Monday, March 28, 2016

The Folly of Religious Hatred

Photo published for Death toll in Pakistan Easter suicide attack climbs past 70

In my Easter message yesterday I touched briefly on the senselessness and evil of the bombings in Brussels by Islamic extremists. I hadn't heard at that point about yet another suicide bombing in Pakistan that killed at least double the number in Belgium. In the event that we might not be clear on how hideous this terrorist act was, the Taliban perversely informed the world that they had targeted innocent Christian children on Easter Day. We have also learned that the Brussels attacks were originally scheduled for Easter weekend.

As a Christian this appalls me. My brothers and sisters in Christ are being persecuted by extremists from another religion. It does make me wonder about what is inherently violent about Islam which spawns so many hateful, violent groups. Then I heard a reporter in Pakistan saying that many, if not the majority of the children and women who died at the amusement park were Muslims. In fact, so often terrorist attacks are directed at Muslims who are perceived to be unfaithful because they don't espouse extreme views.

I am reminded that hatred is an idolatry often masked by religious claims. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian fascist terrorist who ruthlessly murdered scores of teenagers five years ago insisted that he was acting as a Christian. He was no more a Christian than the supposedly Muslim terrorists are Islamic. God has nothing to do with this.

I want to keep at the forefront of my mind and spirit the wonderful Muslims I have met in this community who have made such a difference with our refugee sponsorship. And those who have willingly entered into respectful interfaith dialogue through the years. Suspicion and hatred are always dead-end streets.


Read this Washington Post article on the plight of Pakistani Christians

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Christ is Risen!

The cross in the Bridge St sanctuary is now draped in white rather than shrouded in black. There are dozens of floral arrangements at the front and the table is set for communion. Terry Head is practicing the stirring music for our Easter worship on the pipe organ, and the brass players are accompanying him. The sights and sounds are among the pleasures of the Easter service in this congregation.

As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the Promised One, the Christ, I am deeply aware of the pain of our world which is always present. Tomorrow I will preside at the funeral of a retired minister, a good and kind man who served for nearly half a century. He preached many sermons of hope on Easter morning and in the midst of grief we will celebrate not just the gift of his earthly life, now past, but the promise of eternity.

Christ be with all of you today and each day. Christ is Risen!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Cruciform Faith

I'm not sure that you, dear readers, will be inclined to ponder this blog on Good Friday, but here I am. Last Sunday --Palm/Passion Sunday -- I chose to preach about the cross and crucifixion because we don't all that often. at least not in liberal Protestant churches. And folk tend to avoid Good Friday services in droves, so even this opportunity is minimized.

We Christians recognize that our faith differs from others in that God is incarnate, human, in the person of Jesus. The teaching, the preaching, the healing of Jesus' ministry all matter for us. We also recognize that while the gospels offer all this, they aren't biographies. The central message and the greatest amount of "coverage' in the gospels is given to the final days of Jesus' life and ministry. His crucifixion is both a scandal and the power of God's radical identification with us, setting us free from sin and sorrow.

I am reminded that the darkness of a fallen world besets us daily. The tragic attacks in Brussels on Tuesday show us how evil the hearts of individuals and groups can be. Terrorist acts are carried out for reasons that are really not reasons and the innocent perish. A number of writers have pointed out that this happens daily around the world but we are captivated by Brussels because these are people who share many of our cultural norms.

While the cross is a Christian symbol we sense that this in-the-flesh love for humanity is indispensable in comprehending the sadness and evil of our world and the possibility of redemption. The particularity and scandal of the cross will always involve mystery, yet we look to Jesus, the Crucified One for light in the darkness. Our faith is cruciform.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maundy Limbo

Our Maundy Thursday service is so simple that it requires a great deal of preparation. We set up the chapel with a table set for the participants. They come to that table for the bread and juice as though they were gathering for a meal, which they are. We read passages from the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament which remind us of God's story of deliverance. I wash the feet some of those present. It doesn't sound complicated but there is a lot of setting up, a lot of recruiting participants.

