-provoking. This was the case when we spent time at the AGO for the Alex Colville retrospective last Saturday. We also booked tickets for the Michelangelo: Quest for Genius exhibit, which in turn included sculptures by a great admirer of Michelangelo, Auguste Rodin. This exhibit was wonderful, and included a couple of dozen Michelangelo drawings, more than four hundred years old, along with up-to-the-minute animations which help to understand his world and his creative process. A number of the drawings were studies for what is arguably the most ambitious and brilliant artistic project of all time, the depiction of the story of Genesis on the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

A couple of things struck me as we made our way through the rooms. One was the frustration and disappointment and even rejection both Michelangelo and Rodin experienced. They may have been geniuses, but that didn't mean they were always celebrated, and at times the practicalities of cost meant that their grand visions didn't come to fruition.

They were also immersed in cultures of religious symbolism and both of them were people of faith, in their own ways. For Michelangelo the church was a principle sponsor of his work, so he painted and sculpted many biblical themes. He was also the architect for a number of church structures.  Rodin's culture was different and France in the 19th century was moving into post-Revolution secularism, but religion still had a considerable influence. I hadn't realized that his Thinker, surely one of the most recognized sculptures of all time, was a central figure in his Gates of Hell project, which wasn't cast during his lifetime.

Both men were celebrated while they were alive, but they often carried on with their passion and creativity despite the reservations of those who paid the bills.

Any comments about any of this?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lila and the Grace of God

I finished Marilynne Robinson's latest novel, Lila, last week. Robinson doesn't write a lot of fiction, but when she does it us with remarkable craft and skill. I tend to gobble books, but hers should be savoured. There are paragraphs in her novels that I stop to ponder and to mark for revisits.

Robinson's novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, while Home received the UK's Orange Prize. Gilead, set in the 1950's, introduces us to a congregational minister, Rev. John Ames, who serves in a shabby old town called Gilead. Home is a companion to Gilead and focuses on Rev. Boughton, John's longtime friend and colleague, told from the perspective of Boughton's adult daughter, Glory. Boughton's son is a prodigal whose homecoming is hardly a happy ending.

Lila is old Rev. Ames second and much younger wife. After losing his first wife and child to illness decades before, John finds his way into a relationship and a kind of happiness with the almost feral Lila. She has wandered the American Midwest with a group of other vagabonds since early childhood. Landing in Gilead is a minor miracle, an expression of grace, for a person who is both world-weary and child-like. She is the human version of the wary cat who shows up in the neighbourhood and is patiently welcomed into a household. For Lila it is coming to Sunday service once, and then again.

Lila's tentative curiosity about the bible, and baptism and prayer is wonderful to behold, but not in a spectacular, "see the light" way. Lila and God play an almost desperate game of hide-and-seek and the reader is never sure of the outcome. Yet the novel is so satisfying, at least from my perspective.

Robinson is a remarkable theologian and explores important themes of faith throughout her books. In a tweet I described Lila as a gospel rather than a parable because it is a rich journey into what it means to be Christian.

Have you read any of these novels? I would love to have a discussion series involving all three.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Home for Prayer

Perhaps this should be arts week for my Lion Lamb blog. I have lots of thoughts about art and architecture, movies and books these days. After we went to the AGO in Toronto on Saturday we drove out the Don Valley Parkway to the Aga Khan Museum. You may remember me writing about this new museum of Islamic art, and that Toronto was chosen because of its multi-cultural society.  It proved to be a fascinating experience and I will write about it specifically later this week.

We realized that the Ismaili Prayer Centre (it's not a mosque) was immediately alongside the museum and we wondered if we could visit it as well. We were advised that visitors are supposed to book tours, but encouraged to walk over and ask about going in. The tour guides were very gracious and one of them took the two of us on a walk through which focused, by request, on the prayer hall.

The hall is huge, seating 1500 people. The design of this space, both spare and grand,  is by Charles Correa and it has a special translucent roof to allow light, with a skylight to bring focus to the front. It is actually a double roof to provide insulation from the sounds of the city, including the traffic of the DVP. It works, because we were immediately struck by the silence. The heating system is radiant from the floor, where most participants kneel. Air-conditioning comes from the walls, which are screens with a design spelling "Allah." There are rows of chairs at the back, a concession to those who find kneeling difficult.

