Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Prescription for Wholeness

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Years ago a United Church moderator spoke at my church and I drove him back to Toronto following the service. He was very pastoral during his term, trying to figure out how to be supportive of beleaguered clergy in turbulent times. He sought my suggestions and I offered that the denomination might work out an arrangement with a gym chain for discounted memberships, something which now exists.

He was diplomatically dubious when I went on to suggest that we be able to use continuing education funds for physical fitness, or access a fund set up for that purpose. His reaction was much the same as that of other church officials with whom I've broached this. Even though we have an aging clergy base in the United Church and do lots of handwringing about the health costs of our benefit plan we are still reactive rather than proactive.

I thought about this yesterday when I heard and read of a new report saying that physical activity is a greater indicator of health than cholesterol levels and hypertension. Doctors in some jurisdictions are now using prescription pads for exercise instead of depending largely on medication. Only about 20 percent of Canadians get the 150 minutes per week suggested as a minimum. Think about it -- 168 hours in a week and we can't manage 2/12 for physical activity?

I figure that activity is also a contributor to spiritual health and wholeness. I go to the gym for weight training, but this is my least favourite form of exercise. Ruth and I both cycle to work regularly (5 km each way) and I'll continue to do so as long as the roads are safe. I cycled to Bridge St this morning.

We love riding along the water here in Belleville. We are also walker/hikers and we love being on the water. We have kayaks and canoes and we've paddled a couple of dozen times through this season. When we're outside we are attuned to Creator and Creation. The other day I scuffled through the leaves of an oak woods and described it as a playful spiritual practice. It evoked the sound and fragrance of childhood.

Jesus was an outdoor guy, so I figure we should follow his example. He got out on the water, and even walked on it!

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Giving all Through the Year

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I'm not sure where Giving Tuesday sprouted from but it's probably meant as an antidote to the sometimes toxic effects of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consumerism at its ugliest. Buy Nothing Friday never got much traction, but Giving Tuesday has received a fair amount of attention this year.

When I arrived at Bridge St. UC, 8:30ish, the preparation team organizers for today's End of the Month meal were already at work. Soon the kitchen was filled with volunteers, including a group of students and teachers from Queen Elizabeth School.

Only 20 to 25 percent of  roughly 170 volunteers for our three meal ministries are Bridge St. members. Of today's team of 15 people, two are from the congregation,  which is unusually low. We do know that a number of our newer members have chosen Bridge St. because we have strong outreach programs in which they can be involved. I feel enriched by the many other participants who are remarkably faithful and generous with their time. Some are involved in other congregations and some just want to give back to the community in  tangible way.

Last Friday we place the order for a new walk-in freezer which would have been well beyond our reach without the generous contribution of a couple who never work in the kitchen but contribute thousands of dollars to our meal ministries every year.

I'm just grateful that so many people do give, in so many ways. It's happening on this Giving Tuesday and all through the year. Thank God for generous hearts.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Power of Forgiveness

The longer I've been in ministry the more I'm convinced that forgiveness is essential for human health and the more I understand that forgiveness cannot be mandated, only bestowed by those who have been aggrieved or wronged.

I'm fascinated that the state of South Carolina has chosen to seek the death penalty for church murderer Dylan Roof, even though the families of the victims are asking for leniency and have been open about their forgiveness for Roof

Here is a portion of an article from the New York Times:

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Rev. Sharon Risher often thinks these days about what she calls her “humanness”: the passing impulse to crave the execution of the white supremacist accused of killing her mother and eight other black churchgoers last year.
“My humanness is being broken, my humanness of wanting this man to be broken beyond punishment,” Ms. Risher said. “You can’t do that if you really say that you believe in the Bible and you believe in Jesus Christ. You can’t just waver.”
But after delays, the Federal District Court here will begin on Monday the long process of individually questioning prospective jurors for the capital trial of Dylann S. Roof, who is charged with 33 federal counts, including hate crimes, in the June 17, 2015, killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Mr. Roof, whom a judge on Friday declared competent to stand trial, has offered, in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, to plead guilty. The government has refused to make such a plea agreement.
The 17-month path to Mr. Roof’s first death penalty trial — the state of South Carolina is also seeking his execution — has been marked by public demonstrations of forgiveness and reconciliation. But the federal government’s decision to pursue Mr. Roof’s execution is widely questioned, and it is in defiance of the wishes and recommendations of survivors of the attack, many family members of the dead and some Justice Department officials. Even South Carolina’s acrimonious debate about the display of the Confederate battle flag outside the State House was less divisive in this state, polling shows.

It seems to me that the state's choice is actually creating greater sadness and loss for these families who are attempting to live by their Christian precepts. What a world.

What are your thoughts about this?

Friday, November 25, 2016

Planetary Repentance

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On this Black Friday I'm reminding myself that a foundational tenet of my faith is that God is the Creator. I'm not sure how I reconcile this with the Big Bang and evolution but  I'm with Pope Francis that God can be present in these processes and we don't have to be shackled by misguided convictions about a literal six-day creation.