We are prepared, but we're experiencing a blast (last gasp?) of Winter weather across Southern Ontario and the freezing rain as the day progresses sounds ominous. In all the years --decades-- I've being presiding at Maundy Thursday services I've never cancelled due to weather. And I find this worship gathering very meaningful, as have so many who've attended. But there is a first time for everything.

Have you attended Maundy Thursday services in your church? Do you remember when we had no idea what a Maundy Thursday service was in our Protestant congregations? Is this an important addition to our liturgical cycle?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Plot-Thickens Wednesday

If you hang around liturgical churches at all, or even if you did at another time in your life, the terms Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday have meaning for you. In the past few decades many Protestant denominations have added Maundy Thursday services as well, usually an intimate gathering to wash feet and share in a Eucharistic meal. It is actually a favourite of mine. Holy Saturday is recognized with an Easter Vigil in some denominations and the congregation I served in Sudbury actually baptized at a joint service with the Anglicans.

The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week don't have designations in the same way, but we know that after Jesus rode into Jerusalem before a branch-waving crowd both religious and Roman leaders were on high alert. This was the time of Pesach, or Passover, and the city of Jerusalem was crowded with Jewish pilgrims who were not happy with the Roman occupation. The gospels recount Jesus' provocative action, overturning tables of sellers and lenders in the temple. It was a symbolic act but an attention-getter.

Both Tuesday and Wednesday were "plot-thickening" days when religious authorities were looking for ways to silence Jesus. As much as Christianity has vilified and demonized these Jewish leaders through the centuries, they were in the precarious position of placating both an unsettled populace and Roman overlords. Either group could lead to their ouster or demise.

I need the reminder every year that what happened in the final days of Jesus' life reflects the issues of power, politics, and religious fervour of any time in history. The silent, or at least quiet days of Holy Week have there meaning as well.

Any comments about Holy Week and what unfolded for Jesus?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

World Water Day

The ice is mostly gone from bodies of water and waterways around where we live in Southern Ontario, although a few cold nights have caused it to re-form where the wind doesn't shove it around. We are so fortunate that we actually witness water as a liquid and solid and gas (mist, fog) through changing seasons and temperatures. As I cycle along the Bay of Quinte to work I see all three and I am constantly fascinated.

We are canoeists and kayakers and love being out on the water, something we can do within minutes of where we live. We are so grateful for these opportunities and consider them a gift from God. I have been so excited at the prospect of paddling and we almost ventured out on Sunday afternoon. The precipitation in the form of snow and freezing rain will put the kibosh on that notion for a while now, although we did canoe on the bay Christmas Day. It is supposed to be eight degrees on Easter Sunday, so we may get out there during March yet.

We hear so much about melting glaciers due to climate change and industrially contaminated waterways and the hundreds of millions who don't have ready access to potable water. All of this is real and grim and we simply aren't mindful of how precious water is. The planet needs the commitment of individuals and governments for change.

On World Water Day it is also important to celebrate the miracle of water which graces our lives in so many ways.

Is water a source of pleasure and solace and blessing for you? Have you become more aware and careful about your use of water? Take a look at the Watermark project to add your water story to a nation-wide resource


As we move our way through Holy Week each time we rarely spend time contemplating Jesus' anger. It is far more likely that we will focus on his admonishment of Peter for acting out with violence against the Roman soldiers who come to arrest him, or his "Father, forgive them" prayer from the cross. At the beginning of the week though Jesus got angry, overturning tables in the temple, the co-called "temple tantrum." He symbolically shuts down the activities of the centre for worship which he feels has strayed from its purpose of justice and righteousness. When we do refer to this story we tend to speak of righteous anger.

Today suicide bombers recklessly and ruthlessly killed innocent people in Brussels. In their all-consuming anger Islamist extremists murdered and maimed those they did not know, and the dead may include devout Muslims for all we know. These acts of violence achieve nothing, solve nothing.