We took off our shoes and entered into the holiness of this prayer hall, just the three of us in the soaring space. I use the word "holiness" because as we left we both commented of the holy, prayerful atmosphere of the hall.

I asked about the number of people who come together for prayer. An average of 400 come together for an hour silent meditation at FOUR IN THE MORNING followed by half an hour of prayers. At seven in the evening about 1300 Ismailis arrive for evening prayer. What an impressive statement of devotion.

On our drive back to Belleville we chatted about how our country and our spiritual perceptions have changed. There we were, two life-long Christians, in a Muslim prayer centre, aware of God's presence. We were so glad we went in on a dreary afternoon.

Would you be interested in visiting this prayer centre? Do you carry any reservations about this sort of cross-faith connection or are you grateful this is happening in our society?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Colville Retrospective

On Saturday we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario for the Alex Colville retrospective. Colville died last year at the age of 92 after spending most of his life in Nova Scotia painting what some might desribe as the mundane realities of everyday life. There is actually an ominous quality to many of Colville's pieces, as though something scary is just over the horizon. There are four Colville paintings in The Shining, a scary film to be sure.

The painting above features a plain little clapboard United Church like so many in the Maritmes, but the galloping horse was inspired by John F. Kennedy's black steed which walked, riderless in his funeral procession.

Colville was married to wife Rhoda for seventy years and she was his muse and soulmate. They married in 1942 as he was heading off to war as a 22-year-old. He painted her naked many times a role she didn't like all that much but she admitted that she did it because she was too jealous to let him paint other women without their clothes on. There was a touching interview with a daughter in which she recounted a conversation in their living room. Rhoda told Alex she loved him. He responded, saying that he loved her, "it's the one big fact of my life." After she died he lasted only a few months.
Colville was a war artist in WWII and was sent to document the horrors of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. He admitted his guilt at becoming numbed to the volume of corpses, as though the mind simply can't process the scale of violence and destruction. I had to wonder whether those experiences of war influenced the tenor of Colville's work for the rest of his life. He saw the extraordinary capacity of humans for cruelty and destruction first-hand. Colville loved animals and saw them as angelic(his term,) incapable of the heartlessness of humans.Good and evil are underlying forces in his painting in ways that weren't immediately apparent. Love and fidelity in the midst of daily life are also important themes.

I wasn't sure that I wanted to see this exhibit because I find Colville's work to be rather sterile. I'm glad we went because I came away with a very different perspective on his painting and his relationships.

Have you been to this exhibit?  Are you intrigued to learn more about Colville?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Immigration Reform and the Bible

"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt"
Exodus 22:21

Holy POTUS! The president of the United States of America used a verse of scripture to justify sweeping changes in the way it responds to unregistered immigrants in the country. It shouldn't come as that much of a surprise in a nation that extolls the separation of church and state yet constantly mixes them up together in a strange and sometimes toxic brew.

I'm glad he used scripture because many of his most vociferous opponents are conservatives who claim to be Christian and then avoid the message of hospitality in the bible like a biblical plague. I have noticed that in the run-up to last night's speech there have been many courageous evangelical voices in America calling for immigration reform, along with the more predictable mainline and liberal denominations.

 There are as many as eleven million (some say more) illegal immigrants in the US and they are constantly reviled by those on the extreme right as some sort of societal cancer. No matter that these people do much of the demanding and demeaning physical labour that no one else wants to do. What the Obama administration proposes will be welcome news for as many as five million of these eleven million, including hundreds of thousands born in the United States to those who entered the country illegally.

There really is such a huge divergence of opinion in the U.S, represented in my own family.  I have cousins in Maryland who see immigrants as assets, bringing energy and a desire to better themselves. One teaches English As A Second Language to folk who have no documentation to be in the States. These are the cousins who don't go to church. I have cousins in Texas who are evangelicals and take a hardline on "illegals." Using that term takes away personhood and reduces human beings created in God's image to a jurisdictional problem. To be fair, their church does offer programs for immigrants, but the language is unsettling.

At the conclusion of his address President Obama said it well, not only for the United States but for Canada, if we just change a word or two:

My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forbearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will. That’s the country our parents and grandparents and generations before them built for us. That’s the tradition we must uphold. That’s the legacy we must leave for those who are yet to come.