Even though humans  have made some feeble steps in exploring the universe, to this point there is no evidence of another planet like ours which sustains complex life forms. What we can agree upon, whatever we think about the origins of Earth and the creatures which inhabit it, is that there is a what seems like a gossamer thin layer around the planet which is the atmosphere allowing us to exist. It's only a few kilometres deep in a universe where distances are measured in light years. At the summit of the highest mountain, Everest, humans can't breathe without assistance.  

You may have been aware of late that many cities in Asia have been choked by pollution, the result of burgeoning populations, the acceleration of industrial pollution, and the development of a middle class which can afford inexpensive, carbon-spewing vehicles. They want the Western notion of the "good life."

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Recently cities in India and China have been forced to close schools and issue warnings about airborne particulate levels so high that they are beyond standards of measurement. This is far more than an inconvenience. It's estimated that between China and India six thousand people a DAY die of air pollution, which is more than 200,000 a year.

When I read the stories of severe degradation of air quality in other parts of the world I remind myself that ultimately we share that atmosphere and breathe that air. Even the world's greenest country, Iceland, is affected by pollution from Asia And when I decry what is happening I have to ask about my lifestyle, including hopping on a plane for a vacation in Iceland or anywhere else. Black Friday is another reminder of how messed up our priorities can be.

I realize that in order not to be a hypocrite about my desire to be a responsible citizen of Earth and a child of the Creator I have to repent, to change my foolish ways. It's finding the courage to do so.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Gratitude Day

There is plenty of advice out there for Americans who will be gathered around family tables today, trying to navigate through strong emotions about the recent presidential election. Apparently some people don't want to be at home because they would rather avoid what could be contentious conversations.

Of course Thanksgiving is about gratitude, whether it is Canadian in October or American in November. The stats above intrigue me. They suggest that in the States  if you're 'ligous you are more likely to feel gratitude. I wonder what comes first, the turkey or the egg? Does gratitude lead us to be religious, or does religion prompt us to be thankful?

I figure that when we attend church or synagogue or mosque there is regular encouragement to be generous and grateful. And I'm hoping that when we realize that we are blessed by God we then choose to bless others.

We do know that faith groups are a driving force behind food banks and refugee sponsorships and other humanitarian endeavours. I am regularly encouraging folk to respond to crises in other parts of the world as well.

When I trust that God is good, I want to at least attempt to be good myself, and I am more inclined this way when I gather with others of like mind. I can be impressively selfish, but thoughtful worship and praise can prompt me toward a higher good.

Does faith make you more grateful? Do you think it matters?

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

All God's Creatures

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Through the years of this blog I've written, from time to time, about medieval monasteries as centres for learning and the arts. While some paint the religious communities as places of privilege, we can't underestimate the contribution to the development of scholarship and medical advancement and creativity within these oases of enlightenment. Prosperity and with it a drift from gospel values often led to their downfall and movements for renewal.

The copying houses of monasteries were responsible for many of the exquisite illustrated works of scripture and other sacred texts described as "illuminated manuscripts." One has recently been shared with the world by the University of Aberdeen in digital form, and not surprisingly it is called the Aberdeen Bestiary. Bestiaries depict various creatures, sometimes imaginary but often real. This "book of beasts" once belonged to Henry VII but it dates back to the 12th century. And rather than being a treasure for the aristocracy it may have been used as a text book by monks, with portions intended to be read aloud. There are actually fingerprints and notes in the margins.

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I appreciate that monasteries weren't so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good. Here is evidence that monks and the youth they educated also learned about the natural world and how it worked.

This is a sacred task for us today, it seems to me. These religious folk of another time didn't have nearly the impact on the environment as we do today. We have lost much of our sense of the natural world and any nudge to resacralize it is meaningful.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Hope for Standing Rock?

Last night police and other law enforcement officials scattered pipeline protesters in North Dakota. The police used water cannons to disperse the demonstrators despite freezing temperatures and one woman's arm was so badly injured it may be amputated. Why are they there and how has it come to this?

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Here is a description from the National Catholic Reporter:

The demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline began in April, and nd has since brought more than 200 Native American tribes together, in what has been called the largest such gathering in modern times. Support has also come from other corners, including numerous environmental organizations, to the Oceti Sakowin camp near the mouth of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers.

The Standing Rock Sioux have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the pipeline will cross land viewed as sacred, including burial sites, and is protected by existing treaties, and also pose a threat to the tribe's primary water source. The proposed path would take the pipeline underneath Lake Oahe and the Missouri River a half mile upstream of the tribe's reservation boundary. The tribe and supports have noted an earlier route had the pipeline passing near Bismarck, but was rejected early in the planning to protect municipal water supplies. If completed, the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline would carry daily as much as 570,000 barrels of crude oil from western North Dakota to Illinois,

Some observers figure that the heavy-handedness is because these are First Nations people. Many have been arrested, including journalists documenting the protest.  In stark contrast, recently a group of white armed occupiers were inexplicably acquitted of charges after they took over a federal wildlife reserve.