I am angered, outraged by what has transpired today and by every act of terrorism, and I think I should be - we all should be. What I also believe is that I can't give myself over to "eye for an eye" thinking, because that would betray the teaching and example of Jesus. To the very end of his life he lived passionately rather than meekly, but he chose a way which challenged violence and brute force. So should we.


People wrapped in blankets leave the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Martyrs for Creation?

Earlier this week I mused about saints, and whether it makes much sense to use the term. Well, I'm at it again. What about the term martyrs? The word martyr means "witness" but it came to be associated with those who gave up their lives as faithful witnesses for their faith. Those who immediately come to mind are early Christians killed in the Roman Coliseum by ravening beasts. The only problem is that there is no documentation of any Christians dying there in that manner.

Many Christians have been killed for their faith, more in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries combined.

Recently environmental activist and Roman Catholic Berta Caceres was shot and killed.  The Catholic Herald reports her death this way:
An outspoken environmental activist in Honduras was murdered in her own home, sparking outrage and offering another example of the impunity and violence in the Central American country.Berta Caceres, who won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize – an award considered the Nobel for ecological actions – was murdered at around 1am on Thursday in what police initially called an attempted robbery, but family members denounced as politically motivated murder, according to media reports. The Italian newspaper La Stampa hailed her as a “martyr of Laudato Si'”, the Pope’s environment encyclical.

A Lenca indigenous leader, Caceres attracted international attention for her opposition to a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River in western Honduras, where construction crews arrived unannounced almost a decade ago. A court order banned her from the area and she endured death threats, but successfully led protests that thwarted the project.

“She was a woman committed to fighting for the protection of the environment and indigenous people’s territories and the common struggle,” said Fr Ismael Moreno, director of Radio Progreso and the Jesuit-run Team for Reflection, Research and Communicatio.

Caceres knew she was vulnerable and had received death threats. She was determined not to be frightened away from the causes dear to her heart, but she paid the ultimate price.

What do you think? Should someone be considered a martyr for losing his or her life because of activism for the planet? Are there any causes in the world which would be worth risking your life for? Would your faith be a factor in your decision-making?

Friday, March 18, 2016

In the Ghetto

And look the other way
Well the world turns
And a hungry little boy with a runny nose
Plays in the street as the cold wind blows
In the ghetto
(In the ghetto)

Yup, that's Elvis you can hear crooning in the background. In the Ghetto was actually one of his more interesting songs lyrically, a comeback hit in 1969 written by Mac Davis. It explores the grim realities of racial ghettoes in a time of social ferment in the United States.

Did you know that the term ghetto goes back 500 years and it is related to the segregation of Jews --essentially imprisonment -- in the Italian city of Venice? As was so often the case in Medieval Europe, the Jews of Venice were essential and prosperous citizens of the community. That changed in March of 1516.

Established by decree of Doge Leonardo Loredan on March 29, 1516, the Venice ghetto was one of the first places where people were forcibly segregated and surveilled because of religious difference. The term itself originated here; the area had been used as a foundry (“geto” in Venice dialect) and over time the neighborhood’s polyglot residents corrupted the word to ghetto.

It was Napoleon Bonaparte who tore down the gates of this ghetto in 1797, nearly three centuries later.  Read this New York Times article about the anniversary to learn more.

This is yet another reminder of the persecution of Jews through the centuries, essentially for being Jews. Many societies and regimes  have envied and hated Jewish success, and while the biggest threat Jews posed was strengthening economies and enhancing culture, this has led to segregation and violence. The darkest example was the extermination of six million Jews under the Nazi regime.

As we are about to enter Holy Week we need to remember that this was a traditional time to persecute Jews as those responsible for Jesus' death, even though the Romans executed him. This hatred was often incited by pastors and priests through inflammatory sermons. If you think this couldn't happen today, recently a group of students from a Catholic school in the States chanted "you killed Jesus" toward the team and its followers from a Jewish neighbourhood. This was quickly censured, but it reminds us that anti-Semitism still exists.

Did you know about the origins of the ghetto? Have you been aware of anti-Semitism in your lifetime? Have you been involved in inter-faith events to deepen understanding between Jews and Christians?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

God of Many Names

God of many names/
we thank you for your presence in our midst this evening/ as we share in a meal/ and celebrate the goodness of life/ and our common humanity.