Any thoughts on this one folks?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Password to Forgiveness

Embedded image permalink

There is a fascinating article in the New York Times magazine about our various device passwords and how they are often an expression of who we are.
Most of us hate having to use passwords, yet we are creatures for whom meaning is important. So passwords are used for everything from motivation, to mourning, to statements of love. One person used a password which served as a reminder to save for a trip to Thailand and it was successful.

Often they have rich back stories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — these keepsake passwords, as I came to call them, are like tchotchkes of our inner lives. They derive from anything: Scripture, horoscopes, nicknames, lyrics, book passages. Like a tattoo on a private part of the body, they tend to be intimate, compact and expressive.

It was touching to read that a company which suffered devastating losses to staff  in the Trade Tower attacks of 911 was able to reconstruct passwords, with Microsoft's assistance, using clues from personal information provided by families.

The one which really caught my attention was Forgive@h3r a computerized "11th commandment" to forgive an ex-wife. In a way this password is a prayer, and we can hope a successful one.

Do your passwords have personal meaning? Do you use any for motivation? What is your reaction to the forgiveness password?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Unholy Violence

There was another senseless, cowardly attack in Jerusalem this week, as two Palestinian cousins attacked a synagogue, killing five and injuring others. These were worshippers, and one of the seriously injured is an ex-pat Canadian, a 54-year-old father of ten. His family and friends describe him as a gentle, generous, devout man. A teen daughter says that the family is determined not to be caught up in a desire for vengeance because it is not what he would want.

I'm grateful that the moderator of our United Church quickly issued a statement about this situation, along with a prayer. We have been criticized for siding with the Palestinians, against Israel, an unfair characterization. We oppose violence and oppression, wherever it is found.

The Moderator of The United Church of Canada, the Right Reverend Gary Paterson, expressed deep sorrow upon hearing the news yesterday of the attack on worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem:
“I grieved to learn of yesterday’s attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem. It is horrifying to hear of any such violence, and particularly at a place of worship. I condemn this violence unequivocally, and join with others in condemning all violence between the peoples and communities of this region that has seen so much bloodshed in the name of religion.”
The tensions and tragedies of this city, holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, remind us of the need for all parties to continue to work intensively for a just peace in Israel/Palestine, and of the vital place that Jerusalem itself plays in that longed-for peace.

Prayer for Peace in Jerusalem

In this violent time, we turn to you, God, our help and our strength,

seeking guidance on how to faithfully respond
           and witness to the escalating tension in Jerusalem.

We cry with the community of worshippers at Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue,

and pray that you will provide those grieving with the comfort
and healing that words cannot.

We long for sacred spaces, and pray that all who seek to worship
              can do so safely and without fear.

We respond to the concerns of our brothers and sisters,
               and pray that this violence will not incite more violence.

We denounce all acts of violence, 
          and pray for an end to all that acts as a barrier to a peace and justice for all.

 We seek contrition, and pray for forgiveness for all the ways that we have used your Word

          to justify pain, displacement, condemnation, or oppression.

May we remember that your Word was sent not to condemn but to give life abundantly.

In all things, God, and at all times, let us turn to you,

          the source of our hope, and our keeper, from this time on and forevermore. Amen.

What are your thoughts about this latest attack and the seemingly endless cycle of "eye for eye" violence in the Middle East?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Toilet Talk

What is the most important invention in human history? How about the toilet? There are some who argue that the development of the toilet and the advances in sanitation which go with it make it the most effective invention when it comes to human health and longevity.

Today is World Toilet Day -- I kid you not -- and this is no joking matter. An estimated 2.5 billion humans -- more than a third of the world's population-- do not have access to sanitary disposal of their waste, and it is a killer. Globally more people have access to cell phones than toilets. Remember the infamous latrine scene in Slumdog Millionaire, pictured above?

This is more than an issue of health. This year the UN theme draws attention to the risks for women and girls in many parts of the world. They are regularly attacked and sexually assaulted when they head into secluded areas to relieve themselves, their only option.

The theme for the UN World Toilet Day 2014 is "Equality, Dignity and the Link Between Gender-Based Violence and Sanitation", which seeks to raise awareness on the threat of sexual violence that women and girls face due to the lack of privacy as well as the inequalities present in toilet usability. "A staggering 1.25 billion women and girls would enjoy greater health and increased safety with improved sanitation," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement ahead of the World Toilet Day.

Why would I write about this in my blog as a Christian pastor? Hundreds of faith-based organizations are involved in providing clean water and improving sanitation in places around the world. They drill wells and build latrines and teach sanitation. Without proper sanitation it is hard to maintain clean sources of water.