There are celebrities at Standing Rock and lesser lights, including hundreds of faith leaders. On All Saints Day more than 500 clergy were there in solidarity with the Standing Rock tribe because they know this is a matter of justice for people who have been minimized, oppressed and robbed for centuries, and it must stop.

I'm grateful that they are bearing witness, and I hope there is a just outcome. I'm not holding my breath, but I will pray. This is the Sunday of hope in the Advent season, so I better.

Have you been following this situation? Are you hopeful or disillusioned, or a little of both?

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Moral Leadership

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American President Obama is in the final months of his second term in office and this weekend he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is will into her third. They have become friends over time, and they may have commiserated about the state of generous liberalism in both their countries and the rise of troubling protectionist nationalism in both the States and Europe.

Obama must be wondering whether President-elect Trump will dismantle much of his administration's work on general health care and environmental protection. Merkel announced over the weekend that she will seek a fourth term, but she must be aware that this will be the fight of her life. Many Germans are dissatisfied with her bold decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees in a short period of time. Right-wing parties are on the ascent in several countries and Merkel's popularity has plummeted.

Both Merkel and Obama are Christians, and relatively open about it. Merkel's father was a Lutheran pastor and  theologian and she respected his intellectual rigour. She also  grew up in a centre for those with intellectual and physical challenges.

Some would say that politicians should not allow their religious convictions impinge on their elected roles, but we do hope that all people including governmental leaders would have a moral and ethical framework out of which the make decisions. Actually, Merkel's party is the Christian Democrats, so there are Christian underpinnings.

I am grateful for her leadership on the world stage and hope in continues.

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Friday, November 18, 2016


Police are investigating after the Nazi symbol was left on the front doors of Congregation Machzikei Hadas.

No, this is not Hitler's Germany in the 1930s, it is Canada's capital city, Ottawa, in the year 2016. Many synagogues in this country have security when their congregations worship and from time to time there are anti-Semitic acts including graffiti and the toppling of gravestones. These cowardly occurrences tend to be few and far between. This synagogue has been defaced three times in the past week. Surely the  American election of a racist, misogynist president and his appointment of an Islamophobe and ant-Semite to a top position in his regime has emboldened the hundreds of  ugly incidents on both sides of the border.

I am still startled and angered by the hatred directed toward others because they are in the minds of some"other," foreign, suspicious. While in my head I'm convinced that the Christian way is "do not repay evil with evil" there are times when I would like to smack a cheek rather than turn one.

This past Sunday I preached on the unsettling passage in Luke 21 where Jesus tells his followers that they will be persecuted and they better get used to it. And he tells them to bear witness and testify to the gospel. I suggested that this is both an exhortation to stand in solidarity with those who are persecuted for their faith around the world, whatever that faith might be, and to be bold in upholding what we know to be right in our own settings.

When we hear the stories of people accosted on buses, and look at the ugly symbol of hatred on those synagogue doors we must find the courage to be faithful.


Thursday, November 17, 2016


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37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

                                                                                 John 18:37-38  (NRSV)

Well, it shouldn't surprise us that "post-truth" has been chosen as the word of the year:

Oxford Dictionaries chose "post-truth" as their word of the year on Wednesday, saying its use had spiked because of the Brexit vote in Britain and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States.
"Post-truth has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary," Oxford Dictionaries said in a statement, noting that usage had increased by 2,000 percent since last year. The publisher defined the word as "relating or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief".

A few years ago the term "truthiness" to describe the vague and rather uneasy relationship with the truth which afflicts our society. Post-truth takes this a step further, into a realm where what might appear as flat-out falsehood and lying is ignored or accepted because it fits the convictions of the hearer.

Some would argue that this is what religion is all about, the subjective lens through which we see the world. Sadly, this can be the case, yet we hope that as we discern and listen for the voice of God we will develop a moral and ethical framework based on justice, compassion and abiding love. It would seem that many Christians in the United States readily abandoned any concern about this sort of truth during the recent election. One evangelical leader cogently observed that the religious right had become what it often rails against, a morally relativistic community which no longer cares about reading its moral compass as long as its needs are met.

When Jesus, under arrest, told the Roman procurator Pilate that he had come to bear witness to the truth the cynical response was "what is truth?" The gospel writer John doesn't record a response from Jesus. This was not a comfortable theological chat but a declaration of mission, in spite of the outcome.

After this exchange Pilate admits that there is no real case against Jesus and wants to release him. Instead he does the morally and politically expedient thing, literally washing his hands of responsibility and sending Jesus to be scourged and crucified.

I pray that we will not become a hand-washing, post-truth culture, but I'm discouraged of late. I think of the late, quirky Christian writer Flannery O'Connor who offered "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd."  How true.


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