We are grateful on this dreary evening/ for the warmth of friendships which do not recognize the borders of countries/ only kindness and welcome.

We thank you, Gracious One/  for the gift that the Al Mansour and the Mustafa families have already been for us/ and will continue to be in the days ahead.

Bring us joy in food and stories shared. Amen.

Last evening a remarkable event took place at Bridge St. United Church. A potluck supper was held to welcome two Syrian families who were living in refugee camps in Lebanon and now call Canada their home. One family, parents and three boys are sponsored by three United Church congregations, with tremendous help from the local mosque and community partners. The other is one of several families sponsored by a group in Prince Edward County, this family choosing to live in Belleville. They are virtually neighbours of our Bridge St. congregation.

As of Sunday eighty people indicated they were attending, but by yesterday afternoon the number had grown to 110. By the time everyone arrived last evening there were between 130 and 140 people of all ages crowded into the Sills Auditorium. Table were hastily set up in the adjoining gym to accommodate the overflow.

This crowd was as diverse religiously and ethnically as Belleville gets. Many Christian congregations were represented, along with a large contingent from the mosque, and a smattering of Bahais and Hindus. Just about every shade of beige and brown was represented in the room, which was a bit of a surprise in largely white-bread Belleville.

I loved the warmth, the humour, the mutual respect, the camaraderie of the event. Shortly after 7:00 we all paused while the Islamic call to prayer was offered, which touched us all.

The three boys from our family, four, eleven, and fourteen came to my study where we spent some time playing with the dozen or so wind up toys I keep there for visiting kids. The four-year-old laughed in delight, and the eleven-year-old informed me that they don't have such toys in Syria. None of them spoke English three months ago, but he was able to communicate quite clearly. I was in awe of their intelligence and resilience.

In my opening prayer I thanked God for the gift of these families to our community and an Arabic speaker who has been tirelessly involved translated, phrase by phrase. We have been blessed by their presence.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016


The news is out, the late Roman Catholic nun known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be declared a saint on September 4th of this year. This is certainly a significant acknowledgment by the Church of a remarkable woman with a passionate desire to care for the lowliest of Indian society. Her 4,500 Sisters of Charity carry out the work she began as an individual and one of their vows is to give "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor."

I deeply admire Mother Teresa but not everyone does. The late Christopher Hitchens despised her, but he had a hate on for all things and people religious, it would seem. In India there are lingering criticisms that she did not respect the culture in her efforts to proselytize. And others feel that she took an authoritarian approach to leadership that was less than Christian.

Don't you figure this is what happens in a culture where we know just about everything about anybody who is anybody. And we have developed such weird values anyway. Some defend the right of celebs such as Kim Kardashian to post naked pictures of herself with such vigour you might think she had achieved something heroic. Sport stars are virtually worshipped no matter how reprehensible their personal behaviour. Released by one team for beating up your partner? It's okay, you'll catch on somewhere else.

Even though I have served three "saint" congregations and enjoy speaking about the Celtic saints I wish we would dispense with the notion of sainthood as a form of spiritual superstardom.We're told that sainthood has actually become a business, and a rather suspect, money-driven one at that. 

I prefer the apostle Paul's notion that we are all saints when we are Christ's people, in our frailties and our faithfulness.

Should we just "go commando" when it comes to saints? Maybe we are better off going saintless.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Blessed are the Cheese-makers

This past Sunday I spoke about the Celtic saints in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day. I included St. Brigid, the abbess of a convent,  and the prayer attributed to her which imagines heaven as a place of celebration with plenty of beer for all. This would have scandalized my 90-year-old mother whose Salvation Army roots kept her away from alcohol for a lifetime, and the Methodists certainly looked askance at booze of any kind.