Within our own country, organizations such as Frontiers Foundation, started by the late United Church minister Charles Catto, work to create effective water systems on First Nations reserves. We have a shameful record in ensuring that First Nations communities have clean water. Water and sanitation are justice issues and spiritual issues and we can respond.

For some reason sanitation is an awkward issue for discussion, so one organization has encouraged people to "talk s**t for a week" to openly get over that reluctance. It's probably a good idea.

Workers install an inflatable toilet in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York on Wednesday, to mark World Toilet Day.
Inflatable Toilet Outside UN Building

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Blast from My Past

Recently my dear old mother moved from an independent living residence to one with a higher level of care. It meant moving from a fairly spacious apartment to one room, and downsizing ensued. We are discovering that she kept everything, everything, EVERTHING, related to her work as a travel agent for decades, as well as mementos from nearly nine decades on this earth. Sifting through this stuff has been an, um, challenge.

Yesterday I discovered a copy of the United Church Observer from July, 1980. I know that she kept this issue because it mentioned the ordinations of that year and while none of us were named, I was amongst the ordinands from Bay of Quinte Conference. There were more than 100 men and women ordained and commissioned across the country in 1980, including a remarkable 28 in Toronto Conference. I would be interested to know if there has been a year with those numbers since -- certainly not in the past couple of decades. One conference petitioned for French to be added to the crest, which did happen, and now it includes Mohawk as well. Another conference rejected a motion to exclude homosexuals from ordination. Remember this was years before the national church changed its mind on the issue.

Bye the way, the cover of that Observer was on the rise of cults, including the Hare Krishna -- remember them? It is quite thoughtful rather than alarmist, a signature of the United Church. There were eight candidates named for the moderator to be elected at the upcoming General Council, including a feisty woman named Lois Wilson.

The issue reported on protests by Anglicans against the Monty Python film Life of Brian because of its irreverence.

There is also a piece on a task force recommending that one level of governance be removed from the cumbersome four that existed then. Unfortunately here we are in 2014 wrestling with the same issue, from a position of weakness, if not desperation. If only we had acted then. Another report suggested that we must rethink urban ministry or risk fading away. Both of these were prophetic, weren't they? 

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the vigour and forward-thinking of the church into which I was ordained 34 years ago. Maybe I will keep this issue myself!


Monday, November 17, 2014

Muslims in the Cathedral

Embedded image permalink

Last Friday Muslims gathered in a section of the sanctuary in Washington National Cathedral for prayer. Yup, they were in a Christian church for Friday prayers as part of an ecumenical initiative. News that Muslims would be worshipping in a Christian church was predictable. There were protesters outside and nastiness on the internet. A woman yelled out during the actual service, angrily asking why the Muslims couldn't worship in their own mosque, before being escorted out.

I both admire this effort and wonder how I feel. I was glad when Bridge St. hosted an multicultural event not long ago at which Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Bahais and Christians were present. I was pleased to attend an open house and meal at the Belleville mosque in August. I would welcome a Muslim guest or guests for dialogue, including in our worship space.

Would I feel the same about making our chapel available, or the sanctuary? In the end, probably, but I would need to work it through. Jesus, who is deeply respected by Muslims and referred to in 93 verses of the Koran would probably be more at ease with Muslims at prayer in a church than the vast majority of Christians, even though Islam didn't exist when he was here on this earth. His response to others was much more elastic than the brittle ways of being we have developed. The child in the photo above looks like a lovely little boy worshipping with his dad. Is that so terrible?


The United Church has taken heat for offering continuing education in Muslim studies at Emmanuel College, my seminary alma mater. Something which would have been unthinkable in the time I was there, but Canadian society has become more pluralistic. Yesterday's heathen foreigners are now the folk next door, so Jesus' injunction to love our neighbours takes on a whole new meaning.

What do you think about the Washington Cathedral initiative? Is it the slippery slope to hell? Did you know about the courses at Emmanuel?  How would you feel if this happened in your congregation?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Abraham on Trial

                                     Rembrandt van Rijn
I have written before about our son Isaac, reading the biblical story of the near-sacrifice of the biblical Isaac by his father Abraham. This happened during an Easter Vigil service during which nine-year-old Ike was baptized. He was fully aware of the drama of the story, but it didn't seem to disturb him, although we haven't discussed this is recent years. It did rattle the cage of some of those in attendance, including a couple of colleagues in ministry.