Fermented beverages were and are a regular part of life for many cultures, without negative connotations. There are many monasteries renowned for their fine beers. We watched the last episode of the four-part series developed and hosted by Michael Pollan called Cooked. The Earth segment is almost entirely about the foods we enjoy thanks to fermentation, everything from sauerkraut to chocolate to salami to cheese. And yes, beer. Pollan points out that the processes for both bread and beer may have been discovered virtually simultaneously.

In this episode there is a visit to a Connecticut convent and a nun , Sister Noella Marcellino, who makes amazing looking cheese. She says that she prayed for a French woman to show up and teach them how to make traditional cheese from whole milk and that is what happened. The discussion did have an "eww" factor with the reminder that smelly cheeses contain bacteria not unlike those which make our feet and armpits odiferous. The French figure that this smell is the toe-jam of the gods.

Sister Noella has a doctorate in microbiology, so she know the science of cheese and studies the organisms under a microscope. She is also a theologian who reflects on the dying and rebirth involved in cheese-making and how that can teach us about our own mortality and our hope. It was an intriguing sermon in a series which is not overtly religious or spiritual. And it was an worthwhile message as we come closer to Holy Week and Easter.

Don't you just want to run home and watch this series? Have you ever been involved in fermenting food? Are you surprised by the beer-making, cheese-making nuns?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Bread of Life

I am the bread of life... Jesus of Nazareth

We watched the third episode of Michael Pollan's four-part series called Cooked the other evening and from Ruth's perspective this was the best we had seen. Mind you, it was almost entirely about bread, and she has been an enthusiastic bread-maker for decades. The four episodes are about how humans feed themselves and they are focussed on the elements of fire, water, air, and earth. I hadn't really thought about the basic reality that bread is ground grass seeds, in the form of flour, water, and salt. While yeast may be included, what matters most in transforming these ingredients is air. The bakers they interview are fascinating individuals who appreciate both the science and the alchemy of bread-making.

Pollan reminded us that bread has been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years, and that the chance discovery that natural yeasts will leaven a pot of flour and water. Heating that mixture will release gases into the loaf, making it far more edible. He also pointed out that when there isn't enough bread to go around people get cranky. The French Revolution and the Arab Spring protests were triggered by a lack of bread.

Little wonder then that Jesus described himself as both bread and water in John's gospel, the essentials of life. When there was a bread shortage at a gathering by Galilee he made sure that everyone was fed. Of course Jesus' last meal with his disciples included bread, and is one of the sacraments of the church.

In a recent diet bread was essentially demonized, but whether it is naan or pita or a sourdough loaf, healthy breads are nourishing and sustaining.

Have you watched the Cooked series? Do you enjoy good bread? Do you appreciate why Jesus described himself as bread.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Buy Less, Choose Well

I have a pair of Bostonian dress shoes very much like the one pictured above. The shoe in the photo is new while mine are roughly twenty years old but they are virtually identical because this is a classic look. I have Doc Martins and other more contemporary footwear, but I just like the retro look with a suit. The problem was that while the uppers on my shoes were pristine (I take care of shoes) the soles were pooched. Could they be replaced? Yes. for $70, or approximately half the price of a new pair, and almost as much as other decent dress shoes on sale. So why not just toss them?

I have seen shoe factories in developing countries and been appalled at the working conditions and what gets dumped in the waterways as industrial effluent. In India, which produces 8% of the world's leather, the mighty Ganges River is a toxic mess, in no small part because of industrial outflow.

This second photo is of a tannery worker in India who is permanently scarred by chemicals from the workplace. A documentary called The True Cost urges us to consider the effect of our buying habits on those who produce the garments we wear and discard without much consideration.
The True Cost’ documentary shows the human and environmental cost of fast fashion for garment workers and developing countries

In the end I went ahead and had the shoes resoled by the repair guy who looks well past retirement and probably won't find anyone to take on his business. Who repairs stuff anymore? I'll hope that the shoes last a few more years. They look virtually new.

This may be a rather quixotic notion of making a difference, and I can afford $70 to fix a pair of shoes while this would be out of the reach of many. I do hope that as a Christian I can figure out how to "buy less and choose well" as one aspect of faithful living.

What are your thoughts about all this?

Friday, March 11, 2016

All the Lonely People

Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
Of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there's nobody there
What does he care

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong

George Martin, the legendary producer sometimes called "the fifth Beatle" because of his influence on their sound from the outset died earlier this week. Unlike a number of significant figures in the music business who have headed to rock and roll heaven in recent months Martin had "a good innings" as the British say, living to age 90.

Martin adapted over the years alongside the Fab Four and produced some remarkable albums. One of my favourite songs for both tune and lyrics is Eleanor Rigby. It captures the poignancy of loneliness and in some ways dates itself because a clergyperson was involved in the funeral of Eleanor. That doesn't happen so often in modern day Britain.

Do you know the song? Do you like it, or is it too morose for your taste? All those who appreciate it, twist and shout. (A Beatles hit but not a Beatles song.)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Homelessness in Canada

Image result for after the last river images

We watched several films at last weekend's Docfest in Belleville including After the Last River, about the remote Northern Ontario First Nations community of Attawapiskat. The De Beers diamond mine opened relatively close to the community, which brought hopes of well-paid jobs and increased prosperity. This hasn't been the case, with most of the money from the mine benefitting the company and the province.

Meanwhile, the school had to be closed and eventually torn down because it was on toxic soil, and scores of people have been housed in what are really construction trailers because their homes were condemned. Others, including families with young children had taken up residence in tents, living in these flimsy structures through winter temperatures plummeting to -40 degrees. We talked afterward about the sick feeling each of us felt in the pit of our stomachs knowing that this could actually be happening in Canada. The squalor is a national shame. Thank God for MP's such as Charlie Angus who have attempted to shine a light on the dire circumstances.

On Monday a United Nations report called out Canada for the persistent housing crisis across the country with a focus was on homelessness. I immediately thought of the people of Attawapiskat even though homelessness is an issue in many communities. I'm never quite sure how I as a Christian should be addressing this reality, but my gut tells me I should care and become involved.


Wednesday, March 09, 2016

A Message of Hope

Popole Misenga fled war in the DRC and is hoping to compete under the Olympic flag

Refugee athlete from the DRC

It is customary for the host team at the Olympics to enter the stadium first, leading the representatives from other nations past the cheering and supportive crowd. This summer in Rio de Janeiro will be different in a way that reflects the changing realities of our planet. The lead team of athletes will be made up of refugees, 43 at the moment, those who have been displaced from their countries of origin and are still without a nation to call home. This team is being described as a "message of hope."

We are told that there are more migrants and refugees now that at any time since the Second World War. Roughly 40,000 people are displaced each day, with half of them under the age of eighteen.

We are seeing how this pressure of people on the move is affecting nations which have attempted to respond. A number of European countries have imposed stricter security and laws regarding migrants. There has been a rise in popularity for right wing political parties and in Germany one rightest leader has called for laws allowing police to shoot illegal immigrants on sight if necessary.

Today our refugee sponsorship group which involves three Belleville United Church congregations and a number of other partners will discuss the possibility of taking on another Syrian family. If we do, it will likely be another family related to our current family of five. We have heard repeatedly how much better refugees adjust if there are loved ones close at hand sharing the experience.

 It seems like the proverbial "drop in a bucket" to welcome a couple of families when the need is so pervasive and growing almost exponentially. Still, we are called to compassion and hospitality in Christ's name, one situation at a time. Here in Canada it is becoming clear that while the government sponsorship of refugees has garnered the attention, the reality is that faith coalitions and community sponsorship groups are doing the best job of welcoming newcomers and ensuring that their experience is positive. Let's not lose sight of this or weaken in our resolve. We can offer our own message of hope.


Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Women's Day

This is International Women's Day and it is an opportunity to celebrate and ponder many aspects of the lives of women around the world, everything from peril and inequality to strengths and contributions. I laugh when I read that some men huff and puff that there isn't a Men's Day. The way our society is structured it could be argued that there are 364 of them, and this Leap Year, 365.