Abraham has been criticized as a sociopath at best, and the God of this story doesn't fare much better. I see it as a story of someone who is influenced by his culture, in which human sacrifice is the highest form of fealty to the gods. Yet the sacrifice doesn't happen, and Abraham hears a more compelling voice and embarks on a different future for his family and his people.

I'm intrigued by a mock-trial which will take place today at a synagogue in New York City. Abraham will be prosecuted and defended by some heavy legal hitters, and a large crowd will be on hand. The synagogue has even sold tickets. I love the creativity of the exercise, addressing a perplexing biblical text with a flare which has obviously captured the attention of people. Here is a description from the Wall Street Journal

Presiding over the Old Testament-inspired case will be U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan. Representing Abraham will be high-profile defense attorney Alan Dershowitz. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer will lead the prosecution.“Let’s be honest here—if I put an ad asking people to come study Bible on a Sunday morning, not many people will come,” said Gady Levy, the new executive director of the synagogue’s Skirball Center, which is hosting the event. With this program, he said, “people are going to come and study Torah. But they’re going to do it in a creative way—and in a way that makes religion relevant to their lives.” The temple has sold more than 1,000 tickets at $36 each for the event, which is part of a broader strategy spearheaded by the congregation’s new senior rabbi, Joshua Davidson. His aim: to expand the temple’s reach at a time when congregations are shrinking across the country and studies have shown that increasing numbers of Jews feel disconnected from religious life.

What do you think, it this inventive or sensational? Would you want to attend if you were in New York? Would this be a helpful way of delving deeper into a perplexing story?

Marc Chagall

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Let Them Eat Cake?

Embedded image permalink

I had a chat with the bulletin folders at Bridge St. UC, an amiable group of five seniors who come in every Friday morning to fold and put together the order of worship for Sunday. As we talked over coffee we got onto the subject of employment for younger people. I expressed my gratitude that all three of our adult children are employed. Yes, one has a long commute, another is working outside her field, another wondering what the long-term prognosis is for his vocation. But along with their partners two have purchased homes, all have vehicles, and they are able to address those nasty student loans.

We know that this is not the case for many in our society, even though they are well-trained and eager to work. It is a tough employment climate, both discouraging and frankly humiliating for a lot of young adults. Along comes  Bank of Canada governor is Stephen Poloz with suggestions that it might help for some of these jobseekers to work for free. I understand what he was saying; search out any avenue possible to get into a difficult job market, making sure that there is something, anything, on a resume. But it came across as callous, a "let them eat cake" comment from someone who makes around half a million bucks a year. I bet his two kids, who are probably heading into the work world about now, won't be working anywhere for nothing. Poloz has connections which parents nearly always draw upon if they can help their children. They probably didn't or won't graduate from post-sec education with big debt because the children of those who with good employment are usually supported by parents.

I'm saying all this not to denigrate Poloz (okay, just a little), but to point out the injustices in a society which actually provides lots of opportunity for young people and even still isn't particularly fair. I'm not sure that there is much that Christian communities can do about this, but we should be prayerfully concerned for the future of our young people. Yes, hard work and determination still matters. I see it in my children and I'm proud of them. Saying this shouldn't diminish the plight of many.


Friday, November 14, 2014


Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
Matthew 6 King James Version (KJV)

In the venerable King James bible Jesus encourages his listeners to be generous to others in a modest way, and the now "heirloom" words "alms" is used repeatedly in reference to those gifts. I was surprised to discover that while other language is updated,the word alms is used in the New Revised Standard Version as well. The Message settles for "help someone out" which is explanatory but wordy by comparison.

I did not know that the pope has an almoner, someone who raises funds, or alms,  for charitable acts and then distributes them. This is not an "anyone can do this" position. The current almoner, Konrad Krajewski is a Polish archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church. It's interesting to see that this isn't just someone who wanders around giving out a few lira here and there, like Doug Ford handing out Tim Horton's gift cards at a Toronto Housing Christmas party.

Pope Francis' Almoner Archbishop Konrad Krajewski announced Thursday that three shower stalls will be added to the public restrooms in St. Peter’s Square so that the homeless in the area have a place to wash up. Due to begin on November 17, the construction project will be tacked on to remodeling initiative for the restrooms that the Vatican already has in the works. Krajewski told La Stampa that he got the idea for the restrooms after speaking with a homeless man on Rome’s Via della Conciliazione in October. Franco, a man from Sardinia, had reportedly been living on the streets for the past ten years. It was the man’s 50th birthday, so Krajewski offered to take him out for a dinner. But Franco initially refused, saying that he “smelled.”

“I took him [to dinner] with me nonetheless,” Krajewski said in a translation provided by The Local. “We went to a Chinese restaurant. During dinner, he explained to me that you can always find some food in Rome. What is missing is a place to wash." Krajewski is now encouraging other Catholic parishes in Rome to follow suit by building their own showers for the poor.“It is not simple, because it is easier to make sandwiches than run a shower service,” Krajewski said. “We need volunteers, towels, underwear.” When asked if tourists would be offended by the presence of showers so close to the Vatican’s famous colonnades, Krajewski responded.  “The Basilica exists in order to keep the Body of Christ, and we serve Jesus’ suffering body by serving the poor. Always, in the history of Rome, the poor congregated around the Basilicas.”

Granted, this seems to contravene Jesus' teaching about doing this on the QT, but I'm glad Krajewski shared this initiative.

Any thoughts about this? 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The End for Mideast Christianity?

Is This the End for Mideast Christianity?

Ah yes, technology. We switched to another internet business package -- with the same provider mind you -- and lost our connection this morning. It's amazing how handcuffed activity in a church office becomes without internet service.

I encourage you to take a look at the comments from yesterday's blog about selfie culture. I appreciate that former co-worker Laura took the time to offer some encouraging words from her perspective working with youth.

The latest issue of Christianity Today magazine includes an article by Philip Jenkins which asks Is This the End for Mideast Christianity? Jenkins is an expert on the global Christian scene and he notes that 2014 has been a disastrous year for the followers of Christ in the region where he and our faith were born. We know that ISIS, the Islamist terrorist group, has been persecuting those who do not follow their hideous brand of faith, including followers of other branches of Islam, Yazidis, and Christians. This is the case in both Iraq and Syria. In situations where there is not violent persecution, Christians are marginalized and feel they must leave. It is a tragedy that the Christian population of Israel continues to shrink because of government policies which make life difficult for them, usually because Christians there are also Arabs.
Jenkins is not an alarmist but he is asking important questions as a realist:

If the vision of a Christian-free Middle East is too pessimistic, the scale of the disasters that have overtaken some countries is beyond doubt. That experience offers many lessons for us in the West. It is obscene to complain about a “war on Christmas” in the United States when there are Syrian cities without Christians to commemorate their holy days at all for the first time in some 1,900 years. That’s an authentic war on Christmas.

More broadly, these events teach us about the long-term trajectories of Christian history. They show how churches vanish and, more important perhaps, how they survive under the direst of circumstances.One lesson emerges strongly: However often we talk of churches dying, they rarely do so without extraordinary external intervention. Churches don’t die because their congregations age, their pastors behave scandalously, the range of programs they offer wears thin, or their theology becomes muddled. Churches vanish when they are deliberately and efficiently killed by a determined foe.

Once again I invite you to pray for our Christian brothers and sisters and to pay attention to reports about their marginalization and persecution, not just in these countries but it Pakistan and China and elsewhere. I am grateful that the United Church has supported the remnant Christian community in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.

So are you weary about me writing on this subject (I have fairly often) or is it important to have the nudge? Are you praying?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Selfie Culture

Gheesh. I thought raising teens was a minefield when our three went through those turbulent years. They all found their way into adulthood with some ups and downs, but mostly ups.

Today? There is so much more to keep a parent up at night, wondering. The internet makes concerns about sex, drugs and alcohol seem almost quaint by comparison. I listened to someone who has done a study on the "selfie" culture of young people on the radio this morning and was literally shaking my head. As a herd of parents have migrated onto Facebook young people have predictably left and established connection on smaller screens and mediums such as Twitter and Instagram and others. They have cleverly figured out how to attract interest with some teens having more than a million followers. You read that right -- a million plus.

Of course to garner that sort of following teens have to constantly "up the ante" and that often means sexually provocative material. The person used the term "self-pornification" to refer to the practice of taking photos of oneself in risqué poses to share on the internet.

The parents of teens who heard that interview must have shuddered. The expert admitted that these practices are essentially parent-proof. It's next to impossible to monitor what happens on phones because of the techno-literacy of our young 'uns.