I remember the Women's Day breakfasts in Sudbury which Ruth, my wife, attended. They focussed on the stories of women of accomplishment, and she found them inspirational. Despite these celebrations we are aware that even in our remarkable society there is still considerable inequality. In fact, the wages of women compared to men doing equal work has gone down in terms of percentage in the past decade.

There are also the sobering realities of domestic abuse for both women and children. Ruth worked as a crisis counsellor at a shelter for nearly a decade. As I've mentioned before a number of her clients were from the congregation I served at the time, although no one around them on a Sunday morning knew. In the three years we have lived here several women have approached her for support, even though this is no longer her work.

We are also aware of the thousands of murdered and missing Aboriginal women in this country, a sobering and shameful reality which the current federal government promises to address. Our United Church strongly supports this initiative and we can only hope and pray that this is a promise kept.

We are going to participate in the walk later this afternoon (4:30, Belleville Library) which is followed by guest speaker, Samra Zafar.

Will you mark this day in any way? If you have children, sons or daughters, will you speak of the importance of women's equality? Is it still necessary to have a Women's Day?

Friday, March 04, 2016

United Church Herstory

It is Women's History Month in the States, although it is October rather than March in Canada. Seeing that March is the month for the US reminded me that 2016 is the 80th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman in the United Church. The majority of students for United Church ministry are women these days, and women ministers serve in many significant positions of leadership. Just the same, eight decades on it is still a challenge for women to have the same opportunities as men, or to be paid fairly, or to work without harassment and bullying.

Here is the bio about Lydia Gruchy, the first ordained woman in the United Church, from the British Columbia Conference website

She was born at Asnières, France, on September 5, 1894. She was raised in France and England, and came with her family to Strasbourg, Saskatchewan, in 1913. In 1920, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan. She then studied theology at the Presbyterian College in Saskatoon (now St. Andrew’s College), graduating in 1923. For several years, she served as a lay minister in the rural communities of Saskatchewan.
Gruchy sought ordination in 1926 in the newly formed United Church of Canada; her presbytery petitioned the General Council repeatedly, every two years, showing that she was already doing the work of an ordained minister and that she was clearly qualified. Gruchy was ordained by Saskatchewan Conference in 1936, the year that the Church altered the Basis of Union to allow for the ordination of women. She served as minister’s assistant at St. Andrew’s United Church in Moose Jaw, then was called to Toronto to serve as secretary to the committee on the deaconess order and women workers in the United Church. Gruchy returned to pastoral work in 1943, and served at various small charges in Saskatchewan for the remainder of her career. After retirement in 1962, she settled in White Rock, BC, and became an active member of First United Church. Lydia Gruchy died on April 9, 1992.
Gruchy is also the first Canadian woman to receive an honorary doctor of divinity degree, which St. Andrew’s College awarded her in 1953.

Did you know about Lydia Gruchy? Are you surprised (pleasantly I hope) to discover that women have been ordained for so long in the United Church? Do you think women are treated with increasingly greater respect and fairness in our church, and if not, what needs to happen to bring this about?

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Why Leaders are A Pain

My blog post header is a direct quote from the latest Christian Century magazine. There is an article with the title Why leaders are a pain: Truth telling in the parish. It is written by William Willimon, an author and seminary professor,  who has been a thoughtful, honest pain in the heinie of the church for several decades. He was a bishop of the United Methodist church in the States for a number of years, which makes him some sort of "royal pain."

There is much in the article that bears repeating, so here are a few paragraphs

Caregiving, the default mode of most pastors, is always less costly than leading. But the problem with caregiving is that no group survives or thrives without continually refitting and repositioning itself—and certainly not an institution that’s accountable to a living God.

The promise of all bogus religion is the promise of a peaceful life without pain. That’s also the subtext of lots of sermons I hear and some of the ones I preach: pain is avoidable, and here’s my formula for living and loving without discomfort. To which Jesus might respond: What about the word cross do you not get?