This made me think of the wonderful gang of tweens and teens in my former congregation, St. Paul's. These are thoughtful, grounded young people who have a strong network amongst themselves, along with exceptional Christian leadership and involved parents. Am I naïve enough to think that they are impervious to these influences? Nope. Do they have a faith base which may make a difference in terms of self-worth and --dare I say it-- moral judgment? I think so.

Even those of us in congregations where teens are few and far between can pray for our grandchildren and others finding their way into the fullness of adult life. There are plenty of young people whose desire is to be compassionate, whole persons who give to others. We have the opportunity to support them.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Abide with Me

My cold and laryngitis persist and I, wondering whether I will head to the cenotaph. It is a glorious day but I am feeling rather wonky.
As I write this I can hear band cadets across the street from Bridge St. UC practicing for their role in the ceremonies. They are playing hymns such as Abide With Me and Eternal Father Strong to Save, oldy goldies which had deep meaning in times of conflict. I recall one elderly member from St. Andrew's in Sudbury telling me that Eternal Father was played as the ship she was on as a nursing sister sailed out of St. John's harbor during the Second World War. She was always rather staid and dignified but in that moment of recollection she was emotional. Of course she was a young and probably frightened woman heading off to God knows what in foreign places.

We pray that these young people are never engaged in conflict. We pray. Do they know that the hymns they are playing are prayers of a kind? They seek God's guidance and protection in all circumstances of life, even war.


I did attend the cenotaph service as did many others --thousands?-- in Belleville today. Prayers and hymns and scriptures in a land where so few attend worship anymore.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Seas of Red

Panoramic photo (Taken using an in-camera panoramic function to stitch multiple pictures together into one image)

I was in London, Great Britain, on November 11th perhaps twenty-five years ago. I had no idea that Remembrance Day was so important in Britain, but everywhere we turned there were reminders of both world wars. I was particularly moved by the thousands of poppies on the lawn outside Westminster Abbey representing the fallen of various regiments.

The Great War, World War One, continues to be of huge significance to the British and an installation this year, the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, graphically brings home the terrible human cost of that conflict. Around the Tower of London there are nearly 900,000 ceramic poppies, one for each military person of the British Empire who perished. Canada's fallen totaled more than 60,000. Entitled Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, the installation is the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins, from Derbyshire. There has been such a huge turnout of people and that the closing date has been extended. Those who visit often find it emotional because it brings home the scale of sacrifice and loss.

Many congregations including Bridge St, will honour those who served and gave their lives today. We will wear poppies and play the Last Post and Reveille. We will also uphold the message of Christ, the Prince of Peace, who chose another way of sacrifice for humanity.

Tower of London Poppy display

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Institutional Memory

There was a Jeopardy answer this past week for which I did not have an answer, and if I recall correctly none of the contestants did either. It was about a particularly sort of memory which turned out to be institutional memory. The clue spoke of a long-time employee who was valuable for this form of memory.

Well, it got me thinking about churches, because just about everything does. Many mainline congregations are aging and cash poor, but they tend to be rich in institutional memory. There is the old canard that the true Seven Last Words of congregations are We've Never Done It That Way Before. While I think many mainline/oldline churches are developing new attitudes, there tends to be a lot of folk who struggle to move past memory to hope. They get stuck in a "glory days" mentality which inhibits innovation and response to societal changes.

I appreciate the people who have good memories but are not awash in nostalgia. There is great old guy here at Bridge St. who is pushing ninety and is still full of vim and vigour. Don remembers everything about Belleville and the Bridge St congregation and he is a great story-teller. I find him to be both entertaining and insightful. And, thanks be to God, he is not stuck in the past. He has been both welcoming and encouraging as we nudge a traditional congregation toward a new way of being. There are lots more like him.

Organizations can benefit from institutional memory, including churches, as long as they don't get stuck in the past and resist what can happen in the present and the future. Isn't there something in scripture about "behold, I make all things new?"


Friday, November 07, 2014

Walls Broken Down

Berlin Wall falling

Though ancient walls may still stand proud
and racial strife be fact,
though boundaries may be lines of hate,
proclaim God’s saving act!

Walls that divide are broken down;
Christ is our unity!
Chains that enslave are thrown aside;
Christ is our liberty!

                                                    Walter Farquharson Ron Klusmeier

I listened to a conversation on CBC radio this morning which involved Brian Stewart, a retired Mother Corp journalist and a woman who grew up in Germany whose name I didn't catch.  They were discussing the opening and then destruction of the Berlin Wall. This Sunday there will be a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the end of the era which separated east and west Berlin and the two German states.

I've read elsewhere that as part of the celebration artists have retraced the former border in Germany's capital using 8,000 luminous balloons that will be turned on to mark this weekend's anniversary.

"We wanted to counter this ominous, heavy structure with something light," said Marc Bauder, who designed the art installation with his brother, Christopher Bauder. The "Lichtgrenze," or "Light Border," will stretch for nearly 10 miles through the city, passing landmarks such as Checkpoint Charlie or the Brandenburg Gate. 
Bauder urged people to walk along the former border once again and discover the movie screens and information panels describing the city's division and those who died along the wall. According to the Berlin Wall Memorial, 138 people were killed along the Berlin Wall from 1961 until 1989 as they tried to flee, some just months before peaceful protests opened the border. "Remembrance belongs to the people," he said. "We want to offer an individual access instead of a central commemoration." On Sunday evening, the balloons will be released up in the air, exactly 25 years after the opening of the border was announced.
The woman being interviewed spoke of making her way through the Brandenburg Gate for the first time and finding relatives who lived in East Germany. An uncle drove her home, unimpeded, so that he could be reunited with his sister. She also mentioned conversations with Palestinians and the sense of solidarity because so many of them behind a wall as well, the West Bank Barrier.
I love the words of the hymn written by  former United Church moderator, Walter Farquharson, and long-time United Church musician Ron Klusmeier. Every time there is reconciliation which results in walls, both actual and figurative, being dismantled we should celebrate.

Thursday, November 06, 2014


PHOTO: Brittany Maynard is pictured in this undated file photo.
Yesterday I spent more than an hour with an elderly member who senses that the end of her life is near after a spirited response to cancer. She has lived as fully as possible, staying involved in various activities, enjoying her friendships. But the cancer is progressing and she is a practical person. She filled out some funeral planning sheets I gave her and we talked through her memorial service.

At the conclusion of the conversation she conceded that it all felt surreal, and admitted that she doesn't relish the final stages of her illness. She wondered aloud why we can't just end it all when we choose, the way we do with our pets. I commented that we just haven't caught up with the ethics of end-of-life yet. I pointed out that when I was born sixty years ago the lifespan for a male in Canada was fifteen years shorter. I offered "the good news is that we are living a lot longer, and the bad news is we are living a lot longer." We are generally getting more quantity of life, but not necessarily with quality.  She agreed. I did encourage her that despite her failing health her essential self is still very present. But what do we do when even that is gone, or someone is suffering?

Recently a young woman named Brittany Maynard (above) ended her life even though she was only twenty-nine years old. She planned to die on the weekend because she was diagnosed with Stage IV glioblastoma multiforme, and was given six months or less to live in April. Last week she relented, issuing a video statement through Compassion & Choices in which she says she has reconsidered exactly when she will end her life: “I still feel good enough and I still have enough joy and I still laugh and smile with my family and friends enough that it doesn’t seem like the right time right now. But it will come, because I feel myself getting sicker. It’s happening each week.” Then she carried through with her plans just the same. The response to her very public lead-up to death has met with mixed reactions with many concerned that despite its positive intention that it turned dying into a spectacle. The Vatican has been harsh in it's condemnation. I don't know what to think or feel, other than sad for this young woman and all who loved her.  

Recently I emailed a dear friend our age who is dealing with cancer and told her that I'm glad she's still alive. I wanted her to know that despite her struggles and physical diminishment her essence continues to burn bright. We had just spent time with her and we all enjoyed the outing, even though she knew it would take a toll in terms of energy. She was grateful for my note because she isn't always sure who she is anymore. When the end is near we will do our best to support whatever decisions she makes about treatment and the final days.

Our societal views are changing, possibly for the better. I hope that we aren't rigid in either direction and that we act with wisdom and compassion. I am uncomfortable when religious people emphatically condemn assisted suicide, but I'm not always convinced that those who are adamant about the "right to die" grasp the complexity of following this course of action.  Every situation will be unique, as each of us is a unique creation of God.

Have you been through this with loved ones? Are you at peace with what they chose, and have you made your thoughts and intentions known to others? Has your faith been part of the decision-making?