Some of the best service that pastors offer arises when we dare to prod, preach, and pray a congregation toward the painful reality it has been avoiding. Yet how many of us went into the ministry in order to hurt people? We enjoy thinking of ourselves as peacemakers and reconcilers.
Jesus Christ embodied truth as well as love, and there’s no way to work for him without also being willing to put people in pain in Jesus’ name.

This struck home as I suffer from the "hangover" of a sermon on Sunday in which I did my best to tell my congregation the truth about where we find ourselves, with the fig tree parable in Luke as our text. Bridge St. is an active congregation doing some fine ministry through our meal ministries and our refugee sponsorship. As I've said before, I'm impressed by the folk I serve and I enjoy worship. Yet I see clearly that we can't do what we have always done and somebody has to say so regularly. That somebody may be the Lead Minister --moi. Despite knowing this, I'm always a little insecure after I've pushed hard -- or least harder than usual. Honestly, sometimes I would rather just be liked than faithful.

Do you figure congregations want leadership, even if that means hard truths, or are most coasting to the finish line? How open are you to being pushed and prodded? Should all ministers be called "lead" ministers by virtue of their calling?

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Easter Frostbite

I have never served a congregation which holds an Easter sunrise service and now I never will, since this will be my past pastorate. To say that my heart soars might surprise you, knowing that I love the outdoors, and regularly walk and cycle to my church job in ridiculous weather. Today was an example.

I'm just not partial to standing in some exposed spot pretending that the biting wind blowing my notes down the shore is actually pleasant and that people are really enjoying an experience akin to Napoleon's March to Moscow. I get the power of the dawning of a new day, but there should be a ban on these services north of the 42nd parallel (Windsor Ontario.)

Part of the challenge is the moveable mystery which is Easter. This year Easter Sunday is March 27th, which in northern climes does not bode well for an outdoor service. The earliest Easter can occur is March 22nd, although this won't happen again until the year 2285. I'd say we'll all be pushing up daisies, but even with climate change it isn't likely at that time of the year. The latest possible date is April 25th, so a range of more than a month.

We can blame this on the phases of the moon because Easter is always the first Sunday after the full moon of the Spring equinox, at least for the majority of the world's Christians. Orthodox Easter is in May this year, which is downright sensible, don't you think. There are talks underway for a set date for Easter, much like Christmas, although we have been flirting with this notion for decades.

Whenever Easter falls, there is the sense of Springtime for the soul. Christ has died, and Christ is risen. One year in Sudbury we celebrated Easter morning in a veritable blizzard, but we praised God for resurrection life in Christ as though is was May, and that's the way it should be. As long as the service is indoors!


Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A Vacation for the Soul

"If you are preparing the ear of the spirit for the voice of God, a voice sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, then flee external cares; so that when your inner sense is disentangled and free, you may say with the prophet Samuel, 'speak Lord, for your servant is listening' (I Kings 3:10). For the voice of God does not speak amid the din and bustle of the world, nor is it heard in any public gathering. Rather secret counsel seeks to be heard also in secret. And so because of this, happiness will be given to us if we listen to God in solitude."  St. Bernard

It can be a challenge for Ruth and I to get full days off together with her Monday to Friday-ish work, and my weekend commitments. Yesterday we were both free as larks so we went to the birds, in a manner of speaking.

We took the ferry to Amherst Island and drove around enough to coat our vehicle in muddy goo. We slogged in the snow-covered seasonal road and wandered through the owl woods, a remarkable sanctuary for many kinds of these birds of prey. It turned out that we saw hawks rather than owls, and fed chickadees from our hands.

The greatest gift was the silence and solitude. No one else was crazy enough to hike in on a Monday and when we stopped we heard only the wind in the trees and the chirping of birds. Until a plane flew overhead we heard nothing human, and it was wonderful.

Across the island there are signs protesting the possibility of wind turbines, and who can blame people. It isn't convenient living on the island in some respects, but the gift of silence is a good reason to be there. Turbines are noisy and intrusive.

We both felt that we were spiritually nourished by our couple of hours on the island, a vacation for our souls.

This isn't the first time I've mused about solitude and silence, but I would be glad to hear your thoughts.